Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Teenagers and Cars (Learning Consumerism)

When you were her age, getting that first car was everything.

When you were a kid, chances are, life was pretty sweet, from an economic standpoint. Your room and board were paid for. Your clothes were paid for. You had no rent to pay, no mortgage, no credit card bills. If you wanted to go somewhere, the school bus took you, or your parents drove you, or you went by Schwinn or Hush Puppy.

And yet, as soon as most of us turned 16, the only thing we could think of was to get a car - anyway we could. The car represented freedom, maturity, and status with our peers. It also represented an opportunity for adolescent sexual adventures, which at the time seemed so pressing and mysterious. To many a 16-year-old, a car is everything.

Some kids are given cars by their parents, sometimes rather nice ones. Sometimes this turns tragic, as it did in Fairfax County several times, when well-meaning but stupid "Weekend Dads" try to curry favor with their estranged teens by buying them brand new Mustang Cobras or BMW M3's with predictable, deadly results. A wheel goes off the pavement, they over-correct and swerve into oncoming traffic.  Usually there are six teens in the car, none wearing seatbelts.

But even for the teens who survive such "gifts" the normative cues given are awry. Most working people have to struggle for years to afford such vehicles. And in fact, the same teen, when a 20-something, will likely have to struggle with years of car payments to afford such a vehicle. And yet, they are handed one at age 16, with predictable consequences - the car won't last until college, most likely.

Other teens, whose parents are not so well off, or whose parents are not so wracked with guilt over divorce and neglect, will go out and get a job at the local mall so they can afford a car. That is what this blog entry is about. When you ask the teen why they need an after-school job, which often interferes with their schoolwork, they will reply "So I can afford a car".

When you ask them why they need a car, they will reply, "So I can get to my after-school job." The circular reasoning is apparently lost on them.

But lest we take too much of a dig at teens, how many adults, including ourselves, fall into the same trap? We work at a job so we can afford a house, cars, clothes, etc. We buy a house in a pricey suburb near a city so we can be near the job. We buy a new "reliable" car that we say we need to "get to work". And we buy clothes that have no other purpose than to wear to the office.
"Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." - Henry David Thoreau
Many people attribute that quote to Mark Twain, by the way. I know I did. And until now, I am not sure I knew what that quote meant. But thinking about what we just talked about, it is becoming increasingly clear. If you have to take on a job that requires new clothes, you have to work to pay for the clothes - so you have the clothes to go to work to pay for the clothes, so you can go to work to pay for the clothes, and so on.

UPDATE:  I have read online that Thoreau was just stingy and wore the same old clothes until they were almost rags. Shabby Thoreau - puts a different spin on that quote!

The need to have money seems to be part of our psyche. As I noted in my "Greatest Invention" posting, money is an interesting creation of mankind, and yet many folks look at it as if it were a force of nature. Money equates to power, both on a large and small scale. If you have a few dollars in your pocket, you can go to a restaurant and command people to make food for you, bring it to your table and call you "sir." You can be the Lord of the Manor, if only for an hour or so.

And similarly, if you need money, you might end up working at that same restaurant, bowing and scraping to the customers and your boss, in exchange for a few dollars so that somewhere else, you can call the shots at someone else's expense.

Having money means being able to do what you want, when you want. Many poor people dream of winning the lottery because it means just that - not having to work, and being able to have things and command people.

For me, having money was something that I wanted at an early age. As a kid, you have no power whatsoever. You are told where to go, what to do, and when to do it, and if you talked back, you felt the back of a hand.

My parents, for some reason, decided that my older brother and sister should have an "allowance" to learn about the value of money. I am not sure that went well. My Sister regaled me of times when Dad would insist on an accurate accounting of all the money, and when my Sister could not account for every penny of what she had spent, he would browbeat her as a "spendthrift". The idea of lying about where the balance went never occurred to her, she said. She would have made a lousy accountant.

By the time I was that age, my parents decided that an allowance was not a good idea. So as kids, we were always broke. We would beg for money for ice creams and candy, or just "borrow" it from Mother's change purse. Larceny is in the heart of every child, particularly when there is candy involved.

When I got older, I got a paper route. I liked the idea of working and having my own money, although I was unable to save even a penny toward a car or anything of value. One reason was that I spent money as fast as I made it. I liked being able to go to a store and just buy things I wanted (or thought I wanted). So the money never accumulated.

