Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Keeping Up Appearances

For about 45 minutes last night, I sat at my computer and toggled between two very different websites. On tab #1 I was looking at rows and rows of gorgeous leather handbags, all on sale and all still obscenely expensive. Tab #2 was my bank balance, and a calculator in the corner where I was running figures for the upcoming months before Tax Day.

I had decided, early on in the month, that I would spend any Christmas money I received on something luxurious for myself. Just one thing, but something fantastic, like some really great stilettos, or a new handbag to replace my very cheap one I had been outgrowing for the last two years. I kind of wanted a new armchair to replace the cheap garage sale one I had snagged when my husband took our good one in the separation. I needed a new kitchen table set, or a better looking comforter, or maybe just some new work pants that didn't simultaneously cling to my thighs and slip off my waist. I just wanted SOMETHING to celebrate the end of the year.

But as I sat there with all my options in front of me, I ended up coming to terms with my inevitable choice of not doing anything with the money at all. I decided to pay off the last of my college-era credit card debt early instead. And it's a choice that simultaneously makes me immensely proud and relieved, but that also makes a tiny part of me wistful for something fun.

I got to spend some time with my old high school friends this week, which was an absolute blast because we're all basically grownups, but we're also all still idiots, too. During dinner and drinks and several blasphemous rounds of Taboo, I realized that, comparatively, all of my friends are lightyears more glamorous than I am. My friend J drives the coolest sports car, and M and B have to die for wardrobes and accessories and nice cars and adorable houses, too. S and J spend weekends in Vegas, and even my little brother, who tagged along that night, has the means to spend thousands of dollars on clothes and concert tickets and trips to wherever, whenever.
I felt conspicuously, well, poor in the presence of all of these people, because nearly two years of paying off debt collectors and my ritual of gathering up all the change in my house to pay for frozen dinners the week before I get my monthly paycheck have made me a decidedly frugal person, and in comparison to my friends' expensive clothes and rock n' roll lifestyles, my Wal-Mart couture and hand me down, ginormous, '95 LeSabre looked pretty lame.

I brooded over this through most of Christmas, and spent way too much time tinkering with my monthly budget, trying to figure out some way I could accommodate my upcoming tax payment and bills and still have money left over to buy cool shit. No matter how I manipulated the numbers, I realized 2008, or the first few months of it at least, would have to be painfully devoid of unnecessary purchases. I semi-grudgingly made the call to my creditor, scheduled all my other bill payments, and pouted in my dad's armchair for a few hours while I scowled at the Style Network on TV.

The nice thing about my parents' house is that is possesses some sort of mystical quality that always gives me this nunlike sense of peace and perspective by the time my visit there is done. Even when my whole family's there, it's pretty quiet, and it's kind of dark and everything's overstuffed and comfortable and they have this nice deep tub in which my brother and I take naps and there are no cats to stare at me when I come out of the bathroom in a towel, and everything in the house is kept at almost this unreal level of cleanliness, and the combination of all these things usually means my mind relaxes and clears enough that I have these lovely epiphanies about my life. I'll wake up with gems like, "If you go to bed earlier, you'll be less tired in the morning!" or "Velveeta and Lil' Smokies belong in no federally recognized food group, so you probably should avoid them." Today, after curling up in one of the aforementioned overstuffed chairs and ruminating on what an ascetic I am, I realized something that I think I will pretty dramatically improve my outlook on 2008:

I realized that the major aspects of my life that bother me--my possessions, my appearance, my finances, my career--they're all suffering from the same killer perfectionism that causes me to backslide on my weight loss and getting healthy. I treat my house and my clothes and my car the same way I treat my body sometimes, in that because what I currently have isn't top of the line and expensive and fantastic, I don't take care of it and I let it fall apart while I sit around and dream about having better things. I get frustrated and don't exercise because I can't just go out and run a mini-marathon right now. I trash my car and I let my house get messy to the point that everything is chaos because I'm not driving a $20,000 SUV and living in the cover dwelling for Real Simple like some of my friends are. I don't try at my job, because my job isn't as prestigious or as well-paying as my classmates'. And while I sit and make lists of stuff I want and read success stories about people who've attained the things I want to, I let my own opportunities to just make the best of what I have go by, and that's really not acceptable at all.

