When poor folks have better crap than you

by Philip Brewer on 20 November 2007 16 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

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.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

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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Guest's picture
DivaJean

Last night, I was quite a bit upset to find out that my family qualifies for Christmas Bureau charity. Tnis is where toys, clothing, goods, and food are given to families in need based on finances. As I have repeatedly said- we are a family of 6 living on one income- MINE. I started to feel like maybe I'm NOT providing the best for my family and started rethinking the whole income/thrift equation.

It's more than a matter of pride for me. I DO provide for my family- in ways of time, attention, and thrift. I am teaching them how to manage money- not expect a handout at the holidays. As a matter of fact, we tend to be the biggest givers when the holiday giving tree goes up at our church.

We have learned to make do and rework just about anything as needed. We are far richer than imaginable.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Good for you for honoring the contributions and provisions you make. Just because they may not be in the form of a large check, doesn't mean they are not valid. In fact, lots of time I feel that my non check contributions are even more valuable because the size of a check I could write would not be of the same amount of value of what I could provide through expertise, advise, logistical and meal support, etc. I love the fact that you included time in your list of provisions. Keep up the good providing!

Guest's picture

Whenever I see someone with nicer stuff than me, I remind myself that there is no point in keeping up with the Joneses since they're f-ing broke. Whenever I see someone with a BMW I think it's most likey leased and that the driver is maxing out credit cards to live large (my apologies to those who can actually afford their BMWs).

Guest's picture
Badgerette

When I first moved out of my folks' I moved into an apartment complex that was low income. I had no idea is was HUD housing, I thought my neighbors were all doing very well judging from the glimpses I occasionally got into their living rooms. As I got to know my neighbors I learned their secret: RENT TO OWN!
*shudder*

rstlne's picture
rstlne

Some poor folks may have better cr*p than I but they also have more debt than I. I think I'm long past caring what other people have. All that matters is I'm living the lifestyle that suits me and is well within my means.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Just as an aside (and also wondering if anyone else feels this way), I find I don't care as much what other people have . . . stopped caring about that years ago. But I do find the times when I have the most difficulty not slipping into judgement is when people who are buying the better crap yet clearly can't afford it try to offer me financial advice. I think Andrea touched on this briefly in a recent post. Then, when you politely do your verbal tap dance around the comment to not hurt their feelins, and they keep going like they think you've basically given validity to their argument, it's even harder to keep your mouth shut. At least that's been my experience. I hate being judgemental. I put a great deal of effort into not ever going there. But I have difficulty in these situations . . . anyone?

Guest's picture
April

I just love your attitude- Thanks for writing.

Guest's picture
DivaJean

Keeping real with what you can afford and not caring about what the others have.

It's very hard to do though! Especially when the kidlets start in on "but so & so has a Wii" "So & so go to Disney World 4 times a year."

I always point out to them what they DO have- one stay at home mom always available to them- and me- always minus 40 hours/week. So & so's parents take him to Disney to make up for times they haven't had in the day to day-- meanwhile, we've spent real time together knowing each other and learning from one another. But the kids, being young, just see fun they've missed out. In the long run, we know we'll have done the best we could by them, rather than paying them off for complacency as many parents do.

Guest's picture
mpancha

DivaJean >> I aspire to be the same type of parent that you seem to be. I do my 40 hours/week at work, with the occasional need to work late. I also am trying to get a business going so someday I can work for myself.

But I also make sure there are a few hours each weekday for my wife and baby boy (just turned 7 months today!). Saturdays we spend with my wife's family and try to go out and do something together, even if its as simple as wandering around the mall, or going out for coffee. And Sundays are family day, which means my cell phone is turned off, my wife's cell phone is turned off, and we spend time together.

In the end, I may not be pulling in as much money as the next guy. I may not have as big a house or as big a yard, or tv, or whatever other "shiny object" is out there that everyone has. But I have my time with my family, we have our memories, our inside jokes... and that's something that won't need replacing (like the TVs and cars out there do).

DivaJean, keep up the good job you're doing with your family, and I hope when my kid (or kids in the future) are older, I can say I've spent the quality time with my family it seems you have with your family.

Guest's picture
FrugalZen

I quit caring what others think about how I live a long time ago (in my 20's..I'm now 50). I saved my money and worked hard. It probably helped that my Parents didn't give a Rats A*s about what others thought either.

I have the quiet satisfaction of knowing that of the twelve families on my street I'm the most "Well Off" but THEY don't know it.

You can believe if they did I'd be the recipient of more "Could You Lend Me's" than I care to think of.

Two years ago I retired at 48 and after 4 months of going "Stir Crazy" I'm back at work but at a job with Zero Stress and the knowledge that I work because I WANT to...not because I HAVE to.

~ Roland

DivaJean: My Mom stayed home as well to look after us and I spent a LOT of time with my Grandparents as well (they lived close by). NOTHING could every replace that.

