Friday, January 13, 2012

When We ASSume ...

Interspersed with the rosy news stories about how the economy is improving, the recession is over, and the stock market is on the rebound, more and more often are stories that contradict any glowing reports about how great things are.

As is pointed out in this article I read this morning, things are not so wonderful for a lot more people than is usually reported, and the numbers of down-and-out are growing.

What's more disturbing, though, is not the numbers of people who are seeking food assistance, but the demographic of people who are more frequently visiting food banks. In a survey cited in the article, the number of college-degreed people who were having trouble affording food had increased to 30%. That's one in three people who are at the food banks and have at least a Bachelor's degree.

This is the generation of people - my generation - who've been told that a college degree guarantees a better job with higher wages. Yes, that's what we were told - in not so many words, but that was definitely the implied promise, and these people, especially my generation (the 36 to 50 set), are finding that the job market isn't as interested in their degrees as they were told it would be.

What's worse than the facts presented in the article, though, are the comments following the article, in which readers make all sorts of assumptions and proclamations and offer half-assed, oversimplified solutions when they don't really know enough about the situations to offer advice.

The point of the article is to bring to light the fact that the typical food bank "customer" has changed drastically over the past four years, and so to contrast what they expect with what they're seeing, one of the food bank volunteers mentions some food bank visitors who were wearing designer clothes and driving Mercedes-Benz automobiles.

And, of course, there is the one person commenting, who knows only that the person in question drives a Mercedes-Benz and wears designer clothes. His solution is that the person ... should sell [the car], pay off as much of that loan as possible, and buy a $2,000 beater car. They'll have less in monthly car payments to make on the remaining Mercedes loan amounts, as opposed to continuing to make payments for much longer.

The assumption is that the driver of the car: 1. has a car loan; 2. could sell the car for enough to significantly reduce the amount owed AND refinance the remaining balance for lower payments and/or a shorter loan period; and 3. have enough cash out to purchase a car that didn't require extensive maintenance and upkeep costs.

Suppose, however, that the Mercedes driver doesn't owe anything on the Mercedes. If this were the case, what would the advice, then, be? What if the Mercedes had recently been overhauled with new tires, had a recent factory-authorized service, and wouldn't need any repairs or maintenance for at least year? Would the advice to buy a "beater" change?

Perhaps the taxes, licensing and insurance on a "beater" would be less than those things for a Mercedes, but perhaps not, and would the savings off-set the cost of potential repairs for the "beater"?

Without knowing any of the background regarding the car, it's pretty arrogant of us to assume that simply selling the luxury car would solve any problems. Better advice, if we're wont to give our ill-informed, holier-than-thou suggestions, would be to sell the car and go carless or to sell the car and buy a bicycle.

Deus Ex Machina and I have two cars, both of which are paid off. I talk, all the time, about selling one - to save money on taxes, licensing, insurance, and maintenance, but we don't know if those savings would be off-set by the additional (albeit rather small, since I rarely drive anywhere while Deus Ex Machina is at work) wear-and-tear on the remaining vehicle, and then, for us, the question is, do we keep the 22 mpg SUV or the 32 mpg Honda civic? And the answer isn't as simple as "keep the one with better gas mileage", because there are a lot of other things to factor into the equation - like the SUV can pull a trailer full of wood and the Honda can not.

The problem is that the answers rarely are "as simple as ...." Referring back to the article, one of the volunteers observes that some of the recent visitors to the food pantry are wearing designer clothes. The suggestion by one of the people commenting, who knows only that those people are wearing designer clothes, is to sell most of [the clothes] at consignment [shops] and buy replacements at the local Thrift store.

Again, an oversimplication of the issue.

But let's look at why those people wearing designer clothes should NOT consider giving up their designer threads for thrift store finds ... unless said person has a lot of time to shop and can find replacement designer items for less than what they might earn for the clothes on their backs at a consignment shop (of course, a better solution might be to actually keep one's clothes, go the thrift store and find designer duds and then sell those at the consignment shop - for a bit more than they paid at the Goodwill or Salvation Army store ;).

First of all there is the issue of quality. If I had the choice of buying Missoni knock-off at Target (for myself, because I'm not going to outgrow it) or the real-deal at a significantly higher price, I would buy the real deal. A "real" Missoni sweater is made from real wool. Properly cared for, real wool will last for a very long time - perhaps longer than I will. By contrast, the knock-off brands use a blend of synthetic fibers and the only thing similar between the two products is that funky pattern (which is what makes the Missoni appealing to the masses).

