Friday, August 30, 2013

Challenging the Middle Class Assumptions of How We Live

A friend recently told me that Isaac and I are a picture for them of how to live differently than the norm around them. I laughed. Most of our choices are simply a product of our income level or growing up with an unusual background, not because we are so intentionally counter-cultural.

But, you know, it's sometimes even a gift to know what can be given up. Sometimes the only reason we even see another lifestyle option is that we grew up overseas, living or at least exposed to such a variety of lifestyles. If I'd grown up in totally in middle class America, a middle class American lifestyle would just be assumed.  What I see as an issue for my peers is that we all see a certain lifestyle as being the minimum lifestyle to live at, and yet that level is set in our minds simply by our backgrounds and what we presume to be our right. And so sometimes we will struggle financially and with immense stress to maintain a certain kind of living because we don't realize a greater simplicity is okay. 

It does need to be said that living at or above the norm isn't bad. Living below the norm isn't the goal. If people have the funds to have a beautiful house travel to and eat at amazing places, that is a gift. We are each responsible to evaluate what we have and what we are called to do with it. If I, at my income level and with my lifestyle choices, end up feeling sorry for myself and comparing myself to everyone else, well, it's a rather poor choice on my part rather than honorable simplicity.

Do I really need a .....

  • Car (or a car for each spouse) - We bought our first car a year after we got married. I was 22. I'd never needed a car before, because I lived in downtown Chicago and took the train and bus everywhere. When we moved to Dallas I picked a job and apartment that put us within walking distance of public transportation, knowing that we still couldn't afford a second car. People around me were amazed - this is a car culture. Honest truth? While it put me in contact with a whole hidden section of society and gave the opportunity for amazing conversations, it was kind of miserable. This culture is built around cars, and I felt trapped by the inability to join a group at my church or run out for groceries without having to walk for miles. My car (which we found on Craigslist four years ago for a small amount of cash) gave up the ghost this week and we are looking for a two-month replacement, because based on where we currently live and the responsibilities we currently have, we have to have two cars. I totally think it's better to live near work and avoid driving if possible. It's just hard to do. 
  •  A House - It's kind of amazing for me to watch the way my generation here in Dallas just ... buys a house. It's what people do. It's not really an option for us, we always knew this place was temporary. It's true, home-buying can be the best investment, and renting is pouring out your money every month with no long-term investment. However, buying a home isn't always profitable, and I think some people buy simply because it's what you do and because they want the space and the stuff that comes with setting up your own home, not because it's the best financial decision for them. I have a few friends that have intentionally chosen to continue living in small apartments. It's not easy for them. Not having the space or being able to host or decorate as you want is totally counter-cultural here. It can also be a really good and healthy choice.

  • A house in a good neighborhood with a good school system - Can I tell you a pet peeve of mine? The assumption that one must buy in a nice place near people that are of your income level and in a school system that is respected. I gotta say, whatever happened to choosing to live on mission, transforming the world around us? Diverse communities, poor communities, communities with refugees and immigrants, communities with struggling school systems.... you and your family can go and live there, love your neighbors, your schools, your kids' friends. You know that 20% of non-Christians in North America don't know any Christians? And I can't tell you how many of my Christian friends say they don't know any non-Christians. That's because we surround ourselves with people like ourselves. Our housing choices betray our ultimate priorities - comfort, material progress, etc.

  • Cable - Okay, easy one. I know lots of people giving up cable these days. Except for sports events and awards shows, you don't miss much. Netflix rules.
  • A Smart Phone - I think this is the new cable - the luxury we pay lots of money for monthly because we feel disconnected from the world without it. Isaac and I still have old phones and it is totally possible to do this and avoid exorbitant costs of paying for a data plan and phone repairs/replacements. I now have a $10 data plan that allows me to connect sometimes and look up directions, but Isaac's phone can't even do that. However, it makes it hard to text and there are SO many times that I want to just look something up on the net. We are active on social media and so much of that is done through phones, so we've absolutely had "fancy phone" envy. Now that we know we can buy a phone here and use it overseas, we'll give in soon. But... it is possible to buy a crappy old school phone rather than pay hundreds for a good smart phone.
  • Internet and a Computer - Actually, I have had Internet and a computer since I was in middle school. I don't know what it is to live without it and I don't really want to find out. I know I could, and it's possible, but... that's totally a luxury I subconsciously think I'm entitled to.
  • A Nursery - A matching, beautifully set up nursery with pinterest-inspired decor. This is an example of our individualistic culture - we think each individual needs their own space, and it's what I'm comfortable with as well. However, our kiddo slept in our room for the first year of his life, and has slept in the living room or laundry room since. He still sleeps in a pack-n-play and has never had a crib or toddler bed. I worried he'd grow out of it all by this time, but he hasn't. He doesn't really know the difference. I wake him up when I go to the kitchen to make breakfast, and sure, it would be more convenient if all of his toys were in his own space instead of stacked on our living room bookshelves. But, since we have no other option.... we make it work.
  • Eating Out - Like the Internet/computer option, this one is an area where we do not set an example of living differently, but I could point you to some friends of ours who do so well at cooking and eating simply and at home. Currently I work in the day and nearly all of our commitments are about 45 minutes or more away from our home, which means that our evening and weekend commitments leave us far from the kitchen. Eating out is so expensive, though, not to mention generally more unhealthy. In a culture of convenience, it's so easy to end up eating out and spending more than we intended to when we created our budget. 
  •  New Clothes - I love new clothes. However, I'm also totally satisfied with new-to-me clothes, and so thrift stores have kept me happy with far less cost. However, I do think that there's a thrift-store hippie culture that is just as prideful and arrogant about their cheap clothing finds as they accuse the wealthy for being about their brand name clothes, which sort of defeats the intent of simple living, yes?
I could go on... but... I'm out. Anything to add?


