Tuesday, June 23, 2009

You Need a New One

Most of thrift is about balancing what you need or want to buy with how much money you've got to spend. But there's an extra category: the things you neither need nor want to replace nor wished to buy in the first place, but that Society tells you you really ought to 'invest' in. Not making these purchases, They inform you, means that you are socially-inept, unhygienic, or just stingy to the point of ignoring your own needs. You might be OK using the same soap for your face and body, wearing the same dress to the office and a bar, and these are things no one would even know about if you didn't tell them, but if you did tell them, They would be horrified. Teenagers, who famously care what others think, are particularly susceptible to the You Need a New One message, but they're hardly alone.

So, some categories to watch out for:

Specialization: To an extent, this is something we're all guilty of. Using different products for shampoo and soap, say, or different outfits for formal and casual occasions. But there are degrees. This is particularly relevant when it comes to kitchen utensils. Anything designed just for a banana, a tomato, etc., can probably be skipped.

Replacements: It's clear enough why 'I needed a new one' is so often summoned as the reason for a purchase. It's not that you wanted a new pair of shoes, but that a particular pair wore out and needs replacement. (I, for one, cannot buy shoes without going through these motions.) But let's get real: not everything that wears out needs replacing, and not everything wears out when They say it does. A commenter here insisted recently that running shoes must be replaced after a certain number of miles and/or years. To me this sounded unnecessary, and I may not be as off as all that. Says one expert, a marathon winner and running-shoe salesman: "I know the shoe companies say 500 miles. I never go by things like that. I go by feel. When you’re on a run and you land on a rock and you feel it on your foot, when that happens you know your shoes have lost a lot of their cushioning or support and you might be wise to invest in another pair of shoes." Indeed. My running shoes are as hideous as can be, and are quite old, but until something changes perceptibly in the fit, no change is necessary.

Personal maintenance: As the recession lifestyle articles courageously reported, it is in fact possible to paint your own nails, rather than go to a salon. This did not surprise anyone other than women from Magical Lifestyle-Journalism Land. But forget about the lavish and the urban. Many basic expectations are, in fact, unnecessary. As MSI has investigated, a daily shampoo is at most a necessity according to season. And, a hint for those of us whose 'ethnic' hair is coarser and thus less societally-desirable than 'white' hair typically is - our hair takes forever to get greasy, so barring intense workouts or extreme heat, we can go the every-other-day (or, dare I say, every-two-day) route year-round. Yes, our hair gets interesting in the rain, but not having to shampoo every five minutes in order to avoid clumping at the scalp is a blessing indeed.

And, more generally, when it comes to beauty products, if you don't already use it, and 'it' isn't deodorant, toothpaste, or eyeliner, best not to start now.

: Massages, yoga, days at the spa, months in the wilderness. I sympathize with the need to break up arduous tasks (like, say, returning 26 books to the library, from one's apartment in another borough, all in one go) with treats (say, iced coffee). But the notion that everyone These Days is just so stressed, that Life Today is so fast-paced that we all need to decompress, and that this decompression must manifest itself in ways more involved than parking one's self for a solid three hours in front of reality TV, has gotten out-of-hand. So while I don't advocate denying one's self the small indulgences that make life bearable, I think we'd all be wise to consider the restorative powers of staring at a wall or, failing that, a gossip website, before signing up for anything for which the promised de-stressing will be accompanied by a stress-inducing bill.

In other words, spending 'for others' has its place - going out with friends, gifts - but spending on yourself should not, with some obvious exceptions, take Society into account.


PG said...

I remember telling my mom once when I was in high school and under the typical load of academics, activities, test prep etc. that she was "stressing me out" by demanding that I add something else to my responsibilities. She gave me the When Did My Daughter Become A Crazy American look and denied the possibility that a teenager with no job or children could possibly be stressed. "Stress? What is this stress?" Apparently back in India, no one had even heard of stress, and it clearly was a malady of overindulgence, like boredom or gout.

Phoebe said...

Haha. Stress is an interesting concept. As a kid, I was convinced it was the invention of self-indulgent adults, who, even when dealing with situations no more traumatizing than a typical day in 7th grade, used the trials of day-to-day life as a pretext for spending time and money on themselves (psychoanalysis, alcohol and other substances, and, yes, shopping and spa-type activities). And... I still sort of think this. Life is more difficult at 12 or 13 than in (what I've yet experienced of) adulthood, but there are no outlets for the typical middle-schooler, who has little to no disposable income, no freedom to come and go as he pleases to spend whatever he might have, and (and this is, of course, for the best) no option of cracking open a beer and plopping down in front of the TV after a tough day at school. Now, it could be that parenting and not adulthood on its own is where Teh Stress enters into it... but if being a parent is worse than being in junior high, I doubt if many people would do it.

Matt said...

Life is more difficult at 12 or 13 than in (what I've yet experienced of) adulthood

Hmm, this certainly hasn't been my experience. For one, I do, because I must, worry about money a lot more. And I understand how important things are more now. And I did an awful lot of what I wanted when I was a kid, while now I do a lot more of what I must. Grad school is a sort of weird suspended time, too, but even then it certainly was more difficult than just being a kid.

