While I’ve never been one to keep up with the Jones’, I’ve noticed a palpable sense of relief amongst many friends, acquaintances, and message board posters that the pressure to keep up, show off, and compete is off. At least for the moment.
In the heyday of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, everything was about buying bigger, better, faster, cooler, and swankier products. Everyone was upgrading their kitchens with granite and stainless. Everyone (it seemed) had a luxury car of some sort in the driveway. If you didn’t have a big screen TV and surround sound, you were out of it. For that matter, if you didn’t have a dedicated “media room” you were hopelessly behind the times. Luxury clothes and bags were no longer just for celebrities. Everyone had to have a Coach bag or Prada shoes. Kids had to have all the latest toys and electronic gadgets. And many people were measured by the expense and newness of their cell phones. If you tuned in to the money media during this time most of the coverage was about how to maximize your investments, how to invest in risky products, and how to turn a quick buck in the market.
It makes me feel tired just to write all that out, never mind trying to live it. All this excess fostered a race amongst many to keep up to avoid looking out of place or as though they couldn’t afford the nicer things. That race led to an escalation of debt never before seen in the world. But now that everything has fallen apart? Well, it’s turned portfolios and net worth statements into big messes, but at least the pressure is off.
Read any money related website or book today and the tune is all about saving and cost cutting. Hang out on many discussion forums and the talk isn’t about lavish vacations or home remodels, it’s about how to get out of debt or how to slash the grocery budget. In neighborhoods you see fewer contractor trucks bringing in new granite countertops and more yard sales. More people are realizing that a look alike bag bought at Kohl’s is just as good at carrying stuff as the Coach bag that cost five times as much. Many people have, sadly, lost their jobs or had their incomes/credit slashed, but the positive is that there is no longer any pressure to keep up with others. In fact, being frugal has become the new status symbol. It’s actually cool to stop consuming so much.
I find that people are actually looking up to those who can slash $75 off the grocery bill by using coupons. They’re more admiring of those who can keep their cars running for another 50,000 miles. It’s cool to talk about the deal you got and the money you saved by doing something yourself. It’s okay to admit that you can’t afford something and to offer lower cost alternatives. It’s okay to talk to friends about money problems and share ideas for saving. All of this combines to create a lower pressure atmosphere and a sense of relief that we don’t all have to keep up with each other.
As someone who has always been frugal, I can’t tell you the relief that this has brought to my own life. While I’ve never been one to give in to the pressure to keep up, preferring instead to save and go my own way, I can’t deny that I’ve felt the pressure the past few years. My neighbors bought nicer cars and better houses. They upgraded their kitchens and baths and hired maid services. The women started turning up in designer clothes. Lavish birthday parties for both kids and adults became the norm. I always stuck out; the oddball with the ten year old car, the garden in the back yard, and the smallish house that hasn’t changed much since the day we moved in. But now my neighbors are asking me about gardening and couponing. They want to know how we’ve managed to ride out the recession with little trouble. Suddenly I’m not the oddball, I’m the guru.
Will the pressure return and the race begin again? Probably. People just seem to be wired to outdo each other in some way. Once the economy recovers I have no doubt that the memory of the current mess will fade, replaced once again with dreams of lavish vacations, expensive home re-do’s and luxury cars. There will be some who decide to stick with the lower pressure way of life, but there will be many who jump right back into the race. But for now it is nice to enjoy a let up in the pressure. Those who like to fight to keep up can take a break and relax and those of us who never wanted to keep up in the first place can enjoy the fact that, for right now, we are not the oddballs. For a few months, at least, we can all enjoy the fact that the pressure is off and we can be comfortable living within and below our means without feeling like we’re somehow not “enough” because we won’t or can’t compete with others. Ahhhh. It feels good.