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On Money and Spartan Living

September 2007
On Money and Spartan Living

The recent heat wave reminds me of sweltering days spent in my Floridian youth at the homes of Indian parents who, to conserve energy and resources, did not keep the air conditioning running all day the minute April arrived! Let's just say that our parents seem to be better at sweating it out than we are. The schism between our parents and our own more liberal relationship to money and resources seems to underscore how differently we feel about the good life.

My parents and their friends did not adjust the thermostat willy-nilly. They saved for trips to India and other family vacations, for our college educations, new cars, new homes. They did not buy new clothes each season and would never have thought (as many of us do) to buy new underwear to avoid doing laundry. To instill in me the value of saving, my parents matched my bank deposits for about five years of baby-sitting jobs. The record of my earnings exists in a composition book today: I am astounded by my financial follow-through at that age, my ability, nurtured through them, to think about how much money was earned and to record it. I've lost that ability through advances in the paperless trail and in the contagion of American credit. Like many of my generation, I now charge fancy coffee drinks. In the overheated and fitful last months of pregnancy, I turned the house into an igloo, impervious to concerns over the energy bill. And though motherhood has certainly revealed to me the value of putting money aside for college and budgeting, it has also taught me to rationalize the excessive cost of routine spa days, retail therapy, and the quick pick me up, instant gratification for the weary mommy trying to keep signifying who she is through credit card purchases. What I fail to record, the bank, the credit company, and their computers track.

More importantly, I no longer feel the need to wait and think about what exactly I need to buy like my parents did. Time moves so much more quickly, and shopping is more of a chore than a luxury (the dress for the weekend wedding, the endless child birthday gifts, the domestic knickknacks for housewarming presents). Spending money for non-basic-need items has become a casual affair for my generation, as it has for many Americans who don't feel the need to have to think about the cost of a cup of gourmet coffee, the price of a newly-released CD, the sum of the weekly brunch at the local diner.

Naturally, our parents' immigrant perspectives motivated them to be more modest and more cautious with spending. Like other adults of my generation, I can remember as a child at Indian parties the fathers briefing each other on stock tips, real estate, and college tuition plans. Members of my own generation may discuss these as well, but most of the time we're talking about some latest bistro experience, the merits of a cable television show—basically, descriptions of the pleasures of consumption instead of strategies for accruing wealth. One might argue that our greater sense of security with the state of our finances is a testament to our parents' success at shielding us from harsh material realities, a positive consequence of the trickle down effects of the American dream. Yet, I can't help but feel that things weren't supposed to change this quickly, that I should still be balancing my checkbook (and using a checkbook), and that no matter what Oprah says, I should still think that $100 is a lot of money for a dress.

What keeps me from wanting to defend my generation, from calling our spending patterns creative efforts at enjoying life is the dire forecast for the future of not just my generation, not just my country, but my planet. Who had to think about the planet when we were growing up? Now, as the rains fall and the fires burn and the icecaps melt, I think about how my parents emigrated and then saved for an economic future that may be meaningless in the context of a severely compromised environment. I think about how my mother can stand to sit in a car without turning the air conditioner on, and how for her this is not about saving money but more a naturally conserving instinct, one which has been dormant in me for a long time. Whatever my generation says, often derogatively, about our parents' painstaking efforts to save money and preserve resources, hindsight now reveals that they were at least moving in the right direction to curb American excesses that threaten our ecological futures. The irony of all of this burns me up, but these days in order to cool off, I try to lower the windows in the car instead.

[Reshmi Hebbar has a Ph.D. in English from Emory University and has taught in the fields of literature, cultural studies, and writing at several colleges in Atlanta, most recently at Georgia Tech.]

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