Let's be very clear, though. I'm not saying go out and buy designer clothes, but what I am saying is that if I already had the designer clothes, and I fell on hard times, selling my designer clothes so that I could have a bit of extra cash - even if it was to buy food - would be foolhardy.

I'm reading the novel "Andersonville" and for those who are not Civil War affocionados, Andersonville was a confederate prison located in Georgia in which captured Union soldiers were interned. It was a dreadful place. There was no clean water, no shelter, and no toilets. It was over crowded and unsanitary, and by the time the confederates thought to build the prison, they could barely feed and clothe themselves, never mind providing sustenance and raiment for their enemies.

In John Ransom's diary, an actual account of Andersonville, he attributes having a blanket when he was put in the stockade with his survival. If not for the quilt, he says, he would have not had any shelter from Georgia's blistering summer sun or its wicked harsh winter winds.

Those people who believe that designer clothes or luxury (well-built and long-lasting) cars are simply status symbols that should be liquidated in the event that the owners fall on hard times are missing a very important point. Those higher end items are higher priced, often, because they were manufactured using more expensive and longer lasting materials. Hanging onto those items, ESPECIALLY for people who have fallen on hard times and, likely, won't have money for replacements, is the smartest thing those people can do.

Buying a poorer quality merchandise just means having to replace it more often, which, in the long run, costs a lot more money than spending extra at the beginning to buy a better quality item, and then, taking care to maintain it.

Today, I picked up my five-year-old newly soled Birkenstock clogs from the shoe repair shop. I expect I'll get, at least, five more years wear out of those shoes. Ten years is a very long life for a pair of shoes. My mother gave my father a wool sweater when they first started dating. When I was in college, I was wearing that sweater. Twenty years is a very long life for a sweater.

I think, in the end, it's our responsiblity as buyers to stop planning for obsolescence and to demand a higher quality, longer lived product - but if we already have those higher quality products, and we end up in a position in which we should not be able to afford them, we should not allow other people's assumptions to make us do something short-sighted, like exchanging our quality clothes for those disposable items found in discount department stores, because other people assume it's better to have a little cash than to have good, warm, solidly constructed clothes.

As a very sage woman once told me, "When you assume, you make an ASS out of you and me."


  1. Having been one of those people. ( I think God that I got out.) I remember the looks I got from the workers at the food bank when I pulled up in my convertible. (I was so upside down in that loan I would have never been able to sell off that car for even the loan amount) I wishe then knew that every time I went out and looked at the car my heart hurt. It reminded me that there was a time when I could afford that car, and at that time it was only a millstone around my neck.

    My experience made me feel even worse for those who pull up to a foodbank in nice car and have nice clothes. They also have a constant reminder that there was a time that was better.

  2. Excellent post! We have two expensive-looking cars, both paid off. One we inherited, and one we bought used. Both get great mileage. One we use for my DH's job, and the other is for me to ferry friends and relatives who can't drive to the grocery store and medical appointments. We recently tried using just one, but it didn't work out for our complicated schedules (altho' in the past we've shared one car). Yet people do comment about these cars which they think are extravagances.
    Another reason to keep the designer duds is for job interviews. Used clothes don't bring much money, and you only get a percentage of the sale price at a consignment shop.

  3. Great article and comments :)

    Another argument for keeping the clothes is for that job interview and new job you hopefully get after you make a good impression upon your new employer. Also, when you go in to speak to DHHS workers, you find that they treat people who are dressed in 'scummy', ratty clothing far differently than they do people who are more put together. Unfortunately, folks are discriminated based on appearances. It also holds true at the doctor's office - I read an article once that stated that doctors give more attentive service to folks who appear more 'middle class' than those who appear poor. They show more respect, give their symptoms more weight, and seem to have over-all better 'bedside manner' to folks they perceive are of a higher social status. Sad, but can be true.

  4. My favorite wool sweater belongs to my husband. It's gorgeous. I get a lot of compliments on it and people often ask where I got it.

    "My husband's high school girl friend gave it to him."

    "Oh it's no big deal. They broke up in 1981."

    People never feel better when I tell them how long it's been. I wish they'd grasp the "1981" portion of the comment and connect it to the age of the sweater rather it being from an old girlfriend he hasn't seen in 30 years. People fixate on odd things.

  5. Great post, and once again, you give us something to think about.

    While I agree that we shouldn't "assume", I also have to wonder if the assumptions made by the person you quoted in your post were based on past experience with those who DO take advantage of the "system" or the charity of food banks.

    I think that in our society today, even the most charitable person could become a bit jaded. But of course, that's just my assumption. : )

  6. Great Post! In the California county, I live in with high unemployment and foreclosures, some of those highend cars are now peoples homes. Those who can afford it are using storage units to store the rest of their belongings.

