A student from a few years ago just came to mind as I began to notice how many people around me were saying what they “needed” for Christmas. “I really need black boots because all my other pairs are brown…I need a TV for the bathroom…” ? Then, I noticed I too was inappropriately using the same word…“I need to get Christmas hand soap”… “I need poinsettias for the living room…” Um, no I certainly do not “need” them. They are yet another decoration on top of an already well-decorated house.
My student was 23-years young and she entered the class armed with creative graphs and charts on actual boards, along with PowerPoint slides. The class was tasked with offering a “persuasive” presentation, their chosen position requiring data, personal experiences, evidence or other concrete material to support their stand. This student’s claim was that the modern couple in contemporary America did not need the income they professed to need.
Hmmm. I leaned in. This one might be truly interesting. She was so young to determine that she didn’t “need” a new-built house by 27. So young to claim that kids should have one parent at home and for most, they did not “need” the second income. On that note, my eyes darted around the room, certain there would be protestors following her controversial comment. When I began college teaching 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought anything of her words because people tended to simply accept whatever family choices their friends, neighbors and co-workers made. Now, students are so offended that all statements – conservative or liberal, happy or sad, ethical or unethical, etc. etc. etc.-lead to someone expressing offense.
After making a few controversial claims (as required in stating a “position”), she proceeded to support her points, beginning with the story of her grandparents. They lived on one income, grandpa worked without a college education and raised two children. The story was compelling, with grandpa ultimately retiring close to being a millionaire after owning a fine home and putting his kids through college. He was not an entrepreneur, but a laborer. They did not live in squalor but a nice middle-class neighborhood. She emphasized that they did not go without, but had plenty including the occasional family vacation.The presentation wore on, charts with credible sources showing the average income in 1950, along with the prices of several products used daily then and now. She compared prices, inflation, took into account the skyrocketing cost of vehicles and housing and contrasted everything against the incomes. Upon completion, there was an overflow of cash among modern couples after the “needs” were met. Where did this overflow go? To the new “needs”: everything from $500 birthday parties to regular manicures, pedicures, multiple devices per person, per household, overseas vacations for spring break instead of trips to Florida, new cars every two years…and on it went. High school senior trips are no longer using district budgets for a fun field trip, but parents are expected to hand over a thousand for a senior trip to France.
We fell into the too-much-spending more times than I care to admit while raising our children. When I was growing up, my parents and step parents would have never given such luxuries a thought, let alone paid for them.
These “new needs” are the norm. Unlikely that many people will end up millionaires on two full time incomes, let alone one household income with the way we spend.
She effectively argued that the cultural beliefs Americans espouse profoundly affect how they handle their money. The cultural belief system, regardless if flawed, emotionally harmful or even if it causes neglect in marriages or parenting, is one of the leading factors in “needing” more money and stuff. Although excruciatingly unpopular in the modern college classroom among peers who vehemently disagreed with her fundamentals could not deny the power of the data.
Just like the next girl, I have been guilty of buying more than I should during Christmas. Perhaps a combination of age, maturity and having older kids, I don’t splurge like I once did. But compared to half the world’s population, many in poverty, yes, I still spend more than is necessary. When kids are little, there is thrill and excitement that’s still worth every penny to me. But, little kids also don’t “need” much to truly be joy-filled.
As individuals dwelling on this planet (even though we’re not of it), it’s natural to want cool stuff. Collectively, no matter how devout or grounded we are, we periodically look over the fence to see what’s up with the seemingly greener pastures next door. We know better, but we still occasionally ponder our choices. Frankly, bigger homes have more space and that’s not a bad thing. Convenience household items that we don’t necessarily “need” honestly make life easier. But, at what emotional, spiritual and relational costs?
The points are priorities and balance. As Franklin Covey says in his famous Habits books and in First things First, if everything important is cared for first, then go get the rest.
I’m a fan of setting goals – earning anything you want…a degree, income, achievements…they are part of life. What my student reminded us all of that day is that the earning requires balance.
What were once “treats” are commonplace. What was once “special” is now expected. And for those who still can’t earn enough to get those treats and special-everything, it makes them feel bad. It really shouldn’t, but it stings. Pulling back from the cultural norms is necessary to regain some perspective. That is hard during a season when we spend hours online shopping and walking through beautiful stores enticing us with all sorts of things we never knew we always wanted!
God knows what we “need” and fulfills more wants than we give Him credit for.
He knows we want to spoil our kids and surprise someone special with a “wow” gift at Christmas. There is nothing wrong with those things and I embrace them. During this holiday season, I’m just going to retreat every now and then, so I can fully give thanks for what I already have.