While I understand little of economics, having relied on the kindness of my college friends to get me through Econ 101, my eye nonetheless landed on a news item
today that personal spending this past January rose by 0.5 percent -- more than had been anticipated -- while personal income growth had crept up only 0.1 percent.
This discrepancy roughly fits a scenario my father used to describe when I was young "as too much month left at the end of the paycheck," a shortfall my mom inevitably addressed by serving up cost-saving tuna-noodle casserole with potato chips crumbled on top.
Though I detest tuna casserole to this day, I've been thinking a lot about my dad's saying recently, because although February is blessedly short, it nonetheless seemed to stretch on and on long after my husband's and my bank account ran dry. We didn't resort to the dreaded casserole, but we did do something that harks back to my childhood: we eeked out the month by buying only what was essential (groceries, the mortgage) and paying for it in cash.
Instead of doing massive shops once a week, we've been going to the store more often, buying only what we need for the next day or two, hoping to avoid waste.
As for our kids, I've found myself saying a word that my parents uttered a lot to my sisters and me several decades ago: "No." And I believe I've channeled my mom and dad's entire generation when sentences like, "We'll think about that ________________ (fill in the blank with a must-have toy) for your birthday" come out of my mouth. Never mind that the birthday in question is still eight months away.
We've had to resort to this behavior because we previously said yes to too many things. But it takes a lot of adjustment in the mentality department, sort of like the game of opposites I sometimes play with my four-year-old. If before I took pleasure in shopping, now I'm busy convincing myself that it's more satisfying to pay bills with the money and make do with what I have. The goal is no longer the pursuit of the new, which is the driving force behind consumerism, but instead about chipping away at debt in much the same way I get through push-ups at the gym -- doggedly, and with a greater goal firmly in mind. I can no longer pretend that what Calvin Trillin dubbed "Alice's Law of Compensatory Cash Flow" -- the idea that money you don't have but nonetheless briefly consider spending on a luxury item before coming to your senses is the equivalent of cash in your pocket -- works in the long run.
But I'm also vaguely aware that what's good for us as a household is not necessarily what's best for the country: consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of all economic activity in the U.S. This leads me to wonder if everyones' trying to save as my husband and I are would cause us to backslide away from our tentative economic recovery into recession?
It's always struck me as ironic that not long after George Washington returned to Mount Vernon from fighting the Revolutionary War, he ordered a silver tea service from England, the very country he had just vanquished. Although consumerism wasn't one of the ideals the founding fathers talked about when they were writing the Constitution in Philadelphia, it's just as ingrained in our national psyche. Is it even possible to stop focusing on what we want and start concentrating only on what we need, or are we as a nation born to shop?