Living In A Material World

On a recent trip home, I noticed that I was defending the fact that I’m satisfied with my material circumstances. At one point I said, “I know it’s weird, but I’m happy with what I have and I really don’t want more.” My parents looked at me quizzically. It wasn’t the first time in recent memory that I felt pretty defensive and awkward about not wanting to be upwardly mobile; not wanting to buy a house; and actually being satisfied with what I have.

My parents are generous and not at all snobby, but they definitely are fans of upward mobility. I was supposed to be the doctor or the CEO in the family, and now I am a Web-editor married to a public school teacher. My sister, who partied her way through high school and almost flunked out of her first year of college, has the graduate degree and earns twice what I do.

My sister was house-hunting, and her two-year-old was playing on her iPad. There’s nothing wrong with either, but buying a house and an iPad are just not on my agenda. I can’t buy an iPad and I can’t buy a house, and I’m actually cool with that.

I learned in college that upper-middle and middle class Generations X’ers and Millenials don’t even stand a chance at earning as much money as their Baby Boomer parents did. Then I went to seminary and learned that happy is the man who is grateful for his lot and although a person has to work, G-d decides what his income will be. The combination of the two of those learning experiences do not make me want to strive for affluence. Striving for affluence is an uphill battle that would involve sacrificing my entire quality of life, and even then I still might not succeed. I prefer to live frugally and just be grateful that I can pay my bills.

My husband has financial obligations to his three children from his previous marriage, and all of that is fine with me. I don’t want the money that he spends on his kids. What kind of a dill-weed would be like, “I want the money that my husband spends on child support and school tuition and traveling overseas to see his kids”? I love my husband. He is a good guy. He is gentle and kind. He laughs at the same shmaltzy humor that I do. I didn’t marry him because of money. I married him because he was the only person I dated who never made me nauseous. (True story. Trust your gut, girls.)

In my 20’s, I was earning the same salary I am now, but I was broke. I never had enough money; paying my monthly bills was always a struggle. Retrospectively, I was buying a lot of junk. You can’t go out to bars and eat out and buy clothes and expect to have any money. I didn’t have a sense of who I was back then — all the money I spent seemed necessary. Like I had to have a social life, so I had to “go out” and spend all the money that entailed. I wasn’t good-looking enough, so I had to buy so many clothes that I couldn’t even fit them in my drawers. I hated everything: I never looked right; I’d roll out of bed hung-over and scramble to get to work on time. I had an eating disorder and acne all over my face. Instead of living in a material world, the material world was living in me — and it wasn’t doing me any favors.

Considering some of the feedback that family and randos in the community have given me, as well as the fact that I used to work in home & garden media (all about improving your material surroundings, and you would not believe how many hundreds of thousands of people live for perfecting their material surroundings), I think the following aspects of my lifestyle and financial choices are not agreeable with the majority of first-world people:


I only have one cabinet to store pots and pans in, and my pots and pans are just shoved in there. Martha Stewart would flip her $300 copper pot lid if she saw it.


I don’t have a lot of clothes. I have to do my laundry twice a week in order not to run out of clothes. The clothes I have are all kind of average; mostly things I bought on 40% off of clearance, making them about 90% off of the retail price. But I look in my closet and I am like, “You’re a minimalist. You win at life.” I would also like to note that Steve Jobs wore a turtleneck and jeans every day, and didn’t have furniture in his house. Emmanuelle Alt, the editor of French Vogue, wears jeans and a blazer every day and barely any makeup. And the two of them WIN at the material world game.


Right now I only have two pair of shoes that fit, because my feet grew. I don’t want to buy any more. All of my skirts and tights are black, except for one dark grey skirt. My two pair of shoes are black athletic shoes.  It seems excessive to get more black shoes. I think most first-world women would beg to differ. I should get some Shabbos shoes, but I hate Shabbos shoes because I have wonky feet with extra bones in them (seriously, I have extra bones in my feet which make most dress shoes pretty uncomfortable). As a very active person with wonky feet, I do not find pretty shoes to be fun. I find them to be torturous.


My job is pretty flexible and I like the work I do. I used to earn more money when I had a more stressful job, and I know my earning potential is a lot bigger than what I am currently earning. Yet, I don’t want to lean in. People have told me that I am sitting on a goldmine, but right now I don’t want to do more work than I have to. So what if I can’t buy a Bloomingdale’s dress? I feel like I should want to buy a Bloomingdale’s dress. But I don’t want it because I would have to do at least 10 more hours of freelance work to buy a designer dress, and I’d really rather hang out with my husband than take on more work.


I don’t have a credit card. If I can’t pay for it, I don’t buy it. I do not want to deal with a credit card or a mortgage.

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We rent an apartment. The paint is chipping. The bathroom has that cheap pink tile. There is a leak under my kitchen sink that the super has fixed twice and still is leaking. I am convinced that my upstairs neighbors are giants who wear wooden clogs. However, I do not want to move — ever.


