Thoughts on self-indulgence

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The way I grew up, there were a long list of things considered self-indulgences. Not just things we didn't personally have money to buy, but things we wouldn't spend on even if we did. Things people shouldn't spend money on because it was weak, shallow, indulgent. Mostly, these things were not so much discussed as understood. And the list was long. Off the top of my head, it would include: paying people to things you could do yourself (including cleaners, having your car washed, lawn maintenance, painting, etc.); gym memberships; salon services (anything beyond a basic haircut at Supercuts, really); just about anything bought on credit; having multiple TVs or phones in the same household; paying full price for just about anything; name brands; and eating dessert or having an appetizer or drinks when dining out (and, to a point, dining out itself). Anything premium would also be included, from non-generic dog food to orange juice that came in a bottle rather than a concentrate can.

I remember, vividly, the small ways in which the inappropriateness of asking for or even wanting these things and others like them was instilled in me. People who spend money on things they can do themselves are lazy. Gym memberships are for people who are too stupid to find their own exercise. Salon services are for pampered princesses. People who have multiple TVs or phones at their house must just not like living together and being together. While it was clear we couldn't actually afford any of these things anyway, the more pressing issue, at least the way I interpreted it as a kid, was that wanting these things made you less of a person.

So now, clearly, things have changed. My parents, who do better financially now than they used to, have changes some. They buy orange juice in a bottle now and go out to dinner more than twice a year. Then even have a cordless phone. But the basic sense of not wasting money, no matter how much of it you have, is still healthy in them.

I, however, have become the kind of self-indulgent person I was steered away from as a child. This week, I bought an iPhone. I didn't need it--I had a perfectly good phone--but I wanted it, and I could afford it, so I bought it. And it's the latest in a long line of what would be considered unnecessary indulgences, including salon services (not just haircuts and colors, but manicures, pedicures, waxing, and massages); eating out often and well; buying premium items when I see a quality difference (like dog food); and yes, occasionally paying full price (though that one still bugs me). But these things don't come without guilt.

I have my fair amount of your typical middle class liberal guilt, i.e. "I shouldn't be buying this, I should be feeding the hungry/clothing the unclothed/sponsoring a child/insert your cause here." Beyond that, though, every time I buy something that is both expensive and unnecessary, I feel a little bit farther from my roots. It's not just that I've changed socioeconomic classes, and am now clearly in a different one than the one in which I grew up, but that I feel like I'm deliberately turning my back on the moral code under which I was raised.

I don't know how helpful any of this guilt is. It doesn't cause a change in my spending. I have been in the habit, for longer than I'd like to admit now, of buying pretty much whatever I want. I know it would be considered self-indulgent by the people who raised me, and honestly, I consider it self-indulgent myself, but I do it anyway. More and more, the pull from the way I was raised loses out to the pull of the hyper-consumer class in which I currently reside. In this class, these self-indulgences are normal. There are certainly people who don't visit salons or have gym memberships or buy expensive gadgets, but they are fewer and farther between all the time. And it's not so much that I feel the need to keep up with them (though that's likely part of it), but I can look to them as an example and think that this kind of spending must be OK.

This is one of the facets of growing up that nobody warns you about. Learning how to balance your identify as a consumer and as a worker is difficult in the best circumstances, but it is magnified when the consumption morals of your current class clash so dramatically with those of the class in which you were raised. The ways in which I spend embarrass me, and I do hide them from my family. I know that, even if they didn't say anything, my parents would judge the amount I spend on grooming, the number of times per month Mark and I eat out, and even the cost of the food our dogs eat. When they visited my house, I know that, consciously or not, they noted positively that we still only have one TV, and negatively that the TV is large and new. They notice those kinds of things for the same reason I do--it's how they were raised. How do they interpret them, though? Are they simply signs of my "affluence," of my being in a new class? Or are they signs of my weakness, laziness, and self-indulgent, thoughtless spending?

I know there are folks reading who have faced some of these issues as well. How do you deal with having not just different spending priorities, but different spending morals as either your family or the people around you? Is it uncomfortable? Perhaps most importantly, how do you arrive upon your own moral structure for these things, rather than just feeling like you are bucking those given to you without replacing them with anything else?

4 Comments

I grew up poor. However, frugality was never a thing to strive for. Certainly, I was taught that there was no shame in used cars, used clothing, store brands, etc.

My mom always said that she couldn't take the money with her and she'd rather spend it on things she'd enjoy. When we had "extra" money, it was spent self-indulgently.

So, while I was poor and/or lower middle class, I have NO qualms about self-indulgence. In fact, I find great happiness in indulging myself.

My parents are generally pro-spending money....My dad thinks that long distance phone calls are CRAZY EXPENSIVE but he would only buy a quality suit. He would never ever ever put anything on credit, and when I buy his groceries he is pissed when I buy shit that isn't on sale. I would pay pretty much any amount to talk to my friends long distance, but I buy my clothes resale. We have different priorities. That's okay. He is definitely of the school of paying for quality things that will last a long time, which I am attempting to adopt. And we ate out all the time growing up, but meals weren't ever over like, 8 dollars. I eat out constantly. I wouldn't think twice about it. He is definitely more of a model of "I have some money but I don't need to spend all of it."

My mom is poor. I made more than she did at my first job. She doesn't have good spending habits and like you she definitely instilled the generic food/clothes on sale thing in me. And the no appetizers/drinks thing.

However, both of my parents label me a "cheapskate." So they are not the issue.

It's my sister & my friends.

Part of it is that they have no understanding o what I do and so i think they find my pay somewhat unjustified? Which is fine. But it's when people say what I should or should by because I "have the money for it." I have the money for some crack too, but it's not sensible to buy it!

I guess I am getting criticism the OPPOSITE of yours--that I don't spend enough!

Also I remember when we were introduced to the concept of white guilt in PolySci.

This is quite a personal issue you've touched on. I don't have time to fully respond right now but I definitely feel some of the guilt that you describe.

I think this would be an issue for me if my life was more similar to the one I had growing up. Since it's so wildly different, I seldom really notice the difference in spending morals. Since my biggest expenses are generally flying home to visit, that fits in with my parents' values quite well, though they'd be appalled by how much my ticket alone is going to cost me for my coming vacation.

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