One of the things that awed me about my grandmother was how every single thing she owned was as immaculate and as high-performing as the day she bought it. She obviously was part of the lauded Greatest Generation, and so took her Depression-era habits to some fairly ludicrous extremes in her attempt to be frugal and sustainable, but she also lived with such dignity and elegance even though she really didn't have that much money or stuff. It didn't matter that my grandmother wasn't wealthy, and it didn't matter that she was a 4'11" kind of dumpy German woman...the way my grandmother carried herself and worked and lived made her seem positively regal somehow. I want that for myself.

Unlike my grandmother, I'm not going to rewash Ziploc baggies or scrape the freezer burn off a two-year old bucket of sherbet when my grandkids come to visit, but I do want to start acting like my life, right now, is worth something on its own. I know I have things going for me right now...I bounced back from a pretty shitty financial situation, and I have no credit card debt, and my car is paid for, and I have a savings account and retirement funds, and I pay all my bills on time and I can eat and have Tivo and even get Starbucks more than once a week. And I have STUFF...some of it's even nice stuff, and actually taking care of it would probably make it even nicer. I'm not living a completely horrible life, and I really need to start acknowledging that, and working with the things I have--the body, the money, the house, the car, the clothes--instead of always dreaming about the stuff I don't have.

I know it's not quite my time to treat myself extravagantly, but at the very least I'll hopefully have enough focus and perspective in the coming year to treat myself with dignity. And right now, that's enough for me.


Nory Roth said...

I'll tell ya' a secret Erin -- those friends of yours with all the super cool shit? They're living and drowning with BOATLOADS of personal debt!!! A little delayed gratification right now will pay off in spades later.

Comparison is truly the ROOT of all dissatisfaction. It is good to see your acknowledgement of all the good in your life. Remember it when the green monster rears his ugly head again.

You are so, so, SO smart to get the debt monkey off your back. Look at all of your accomplishments with pride, and drive your used car with loving care, and it will serve you well.

Remember, he who dies with the most toys does NOT win -- he just dies. (And his heirs get to sort out the mess!)

Quality of life matters immensely, and living with a bunch of "stuff" that only gets old and wears out before it's paid for does not add one iota to your quality of life.

Excellent post! Thanks!

Lori said...

I just went through my bills for January and I'm so in the red, it's not even funny. And I'm going to have to suck it up and use my Christmas money to pay bills as well. I am taking a small amount and paying for some pilate classes and 2 sessions with a trainer (we're talking about $50 total) so when I'm stressing out about money, I'll do something productive with it.

I look at my parents who have cash on hand and make so much less money than I do. I am ashamed but getting out of debt is my goal for 2008. You should be proud to take care of that last remaining bit of debt and next year, you can treat yourself if you wish.

Great post, Erin. Thanks for the reminders.

Abba said...

I am so glad I stopped over today. I have gone through so much of the same things you have. One thing I tell myself - it's better to be debt free with nice stuff then to be in debt with extravagant stuff.

I have lived the same way with my car and home. It's just so weird how you were able to put it into words. I keep trying to reason with myself on why I am like this. I think you are totally right.

2008 does look promising.

Anonymous said...

Note that M and B both have credit car debt--M from her house remodel and B from a car needing a new clutch. Also, B has not purchased a single item of clothing that cost more than $25 since 2002. Plus you have really great hair.

Erin said...

I do not believe you for a second, because your clothes are insane. Out of this world. Off the chain. Et cetera.

Zandile said...

Amen! Getting out of debt seems like an impossibility to me right now, but then just a few months ago running a mile seemed like an impossibility too. Hmmmmm . . . something to think about.