Even though we are a two-income middle-class family, I don’t feel any pressure to buy a house. People say to us, “What will you do when your family grows?” and “Paying rent is throwing money down the toilet.” I say, “We’ll live somewhere,” and “I don’t want to pay a mortgage, property tax, condo fees, and my own water bill. At this point in Brooklyn real estate, it is cheaper to rent. Also, I don’t want to own a house here. We only are living here during gallus. If I’m going to buy property, I want to buy somewhere beautiful.” If I had money to buy property, I would buy a summer cottage on the water somewhere, which I could actually enjoy. I don’t understand wanting to invest in Brooklyn. Brooklyn smells like trash and doesn’t have enough trees. I don’t want to invest in Brooklyn.


I don’t like going out to eat. I like knowing that when I cook, I always wash my hands. I don’t want to take the risk of eating a salad that someone prepared who didn’t wash first. #e_coli


I have a Windows phone. It was the cheapest decent smartphone I could buy. The camera isn’t great, and I can’t get many apps on it, but I don’t really use apps and I don’t take selfies. I don’t want an iPhone. In two whole years, I have not had to update my operating system. Also, nobody wants to mug me for my phone because you probably couldn’t even buy a hit of heroin with it. I don’t know how much a hit of heroin costs, but I am still sure that you couldn’t get one for my phone. I’m on a month-to-month pre-paid phone plan. I don’t have unlimited data, but I don’t miss it.


I don’t resent people who are fancier or who have more money than I have. Cool for them that they can buy houses and wear Bloomingdale’s dresses. Cool. For. Them.


I can afford to buy meat (meaning chicken) for Shabbos only. I don’t like eating meat that much and I pretty much just cook it for the mitzvah. We eat a lot of beans and grains. We eat tofu a couple nights a week. I make granola on Saturday nights. We like to eat squash. We just aren’t very fancy eaters. The only processed food I buy is bread, tubs of hummus, and plant milks. I do not buy trendy super-foods or things that you have to spend $17 on at Whole Foods. We just eat food. Plain old food. Oats, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, rice, green cabbage. We don’t buy organic unless it is affordable. My husband and I have low cholesterol and great blood pressure and we heal easily from injuries, which I attribute at least partially to how we eat. I don’t want to eat meat and I don’t want to obsess over “toxins” in my food. So far I am alive and well.


I don’t have a cleaning lady, or any other form of domestic help. My theory is that if you have so much crap that you can’t keep the house clean, then get rid of your crap. For example: We had two rugs that were hard to keep clean. I got rid of the rugs; now I only have to sweep and Swiffer my floors. The Swiffer is pretty much a technological marvel. Washing dishes as soon as we make them is also a marvel of life. My baseboards are scuffed and my oven could use a good scrub, but it’s not that hard to keep a house clean enough to be organized and sanitary. I am in the middle of a decluttering project meant to make it even easier to keep my house clean. Some people need four-bedroom houses and full-time maids. Since I don’t have the income to provide that kind of lifestyle for myself, I don’t even want it. Even thinking about trying to pay those kind of bills stresses me out.


I don’t have money for: alcohol, recreational drugs, going to concerts or sporting events, television, a phone plan with unlimited data, musical albums, video games, putting lots of rides on my Metrocard, a Costco membership, going to the movies, buying hamburgers and fries, repainting my apartment, moving into a two-bedroom apartment, Netflix, professional beauty services (I wash and set my own sheitel; I don’t get manicures), fitness classes, things that people buy purely because they are cute (I’m looking at you, Etsy and Pinterest), alternative medicine practitioners (although I do pay for therapy), pretty much anything at all from Whole Foods, doing large food shopping orders in the kosher grocery stores in Crown Heights, steak, lamb, going out for ice cream, hosting large Shabbos meals that would involve feeding fish and chicken to more than six people, workout clothes and sporting equipment, velvet Elvis paintings to hang above the faux-fireplace in our non-existent Winnebago, Starbuck’s coffee, a new car (thank G-d with all my heart that our 12-year-old car is functional), the cushy and soft kind of toilet paper, non-Suave shampoo, organic kale (I buy good old unpretentious broccoli and cabbage), interest (the biggest waste of money in the world), and going back to school to fulfill my dream of becoming a cosmetologist.


I am happy. I am happier than I have ever been. I cannot buy a loft or eat at Basil, and my name is neither prestigious nor well-connected, but I am happy. I have enough. I don’t worry about the future and it’s not because I have a huge savings account to fall back on (I don’t). I don’t worry about the future because there is a G-d in the world and I will probably never retire. My maternal grandmother never retired; she worked until she was so senile that my parents made her close up shop. Grandma Thelma didn’t own a house, and didn’t leave any money when she died. But you know what? She was cool and I loved her, and some people just aren’t meant to live on a golf course and expire slowly.


Image by Charles Rodstrom/Flickr.