The Now Generation

Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column dealt with things I said in my post on Tuesday, and so I thought I’d rerun one that I really like from back in 2005, about how expectations for quality of life have changed so much in the last decade. I thought it fit in well with this week’s themes about healthy and intentional living with the Ultimate Bundle Sale–86 ebooks, just $29.97!

I recently came across an old 1950s knitting pattern book telling women how to copy the latest fashions. In those days, many women just didn’t have the money to buy ready-made clothes, so when they saw something they liked, they knit it or they sewed it. Today, we think all that work means we’re failures. So instead we charge it.

This was brought home to me when I came across an article bemoaning the fact that a new professional graduate, making $35,000 a year, can’t survive, what with $1,500 for rent, $800 for food, and all the other expenses. When I read that chart it seemed to me that the problem was not with the salary; it was with the expenditures. Thrift used to be a virtue, but now we expect to have everything at once. If a single person is spending $800 on food a month, then they’re eating out far too much. It may not be easy, but most of us can live within our means.

It’s not our means that are the problem. Too often it’s the expectations we have for what our lives should be like.

I’m not sure where these expectations came from. We can blame the media and advertising, but they had the media and advertising back in the 1950s, too, and it seems like people were far more willing to live with garage sale items and hand-me-downs a few decades ago than we are now. Perhaps it’s the explosion in credit which makes things possible today that weren’t possible before. Or perhaps it’s always been like this and I’m just a fuddy-duddy. Increasingly I think the latter is probably true on most issues, but let me explore this one a little bit more anyway.

I have lived with a lot, and I have lived with very little, and there are pros and cons to both.

When we lived in a small rental apartment when the kids were young I had no pressure to make things coordinate. I didn’t need matching furniture, or pretty drapes, or dishes to entertain. As long as it was functional and could withstand two toddlers, I was happy.

I think that’s a great period every person should go through. It’s a lot less stress on a marriage when you don’t actually own very much, and you can concentrate on just yourselves. Besides, when you’re not aiming to do things big, little things can make you happy. Remember the joy you once felt at finding some old milk crates at the flea market? Hey, they’re amazing things! They can hold cleaning products under a sink, or they can be used as dressers, or they can hold up some boards and be an improptu bookshelf! And that amazing garage sale kitchen table and chairs we found for $25 served us well for seven years.

Now that we have a house I have become much more conscious about what it looks like because I own it. I have to buy matching furniture, I have to paint, and I have to decorate in ways I didn’t before. In many ways this is satisfying, but in others it adds more pressure. There’s always more I could be doing. Besides, now, when stuff breaks, it’s my problem. I can’t just call the superintendent. I still like owning my own home, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy before I had all of these outside trappings in my life.

We make a mistake when we believe we need stuff to make us happy.

Stuff breaks. Stuff can be stolen. Stuff needs to be cleaned. And stuff costs money, especially if you have to buy it on credit. Then, if anything bad happens, you could lose all that stuff you came to treasure.

Besides, on surveys of happiness, stuff plays a very small role. Satisfaction with one’s relationships, one’s jobs, even oneself is much more important. So living within one’s means when everyone else is charging it may not seem fair and it may not seem fun, but ultimately our lives will be a lot easier. Besides, we’re not saying no forever. We’re just saying not now. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that.