Sunday, December 31, 2017

Sunday ramble

This is not the point of the article on how expensive and precarious it is to be poor, but this is actually terrible rather than fantastic advice.
I once read a book for people in poverty, written by someone in the middle class, containing real-life tips for saving pennies and such. It’s all fantastic advice: buy in bulk, buy a lot when there’s a sale on, hand-wash everything you can, make sure you keep up on vehicle and indoor filter maintenance.
My mother accumulated a decades' supply of food that went bad--cans that corroded, etc.--because she bought things that were on sale and/or in bulk. It's more cost effective to buy what you need (she says as much in the next paragraph).

More to her overall point: it's also terrible advice to hand-wash everything. It's more efficient, if you have an efficient washing machine, to machine-wash. But an efficient washing machine costs money, is out of reach to very poor people, who thus can't benefit from its efficiencies.

Like the author, I've spent a lot of money buying cheaper things I have to replace sooner. I'm not poor so it doesn't break me, but I can back up her point that it does cost more money. I've probably bought the cheaper toaster that just ends up breaking faster or some other appliance that doesn't meet my needs and has to be replaced. I just made the mistake of buying the wrong case for my iPad and had to order another one. I think in everyone's life there's that category of expenses for mistakes and not knowing then what you do now. But when you're poor, those mistakes can be existential threats.

My mother always advocated for buying the cheapest thing (if not many of the cheapest things). She could never see the benefit of spending a little more money upfront to get something that worked. When I was a child, she bought me numerous ill-fitting swimsuits instead of one decent one. As an adult just out of grad school, she berated me for buying a decent (but not expensive) new suit to interview in instead of the cheapest second-hand one I could find. She would continue to try to foist upon me thrift-store finds that just didn't fit; the idea was that I should try to make them work, because the price was right. It was an uphill battle to get my parents a functioning, mid-range vacuum cleaner that works very well in place of the dozen shitty ones littering the house.

I try my best not to do that--I try not to buy things just because they're cheap or cheaper. I try to only buy things that I need or that I know I'll use. I'm willing to pay more for a handful of expensive-but-affordable that improve my quality of life, even as I'm well aware that it's a luxury to do so. It's not sanctimonious advice for poor people. I know, every time I tell you to get out and by a pair of Bose noiseblockers, as I have twice in the last week, that not everyone has that option. If you're like me, you don't have $200 to burn but you do have the occasional $200 to spend once in a while on something that'll make hours and hours of flying that much more comfortable. This is a huge paradigm shift for me--an unlearning of my mother's framework.

Being squarely/comfortably middle class, I appreciate having the option to splurge occasionally and to make trade-offs--to spend more on things that I deem will meaningfully improve my quality of life and to choose not to spend it on things that don't. Buying prepared food from restaurants, other than for social occasions, doesn't improve my quality of life. Flying out of National rather than Dulles whenever possible, hugely improves my quality of life. Not saving $300-400 by stomaching a 5-hour layover and making a very long set of flights even long, meaningfully improves my life. Holding onto a car that I very rarely use--that sits for months at a time--may cost more in insurance than I'd pay in ubers or zip cars, but is worth the cost to me for the convenience of having it for when I do need it. Paying more to live within access of public transportation so I don't have to worry about being stuck if the car doesn't cooperate, pays for itself in the long run, but it's an expensive choice that not everyone can afford to make. And there are plenty of money-saving choices I do make that sometimes I wish I didn't: (sometimes) taking said public transportation instead of cabbing; buying tickets to Boston that are less expensive rather than most convenient; etc. I wish I could afford to fly business class on longer flights (so does everyone, I know); if I had the money, it would be an investment in comfort worth making. I occasionally marvel at the way some of my peers spend money and the things they spend it on. I don't know to what extent they just have more of it or just can't be bothered.

There's an ongoing battle in think-piece land about what it means to be poor and who really deserves our sympathy, even if they're not asking for it. In a society that's largely uncomfortable with talking about money, 'dry,' objective descriptions about how a middle-class (much less minimum) wage doesn't go as far as you'd think are met with derision. There's a special level of scorn reserved for travel tips--and I'd agree that a lot of the budget travel tips out there are anything but. I've said it before (including in the above-linked post) and I'll fight for being able to say travel is more affordable than people think. It's certainly more affordable than raising children, but nobody gets into a class-war tizzy over that. It's more affordable than, say, brunching every Sunday, but nobody gets all sanctimonious when people talk about brunch. Of course it's not affordable for those living hand to mouth, but most of the advice/discourse in our society is not directed to people in that situation.

I see people get defensive and make excuses over things that no one is forcing them to do, just because other people talk about them. Why does that talk threaten you? Does talk about veganism make you feel like you need to make excuses? What about exercise? What about travel? No one is making you do any of those things. But if your gut reaction is to make excuses about why can't or don't, that's your issue.

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