Monday, March 16, 2009

Wasteful Habits are Out of Fashion

I read an interesting article online last night about how the tips appearing in the media about how to save money are meant for people who don’t need to save money. For people who have plenty of money and should be encouraged to spend it so our economy doesn’t totally tank. But instead, it has become fashionable in the affluent set to pare back and ape the habits of the more modest-earning middle class. The author was not terribly amused. (I would give her credit, but at the moment I’m using a computer that I have not registered with a couple of newspapers, so I can’t find the article again. And isn’t it a drag to register and accept cookies and all that nonsense? Yup.) Anyway, the writer has a good point. So many people do what is fashionable, not what makes sense for them. She herself had been intimidated years ago into not brown bagging her lunch. A boss had contempt for people who did, so she stopped. She now regrets that.

I come from a modest enough background that our mother would announce to us kids before every outing that she had brought food for a picnic and would not be buying anything from the concession stands. So don’t ask her for anything. She stuck to her guns, too. Making a comfortable home for a husband and three children on her husband’s salary meant some compromises. There were many economies. Still, we always had piano lessons and trips to the theater. There just wasn’t a ton of cotton candy. We never missed it, either.

Of course as an adult I have indulged in some wasteful habits. It was a pleasure to do so when I got my first real adult job. I even was thrilled just to receive bills in the mail like a grown-up. Fast forward some years and the bills no longer thrill me, although being able to pay them still does. I have reverted to my upbringing. I pay for cultural events that enrich my life, but otherwise hold the line. Clothes shopping? Ha. When the sneakers wear out, I buy new sneakers. This is the privilege of the freelancer, the un-hired, the non-employee. For individuals who have to show up at an office or store or factory every day, clothing becomes a necessary uniform. But then again, I once worked with a woman who always wore black. She told me she did that so people would not notice how few clothing choices she had. She was a divorcee with several children and not enough child support. She wasn’t wasting any of her money on her wardrobe. There always are choices within choices, and she drew the line on clothing.

We do all waste. Every single person makes decisions about money that others would call foolish. From time to time, regardless of the world economy, we should review what we spend our money on, and what we have to show for it. There is nothing in our lives that cannot be altered to improve our financial situation. We simply have to put it all on the table. “But I have to” is just an excuse not to examine all areas of our lives for their shortcomings. Last night I heard Suze Orman advise a woman to change the thing in her life that was causing her financial pain. I so totally agree. Whatever it is, identify it. And then be brave enough to stop that wasteful behavior that is the cause of your pain.

If you are lucky enough not to absolutely need to stop wasteful habits right now, consider examining your life for them anyway. Some extra savings could empower you for the future, or enable you to give to others who are in need. You also can chose to spend your money more purposefully, to support institutions or businesses you appreciate. Many of them are in serious trouble and need your help. For instance, if you have extra cash, think seriously about increasing your charitable giving. Or if your habit is to eat out and you don’t have an economic reason to stop, go to the restaurants most worthy of your patronage, and help keep them in business. Don’t just go to the drive thru of a fast food franchise; fast food is doing fine. If you can afford to buy books, donate them to the public library, which is under double pressure now from smaller budgets and more patrons. Mindfulness is the key to not being wasteful even if you are affluent.

As for the rest of us, we’ll be tightening our belts even more than usual. Substituting our labor for buying labor-saving devices and services. Trying to skewer our wasteful habits and root out what we can. As long as the trend lasts, we’re in fashion, too.

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