The history of the idea of stress is interesting, though. You can see a lot of it in how what became known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder developed out of "shell shock" in the first world war, where it was at first thought that it was the result of they physical shock experienced by the bursting shells.

Phoebe said...


With exceedingly few exceptions, adults worry more about money than do 12-year-olds. I sure do. But I think there might be more here than my word against yours. Gender, for example - for reasons social and biological, 12 or 13 is a particularly trying age for girls. I don't know what age, if any, is like that for boys, for whom puberty arrives less abruptly.

Still, this I find baffling, regardless of gender: "And I did an awful lot of what I wanted when I was a kid, while now I do a lot more of what I must." I suppose there are kids who enjoy kid-stuff enough that they don't find the massive set of rules placed on children, the complete lack of mobility (some kids can play on the block, others just at home, but either way, the kids themselves don't set the boundaries), all that intrusive. But from what I remember of childhood - my own and others', and the 1,000,000,000 scenes of childhood I witness every day in Park Slope - so much of it is spent asking for permission to do or have something you want. Wanting anything beyond nutrition and shelter, however modest, is, in a child, understood as bratty behavior. In adulthood, you're restricted by your job and income, but when it comes to whatever free money and time you've got, you don't have to ask. Which is, fundamentally, what makes childhood - not for you, I'll accept that, but for me and from what others have told me, for others - more unpleasant than adulthood.

Matt said...

I think this depends heavily on class and regional differences in child-rearing. I didn't have anything like a complete lack of mobility as a kid, for example, and neither did the large majority of kids I knew. I walked, bicycled, or skate-boarded pretty much anywhere I wanted. (I'd been riding my bike all over town from the age of 7 or 8 or so, and this wasn't unusual.) We'd tell our parents were we were going to go, but this was things like "to play w/ Paul" or "out skateboarding". The demands on my time were much less than they are now, and if I didn't do something I was supposed to, the consequences were fewer. I had less money, of course, but few expenses, and the jobs I had covered those. (I've had a job of one sort or another since I was 12 years old, at least.) I'm sure there are gender differences, but I know my wife, for example, tells me how when she was a kid she always though of how much she didn't want to grow up, and how she thinks she was right. Mostly I expect our different experiences are due to differences in class and regional backgrounds.

Phoebe said...

Your wife, as you tell it in various comments, is the great exception to everything I've ever known in the female experience. Not into clothes, not miserable in adolescence. (Assuming her fond recollections of childhood are not of, say, age 5, but extend to, say, 14.) Good for her (and I say this unsarcastically!), but I wouldn't call it representative.

I'm afraid, though, that I don't buy that this is all about me having been raised in an urban-yuppie (assuming this is what you mean by "class" - you don't elaborate). In terms of region I'm guessing re: the freedom to bike around town that you didn't grow up in the middle of a large city.

Anyway. Whether they're allowed to play anywhere in the (small) town or just in their own homes, kids can go only where their parents permit, and must (assuming reasonable parents) tell their parents more or less where they'll be at all times. How strict even reasonable parents are varies tremendously, but in all cases there's a 'may I?' element to choices made by a child. What I like about adulthood is knowing that, within the law, I 'may', even if my behavior has not noticeably changed because of this.

And in terms of class, while granted there are some rich kids given everything, it's not the usual situation for kids from well-off families to have limitless funds. Since my class is apparently what's at stake, I'll just offer this outright: my father's a doctor, which meant certain advantages in terms of where I could go to school, not getting mugged on my way home, and so forth - yes, privilege, I admit it - but it certainly didn't mean freedom to buy as I pleased, as I do today, within the bounds, of course, of my not-so-impressive grad-student income. Nor should it have - again, this is about reasonable parenting. But even the rich kid with unlimited spending money is getting that money from his parents, allowing for some semblance of a power dynamic to remain. Thus kids who grew up rich, but do something their parents don't like (say, come out as gay) can still be cut off, in ways that are different from how life works when you earn your own money.

My point is that the typical child of reasonable parents, because those parents are reasonable, lacks various freedoms and responsibilities adulthood provides. Perhaps I prefer freedom and responsibility, while you look back nostalgically on freedom from worry and a life of not asking for much and being happy with what you had. Fair enough.

But pinning this on class and regional differences would require a) articulating what those differences are, and b) explaining what about growing up with one class/regional background rather than another makes a person feel one way or another about this issue. Is the difference that, from 12 on, you made your own money? If so, is that even about class? Were things different, then, at 11? Plus, plenty of wealthy 12-year-olds (urban and otherwise) babysit and use that as pocket money. I guess I'm just not clear the point you're getting at.

You may disagree with my suggestion that the difference is about gender, but I did explain why gender might enter into it. It's not self-evident to me why urban/suburban/rural, rich/middle-class/poor, would have more of an impact on nostalgia for childhood than either gender or something as basic and apolitical as personality.

Phoebe said...

