Recently, my family made a pilgrimage to Tyson's Corner Mall(s). Not exactly the Mall of America, but to a small-town family like ours, it might as well be. Sophie wanted an American Girl Doll for Christmas and offered to pay for half. I viewed the trip as a cultural event and looked forward to it. Plus, I know from a previous Tyson's Corner visit a few years ago that Grill Kabob in the food court makes a boneless chicken kabob that rivals any restaurant meal available in my town. Susan seemed game for the trip as well. I didn't think to ask her about her motivation. She did mention that she thought Christmas shopping there was futile – the stores would be too expensive, out of our reach.
Growing up, I never thought of my family's financial status compared to those around me. My friends and I all lived in the same neighborhood, so I figured that we were all on the same playing field. I either overlooked or didn't recognize signs that others had more – and I suppose less. Clothing from Sears, a black and white TV deep into the seventies, unimpressive cars. This isn't about poverty or self-pity. My family was comfortable. Our cars worked, we had winter coats, we went on vacation. This is about comparisons. My dad was a civil servant, my mother a church secretary. My friend's fathers were engineers, lawyers, insurance salesmen, doctors. We were a frugal family in a wealthy neighborhood.
The first home that Susan and I owned was in Chevy Chase DC, one of the wealthiest areas in the city. A short walk from the Friendship Heights metro station and its high-end shopping strip – Tiffany & Co., Saks 5th Avenue, Neiman Marcus. Our house was furnished from Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and Restoration Hardware. In a city environment like Washington, DC, there is a slim chance of developing relationships with people from different economic classes. Friends come from your neighborhood, your work place, church, gym, kid's school, friends of friends. All these people are likely to have a similar financial profile. And like our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers, Susan and I were wealthy consumers.
I remember a couple of aha moments from my childhood. Evidence that we were not all living on the same stratum. In 1976, TV coverage of the presidential election relied heavily on red and blue maps as visual aids. A slim section of American families, mine included, was left out. The colors were indistinguishable on our black and white TV. The next day at school, my history teacher brought this up. He and the students in my class were shocked that anyone still watched a black and white set. During a weekend spent with a close friend's family, the discussion turned to the Ford Pinto recall. In the mid-70s, several Pintos caught fire when hit from the rear. It became a big news story. A couple of adults in our gathering suggested that anyone who would drive a Pinto pretty much deserved the risk of probable death. My father drove a Pinto. My friend's family drove Land Rovers and BMWs.
In my town, intermingling of socio-economic groups is common. Community meeting places – churches, schools, gyms, grocery stores – serve everyone. There is far less stratification by class in a small town compared to a city like DC. The poorest and the wealthiest families share services and resources. Because the town is small and incomes are modest, there is also almost no shopping. We have Walmart and a very small outlet plaza. Most people dress the same – Gap, Old Navy, Eddie Bauer. And if you're willing to travel, something from Target or Kohl’s. It is difficult to look at a person to determine his wealth.
Tyson's Corner was culture shock. The mall and its parking area are roughly the same size as a small town, my town (at least the downtown portion). With millions of potential customers, I suppose that hundreds of stores are required as a draw, but to me it just seemed like redundancy. In morning we spent there, we visited a total of 3 stores. A bookstore, American Girl and LL Bean. Each store was an enjoyable experience, but not always for the right reason. Such excess. LL Bean, with its $150 sleds and an indoor water fall. American Girl with its doll hospital and beauty salon – eight stylists to make sure your doll has a cute doo. These stores were over-the-top entertainment, much like reality TV. The only store that didn't make my eyes roll was the book store. When we lived in DC, we would visit a bookstore about every 2 weeks. Usually the Barnes and Nobel in Bethesda. Massive. Comprehensive. Beautiful. Our town doesn't have a bookstore, and the closest Barns and Nobel is 40 miles away. To get books, we use our library, which is large, but less than half the size of the Bethesda B&N. No cafe either.
Our household income is low by national standards, earning less than half the money we did ten years ago in our executive DC careers. Susan, now a massage therapist, makes an amazing hourly wage, but only for about 10-15 hours in a really good week. As a manager at a non-profit community center in a small town, my wage is fair for the area, but shockingly low to my old DC crowd. When I think back to my childhood, our financial status was not much different than it is for my family today. Our vacations are mostly modest – trips to the beach and something fancier when we save enough credit card points to fly for free. We always stay in a house or apartment where we can make our own meals.
Restaurant meals are few and far between, and activities like tubing at the local ski resort are a once per season treat. Purchases are planned, delayed and at times agonized over. Obviously, we're not watching a black and white TV, but the modern equivalent – no smart phones, no gadgets that start with "i", no gaming systems. Like my past, not poor, we're comfortable, just frugal. Unlike my past, my kids seem much more aware of where we stand financially than I ever was. It's the gadgets. What you have, don't have. There weren't any gadgets when I was a kid. Almost nothing to compare. The only status conversation I can recall as a young teen was about the family lawn mower. Seriously. My friend and I cut lawns to make cash. His family had a Toro with front wheel drive. We had a Craftsman, the kind you had to push. Toro was status.
Today, as the adult in this situation, I'm torn. Probably, I have the exact same feelings my father had forty years ago. We don't need the latest gadgets. The cheaper version works as well as the name-brand. A bit of inconvenience builds character. Delaying purchases is environmentally friendly. Less is more. It's easy to convince myself that consumerism is unnecessary and unhealthy. And because of where we live, it is generally out of sight, out of mind.
But our biennial trip to Tysons has left me thinking. Focused my attention on our financial situation in an uncomfortable way. It pulls me out of our unique small town bubble and lets me see America as it really is – wealthy, spending. This is good. We made a conscious choice to leave city-life behind. Work in fields that were meaningful to us, but not necessarily lucrative. Forgo material wants for achievement. We are clearly happier as a result, but happiness and pleasure are not the same thing. Ten years since our lifestyle change, we still at times feel the lure of "stuff". A quick, pleasurable hit of spending. Our Tysons visits serve as a strong reminder that we have made these changes mindfully. Like most self-improvement, there is often some discomfort associated with growth. I do miss browsing bookstores, acquiring my own copies of the books and magazines that interest me. I miss finding a bike gadget that I think is cool, and just buying it. But for the most part, I get equal satisfaction out of reading week-old news magazines from our library and saving those gadget-buys for my birthday wish-list.