Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What Will We Do if Things Get Really Bad?

Yesterday I joked about withdrawing my life savings and putting it under the mattress. Although I made that comment tongue-in-cheek (or at least mostly tongue-in-cheek), it started me to thinking about how we Americans would respond if things got really bad. And by "really bad" I mean Great Depression bad, not just giving-up-some-of-our-toys bad.

My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. They were poor before it started and became even poorer. My grandmother, who in her later years could solve the Rubik's Cube and the Rubik's Revenge without any hints, couldn't go to high school because she had to work to help support her family. My grandfather had abandoned school for work after the sixth grade. They both worked and saved and invested and worked and saved and invested until finally, when they were in their 60s, they decided it was safe to retire.

My grandparents died comfortably well off, and I think that by many standards they probably were considered rich. In spite of their greatly improved financial position, they lived frugally their entire lives. My grandmother let me make the creamed potatoes for Sunday dinner, and one day, as I ran out of margarine and went to grab a new tub, I watched my grandmother get at least another tablespoon of margarine out of the "empty" tub that I was about to discard. Then there was my grandfather, who continued to wear shoes that appeared to have been purchased during the Great Depression well into the '70s and '80s, and who continued to wear his shirts long after they started springing holes. Sometimes I was embarrassed to go in public with him because he looked so raggedy. When I'd suggest that he might want to go shop for new duds, he would reply that the old ones suited him just fine. My grandparents raised their own fruits and vegetables in the spring and summer, and my grandmother canned what we couldn't immediately consume so that we'd have it during the fall and winter. Nothing ever went to waste. Ever. "Those who waste will come to want," my grandmother was fond of saying. She and my grandfather both knew from experience what it was to want for the basics, and they didn't plan to be doing that again any time soon.

My formative years, the good ol' Reagan '80s, stood in stark contrast to my grandparents' childhood and early adult experiences. In the '80s, the government ran exploding deficits and encouraged the citizenry to spend, spend, spend, even if that meant that all of us went into debt, too. "Buy now, pay later" was the prevailing societal "wisdom" when I was forming my views of money and its place in life. The "pay later" part always seemed to me like an afterthought, as long as I was able to get my hands on all the stuff that the glitzy advertisements succeeded in convincing me that I could not live without. No wonder my grandparents, who never had a debt except their mortgage and hardly ever bought anything besides food and sundries, looked so out of place to me.

Going from a childhood of poverty to an adulthood of financial security is one thing, but most of us in my generation would, were the financial situation to worsen, be going in the opposite direction. Although I don't particularly want to be poor, I am genuinely interested in what we, as an affluent, even downright extravagant society, would do if plunged into a state of widespread poverty. It obviously would be a huge shock, but it might well force us to get our priorities straight as a society and that, I think, actually would do a lot of us some good.

In a recent comment on another blog, a good friend of mine observed that we like money because we equate financial security with personal security. I think that was certainly true of my grandparents, who spent a lifetime clinging to what money they had, even when that amount became considerable and they could have afforded to let some go -- they didn't buy stuff to compensate for the stuff they lacked during the Great Depression, but it was important to their sense of security to have the ability, the money, to buy stuff if the need ever arose. I think that equating money with security also is at the core of our society's current focus on rampant consumerism, which tells us that the more buying power we have and use, the better off and more powerful we are.

The problem with this, of course, is that financial security does not, indeed cannot, provide the kinds of personal security that so many people seek from it. Money can't keep you from getting sick, it can't make people like you, it can't keep you out of conflict, it can't keep you out of harm's way, and it sure as hell can't keep you alive forever. Money doesn't ultimately stop any of the things that we fear most in life -- at best it can keep the bad stuff at bay a while longer (e.g., it can buy superior health care to increase the odds of health and longevity), and at worst it can makes some of the things we fear more likely (e.g., the more stuff we have the more there is to fight over, and the better equipped we are to conduct our fights).