Damn, that went on too long. So how about I'll try again, with a less bloggy-argumentative bent: Perhaps you're right that class/region are important when it comes to preferring childhood to adulthood. If so, I'd be curious to know why you think that's the case, and in what directions.

PG said...

I wonder if libertarians are particularly disinclined to be nostalgic about childhood. Because when I think about it, the people I know who found childhood as a whole (not just their disaffected/ awkward adolescence) to be inferior to adulthood tend to be libertarian in their politics and even somewhat so in their personal lives (i.e., not only do they object to the paternalistic state, but they also object to the paternalistic pater).

For myself, I miss being a small child, but I'm thankful to be past all the miseries of 4th-10th grades. In retrospect, I don't particularly resent my parents' rules (and they were pretty strict by American standards) and I didn't run up against them all that often anyway. But I'm still pissed off at a lot of people I last saw 15 years ago. The traumas of youth for me had less to do with being stuck with my parents, and a lot more to do with being stuck with my peers, although some of it also was a product of my parents' rules preventing me from conforming with my peers. But I could see this as being of a piece with my having liberal politics: I'm less bothered by how I'm treated by the shepherd than by the herd.

Phoebe said...


The libertarian idea's an interesting one. I think it's common for teens/college students to embrace libertarianism as a generalized freedom from paternalism literal and figurative. I definitely had these impulses at that age, but then I eventually reached a point when I realized that libertarianism isn't about preventing everyone (parents, professors, fashion magazines) from telling you what to do, but about stopping the government from doing so, which is another matter entirely. Realizing this - along with the issue of health care in this country - made me less of a libertarian than was once the case.

In terms of 4th-10th grade, that set makes a lot of sense. Which reminds me of the nostalgia I occasionally get for 11th/12th grades. Those were good times. And as for parents or peers as the problem, from the little I remember of middle school, it was miserable more because of hormonally-driven angst than because the actual individuals present were one way or another.

Matt said...

on the class issue, the best source is my friend Annette Larueau's book _Unequal Childhood_. One of the main lessons is that, at least these days, middle to upper-middle (and even more upper) class kids have _massively_ more structured lives than working-class kids, and that the later are much more likely to be allowed to do what they want most of the time. She doesn't focus on it, but there's also very significant regional variation, where the sort of heavily structured child-rearing that's common in the North East is much less common in the west (and I think the south, though I know this much less first-hand.) Behavior that's quite common among normal mid to upper-middle class families in the north-east would be considered border-line obsessive-compulsive or worse in much of the west. As for my wife, she's not an American, so didn't have many of the typical American experiences grown up. I think that's been good for her. It does also help me see how many experiences we think are very common are much more likely to be tied to particular places, class backgrounds, social groups, etc., even in very narrow ways.

Phoebe said...


Now I see what you were getting at, thanks. (When you said our differences on this matter stemmed from differences in background, but didn't state what these differences were, I was a bit confused - it's possible that you'd referred to your upbringing in previous comments, but your class- and region-of-origin were utter unknowns, beyond that they differ - again, in ways unknown to me and presumably to readers as well - from mine, as much as can be deduced from my bloggings, which is, if extensive, not 100%.)

Anyway. It seems you're referring to the upper-middle-class Overscheduled-Oversheltered Kid Syndrome. Which is, I think, a phenomenon that wasn't really such a thing when I was growing up (I didn't have tutors, but did take public transportation from a young age, etc., and this wasn't especially odd, even in that milieu), but if lifestyle journalism's to be believed, today it's all the rage. But children of the richest and poorest being the least supervised, with children in the middle being the most looked-after, is something that dates probably to the origins of the bourgeoisie. The helicopter parent might well just be an extreme (or overreported?) version.

And with regions... who knows? If your friend found this in her research, I sure don't know otherwise from any other source. In terms of urban vs. rural vs. suburban, which is a slightly different question, city kids are probably more looked-after as young children, but less so as teens, because there's no need to drive. I remember this being a factor in college - kids from the city had already figured out their alcohol limits in high school, whereas kids from places where cars were needed had either been extensively chaperoned or seriously discouraged from drinking, for quite understandable reasons. Then there's the question of immigrant origin or lack thereof, strict religiosity or lack thereof. So I'd imagine this would be a tough thing to sort out!

But does the average 12-year-old, all things equal, have less structured time if lower-middle-class and rural than if upper-middle-class and urban? Perhaps. Still, the main thing I was getting at way back when, in the response to PG's comment, was that children have to answer to their parents as well as society, laws, etc., whereas for adults, one level of control is lifted, which holds no matter what class you are or place you live in.

So perhaps, as a compromise, I'd say a more-scheduled child might, on average, be a less-nostalgic adult, but despite the various childhood possibilities, the relative freedom of adulthood strikes many as appealing.

PG said...

And that's part of the potential correlation with political affiliation: if you value freedom from authority more than freedom from want, then it makes sense that even a full-of-unstructured-playtime childhood would be inferior to adulthood, because the authority always was there to be exercised over you even if your parents rarely did.