junglewife said...

You have a lot of good thoughts here! Being in transition, "between" living in Papua and being settled here in the States, I am thinking about a lot of these things, too. Part of me just wants to embrace the American dream with open arms, because so many of those things were things that I sacrificed while living overseas. But I know that ultimately, that is not going to be good or healthy for me!
Right now we probably eat out more than we will in a few months, just because we are enjoying the American food again, but I still have a good habit of knowing how to plan meals and cook frugally. I remember living in Tennessee and a lot of my co-workers' idea of a recipe was adding a can of something different to a boxed meal.
I need to get back into thrift shopping again. It does take more time for the hunt, but I don't have any problem with buying used clothes. I didn't often buy used clothes when we lived overseas, though, because I wanted the clothes to last as long as possible, and often I found that thrift store clothes would last through one season of one kids' wear, but not hold up to being a hand-me-down for my 2nd kid, which is what I really needed.
The school thing is hard for me, especially having just enrolled our kids in public school. We can't afford Christian school and don't feel that homeschooling is the best thing for our family right now. I don't know much about public schools around the country, but I was a little surprised to look at my 2nd grader's schedule and find out that she only has science class once a week - it's in the same category as music and PE. I do want to love my neighbors and my maybe-not-the-best school system, but how much of my kids' education am I going to have to supplement at home? Just something I am thinking about.

As far as the home goes, it is probably going to be a long time before we can own a home, and I'm perfectly okay with that! Although it definitely is the norm here.

And the nursery... ha! My kids also only ever slept in pack-n-plays and never had a fancy nursery. It really makes me laugh how people spend SO much time and money on a nursery and do they really think the kid is going to care if everything is color-coordinated and cute?!

Anyway, that's enough from me for now. :-)

Kacie said...

Ah, school. Yes. Good one! When we came back on furloughs I was always in public schools and actually I think it was great. My parents always looked at the advanced course options when they were available - instead of regular English, go into advanced Literature or whatever. Your girls are still pretty young, so that might not be an option yet.

Erin said...

I love this post Kacie! You write with such clarity! We are living in a situation that was unintended and yet I see God's hand in it in a deeper level. We have been living very much under the normal north american middle class lifestyle. We were forced to foreclose our house in BC due to our renter having a grow opp and devaluing our property by $200,000. We can not get a loan for anything, we have a court ordered injunction against us. No car loans, no mortgage etc... So we are living in a tiny two bedroom house (that is actually 2 additions on an old 10x40 trailer)
We only have one vehicle-my mini van that Les has been driving to work everyday (270 km round trip) and we live an hour from town. We both have a cell but no home phone. I just upgraded to an iphone4, it was free with a better rate plan lol! All that to say though that we are finally living on a farm (not our own mind you) with a whole bunch of animals, my kids spend hours outside jumping on the hay bales stacked in the yard, digging in the dirt hill, riding their bikes up and down our no exit road. Les and I feel like we are finally living out part of our dream! All our moves over the last 10 years have been striving to get us to our own spot on the farm. Well its not ours (but it is my parents lol) and we love it! I do wish we had a bigger nicer house. Although I really love the simplicity of a small space, I hate clutter and it is so fast to clean a clutter free house lol!
And I must admit to being one of those girls who always wanted babies, I used to wander through the baby isle of stores while my mom shopped, dreaming of decorating my nursery lol! I think that spending $500 on a bedding set is ridiculous when I don't even spend that much on groceries. But I have decorated in other ways, sewn and knitted my own blankets etc.
I think God has truly changed our hearts on many things as well through this experience. Les has never been open to missions before, and now when we talk-its part of our future. Not sure when, where or how, but its there in our conversations about the future and the way we are planning our life. Even when we are able to take out a big mortgage again, we won't. We like paying cash for things. Anyways, just a little jabber from up north! Hope your doing well ((((hugs))) from Alberta