by Hilary Hodge
[photo Wikimedia Commons]
[published: March 29, 2012 (4:50AM PST)]
Not having a job or an income changes a person’s perspective about self-worth. I remember being 16 working for minimum wage which at that time was $8.00/hour in my state of California. I would shop for groceries and see an item I wanted that cost $8.50. Knowing that it would cost me more than an hour of my life to buy such an item, I would usually pass. I was able to quantify my time on earth in dollars, and I would value my life accordingly as an American consumer.
As I got older, obtained a college degree and got a job with a fairly good living wage, I would still make many purchasing decisions in the same way, using the same formula. I’ve never had a savings so any purchase would rely on funds in my bank account at the time; I would do the math to see if the value of my life in hourly wages would warrant such a purchase. Many times, I would conclude that my life and my work could not equal the value of the thing I wanted and I would get depressed.
As part of a generation that could identify the alphabet letters based on their products before we could spell, (K for Kellogg’s, M for Mattel, and T for Tide etc.) it is no wonder that my adolescence and adult life propelled me into a life and self-worth based on consumerism.
For a number of years, my purchasing power somewhat agreed with my self-worth. There was a time when I didn’t have to think too much about the clothes I was purchasing, the restaurant where I was dining or the couch that I was buying. I had a fairly new car, a nice apartment with furniture and a decent job that allowed me those things.
Unemployment changes all that. And, when combined with a few relationship failures or other life-altering events, like, for example, the birth of a child, the result can be a little confusing.
I don’t think that any of us have ever really believed that a person should be valued by what job they’ve had or by how much money they’ve made. Americans have been seen for too long as a people who are hell-bent on taking the next advantage. I, personally, have met a lot of Americans, and I’ve never met anyone who fits that description. Even those I know who are still stuck in the consumer age are finding enlightenment unprecedented.
I haven’t bought myself anything new in over a year, with the exception of some badly needed boots, a discounted bed, some books, some socks, a few tools and some underwear. In my most recent move, I went to the thrift store for a new book shelf, a consignment shop for a kitchen cabinet and scored a free table from my parents. I can’t remember the last time I went “shopping” except to buy groceries.
Maybe our wants and “needs” are determined by our income and our capacity to fulfill those wants and needs. I no longer think of myself as a consumer. I can’t walk into a big box store and go crazy. I used to buy candles, trinkets, necklaces, vases, pillows, clothes, lotions, cosmetics, bathroom décor, decorations, ornaments and a myriad of tchotchkes on a weekly basis. Now, if I’m in a bog box store, it’s usually for toilet paper.
Before I came of age and started buying all these things that made me feel like a dues-paying adult, I used to spend my money on things like my education, theatre visits, art, music and books. My first “real” purchase that I had earned my own money for went to a 12-candle, free-standing candelabra garnished with “magic” stones. I had still lived with my parents at the time and they wouldn’t let me burn candles in the house. It was nothing except art for art’s sake. I had kept it for twelve years after moving out and regret greatly that I have no idea where it ended up. I can’t even remember if I gave it to a friend or donated it to charity.
Now that I have no income, not only can I not buy the insipid purchases that I used to make but I can also no longer buy the things of whimsy. In fact, I don’t buy “things” at all. I buy groceries and pay my bills. I still drive that car that was once new. My furniture is second-hand or at least 10-years-old. My books, my real luxury that I can’t let go of, are mostly used. And to say that this is an incredible shift in my reality is an understatement.
I have never been so happy.
I have not traveled or bought theatre tickets in a long time. I am not up on music. I don’t indulge in “fine dining.” I can’t remember the last time that I hosted a party.
For the first time in my adult life, my value comes from who I am and what I do, not by how much money I make or my displays thereof. The worth of my day is not determined by a to-do list or a benchmark. I don’t have a 401k or heath care but I also don’t have a supervisor looking over my shoulder determining my productivity from one day to another. Some days I write. Some days I plant flowers and vegetables. Some days I transplant trees and pull weeds. Some days I make breakfast. Some days I don’t. Some days I scan family pictures and share then with my mom’s cousins. Some days I build stairs in the garden. Some days I prune bushes. Some days I drink too much wine and smoke too many cigarettes. Some days I make jam. Some days I plan for the future. Most days I just hope for the best.
If you are facing a financial change that worries you or even paralyzes you with fear, I am here to tell you: fear not. You will face hardship. You will have a period of considerable adjustment. You may even have an identity crisis. You may undergo a world of mishaps that you had never hoped to face. But in such a journey, you may even find you. And what makes you happy.
If this lesson in poverty has taught me anything it’s that my happiness index has in no way been tied to my financial index. In many ways, it has been quite the opposite. Since I have had to let go of the hardship of money, I have gained, in real, quantifiable amounts, a happiness that I never could have imagined.
You may be next.