Needs, Wants, Work, and the American Way

Without realizing exactly what I was signing up for, I volunteered to be a Junior Achievement Consultant for my daughter’s first grade classroom. I discovered I would be leading five different class sessions to show the role businesses play in our communities and to inspire future entrepreneurship. Last week, I ran the lesson of needs versus wants. What do we truly need in order to survive? The lesson was presented in a fairly black and white manner. Clothes, food, and shelter were labeled as needs. Luckily, I had a few critical thinkers in the group, in particular, a little boy who challenged the idea that shelter and clothing were “needs.” In truth, these needs may be defined by the weather and the culture of where one lives. Also, not all food, clothes, and shelter are necessities. You may need a home with a roof and heat, but you do not need one with a game room.

When my winter semester ended, I had the choice of whether or not to teach more classes, as I already fulfilled my yearly contract. If I were to work more, I would earn more money. And as my Junior Achievement Consultant Handbook explained, money is necessary to supply both one’s needs and wants. However, it did not explain the harm of pursuing more money to purchase more wants. If I were to work more, I would have less quality, stress-free time with my children; I would have less time to read and write for pleasure; I would not be able to exercise as much; I would not be able to cook as many healthy meals; I would spend more time sitting and less time outdoors, etc.

I make enough money for the necessities of life and some savings. If I work more, it would be for items I truly don’t need. I am fine driving an older model Equinox I found through Craigslist, even though I don’t really like the color. I could work harder and purchase a newer, more stylish vehicle, but for me, the cost of working overtime is not worth the benefits.

Yes, I realize I am lucky that I have the luxury to choose. But a number of people could work less and have less. I marvel at how the picture of middle-class life has changed since I grew up.

According to Bloomberg, “In the 1890s, Americans had an average of 400 square feet of residential space per person. But by the early twenty-first century, that figure had doubled to 800 square feet.” Not only do these large homes cost more to build, they cost more to heat and cool. My childhood home was a modest ranch modular home. It was cute and comfortable, but no more than what was necessary. We bought our current home, which is an older cape cod structure, because we liked the peaceful setting and school district. Yes, higher ceilings, a large master bathroom, and an open staircase would be nice. But I believe a mortgage payment of under $800 is nicer.

Another change I see is in the school parking lots. Instead of driving vans, families want to drive Suburbans, Yukons, and Expeditions. It is not surprising that people are complaining that they no longer can live on middle-class wages. You can’t if you want to have all these so-called “necessities.” What happened to living below one’s means? It seems we are all being expected to live at the ceiling.

The big takeaway in the Junior Achievement “needs versus wants” lesson was the idea that individuals need to budget and prioritize. This concept is applicable not only for money management, but for time management. We can get buried in busy without actually accomplishing the items that are most important for our well-being and personal success. Time, like money, is a finite resource. And sometimes, we need time more than money.

Right now, I am a bad cog in the capitalist machine, as I am choosing time over money. Still, I can’t help but feel a twinge at guilt when people ask, “Are you off for the summer?” And I am not really off. I run a department, which means meetings, scheduling, staff interviews, etc. I am also expected to professionally development and plan my fall classes. Still, I am not working as many hours as I can, which doesn’t does not seem like the American way.

In my composition classes, we analyze the following commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNzXze5Yza8.  The Cadillac commercial should be viewed as a satire. Instead, it is a realistic portrayal of American consumerism: “As for all the stuff, that’s the upside of taking only two weeks off in August.”

When Yes Became No

When I began my professional journey applying for internships as an undergraduate journalism student, my mantra was to always say yes. Whenever an opportunity arose, I took it. By the time I graduated from college, I had completed five internships for a variety of nonprofit organizations, an advertising agency, and a newspaper. At the age of 22, I became the head of cable company marketing department. At 23, I was the editor of an alumni magazine for a liberal arts college and running my own freelance business. I took graduate classes simply on a whim, because I could. Now I am a college professor.

My mantra began to change after I had children. Instead of pursuing endless opportunities, I needed to set boundaries between my work and personal life. It took many meltdowns of mother and child, an endless stream of late night grading, and many disgruntled meetings where I wondered, why am I here?, before I arrived to this moment.  And this moment is not perfect.

Whenever an opportunity arises now, I realize I am not simply saying yes or no. Every time I say yes to something I am saying no to something else. When I said “yes” to the gym this morning, I said “no” to vacuuming. When I decided to sit in on a podcasting class, I was no longer able to join a book circle. It is for moments like these that the hashtag #firstworldproblems was born. My cross to bear is too many opportunities.

The benefit of too many opportunities is that is has forced me to reflect on what it is that I really what to do. It should be a simple task to do what you truly want, but often we are trying to do what we think we should want to do or what some nonexistent version of ourselves would do. Right now, I just want to go to sleep, even though it is only 10 p.m. and the cool kids stay up until at least midnight 🙂

Work and Self Worth

In my second day off between semesters, fresh from a retirement party, I cannot help but think of the role work plays in our sense of worth. I found myself revisiting and playing with a poem I started about my father, who believes fervently in a hard day’s work and told me often when I did not want to do a task, “Think about how good you will feel when it is done.” The underlying message being our value comes from that which we do. I’ve lately come to classify him as an existential Catholic who believes we insert ourselves into the world first by baptism and then by deed.

We stood into the wind, already sweating underneath our dusty caps,

socks staining against the dirt gathered in the bottom of our sneakers.

The bean leaves ripple, showing their pale underbelly,

as the spindles whip shapes into the sky

My father grips a hoe with his big knuckled, turgid veined fist,

hands it to me and tells me where to begin.

“Think about how good you will feel when it is done.”

We crack the topsoil and sink our footprints into the loam,

Walking miles, scouring, our heads pendulum swinging side to side

I pull two-handed the embedded ragweeds, velvetleafs

We shake the clumps of dirt from their greedy roots

Until the soil sticks to our slick forearms, embeds under fingernails,

clings to the hair of our nostrils, and grits between my teeth.

“Think about how good you will feel when it is done.”

The lesson slides down my throat, as I tip the icy thermos,

lifts perspired threads of hair and fabric as I lean

into the rushing air from the back of the truck bed

and think of the crisp line formations of the crops