(Originally published on Medium September 28, 2019)
In March 2019, I lost my job. It was the second time in five years that I had been laid off from my full-time finance job, not counting two miserable experiences as a temporary, contract employee to fill the gaps in between full-time employment. This is an industry I’ve worked in for 25 years. Suddenly I couldn’t keep a job. The short version is that I’ve been unhappy in my professional life for a very long time. The long version is that the finance field, like many others, has been so radically altered by technology that I found the skill set I had was no longer the skill set that was needed.
I am a generally happy person. I’ve lucked out in the spouse and family departments. I haven’t had a great many obstacles to happiness thrown in front of me. I get along with my parents and extended family. I’ve still got friends from high school and every job I’ve ever had has always netted me a permanent friend or two. I’m mostly happy. The one thing I could never get right was my job, primarily because I never wanted to do any of them. I want to sit in my room and write between the hours when I drop my son off at school and go to pick him up again. And then at night. And on weekends. And while I’m waiting for my son to finish basketball practice. Unfortunately, there are bills to pay and I have never been able to wring enough money from my writing to pay them. So I did what every responsible adult I’ve ever known has done: I gritted my teeth and went to work in a field I hated but could do. Unlike seemingly every other responsible adult I’ve ever known, I lacked the ability to compartmentalize the various sections of my life so that they could all co-exist in relative harmony. A bad day at work meant a bad day at the dinner table, a bad day of writing, a bad night of sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat.
All of this led to an incredible amount of pressure and an untenable situation where I struggled to thrive in a career that was not only a poor fit for me but also a barrier to my writing. I had little time to write and when I did, I was so mentally drained I could barely scratch out a coherent sentence, much less finish work of any significance. I could go on and on about the issues, both spiritual and emotional, that my chosen career has caused me but this post isn’t about that. This post is about the surprising things I learned about consumerism once I no longer had a regular, steady income and the soul-rending occupation that provided it.
You Don’t Need As Much Money As You Think You Do
The first thing I noticed was that I didn’t need nearly as much money to get by as I thought I did. I still needed money but after a few weeks on unemployment benefits, I realized that I was still getting the bills paid, the food purchased and the car gassed up. How could that be? How could I be making ends meet on half of what I was used to? Two reasons for this became apparent:
1. it costs less to stay home than it does to travel to a job and 2. I had no choice. Any unnecessary expenditure fell by the wayside as a matter of course. The most intriguing thing was that I barely noticed the difference. So what had I been spending my money on?
Emotional Spending Is A Thing
Retail therapy may sound like a fun and harmless pastime but any crutch that is used to deal with underlying pain can be disastrous. Emotional spending may not cause the physical harm of alcohol or drug addiction but it can destroy you financially. When you find yourself without the means to cope with an emergency, illness or job loss, the ramifications can be devastating to the entire family, not just the spender.
A recent study showed that the average American spent $18,000 a year on non-essentials.
How much more secure would any of us feel with an extra $18,000 in the bank? Or even half that?
Consumerism Is A Trap That Feeds Itself
A capitalist economy cannot thrive and grow unless it continuously consumes. Incomes, cultures, forests, wildlife and entire peoples have fallen under the ever-grinding gears of capitalistic endeavor. We are not exempt. In order for a capitalist society to stay afloat we must forever be feeding the beast. First, we feed it with our sweat equity. We exchange our labor, our time, our personal capital for currency. We then return that currency to the system for things we need and increasingly, things we don’t. Capitalism can’t expand on minimalism. It isn’t enough for us to be able to afford what we need, we must put more and more into the system. We must be marketed, tricked, cajoled and stressed to the point of overconsumption. We must spend everything we have, financially, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, to keep the monster lumbering along. When we run out of capital we must extend ourselves even further by going into debt. We must give more than we have. Capitalism sets up a system where we feel defined by our material goods, where we define our self-worth by how hard we work to make someone else able to accumulate even more material goods then pride ourselves on how many of these goods we obtain in the process. We become addicted not just to things but to the acquisition of things, believing we need them. When we stress ourselves to the point of exhaustion trying to keep up with this never-ending cycle (Spoiler alert: you can’t keep up. You were never meant to.) we soothe our frazzled selves with spending sprees and comfort purchases. The comfort doesn’t last and neither does the money so off we go again into the belly of the beast and start the cycle all over again. It wasn’t until I stopped working for a little while that it hit me: the system is designed that way. Capitalism was never about providing a better life for everyone. It was always about convincing us to turn our labor into someone else’s capital.
Employer-Provided Health Insurance Is A Form Of Feudalism
Corporations have enough power over their employees as it is. Our livelihoods, standard of living, working conditions, and even how much we are able to save for retirement are largely dictated by the corporations that control most of the world’s capital. Allowing them to control our access to healthcare, or at least the means to pay for it is nothing short of modern-day feudalism. Like the liege lord who allowed his vassals to keep enough food from their own harvests to feed themselves or not, who allowed them to seek shelter within the walls of the bailey in times of danger or not, today’s CEO’s hold the threat of illness and access to care over their employee’s heads like the sword of Damocles.I am fortunate enough to be covered under my husband’s insurance but what if I hadn’t been? I would not be able to continue my diabetes treatment or my son’s asthma and food allergy medications. A job loss could quite literally be a death sentence for many people, especially in states without sufficient programs to aid the jobless. How did we let corporations get this powerful?
For all the talk of how great our economy is doing, I chose an industry that is shrinking and I have had the misfortune to be looking for work in my fifties. This time is not like the last. Recruiters aren’t knocking down my door. My phone isn’t ringing. I have yet to have a single response to an application or resume submission. I’ve spent my time getting two more certifications in an effort to bolster my resume but to no avail. I am running out of unemployment benefits and I have nothing lined up. The downside of not playing (or being unable to or not allowed to play) the capitalist game is that it is an all-or-nothing proposition. If I don’t wreck my physical and mental health turning my personal capital into currency, the things I need don’t get acquired as well as the things I don’t need. This is where I wish I’d spotted the game sooner. This is where that $18,000 a year (or $9,000 or $2,000) would have come in handy.