Friday, September 15, 2006

Fri. Spotlight: Penny Foolish & The Cost of Living

What's the cost of the life we're supposed to be living? That's the question
Kira of Penny Foolish raises as she checks in this week as the Friday Spotlight guest columnist at the Frugal Weekend Spa.

With a crisp, but engaging style Penny Foolish writes a great blog about personal finance and frugal living. Her first-person essays track her thoughts about taking a tax course at H&R Block and her search for a new job. There's a wealth of information on Penny Foolish.
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The Cost of the Life You're Supposed to be Living

by Kira of Penny Foolish

When I had just turned sixteen, my father took me into the DMV to take
the permit test, so I could begin learning to drive. Several of the
boys at the DMV were all pretty excited because Kordell Stewart, at
the time playing for the Steelers, was also there waiting, so they
were all chatting about football.

I wish that were the only memorable thing that happened that day. But unfortunately, I also flunked the permit test. I would not actually get my driver's license until six months ago at the ripe old age of 22.

It's truly ridiculous the number of people who have been completely
shocked by the fact that I didn't have a driver's license - but people
were mostly shocked that I never owned a car. "You don't have a car?" seemed to be a question on par with "You were born with a tail?"

People just don't know how to respond to somebody who hasn't completed
this seemingly basic ritual of adulthood. Having a car, even at
sixteen, has become the new standard in America - and if you don't get
one, there must be something wrong with your life.

But the truth is that I never really needed to drive. I couldn't have
afforded a car in high school or college, and I had close friends who
drove. Now, if having my own car was a necessity for me as much as it
is for a lot of other people, I wouldn't be in particularly good
financial shape, between the insurance, the repairs, and all the other
costs of an older car. My parents would also have had to shell out
thousands of dollars in insurance premiums between 16 and 21 (when I
graduated college), and might still be paying it now.

Hedonic Treadmill

Much has been written about the cost of the "hedonic treadmill" - that
you become accustomed to greater and greater luxuries at greater and
greater costs, never being satisfied with only what you need. Those of
us trying to live a more frugal lifestyle are always fighting this
compulsion - the mantra of the frugal seems to be, "Do I really need
this?" There are many areas of our lives that could be examined in the
same way, because the rapidly rising standard of living in our country
has made many things "standard" that people got along without years
ago.

Such as, kids of sixteen having their own car. Or having a car at
college. Or having all-new clothes, household items, or furniture.
Engagement rings must cost two months' salary. Leasing cars is cheap
and easy. Interest-only payments are affordable. Restaurant meals are
for when you don't feel like cooking. You deserve a cruise every year.
Installing fancy appliances is an investment. You know where this
leads.

Living the expensive life that has become the new standard leaves you
poor and feeling unfulfilled, because when you try to keep up with
some expectations you will always fall behind in others. I think that
we are doing others a service, to alter their notions of what you
"should" be doing, by taking the bus. By using coupons and cooking at
home. By living a life that is within our financial bounds and lives
by its own rules - not the life we're supposed to be out buying.

4 comments:

prlinkbiz said...

I completely agree that people need to live within or below our means. Thats not fun. However, if you work to increase you means (not your expenses) invest and build passive income, you can then enjoy the other things in life- all still within your means. For too many people it is true that their upkeep is their downfall.

Super Saver said...

Hmmm ... Hedonic Treadmill is an interesting metaphor. Agree that is an issue for some people. I like using the philosophy of only "buying what I need." Doesn't always work, but it has eliminated my spending on a daily paper, cell phone, cable and other things that I've decided that I "don't need."

M said...

I think things are much more complex that they are presented in this article. Taking the bus in many areas is not safe, if you're lucky enough that the bus itself is okay, you are often stuck waiting outdoors alone, often when it's dark out (morning or night), being a target for plenty of predators while waiting to catch the bus.

If you don't believe me, check out the crime statistics from a few neighborhoods (mine included)to see how many peole are attacked and mugged just walking from public transit to their homes alone. Our city's PD recommends people do NOT do this at all when the sun has gone down or is not up yet.

