Enjoying our wealth of poverty

March 30, 2009|By SUSAN REIMER

My friend Betsy says it's official: It is now hip to be broke, and I think she is right.

It is cool to talk about what a bath your 401(k) has taken and how your job is hanging by a thread. The topics that our parents would never discuss - how much money we make and how much we spend - are now standard cocktail party chatter.

I never thought there would be a subject that would push our children out of the center of all conversation, but I was wrong. This recession - they are calling it the Great Recession now - has done it. We used to complain that we couldn't get our kids on the phone. Now we complain that we can't get our broker on the phone.

We aren't eating out, and we aren't buying clothes. We are canceling neighborhood pool memberships and summer vacation plans. We can't afford to replace our computers or our cars.

And we don't mind who knows. It's all we can talk about.

Conspicuous consumption is now conspicuous by its absence. If you are buying anything right now, you are keeping that news to yourself. What would the neighbors think?

It is cool to conserve. Buy stock in Tupperware, because everyone is bringing leftovers to work for lunch. Open a repair shop, because nobody is buying new. Shop your closet, and when someone compliments your outfit, you can say "This old thing?" and mean it.

After 9/11, President Bush urged the country to spend, spend, spend so the terrorists wouldn't have the satisfaction of thinking they had blown up the American economy along with the buildings that symbolized the American economy.

We put our hands over our hearts - with our credit cards in our palms - and headed to the mall.

Not this time. We consumers are supposed to drive the economic recovery, but we haven't got the guts to press the accelerator.

If you haven't lost your job, your co-worker or your neighbor or your brother-in-law has. And if your job is safe, your earnings aren't. Furloughs, we are told, are what you do for the greater good. Salary rollbacks are what you do for the friend in the cubicle next to you. Even if you are doing OK, somebody else isn't, and it is part of the new economic moral imperative for you to share the suffering.

If you are spending in this kind of atmosphere, you are rich. If you are rich and you are not spending, you are just trying to fit in with everybody else. If you are broke and spending, you are doing your bit to jump-start the economy. If you are broke and you aren't spending, you are feeling prudent and virtuous and like you don't need material goods to make you happy.

But the fact is, none of us has the guts to let go of a single dollar.

And if you have no idea why this all happened, if you don't know where the bottom is or what it will look like, you have plenty of company, and you are comforted by the fact that at least you are not the stupid one.

It is hard to tell what things will be like if this recession ever lifts. Will we forget it happened? I don't know about you, but I don't remember all those recessions they keep talking about - the one in the '70s, the one in the '80s, the one in the '90s. I must have been busy working and spending money, because they slipped right by me.

Will we return to the work-and-spend cycle that seems to be part of the American DNA?

Or will we emerge with the mind-set of those who lived through the Great Depression? The shadow of those years never lifted for that generation and the residual effect was a powerful need to accumulate and hoard. My mother-in-law died owning something like 80 tablecloths and I don't know how many bedspreads.

Will our children grow up believing that 401(k)s were the great failed experiment and that their parents - whom they are now supporting - were suckers? Will our children consider investment banks and stock funds to be scams for losers, as bogus as the e-mail you get from the guy in India asking you to put up $25,000 in good-faith money?

Will they accumulate and hoard, to hold off the dread they feel for their own future? How many tablecloths and bedspreads will it take to calm their restless fear?

Maybe not. Maybe this recession will fly right over their heads, the way the previous recessions left no impression on me.

My daughter called me from the mall recently. She'd bought a $99 clutch but paid only $12 for it. I tried to tell her that during these harsh economic times it was foolish to purchase yet another purse, whether it cost $12 or 12 cents. I mean, what will people think? But I didn't get the chance.

"I love the recession," she gushed. She snapped off her new cell phone and was gone.

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