Tag Archives: money

A Piece of the Pie

A few years ago, looking to furnish my new shoebox apartment in Tokyo, I made my rounds of the secondhand shops in the area. At one place, a little far from home, I spotted two super-cute vintage chairs – around $50 for the pair. I loved them. I wanted them. And I bought them. It would have been a hassle to bring them back on public transport, so I ended up paying another $20 or $30 for shipping. It felt much relative to the cost of the chairs. But I liked them enough to overlook it.

I had never properly shopped or invested in furniture before, even $25 chairs, primarily because I had never quite settled in a place of my own. In Irvine, where I lived for six years in a university-owned apartment – the longest I had lived anywhere in my entire life – my biggest purchase was an arcade basketball machine. My residences had generally been furnished by roommates. And where items were lacking, I would fill in the gaps with unimaginative, cost-effective options: a bedside table from Ikea, a desk from Office Depot.

My reticence to invest in nothing but the most basic, low-end items was certainly linked to the transient nature of my existence. I could not help but think about the inevitability of having to get rid of that furniture in due course: nine months, a year – it would go by in the blink of an eye. Indeed, my approach to furniture reflected broader sensibilities linked to the moving around, as I heralded utility above all else. This was reinforced by the fact that I was both a cheap and relatively poor bastard.

As I have mentioned on these pages before, luxury was unknown to my family growing up. We were never quite uncomfortable, but nor were we ever comfortable either. We rented, never owned. We bought Corollas and paid them off over the span of years. I only had two or three years during my childhood and adolescence in which I did not share a room with my sister, until she went off to college. Given how hard my parents worked, given how hard money came by, spending extravagantly simply could not enter the realm of possibility.*

*Naturally, I wasted money anyway, being human and a child. But it was within reason.

Opportunity, however, began to present itself as I grew older. I made a little money working as an undergraduate, then more as a teaching assistant in graduate school. With some semblance of financial independence, I began to do things with regularity that would have been unfathomable when I was younger: engaging in fun travel (if almost exclusively within the States), attending sporting events, and simply going out on weekends for food and drinks and the like.

Thus it was that luxury too came to manifest, even if in spurts and with limits. I had nosebleed seats for my favorite baseball team, but they were season tickets – thousands of dollars’ worth. I bought a laptop or two on sale, even when my existing one was only aging rather than nonfunctional. I picked up small items like DVDs, books, comics, etc. without even thinking twice. I no longer had to dwell on such transactions, but for entirely unexpected reasons: because it WAS possible and not because it was not, as in the past.

Still, I struggled – and continue to struggle – to reconcile the reality of my present with that of my past. Of course, that my mother remains a blue collar worker, that many of my relatives and their social circles remain decidedly lower-middle class (or perhaps upper-lower class), provides a constant reminder of a life that is not quite in the rearview mirror. Additionally, that my own career instability continues to loom provides a constant reminder too of a lifestyle that can be all too fleeting.

Whatever the reason, I certainly have developed mixed feelings about the kind of life I am able to live sometimes. About the kind of world I live in that values a particular skillset over others to the tune that it does, with the kind of inequality that the difference entails. The effect is exacerbated by how it is represented in my own life: in comparison to my parents and how hard they work, in comparison to my sister and the societal value she brings, even in comparison to my own life (and duties) just two or three years ago.

I am able to live my life without dwelling on it most of the time, of course. I am not as good a person as I would like to think. But there are times when it becomes too obvious, too naked – with things that are small and tangible and all too easy to compare. In those moments, I feel somewhere between apprehension and full-fledged guilt. And thus I cannot spend over certain unwritten amounts for clothes, for electronics, especially for extravagant meals, even if I am all too aware that the limits I have set are quite arbitrary.

Indulgences take many forms. I have written of my ability to travel to more places than I could have ever imagined. And while I can rationalize such trips as genuine experiences that will be lodged in my mind in a way that a tangible thing cannot be, in reality one is not too far from the other. Ultimately, I am spending sometimes obscene amounts of money in one go – for a day of fucking around in a new city, for a weekend at a friend’s wedding on the other side of the world, for a week in the woods.

It seems of course misguided to deny myself the opportunities that I have been able to attain – no matter how unfair the world that offered them to me might be. To do so appears as self-righteousness to the extreme, an act meant primarily to assuage my own guilt. The solution then, broadly speaking, is to channel what luxury I have access to now to improve the world around me, to help others when I can. It is something I think about as I continue to pursue that elusive stability. And it is that awareness that allows me to live with myself.

There is a bookend to this. After I left Japan for Switzerland, my friends cared for my two chairs for the better half of a year. But when they left Japan too, I did not want them to simply get rid of the chairs. So, after contemplating my options, I asked for them to ship the pair over. They’re out on my balcony now, the exceptions in what is again an otherwise furnished sublet. It cost me about $250 to ship them over. I’m not particularly proud of that. But for now, I’m still all too conscious that I shouldn’t be proud of that.

Money is Bullshit

I have a modest income, but enjoy just about all the luxuries I could possibly want. I eat out and buy clothes and go on vacation and pay my credit cards in full without having to stress all that much. I make impromptu purchases and go to sporting events and festivals and still put away for retirement or a house or a family or whatever the fuck it is I’m supposed to be putting away for.

But money is bullshit. I go to a furniture store and find custom-made chairs that cost as much as I pay for rent every month. I look up a fancy restaurant and discover that the price of dinner exceeds my monthly grocery bill. I walk through a hipster boutique and sort through t-shirts that are hundreds of dollars apiece because they are deemed vintage – worn-out pieces of shit that any number of us owned 20 years ago.

I don’t write to criticize capitalism, nor to stump for socialism or communism or any other economic system. They have their own flaws, and besides – as any professor or Das Kapital-owning douche can tell you – they’ve never existed in their purest forms, nor will they ever. If anything, I benefit and continue to benefit from the realities of the world: experiencing class mobility, non-physical labor, first world problems.

I suppose then I write as a nihilist – perhaps a hedonist, an idealist, a naive moron, whatever. I hate that life is like this. I work a bullshit job the way everyone works a bullshit job so that I can have the money to spend on the weekend doing the things that I want to do. To put myself in a position to get the job I actually want (whatever that might be), to live the life I actually want (whatever that might entail). In the meantime, some semblance of fulfillment comes once in a blue moon.

I hate that we are all governed by money. Dreams dashed, goals deterred, lives altered. People who never get to experience all the things they deserve to experience, people who live only for possibility and hope, for their kids no less, as they themselves endure misery. People who slog through legitimately bullshit jobs, thankless, because of fortune and chance and things they have no control over from the moment they step into the world.

I hate how we are made to feel inadequate because of zeros – literally nothing yet everything at once. People lose all sense of perspective and empathy and sensibility because they have money and they have always had money, or worse, they lose those things after they gained money as though opportunity and fate and luck befalls everyone in the same manner. They become so fucking blase about their advantages.

I hate that labels and brands and utterly meaningless shit somehow gain meaning and adulation because they are associated with money. I hate the idea that things are worth a certain amount because somebody out there is willing to pay that certain amount, because let’s face it, some asshole is always going to ruin it for everyone else. I hate notions of exclusivity and membership and differentiation because of money people have and money people spend.

I hate that I care about money as much as everyone else. That I somehow feel better about buying nicer souvenirs now, that I can spend less time shopping around because who gives a fuck, that I can be more cavalier about clothes I want. They’re things I never needed at any other point in my life when I didn’t have disposable income.

Money is bullshit. Let’s go back to bartering.