Similarly a lot of people need (not want) a car because either there isn't any (or any decent) public transportation in their town, or because they have special needs that require driving over bussing/training it.

Also, many areas have very limited public trans. services and the five times longer it takes to take a bus than to drive makes taking one to work and running errands,etc. not an option for anyone who lives the busy lives most of us live today (and I mean busy due to work, school, second jobs, jobs that require traavelling through each day,etc., not do to fun social activities).

I think the writer's point has some merit and has the potential to be a good article but it completely neglects so many of the realities of life in many parts of the country and for many groups of people that it really reads like little more than the author's analysis of his or her own life and that of maybe some people he or she knows.

Yeah, not every needs a big screen tv, that is sort of more than obvious, but many people do need cars they way our society is currently set up. Including some 16 year olds (who, for example, work, go to school, do sports, etc. and especially if live and work and go to school all far away from one another as I did. Or maybe they help pick up groceries or a sibling for the family. Not every town or city has good public transportation nor is it always safe or cost effective in terms of time to take it.)

It seems this article disregards the needs of some of the society's less economically privileged by assuming that everyone lives in an area where safe, predictable, effecient, timely public transportation is available. It assumes that everyone is equally capable to take, and has the time for taking the bus. It leaves out so many lifestyles and groups that I wouldn't know where to begin in listing those who don't fit into the mold of this article.

So many people buy cars, even new clothes, for reasons of need that are not at all presented as options in this article. I am just one example of many. The reasons I have a car have zero to do with hedonism or want and everything to do with need and ability/ disability. You can read more about that on my own site if you wish, (I decided not to get into personal issues on someone else's comments!) but I assure you real life reasons make working, seeing doctors, getting groceries, etc. not possible for us without a car.

Besides, the author says he or she got away with not having a car by using friend's cars when younger. That is an ideal solution? I'm not sure most people's friends would think so. And if the writer is counting on them for rides doesn't that mean the idea proposed in the article is greatly flawed since had the friends followed it, the writer would not have been able to rely on their charity and generosity and would have had to possibly get a car him or herself.

It is possible to express contentment with one's own choices without judging and condemning those of others (especially when not taking any social and economic facotros of others' situations into account).

I congratulate the author if he or she has found a way to save money and minimize environmental impact but if he or she assumes that anyone who does not make the same choices he or she makes is doing so out of "hedonism" and "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality, I believe the author is quite mistaken, is possibly projecting his or her own issues onto a much larger group of people and uses a judgmental tone to do so, all the while thoroughly neglecting to realize how much of many people's lives is not about "choice" but necessity.

Choice is often the luxury of the richer classes, who can easily criticize those who do not have the priviliges they have that offer them choice to begin with.

When you live in a dangerous neighborhood with liquor stores as your only grocery store, how do you get food to cook at home without a car and with unsafe and unreliable public transportation as your other option? Until those and other similar issues are addressed, an article like this will be flawed and incomplete. Who in the above situation would cook at home (and how could they) when they could grab fast food for a couple dollars instead?

The author is lucky he or she can decide if he/she wants to spend the money associated with having a car. The author says with a car his or her finances would not be sound. Maybe then, the author can put him or herself in the place of those who have no choice but to use a car and see how they are in a postion of not being financially sound, all because of something they had little or no choice in.

That topic is an interesting and important one to write about, in my opinion, this article does little more than waver between stating the obvious and neglecting all (or nearly all) the factors involved in this issue.

I wish my first comment here could have been a positive one, I do try to stay positive on others' sites, but I found myself highly disagreeing with what was written here and wanted to respectfullly express my view. I hope I accomplished that.

HC said...

Well, I was the permit queen for many years. I didn't get my full license until 21, and I don't regret it.

The above commenter makes a fair point that this choice was possible because of class privilege (I was able to ride with my mom in high school, and then attended college on a very pleasant residential campus that didn't require a car), but I think making that choice given that situation isn't necessarily a bad thing.