Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Socks and Underwear
It was a question I heard Oprah ask her guest as I passed through the room - “Once you had money to buy whatever you wanted, what did you buy first?” Her guest described a foundation he had set up for needy kids and she then re-framed her question. “What I meant,” she continued, “was what did you buy for you? When I got my first sizable paycheck the first thing I splurged on was good towels. I had always dreamed of owning huge luxurious bath towels.”
I knew what she meant. I think anyone who has ever struggled in life financially knows what she meant. You get by, day to day, and buy what you really need to survive. You hold your dreams in the back of your mind. The big dreams like owning your dream house or driving a fancy car rarely cross your mind. It’s the simple dreams that roll through your brain when you imagine a day that a paycheck will buy more than groceries and gasoline.
I grew up in a large foster family. We lived off hand me downs from other families at church and ate food we grew in the backyard or bought at the day old bread store. I remember every single time that I came home from college and my mom offered to buy me a new pair of basic Lee jeans, putting it on her credit card so she’d have time to pay it off once I left for school again. It was such a treat to me because I knew it was scarce money for her.
Through loans and grants my siblings and I all graduated from college. We have found our way in the world and no longer worry that we won’t be able to buy the basics of survival. All of us have owned homes in good neighborhoods. The bank accounts might be tight at times but my children have never been without food, clothing or a safe place to live. But the financially tight times never leave your memory. It will always be a part of who you are. Just as Oprah remembers the day she bought her big bath towels, I remember the day I felt a tiny bit of financial freedom for the first time.
Jeff and I had been living on a very tight budget as he worked his way through graduate school. We had one baby, so I was home, then along came the second before we could blink twice. Between nursing, cloth diapers, and hand me downs, our babies didn’t cost a lot. I am amazed now, when I look back, at how little money we lived on. Our diet was very basic and our time was spent doing the fun things in life that are free, like taking walks around the block and making good use of the playground in the park across the street.
Sure, I would have loved to have had more money in those days. But we were both committed to me being home when the kids were little and we were both willing to do what it took to make that happen. So when Jeff got an offer for a real, full time, career type job, we were just a bit excited. A huge bit. Especially when we found out it paid more than twice what we had been living on for two years.
We wrote out mock budgets and were so thrilled that we would have more breathing room when it came to paying the bills. We could afford to rent a much nicer house (with more than 600 square feet this time!) and finally buy things we had put off buying, like new shoes and clothes. But the thing I was looking forward to the most was the trip to the department store when I could finally buy everyone new socks and underwear.
It might not sound like much, but when you live on a very tight budget, you make do with what you have for as long as you can. It never seemed right to buy new socks or underwear when I could save the money and buy more beans and rice when grocery day rolled around. Finally, oh finally, I got to fill my cart with something new.
And I will never forget the comment a friend at church made when I shared my excitement with her. She asked about Jeff’s new job, our upcoming move, and how I was feeling about all of it. I told her I was thrilled and the thing I looked forward to most was being able to buy us all new socks and underwear.
Then she laughed. Not the ‘oh I feel ya, sister’ laugh. The kind of laugh that condescends and makes you feel small. I’ll never forget her snide reaction, this woman my age, who I had thought of until that moment as a friend. “Socks and underwear?” she sneered, “What a silly thing to dream about!”
I brushed off her laugh but obviously it stuck with me. It was twenty years ago and I can still hear her tone and see her face. I just couldn’t believe her rudeness and it told me that she had never been in a place of want in her lifetime. She had never yearned for something simple that was just not practical to buy. She will never know how her words cut me but I worry more that she will never understand how to truly appreciate.
To this day I remember that socks and underwear shopping trip every time I throw a package of new socks or underwear in my cart. I appreciate every package, these few small things that will now be such a small fraction of my total bill. I remember what it felt like when just those few items were the total of the store receipt and how grateful I was to have them.
Some days I still feel poor. There are so many things we need to fix around this old place, things that all seem to take five hundred to a thousand dollars. They will sit, undone for years ,maybe until we get everyone through college. There are fun trips we’d like to take. I’d love to fly our gang back to Utah to see old friends we left behind almost four years ago. But two thousand miles is a long way to drive and six plane tickets don’t fit into my budget.
But just when I start to feel deprived I think of the people I pass almost every day as I go up and down the aisles of the grocery store. Folks who are still living in tight financial times, whether from job loss, divorce, or any other life changing event that can leave a person hard up. Maybe they dream of buying something beyond the beans and rice. I’ve been there. I know how that feels. They don’t wish for big stuff.
Just a few simple pleasures, like maybe a new pair of socks and a new package of underwear.