  7. And who's to say those designer duds and that Mercedes weren't purchased second-hand to start with? Most of the Christmas presents I gave this year were high-quality, designer wool sweaters, pricey books, and expensive vintage dishware that I got for a song at thrift stores. Just because it was expensive to begin with doesn't mean the person paid full price for it.

    I'm with you on the SUV thing. We have a Pontiac Vibe (30-32 mpg) and a Jeep Wrangler (18 mpg, but rarely used) and we like both because they can haul stuff and the Vibe is comfy for long trips and the Jeep is good for traveling in rough weather or on poor roads. The Jeep is from 1997 and the Vibe from 2005. We keep them both up, don't owe any money on either (although the Vibe is technically owned by my parents) and buy good (i.e. expensive) tires and change our own brakes and do our own oil changes. I'm hoping to get at least another 5 years out of the Vibe and the Jeep will last forever so long as the frame doesn't rot out.

    If it weren't for unemployment checks and the boyfriend's excellent job (with subsidized rent and inexpensive comprehensive healthcare), we might be in line with those other folks at the food bank. And we both have Master's degrees. *sigh*

  8. Anonymous 11:51 am - That's very sad. Things haven't gotten quite that bad here, although there was an article in the paper today about the decrease in donations to the homeless shelter at the same time that demand is increasing. The person interviewed for the paper supposed that things were just tight everywhere and that those people who usually give just can't dig very deep these days.

    Which is also the point of the article I cited, too. The middle class is disappearing, and those are the people who used to be the ones supporting those charities they are now needing help from.

    I shudder to think what will happen with the middle class is completely gone. Who will support the charitable organizations then?

  9. Joe - I think it probably is a lot tougher for people who have farther to fall. It's why one of my mantras has been voluntary simplicity - not to get rid of the fancy stuff, but to get rid of the fancy lifestyle and ideologies that make those things seem so important. You know?

    Mitty - We have an SUV, which often earns us some pretty rotten looks, but when we bought it, we really did our homework, because we needed a car that would seat seven people, and we wanted one that got good gas mileage. Our choices were an SUV or a mini-van. We choose the SUV, in part, because it actually gets better gas mileage than most of the minivans available at the time. I hate that people are so quick to judge me based on my car.

    Witchy Mom - It is a shame, that like our cars, we're often judged on our appearance. I love keeping my clothes very simple and neutral. As long as they're clean, I think it makes it harder for people to gather much information about me or my lifestyle :).

    Robin - Great story! People do fixate on odd things.

  10. Citygirl - excellent point. Who's to say the Mercedes wasn't bought used for a great deal and the clothes weren't from the consignment shop to begin with?

    Our Honda is a 1998 model, bought used with cash in 2002 when our 2000 Honda was totaled. When we bought the 2000 Honda new, we had a second car - a 1989 Honda (bought used in 1994) that was still getting us from point A to point B. All three of our Hondas were Civics. Our SUV was bought new in 2002, because we needed a seven passenger vehicle to accommodate our growing family (I was pregnant with baby #5 in 2002). If we take care of our cars, they will last a very long time, and in fact, the Honda already has more than 200,000 miles on it ... and it's still going.

  11. Karen - Yep. I'd say the person making those comments was definitely jaded, but I don't think that makes the advice in those comments any more valid ;).

    The reason I thought it important to write this post is that as our national standard of living continues to diminish, there will be a lot more of us who are jaded and less forgiving of people who are having difficult financial times. There's a propensity in this country to believe that those without money, who are accepting charity, don't deserve to have nice things - even if those nice things are remnants of a former life - that as soon as people fall on hard times, all of their nice stuff should be sold to people who aren't asking for charity, and who are, therefore, more deserving of designer clothes and nice cars.

    I think we need to challenge that thinking - now - while there are still some of us in the middle class ;). It wouldn't take much for me or the person making those comments to end up in that same spot.

  12. I buy most of my clothing at a very exclusive GW Clothiers in the town next to ours... For the winter it's mostly wool sweaters and jeans, but all good quality, and good names. Cars are paid for (we have three...) Have enough food from the garden and enough outside income to not need the food bank yet, but some months are close. Like you, I find that the security myths we grew up with don't hold in the real world. Just glad that my degree didn't come with a load of debt. (4 1/2 years of my life on the wall for uncle paid for most of it.) I find it is people who have never had to "survive" who fixate on stuff. If you have ever had to depend on your equipment to survive, you know that quality is king. If you have it, treasure it and take care of it. If you don't, find the BEST you can get and do the same.