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What's Good About a Bad Economy
Cultural Observations About Simple Living
There's nothing good about losing your job, lying awake in bed at night and wondering how you will pay your mortgage or put food on the table. Many American families have had catastrophic hardships thanks to the recent economic downturn. This article isn't directed to the folks who are barely scraping by, losing their homes and experiencing heart-breaking losses. This article is for the middle class folks who have been affected, but not catastrophically so, by the recession. What's good about having to cut back and tighten our belts? As it turns out, quite a lot actually!
First, middle class America is rediscovering consignment and thrift stores. Resale shops are one of the few businesses experiencing a surge in growth. Years ago, there was no shame in wearing hand-me-downs. As our American culture became increasingly consumerist and we bought into the idea that we are what we buy, many people felt pressured to buy the very best for their families and the very best was defined as new. Financial strain has forced people to rethink the idea that everything they buy has to be new, especially when it comes to children's clothing and toys. Children outgrow clothing and tire of toys very quickly. Often they have very little wear and tear and can be bought at a consignment or thrift store for a fraction of what they cost new. For example, a Christmas or Easter dress for a child can cost $30 - $80 purchased at a department store and will be worn once or twice for an hour at a time. The same dress will turn up in a consignment store for $8 - $15 dollars and is still practically brand new. It's a wonderful thing for people to re-use perfectly useful items and to take pride in what they saved versus what they spent!
Second, many families are interacting with friends and neighbors in new ways. People are rediscovering the potluck or dinner party. Instead of going out for dinner or having a party in a restaurant setting, many families are saving money by staying home and inviting their friends to dine in with them. Everyone brings a dish and everyone shares what they have. It's good for kids to see that conversation and story-telling can be just as entertaining as buying more stuff or paying for an experience at at theme restaurant.
Additionally, neighbors are helping each other out more than they did before the economic downturn. In Suburbia, the neat rows of nearly identical houses often function as bulwarks against the intrusion of the outside world. People hole up in their homes, often not getting to know anything more about their neighbors than their names. All of a sudden, when Mr. Smith wants to cut down on his landscaping bill, he has an interest in getting to know Mr. Jones, who happens to have a riding lawnmower. The two strike up a friendship. Before you know it, Mr. Smith, who is an accountant, is borrowing the lawnmower and helping Mr. Jones with his taxes in return. When we all have the cash to pay for anything we want, we have less need of each other's friendship and favors.
Next, growing a garden has become fashionable. I know a girl who, five years ago, drove a giant gas-guzzling SUV and wore stilettos 90% of the time. She wasn't the type you'd picture puttering around with a hoe in rubber clogs. This same girl now drives a very sensible, fuel-efficient sedan and has a thriving backyard garden which she weeds and waters faithfully. The down economy forced her family to cut costs and growing their own food was a good way to get started. I know many families who have backyard gardens that cut down on their grocery expenditures each week. What they have left over they share with friends and neighbors. Gardens help people reconnect with the land, an art that is often lost for those of us who live in the suburban sprawl. Gardens teach our kids where food comes from, and that a lot of work goes into producing the colorful bounty of the vegetable aisle at the grocery store. In the words of the Indigo Girls, "You gotta tend the earth if you want a rose."
Another positive about a bad economy is that people have to narrow down their interests and figure out what is truly deserving of their time and energy. A family that used to be able to afford karate, piano lessons and dance classes for their daughter may have to cut back to one of these things. This could be viewed as a hardship, but the positive aspect is that it teaches the child to pinpoint where her interest lies. She may enjoy karate and piano, but she loves to dance. She's learning a lesson we all learn at some point- you can't have everything you want.
Finally, a bad economy forces our culture to redefine our identity. We cannot base our self-esteem on having a palatial estate or a luxury vehicle if we can no longer afford these things. In the past, Americans fell for the consumerist lie that you are what you buy. I have seen a definite change in the cultural perspective, at least in the South where I call home, that conspicuous consumption is no longer a status symbol. In fact, people who drive expensive, gas-guzzling Hummers and buy $700 shoes are seen as being a bit tacky, a bit disrespectful of the hardships other Americans are experiencing. It's becoming fashionable to save money rather than to spend it.
Perhaps economic hardship will help teach us that we are the good we do for others, the helping hand we offer, or the life lessons we teach our kids. I'm all for economic recovery, because I hate to see families strugging, but I do hope that Americans carry our new perspectives with us as our financial situations improve. Here's to hoping we don't forget the benefits of living simply!