More Than Money
Issue #13

Provocative Dialogues

Table of Contents

“Dialogue #1: Spending and Lifestyle”

Facilitator: Daphne Coats.
Participants: Jane, Martha, Nym, Mark.

Daphne: Let's start with some introductions.

Jane: I am 31 years old, married, and have a baby girl. In the 1960's, stock from a family business began to take off and my parents gifted all their children and grandchildren with substantial trust funds. But because my family did not start off wealthy, I grew up being reminded often how lucky we were and was urged to save and live frugally.

Martha: I am 46 years old and work as a university fund-raiser. I wanted to be involved with furthering God's work on earth, and was told about the field of development by my pastor. I pursued a graduate degree in development and decided to apply it to higher education. God/church, higher education, and women--those are my commitments and interests.

Nym: I'm a 44 year old SWJBM (single white Jewish- Buddhist male) with one teenage daughter. I grew up in a solid middle class home, and am now president of an executive search firm. I was shocked to learn years ago that as an entrepreneur, my $120,000 salary placed me in the upper 2% to 3% of income earners in the U.S. This year, my income will put me in the top 1/2%! How is that possible? I haven't lacked for anything, but I don't feel "rich."

My wife came from wealth, but now that we're divorced I find myself with few assets accumulated and no one to rely on for my future but myself.

Mark: I'm a musician, artist, and activist in San Francisco. I grew up upper-middle class in an affluent suburb, where I felt very painfully isolated. Partly as a response to that, my activism is focused on building community, especially intentional living communities (such as "co-housing," a model from Denmark). I currently live in a group household of four adults.

Daphne: What is it that makes our lifestyle seem extravagant or frugal? Is it, as Nym suggests, the comparison between self and others?

Martha: For me it is. In this country I'm called "professional class." I often hear people earning at my level grumbling about not having enough, but I compare myself to most people in the world and so consider myself very wealthy indeed.

Nym: In my daily life I bridge two very different economic worlds, and often feel torn between them. For instance, my old car is perfectly serviceable but it doesn't have the "prestige" I feel I should radiate as the president of a successful executive search firm. When I drive to business meetings I park around the side of the building and check out all the new Mercedes and BMW's in the lot. Yet if I bought a fancy new car I'd probably be just as embarrassed when attending events of my spiritual community--about 100 people, a few who earn as I do but many whom are artists, struggling massage therapists, and the like who have very few resources.

Daphne: Jane, you mentioned earlier that you spend only a fraction of what you could. Why don't you splurge more?

Jane: I want to keep my life simple. The struggle lies in defining simple. I don't want money to isolate me. When we were travelling, my husband and I saw clearly how the more money you have, the more you can isolate yourself from your family, neighbors, and the country you live in or are visiting. Our experiences in youth hostels were far more meaningful than staying in fancy hotels.

We live in a house that's nowhere near as large as what we could afford. Sure, that's partly because we live in a small town and want to keep a low profile. But far more important, it's just what I prefer. I see the choices my family has made and that has helped me to define more clearly what I want. One sibling lives in a large house with no cozy places to sit and talk and my parents spend a lot of their time flying between their different homes and worrying about who is taking care of what. None of this fits me. I'm glad to live where I want to spend my time.

Mark: I too, live on a fraction of what I could. Even though my income is about $60,000/year, not counting the $20-30,000/year in appreciation of my assets, my living expenses are about $15,000/year. I'm not trying to spend little. It's just a natural outcome of focusing my energy, not on things, but on building abundant close relationships through community living. A lot of people go shopping or just buy things in order to feel good about themselves. I try to define myself by my relationships with other people, not my job or possessions. A big part of that is my housemates. They are right there-we don't need to make an appointment, drive across town just to see each other. We share meals, make music together, listen to what's going on in each other's lives. Living in community, I have more security, more fun, fewer expenses, and less interest in spending.

Jane: Because I can afford to buy anything I want, I choose to not have as much as I could. Because if you can afford it, it's not quite so enticing.

Mark: Yes, I've noticed that my friends who grew up struggling or who have struggled more as adults have a much stronger desire to 'make it' materially. They need the symbols to show that they are making it. Those symbols don't mean so much to me since I can afford them without working for the money. I have also already experienced more comfort than I need, so I have a better idea of what is enough.

Nym: As for myself, I've always lived on more than my income. I guess I'm a product of my culture-I grew up with instant gratification. I want the best stuff, and I want to look good. A friend said to me, "If you lived frugally, you could save enough in just a few years to live your life free from the world of work." I know this is true, but I seem to be approaching the same dream from a different direction. I'd like to have a large income from a few million dollars in the bank earning interest. I want to buy my freedom. I know I can earn as much as I want to, depending on how hard I work.

So right now I feel driven. I'm working so hard, it's affecting my relationships, my health... and starting to look a lot more like an addiction than a choice. A teacher of mine once said, "Many people climb the ladder of success, only to reach the top and discover that the ladder was leaning up against the wrong wall." I know I need to focus more on what are my goals, my values, and where I want to end up. But most days I feel too busy to even ask these questions.

Jane: I was shocked to see that even our "modest" lifestyle costs us $60,000/yr. Compared to my husband, I do have expensive tastes. I like to go away for a warm vacation in mud season; I like to buy a nice outfit for special events. I am amazed at how much stuff we accumulate. Now that we have a child, forget it! The stuff is everywhere!

We are thinking of building a house, and of going south for a month this winter-things I would never have considered doing in years past. It concerns me how easily "stuff" can expand to fill however much space is available, and how expenses can expand to the limit of the account! I don't believe that's the way to a fulfilling life.

Daphne: Up to now, we've mainly been talking about what kind of lifestyle is most personally fulfilling. Is there a larger context that shapes your personal choices?

Joan: My husband and I hold dear the notion of lightening our impact on the earth. We dream of living in a small, environmentally-sound house, perhaps with others. We would love to share one lawn mower with five families, but for now we're living in a traditional neighborhood where that's just not done. Compared to the rest of my family, our lives are very simple; yet I look at all the stuff on my kitchen counters and know that, like most Americans, I use far more than my fair share of resources.

Nym: I support many nonprofit groups with monetary donations amounting to thousands of dollars per year. I recycle, grow lots of vegetables, etc. I hate how destructive the airline industry is to environment-yet this year I traveled over 50,000 miles for business. Life seems to require so many compromises; I feel the guilt and the responsibility of the "nouveau riche." I am doing the best I can given the situation I find myself in. I hope to do good by doing well, and do well by doing good.

Martha: As someone who raises money for a living, I'm constantly aware of how much our lifestyles are stopping us from being more philanthropic. I know women who don't think twice about taking all their grandchildren to Club Med for Thanksgiving vacation, who easily spend $1000 on a new suit, yet for them to give comparable sums to charity is a big decision. And these are involved and concerned women who even come to meetings on philanthropy! I just don't get it!

Women are the ones who determine the lifestyle of our nation's families. If there is ever to be a transformation to redistribute resources, I believe it will be led by women. I imagine it will take a massive educational effort before most of us acknowledge the affects of our lifestyle and change our priorities. In the meantime, all of us can work on influencing our own communities, our own friends, and on recognizing the impact of our own choices. .


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