The past few weeks I’ve been trying (and succeeding I might add) to sell my old playstation 2 and games since I don’t really play it much anymore and it’s just taking up space at this point. In doing so I’ve had more strangers visit my apartment than I would ever normally expect. It was interesting to observe the reactions of the people when they finally managed to find my teeny tiny remodeled motel of an apartment “complex” and then my teeny tiny apartment all the way in the back. More than one of the strangers said something to the effect of “I didn’t even realize these were apartments” or “I thought this was a motel”, which is totally to be expected, I thought the same thing when I went to visit the place before signing a lease.
I didn’t think anything of it really until today, when the guy who was coming in to buy my controllers had trouble opening the door with my ill-fitted draft protector from amazon wedged awkwardly beneath it. “Sorry” I said, laughing as I fixed the cumbersome thing, “I’m poor and this helps with the electric”. Before he left, he asked why I was selling my playstation. “Well I don’t really use it much anymore and I’m poor, so…” I said, laughing again. He seemed mildly taken aback that I was so fond of referring to myself as “poor” but laughed politely and took his leave.
After the encounter I thought to myself, why am I so quick to say that? By all rational consideration, I am not poor. I work a job that pays well above minimum wage, I live in a safe area of town in an apartment by myself, I’m never hungry, etc. I’m also not ashamed of my lifestyle in any way. I find extravagance to be far more embarrassing and hope that people never assume I’m wealthy or spoiled. I think me countering with “I’m poor” is a sort of shortcut because I don’t want to give the whole answer. I don’t want to explain why I’d rather have a little extra cash than things I don’t really need, or that my apartment looks like a motel because it totally is one and I love the location and size, or why I choose not to work full-time. It’s easier for people to understand my choices if I just communicate in the most clear way that I don’t have a lot of money to throw around.
Being poor in a developing country or in blighted inner-city neighborhoods here in the US can mean spending most of your day worrying about how you’re going to eat or where you’re going to sleep. For that reason, it seems utterly insulting to compare my lifestyle to that of someone who actually struggles with poverty. Yet our culture of consumption is so strong that if a person is not actively consuming as much as they can, people start to question your choices. Amassing things and space you don’t need is a sign of happiness and wealth so by this logic, selling off possessions and taking up as little space as possible must be sign of desperation and poverty.
I wish more people would develop the distaste for extravagance I have and embrace the liberating experience of discovering what you actually need to be happy. Once you start viewing runaway consumption for what it is—an act of violence on the rest of the resource-consuming world for taking up far more than your fair share—it is rather hard to go back to thinking you really need a hummer or three video game consoles. I think the tiny house movement and the “hipster” popularization of thrift shopping, local food, and other money and/or resource-saving escapades are steps in the right direction, but I also think they are often taken for the wrong reasons. Fads can only take a movement so far until they get watered down into completely appearance-based phenomena and suddenly you have people paying two million dollars for designer tiny homes and several hundred for used suits. When this happens, the movement’s credibility is lost entirely and everyone goes back to hating hipsters.
So the question really becomes, how do we make being “poor” acceptable, even cool? By this I of course mean that choosing to work less, spend less, and accumulate less isn’t viewed as being poor or even as being a hipster, but as being sensible and making choices that prioritize quality of life over quantity of stuff.