Following my first year of university, when I almost failed, I took a year off to hang out and work at McDonald’s. I figured a few months of that was all I would need to find new inspiration and motivation when I returned to school again.
I shared a 2 bedroom apartment with 3 room-mates. We were always broke. I used to scrounge coins out of the sofa so I could go buy a burger for dinner. I had little money to spend and yet I had a great summer. There were things out there I didn’t even think about wanting because it was just not in the realm of possibility. A VCR? Yeah right. Why even dream about it?
Year by year my income steadily increased. I got a nice union job at the University working part time in the Parking Department while going through school. By fourth year I had my own 1 bedroom apartment in a trendy neighbourhood just outside the University. By graduate school I had bought a new car, and was spending a few hundred a month on my obsession – equestrian sports. While doing my PhD I received a grant that paid me for the remaining years. And after graduation I got a post-doc appointment and each year the salary for that increased.
And what I have learned is this: whether I was making $6/hour at McDonald’s, or $40,000/year as a senior post-doc, I never had enough money. It seems that increases in income bring increases in desire. Suddenly, getting that new car or that weekly cleaning lady or the latest Nintendo or a coordinating living room set left the realm of “caviar dreams” and became just within reach. And so I wanted them.
I feel as though somehow, somewhere, I became a victim of consumerism. Probably dating back to Saturday morning cartoons. And yet the programming behind consumerism is buried so deep in my subconscious that it just seems natural to want the things I do. And I’ll tell you something else: going back is hard. Once you’ve experienced the joy of coming home to a clean-smelling and shiny home while you and the kids were out at the library it is very hard to accept the thought of pulling on those rubber gloves and scrubbing the shower tiles yourself every weekend. Things like life insurance, which for so long seemed like something only “older grownups” did, suddenly becomes an obligation and a duty to your spouse and kids.
I look at how much we spend each month, and compare that to what I used to live on, and I wonder how it can feel as though we still have to limit ourselves. We are trying not to eat out at all this month, we have cut back our monthly spending allowances. The only difference between now and then is that this time we are cutting back in order to save, whereas before I was cutting back to try and pull myself out of debt. I’m beginning to believe that no matter what we earn we will never be satisfied. There will never be enough money for all the things we want. Somewhere, somehow, I need to put a stop to all this wanting – and I’m the kind of person who never goes to malls! No wonder the nation is deep in consumer debt.