Monday, September 1, 2008

APLS: What affluence means to me

In another excuse to procrastinate from packing, I'm going to blog some more. There is this new blog carnival called ALPS: Affluent Persons Living Sustainably. I missed the boat on their first monthly roundup, but here goes for their September question, which is really me ranting about my issues with money.

Affluence. What do you think of the term? Does it apply to you? Do you dislike the word? Feel uncomfortable with it? Are there certain responsibilities that come with accepting that term?

I'm not sure if I would define myself as affluent. Affluence is all relative. I could be considered affluent in comparison to others, but when one further looks up the scale, I could look poor and miserly. Growing up, it always felt like we scrimped and saved, and those values have stayed with me my whole life. I'm obsessed with saving, I'm guessing because my parents are too. My mom still shops at places like Kohl's for clothes (kind of like a smaller slightly classier Walmart) even though she doesn't need to anymore. I realize now that my parents must have more money than we did when I was little, so I can reasonably classify our family as upper middle class. Putting three kids through college, owning a second home - those things take money. I didn't have any student loans to pay off when I got out of college two years ago, and during college I didn't think anything of it, but now I know I am very lucky, because it has really put me ahead. I'm able to save money, unlike my friends who are just making ends meet by slaving away to pay their loans every month.

I tend not to think of myself as rich. I work in the nonprofit sector. I can probably expect it to take me at least a few years to reach the salary range that is my boyfriend's current salary after receiving a raise six months into his first job. I don't really ever expect to reach the 100k salary bracket, not on my own.

But, all of my saving means that I have more money saved than anyone else I know my age - except for those trust fund kids or others with built in life savings care of their parents - I don't even want to imagine how much they have. It's nice, having this cushion of money that means I can take a vacation if I want, or buy a friend dinner if I want, or not have to worry about the recent expenses associated with moving, etc. But I also have decisions to make. Like yesterday - I went out to buy sheets, and I had the choice between cheap regular cotton sheets or to pay more for supposedly sustainable, nontoxic, nonpesticide sheets. But those sheets weren't even organic (the store didn't even carry organic), and I questioned how green they really were. And I really didn't want to pay the higher price. Because even though I can, I don't want to. I want more money in the bank, because it means I will be able to buy my own apartment/house all the faster. Now I realize I should have done research first, and went to a store that I knew would have reasonably priced sheets. I feel guilty. I think, I'm not as green as I think I am. But at this point, I have to sleep on a new bed tonight and I need sheets now and I don't have time to go poking around hellish big box stores throughout this city.

So even though I don't spend money on typical girlie things like clothes and body products, what I do spend it on is food. Now, I think I spend a lot of money on food, because I spend about $340-400 per month, which includes about $20-35/week at the farmers market, about $90 per month at Fairway for bulk groceries, other small grocery trips, eating out, and just things like buying a bagel on the street. Every month I try to make that number go down, but that range has been pretty steady for the past year or so, and I know it's accurate because I religiously track all of my spending. And that's just for one person - my boyfriend probably spends another $300 something on his share of food, lunches and diners out. And $700 for two people is a lot! I know theoretically two people should be able to feed themselves on much less. But we are in New York City, one of the most expensive places on the planet. I'd be curious to hear how much others spend on food.

Then, I read Jen's recent post on Last Night's Dinner revealing how much her and her husband spend on food. I've always marveled at her blog, which I browse for inspiration. She takes stunning photographs of beautifully crafted meals, made with fresh, local ingredients, seemingly restaurant quality. It turns out they most recently spent $100/week at the farmers market and another $100/week at Whole Foods! And I'm sure that does not include miscellaneous bites out to eat and so on. No wonder I've always felt like I can't keep up in the goal to make beautiful meals like hers every night. From time to time, she remarks on how she feels privileged and lucky that she has the money to eat quality food. I totally agree that it is good to spend money on food, which is something that nourishes and feeds our bodies and souls, and I am lucky that I can spend as much as I do, even if I am not lucky enough to have as much money to spend as Jen. I think realizing that you are in a place of privilege is a mark of affluence. I see so many poor children in this city eating McDonald's or chips or candy on the subway, their little bodies puffed out unbelievably, wishing there was something I could do to help them.

I also think we take our cues on who is rich based on how people choose to use their money. Because I like to save money instead of spending it, I know I do not look rich. I wear clothes over and over until they're disheveled and torn, and then I still wear them. I feel so much more comfortable in Brooklyn, where people wear whatever relaxed outfits they want with windblown hair, than I do in Manhattan, where I feel awkward everytime I go out to a bar, among preppy kids with their perfectly styled hair and make up and pricey dresses.

Then there is my boyfriend, who comes from a neighborhood where everyone. is. rich. I have seriously never experienced that before. My hometown is a mixed bag. But when we drive through his town, every single house looks two times as big as it needs to be. It truly baffles me. It's really hard for me to understand that people have that much money in the first place and it's hard for me to understand how they choose to spend it. Once when we went out with his friends from home, we pointed out to each other that I was wearing $11 boots from Payless whereas those girls were probably wearing $300 designer boots. I can definitively say they are affluent.

When I think about what I would do if I had a lot of money, here are my ideas: Maybe I would buy a nice apartment in Brooklyn with a pretty grassy yard. Or I would buy a house in the country. Or maybe I would buy a tiny second home in the woods or on a rural beach. Or I would buy a B&B in the country and run an eco-friendly B&B for work. Or I would open up a bar decorated with flea market found furniture and a garden in the back serving only Northeast craft beers and NY state wine. Or I would travel more. Or I would invest in real estate and not be an evil landlord. I would give to charities that really need it - health and environmental causes - not gifts so that cultural organizations can all try to outcompete each other for the biggest baddest hundred million dollar building while people are starving and all that rebuilding is destroying the planet. Among these ideas are prime examples of how you need money to make money. I think I would love to open a B&B, but first I would need the money. And how do you get that money? By staying on the treadmill of 9-5 cubicle jobs, paying my dues, plugging along and saving money, like I'm doing. That's the plan.


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  2. Nice post, Julia! Interesting comments re: the arts and charity. I surprise even myself when similar opinions come out of my mouth...

    I totally get the all-around-town thing - so painful! But sometimes it will just convince me that I don't really need something, which is definitely helping with my debt. You are so so so lucky not to have any.

    And FYI - I'm like the princess and the pea with my sheets and just went through this hunt. CB2 has well-priced, very soft organic cotton sheets; I didn't end up buying the ones from West Elm, but they were in the running, too. Muji has organic jersey ones that I think are also well-priced - I'm not into jersey, but maybe you are. For next time. I don't like to buy from chains but make exceptions for organic cotton - the market for it has to grow somehow!

    Good luck with your move-

  3. thanks for the advice on sheets - for next time definitely. i think i'm finally moving tonight - at least i hope so, so the whole process of relocating my life can be done with.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts on affluence. We don't have to spend every dime we have and we can be happy with less than the "ideal."

  5. Interesting!

    Found you by way of Last Night's Dinner - a food budget is on my mind right now. Because I never had one. So, also after reading how much Jen spends at Farmers' Markets etc, I thought, Hm, How much do I spend??

    So a running tally over three weeks reveals wine/drinks and food and groceries incl. lunch every day, run to between $175 and $220...a week. And I am not necessarily splurging. I buy everything organic, "lesser" cuts of meat when I eat it, with the exception of the odd porterhouse.

    So your budget to me sounds pretty frugal, and there I thought I was!

  6. I dislike how you judge people right down to what they spend on dinner... the shape of CHILDREN'S BODIES!!