Happiness and Consumerism – Coming to Terms with my Financial Reality

Bright Autumn--40

Photo Credit: Robyn Lang (c). Used with permission. 

Apologies that this post is a little late. It has been a bit of a difficult week. My husband started a new job that has a lot more hours and travel time involved. Whilst this is something that we have both been hoping for, it has called for some big changes in how we organise our days and in particular who is looking after Yitzhak and when. So far the dust hasn’t really settled yet. Right now I have that knotty feeling in my stomach that not enough of anything is getting done and it’s taking all my strength just to try and stay present and breath.

So that’s enough of an update.

I wanted to write about money. I have been listening to the podcast Budgets and Cents with Cait Flanders and Carrie Smith and also checking out Cait Flanders (formerly known as “Blonde on a Budget”)’s blog.

On the blog and in the podcast, Cait raises some really interesting questions about what money means to us in our lives. In particular, what spending means in our lives.

For me this has really been an opportunity to confront some of my issues in this area and unfortunately, it’s just not pretty.

In my family, money seemed to grow somewhere in the backyard behind the bird’s bath. Whilst, especially in my younger childhood, I was aware of times when money was tighter, by the time I was older, money seemed to be something we had and could use whenever the need or desire was pressing enough. If I could characterise the spending ethos in our home it was something like, if you need it, you should buy it. Whilst my parents generally seemed to focus on buying only that which they needed, “need” could be pretty loosely defined and included things like “needing” to go out to dinner to celebrate. They also instilled in me the value of good taste and the idea that it’s better to spend more and buy one item that will last a long time and serve you well, than to buy a cheap version that will invariably have to be replaced. We didn’t seem to spend much time doing consumer research and it didn’t seem like we needed to. This is in no way intended to knock my parents spending style, some of my happiest memories with my parents were in restaurants enjoying luxurious food or going “luxury shopping” at the local mall.

When I was working in politics, I really took this and ran with it. I remember always having a lot of disposable income for nice new clothes, tonnes of food out (I had no time to cook, and besides, there were friends to be won and people to be influences at the various bars, restaurants and haunts of the Party), the various places I rented and not to mention the hundreds of dollars I spent on alcohol and probably plenty of other things I can’t remember anymore. But whenever something happened, like the car insurance came due when I wasn’t expecting it, or I crashed my car (as happened more than once if I remember correctly) – I never had money on hand to deal with it. It was like it had all disappeared.

These days, my financial life couldn’t be more different. The simple fact is, that I am by choice neither a minimalist or frugal, although these are cute labels to help me feel a little more trendy. The fact is that we don’t have a tonne of money. We live in a pretty small place – although as I find out when I listen to American podcasts, “small” is a very relative thing. Luxurious dinners out are essentially distant memories, clothing purchases are always guilty occasions and it seems that because of our budget and the high costs here, everything I buy is so poor quality that it just doesn’t last or look good for more than a few months. We eat a frugal, vegan diet. We often go without things that I didn’t even know it was possible to go without – like moisturising lotion and snack foods. We are absolute pros at making a delicious and interesting range of foods from dried beans, chickpeas and lentils.

There’s a combination of factors at work here that brought about this change. The standard of living is not as high in Israel. Pay is low and things are expensive. That is just part of life here. Also, I have traded my place as a child of the Australian upper middle class with cultural capital to spare for that of an immigrant without full language proficiency, family or social networks. I am also a mother now, which has significant financial consequences. Finally, I am a PhD student which seems to basically mean poverty regardless of where you live.

However, regardless of the causes, the simple fact is that in my life in Israel I just don’t have the options for consumer fun that I had when I was in Australia. When I first got to Israel, ablaze with spiritual fire and having just finished an honours thesis on the evils of consumerism, the opportunity to live a simple life dedicated to the important things like the pursuit of meaning, relationship with the Divine and growing a family, really appealed to me and I thought that I would never need anything more than a black skirt and a couple of polo shirts again. But slowly the enthusiasm faded.

Over the last year or so, I started shopping for clothes again and became more and more concerned with my appearance. Having a home – a “grown up” married people home – led me into all kinds of pressure to furnish it with respectable pieces that would demonstrate my class, taste and having-it-togetherness to all comers. I began to think that I need to have coffee when I go to University because it makes me happy and reminds me of home. I got increasingly emotionally connected to these kinds of material things. What made it worse is that as our financial situation became more and more difficult and we didn’t have enough money sometimes even for things that I thought were absolute essentials, this was all experienced by me as an emotional blow. I lamented our situation. I blamed everything. I was in general, pretty bummed out about the whole thing.

I have come to the conclusion that what is really going on has less to do with being poor and more to do with not having learned ways of caring for myself that do not involve spending money. My idea of self care is going and sitting in a cafe or restaurant, extra points if it is one of those cafe-restaurant-bookshop places and spending a lot of money on yummy food. Or going to the mall and buying myself new things. And if I look back, that is essentially how I learned to relax and kick back in both my family and culture of origin.

Now that those options aren’t so readily available, I feel like I am living in a permanent state of deprivation. I miss those comfortable material aspects of my old life, although I know that if I was jettisoned back there, sooner or later I would have had to come to terms with my financial issues as well. I assume my parents wouldn’t have continued cleaning up my traffic fines for ever…

I guess the point of this somewhat rambly post is that I need to find new ways of relating to money.

I am considering trying a shopping ban, Cait Flanders style. I can imagine there being tremendous comfort in knowing that no matter what, anything that isn’t essential just can’t be bought. Stay tuned. I’m still thinking this one through.

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