Also, I later found out, my Brother was stealing my paper route money when I wasn't looking. Larceny is in the heart of all teens, particularly when there are drugs involved. I am not sure I can ever fully forgive him for that, by the way. At my first paper route job, where we were required to collect money and then pay the distributor, some weeks I would work very hard and end up making no money whatsoever. It was dispiriting and I could not figure out where the money went. All along, it was my Brother's deft fingers snatching a $20 bill here and there from my money pouch. That, and my prolific spending.

Yes, I spent a lot of money, on junk, on toys, on candy and chips and soda pop. Things I certainly did not need (particularly the junk food). But the process of spending was fun - it was like being a miniature adult. It was nice to just be able to say "I want that" and have it.

And that is a habit that takes many years to break. By the time you are 40 years old or so, the process of buying things loses its allure. Spending money is no longer "fun" as you are now more critically aware that a dollar spent here is a dollar not saved or a dollar not spend somewhere else. Or worse yet, represents a dollar borrowed or a dollar you have to work to get back. Spending is not only no longer fun, it is outright depressing.

Working hard so you can have "things" no longer seems like such a big deal anymore, once you have had a lot of "things". And marketers know this. The prime demographic for advertisers is the 16-35 year old, usually male demographic. You can sell anything to such folks. Useless junk like Jet Skis and loud motorcycles. And you can convince them then buying and owning is part of a "rebel lifestyle" or some such nonsense. And they will buy into it.

But as we get older, we realize that the best things in life are really free, or nearly so. I spend about an hour a day on the beach here on our island. It is a beautiful spot, and I get exercise walking, playing with the dog, or just lay in the sun or read a book in the shade. The cost of this extravagance (and it is an extravagance - how many people's "dream vacation getaway" amounts to what I do every day?) is nearly zero. I mean, I may pay for a small snack or lunch, but that is an overhead cost I am carrying, anyway.

Doing things rather than owning things. Teenagers and young men like to think that owning something is an end in an of itself. They buy an old Honda and bolt on a bunch of ugly accessories and think it is an "accomplishment" when in fact it is little more than buying things and going into debt. Learning how to play the piano is an accomplishment. Buying one on credit merely requires a W2.

America is hooked on a car culture, and until recently, it seemed we were stuck with a car economy. Many people, not just teenagers, are obsessed with cars, their purchase, their maintenance, and their operation. Most Americans spend at least two hours a day driving a car. It is a major part of American life, along with acquiring and owning "things" in general.

And that is an interesting aspect of American life. When we worry about money in America, for 99% of the population, it is not to worry about starving to death or not having a place to live or being homeless. No, it is worrying about keeping our "things" like cars and stuff and overwrought houses with granite counter-tops. The orgy of excess of the last decade was all about having things, and today, people are upset about losing "things" as if it were a kind of death.

For example, I have a friend who is scraping by on Social Security. They tell me they worry about money a lot. But they live in a resort community, pay over $100 a month for cable and internet access, and have a car. They eat out in restaurants regularly - expensive restaurants at that. They complain about the bills and expenses, but many of those expenses are for luxury items or are things that are maintained for status alone. They worry and they fret, and it probably is not helping their health. And yet the idea of cutting back on luxuries, finding a cheaper place to live - it just isn't in the cards.

It is easy to obsess and worry about money, to worry about having things, owning things and keeping things. And such worries can kill you, over time, if you let them. Humans are status-seeking animals.

And in that regard, perhaps it never is possible to stop worrying about things like money, even if you won the lottery. As humans, we expand our needs to accommodate the available income, like gas filling an empty chamber. So long as we CAN have some luxury or status item, we will be inclined to have it.

And perhaps that it is the key to happy living. Just as losing and maintaining weight requires that you watch what you eat, so that you can be happy and healthy, being fiscally healthy requires that you not over-consume in terms of goods and "things" that you really don't need in life.

To consume slightly less food that we can or need results in weight loss and happiness. To consume slightly less money that we can or need results in accumulation of wealth. Both are hard lessons to learn - from the teenage years onward, we jump on the consumer bandwagon, convinced that having more is the secret to happiness.

Consume less, save more. I only wished I could have figured that out at age 16. But perhaps our minds are destined to work that way.