When poor folks have better crap than you
Every notice how upset people get, when someone poorer than them has better crap? I'm talking about the guy agonizing over whether to spring for a 32-inch flat screen who finds out that his poorer neighbor has come home with a 42-inch one. It's bad enough trying to keep up with the Jones; when you have trouble keeping up with the guy living on the wrong side of the tracks, it's a source of constant aggravation.
I think this is a really natural emotion, but it's also a harmful one. I've seen it from more than one side.
I wrote a post a while back arguing that the fact that many families now have two people in the workforce was because standards of living had risen; if you were willing to live at a 1950s standard of living, you could still get by with a single income. (I also pointed out that there's a name for that--it's called "living in poverty.")
A lot of people didn't like that post. Some people disputed it on factual grounds, doing a back-of-envelope budget for a poor person to show that it was impossible (but without considering the sort of extreme solutions that were common in the 1950s, such as moving in with your wife's parents; most didn't even consider carpooling). Other people seemed to think that I was trying to claim that poverty wasn't poverty (even though I'd used that very word).
Other people did like the post, but some of them liked it in the unsavory way that I'm talking about--suggesting that living in poverty isn't so bad, as long a you've got good crap.
(On that topic, I saw a great cartoon recently, where a rich guy disputes the poverty of a poor guy, pointing out all the stuff he's got. In 1800: "You can't be poor! You've got a shirt!" In 1975: "You can't be poor! You've got a TV!" In 1990: "You can't be poor! You've got a VCR!" Let me just say, as I've said before, living in poverty is bad, even if the poor person spends as much as a frugal person.)
Still, I've felt that ire myself. I'm somewhat prone to be in that situation, because of where I live.
My apartment complex has an odd mix of tenants. Rents are at the lower end of the range for the area, so there are a good number of working-class folks along with graduate students, senior citizens, single folks, couples, new families, and so on. The place has quite a cosmopolitan air, actually, due to the number of foreigners who live here. It's a milieu that I rather like--I get to mix with a lot of different kinds of people. A good number of my neighbors have modest incomes, which is yet another aspect of the diversity that I enjoy.
There are also other upsides to this. One is is that it gives me a valuable perspective, as far as the "keeping up with the Joneses" thing goes. If you live or work where the Joneses make as much as (or more than) you, it's easy for that perspective to work against you. For example, whenever my former employer was hiring in a hot job market, new software engineers would start showing up with expensive new cars for which a signing bonus had provided the down payment. Looking at the parking lot quite easily gave one a skewed notion of what was normal. Living here helped me avoid that.
Still, inevitably, some neighbors have better crap than me. Some of them may not be poorer than me. Maybe, as I used to be, they are well-paid professionals who chose to live here because it suits them. Maybe they're students from affluent families willing to subsidize their lifestyle. Maybe they're just young singles who can comfortably afford nice crap because they have no debts and no one else to support.
In many cases, though, they're people who are making poor decisions about their spending--and that's aggravating to watch. It makes me feel bad for them, and it also makes me feel bad for myself, because I don't have everything I want.
Both these feelings are pernicious. One of the reasons I write for Wise Bread is to deal with the first. (Far better for me to advocate for living within your means here, where there's an interested audience, than to buttonhole my neighbors and criticize their lifestyle choices.) One of the reasons I read Wise Bread is to deal with the second. (It helps to be part of a supportive community of people trying to avoid the harmful effects of our consumer culture.)
I think this is one of those situations where a Buddhist attitude provides the best results. When people around you make unwise choices the appropriate emotion to feel is compassion, not ire. When you find yourself wishing for better crap the appropriate emotion to feel is gratitude for the crap you've got, not envy for someone else's.
It's not always easy to choose how to feel about things. It takes practice, and it takes paying attention to what you're doing and how you're feeling. But it's practice that worth doing. And what you're doing and how you're feeling are worth paying attention to.
And, if you simply must have more and better crap, check out Myscha's post: Stash Your Cash: How to Have Cool Crap for Less Money.
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