I personally think that a better strategy would be to make peace with life's unalterable ebb and flow, and our place in it, instead of engaging in a misguided attempt to try to shield ourselves from the inevitable with material wealth. Although I'm not advocating that everyone go off and build a hut on Walden Pond and live off nuts and berries, I do think that living much more simply, whether by choice or necessity -- or at least cultivating the awareness that it is possible to live much more simply -- increases our ability to distinguish what is real from what is window dressing.

If and when our wealth diminishes in a significant way, will we spoiled Americans be able to see the reality, and therefore the beauty, of what is left? Will we be able to see that true security comes not from money or what it buys but rather from accepting that things are ever-changing and that we are vulnerable to certain things no matter what we do or have? Or will we just keep chasing after the almighty dollar and eagerly embrace the boom times when they return, as they surely someday will? A downturn in the economy may or may not cause folks to shift their attitudes and priorities toward the role of money, but as long as times remain affluent my bet is that most Americans will not voluntarily consider such a shift.

Maybe my grandmother was more right than she knew -- or maybe she was wise enough to know already just how right she was -- when she used the adage that "those who waste will come to want." And maybe, just maybe, having that adage come to fruition wouldn't be such a bad thing. Whatever happens, I am very thankful to have had the example that she and my grandfather set for how to live simply yet also live well.


willow said...

Very thought provoking post! It's a hard balance, isn't it? Sometimes the mattress saving plan sounds like a good idea. :^)

Virtual Voyage said...

Good post. Perceptive equating financial security with personal security. This side of the pond we are really starting to feel the shock wave of the US credit crunch - arty businesses going bust etc; (there was some surprise that Damian Hirst's art sale realized 70m last night given the current climate.)
No man is an island, I guess.

Steve said...

I think Americans badly need a lesson in frugality, and perhaps this is the time period that will teach it.

I'd like to think I'd do OK in a frugal time, being pretty frugal myself -- but I do worry about people who have special needs (illnesses, children, etc.) and little savings to help them cope.

Adrianne said...

Steve, you make an excellent point. The young and the infirm often have a hard deal even during the good economic times, and during the lean times they seem to be the first people to get left behind. I worry about them, too.

Merle Sneed said...

I have lived within my means throughout my life so I tend to be a bit judgmental toward those who don't.

Wealth is not having the ability to buy whatever you want, it is not wanting everything you have the ability to buy.

Adrianne said...

Merle, I fully agree with that second sentence. I live within my means now too, but first I had to dig myself out from under a pile of credit card debt. You'd think I would've learned from my grandparents' example, but no, I had to learn the hard way. These days I tend to equate wealth with having inner peace and loving friends and family.

Reya Mellicker said...

It's the wastefulness that bothers me. Yes by all means dig out the last of the butter (please don't eat margarine - it's so bad for you), and wear shoes or use the CD player until they're really and truly dead.

Our empire is coming to an end. The earth itself can not support our lavish lifestyle. My guess is that it won't end in a big explosion, but will continue to slowly decline, as it has been declining, for a long time.

Some days I'm very glad to be older. If I was in my 20's right now, I would be so freaked out.

Barbara said...

I wanted to comment on your last post that if you understand how we got to the sorry state we currently are in financially and more importantly how to fix it, I would guess you will be in great demand no matter who gets elected! If that is true, you do need to go back to work soon, because every passing day brings new financial woes.

As for this post, I can identify with your grandmother's philosophy because I grew up with parents who had been through the Depression and lived quite frugally as a result. When I called home from college, I was reminded when 3 minutes was up! In my father's last years, it was actually sad that he insisted on eating 99-cent TV dinners when he could have afforded to eat steak every night. It actually was not the TV dinners that killed him though.

I'm hopeful all the financial troubles today are just a warning that we need to make some big changes and take this seriously.

tam said...

Doesn't it make you think of Chief Seattle's speech? When the last tree has been sold [etc,] you will realise that you can't eat money.