Participants: Jane, Martha, Nym, Mark.
Let's start with some introductions.
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.
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
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."
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.
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
I currently live in a group household of four adults.
What is it that makes our lifestyle seem extravagant or
frugal? Is it, as Nym suggests, the comparison between
self and others?
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
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
Jane, you mentioned earlier that you spend only a fraction
of what you could. Why don't you splurge more?
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
As for myself, I've always lived on
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.
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
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
As someone who raises money for a living, I'm constantly
aware of how much
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
decision. And these are involved
and concerned women who even come to meetings on philanthropy!
I just don't get it!
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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