Guest's picture
Cindy M

Great post. Say, what do they mean by better, anyway? For instance, I hate those big screen TVs most of my relatives have and the idiot shows/movies they watch (and their lack of ability to entertain you in any other way also). When they break down (which they sure can), they can cost a fortune to fix. My brother is on my case right now because I simply don't want a new car and paid to have the transmission fixed on my 8-year-old Suzuki Esteem. (He doesn't know I don't plan to buy another car after this one quits). He's forever paying on a fairly recent model. I keep a small stash of appliances in my garage, my backups, I call them. When one quits (which actually doesn't happen very often), I plug in another. The kids in the family love this, by the way. Anyway, I say let them snicker behind my back. I'm not impressed with most of the new stuff I see people wear or drive in or the furniture they have in their homes. It's just so dumb to be in debt for stuff like that. I learned a long time ago to just turn it all off, the advertising, I mean, cut out as much TV as possible, quit paying for magazines and newspapers full of ads. That and quit hanging with idiots if you can manage it, ha-ha. I don't even fool with a cell phone now. Working from my home has made it very easy to drop out in this way, and I have no regrets.

Guest's picture
Debbie M

I never really had this problem until recently when I started wishing I could refinance to magically have piles of money for renovating my not-quite-big-enough house. But of course it's not magic; I would lose my low payments and/or the certainty of having my house paid off in six years. So I'll just keep saving.

On the other hand, when my boyfriend had blue collar jobs, we twice got a good opportunity to visit Europe: once when my sister lived there for a while with her military husband and one when a friend got a postdoc there. With free lodging and free tour guides, we used our savings to visit. However, my boyfriend's blue collar co-workers suddenly started treating him very differently, like he was too special to hang with them. "Oh, you get to go to Europe!" He tried to explain that they could also go to Europe if they wanted to, but they couldn't even imagine such a thing. It's very sad when you compare their shiny new vehicles to our sturdy old ones, etc.--they don't even see that they have made a choice.

Most of my friends are richer, and I know they have fancier toys because they work more hours and have more stress. I mostly have no trouble feeling happy with how rich I am compared to, say, my student years or my parents' early married years, not to mention folks in third-world countries. I've also managed to train myself not to even want some of the fancy toys. Partly it's because electronics always break. Partly my living room is way too small to be able to sit far enough away from some of these big-screen TVs. Partly it's because I fear video game addiction. But also it's because I really don't like most TV or care about having a fancy car, etc.

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks for all the good comments.

It's interesting to think about the difference between caring about what other people think about our stuff, and dealing with our own feelings about other people's stuff. I think for a lot of us, these are two different hurdles to get over, even though the answer in both cases is to live according to our own values and not according to someone else's.

Guest's picture
Jaems

"We move into bigger houses so that we can buy, MORE CRAP".

Guest's picture
Jansen

I have traveled to a few countries and I can say most people don't know what 'poor' truly is until you're in parts of Asia or India.
In our 'rich' nations today, you're only poor if you live beyond your means which basically is many of our peers. I'm forever grateful for my parents and my grandparents who taught me to live well below my means.
Material wealth in most cases are just crap. A happy healthy life is a wealthy life.

Guest's picture
michwake

I live in MI and so many are without jobs. I know quite a few of them. I have a good job, went through a divorce and I am trying to clean up the financial mess from that. I pay all my bills on time and more then the minimums. I also have a 10 year old child to take care of. I do like a few nice things, but I make a good living. I've made many cuts and watch my pennies. I even clip coupons even though so many look at me like I am a freak. In paper coupons alone, I saved over $40 on my last shopping trip.

So what irks me is my ex and his new wife are both out of work, not a penny to their names, but they got married, got a new car (in her mom's name), quit paying on their credit cards, pay $100+/month for cable, took a trip to Cali and many other crazy things that people who are unemployed shouldn't do. It makes me nuts to be responsible and even help them to see them use unemployment money (money from the rest of us) to waste away on non-necessities. I was unemployed in 2000 right after having a baby and buying a house. I was on unemployment for 2 months and could not wait to get back to work. It helped pay for the necessities. We were not eating out, taking trips or buying expensive items. My own father and step mom live in his mom's basement and just pay for groceries. The stepmom doesn't make much and my dad gets nothing except the odd jobs here and there. However, instead of putting some away or helping my Grandma they would rather go to the bar every week and my Dad smokes a pack or two a day. My Grandma was a waitress her whole life and doesn't have a lot. I see others on unemployment buying big screen TVs and then wondering what happen to the money to feed their kids. Everyone bails on their credit cards when the going gets tough as if they didn't run them up buying frivilous stuff. Which in turn raises the rates on the rest of us who were responsible. Sure I would love to walk away and just quit paying on them, but whatever I owe is what I owe and I feel responsible for.

It just makes me nuts how the people don't want to work or can't find work, but try to live well beyond their means. Then the rest of us have to support them through various forms of welfare. If it was to give food, clothing and shelter when someone is down and out, I get it, but the silly things people do with it is beyond me.