Instantly, I love them. Cream colored leather. Thick heel. They almost resemble fall booties, but it has a peek toe so they could be worn in summer. I look at the price tag – $70. Too much. I shouldn’t even try them on. Plus, they’re not even what I’m looking for. Stay focused, I think.
I decided to go to TJMaxx last week after I came to the stark realization that I had no good sandals to wear on Easter. I only owned Rainbow leather flip flops and a flimsy pair of black, strappy sandals that my roommate Jenica had given to me in college after she felt they were too worn in for her (they’re now decorated with spots where the fake leather has worn down and revealed the cloth core beneath).
I pass the cream colored heels, scan my eyes further along the shelf. I’m proud of my initial self-control, but the sparkly sandals I eventually try on disappoint and after I try another pair of baby pink ones with a gold plate down the strap, I pull the cream colored heels off the shelf. No harm in trying them on, right? But I know that I am trapped. They feel perfect, molded to my foot almost, as if they were made for me. But they’re $70, I think over and over again. I can’t justify spending $70 on shoes I didn’t come here to buy. What do I need them for?
And there’s the crux—need. I don’t need them for anything. But what about that wedding this summer that I still need shoes for? Or the white coat ceremony for medical school that’s coming up in the middle of August? The justification begins. When it comes time to whittle down my hefty selections from an after work shopping spree, the cream colored shoes stay for purely aesthetic reasons—they’re cute, comfy, versatile. I walk to the register, telling myself I’ll return the shoes if they don’t go with the dress I’m wearing to the wedding this summer.
It’s been almost a week now and the shoes sit in front of my closet, the tags still attached. I am no closer to making a decision of whether I will keep them. They didn’t go with that dress. But I could still wear them, I think. More justification. I recognize that my agony over this decision does not match the consequences of such decision. I recognize that my happiness is not tied to the purchase or return of these shoes, that these are only material things. It’s cliché, I know. It’s things we’ve all heard before—money doesn’t buy happiness. And yet, on the surface, they seem so intrinsically linked.
For much of my life I have struggled financially. I was raised primarily by a single mother and started working as soon as it was legal, right before my 16th birthday, so that I could have money to buy things for myself—clothes, shoes, tickets to movies. I don’t resent my upbringing because of this; on the contrary, I am appreciative that my family’s adversity made me aware, from a young age, of the value of money. Yet, it also has me continually striving for more, and not necessarily in a healthy way.
Since high school, I’ve found that I easily become jealous of others who have more. Classmates whose parents pay their rent for them and still give them monthly allowances to buy clothes and go out to bars; friends who make more money than me and consequently can travel with more ease; even strangers who seem to be dressed nice, drive a nicer car than me, or order an entire bottle of wine at dinner. I wish I didn’t have these thoughts. I wish that I didn’t size up everyone I meet by the amount of money they or their parents make. I wish I didn’t have to think about the balance of my bank account on a daily basis. I wish I could buy what I wanted without having to worry if I could pay the rent that month too.
I reflect now on my fixation with money because even though I have recognized for a long time that my relationship with money is not the healthiest, I began for the first time in my life to form a healthy relationship with money while I was in Thailand. My financial situation radically changed while I was there. No longer was I concerned about making enough money to pay the rent or having sufficient funds to go out on a Friday night for a drink. I had the extreme privilege to have a stable salary that not only allowed me to live comfortably, but also gave me the ability to save for trips and other travel expenses. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to worry about money.
I also didn’t have the pulls of capitalism that exist so strongly in this country. The few ads I was exposed to were in a language I didn’t fully understand and therefore had no lasting impact on me. I was essentially in this bubble stripped of outside influences and thus, my purchases were almost solely based on the molding of my being. To add to this nearly non-capitalist approach to purchasing, I knew that I anything I bought there needed to have a purpose fulfilled immediately because most of the things I owned while there would not be returning home with me. It was as if I owned this transient set of possessions, material things that I knew I would not add to my permanent collection and therefore would not impact my self-image for long. Because of this I bought items that I certainly would never have bought if I were living in the U.S. For example, I purchased a pair of orange Converse at a fair when I needed a pair of tennis shoes that would be more comfortable than flip flops to walk around in a city all day. I first tried on a pair of black Converse, something that was already a bit outside my comfort zone. I had never purchased a pair of Converse before, always thinking they weren’t my style and made my feet look too big. But there weren’t many other options at this fair in terms of closed toed walking shoes. As I was about to purchase the black pair, an orange pair caught my eye. What the hell? I thought. Why not? The last time I owned anything orange (outside of Wapiyapi) was a t-shirt I wore in the fourth grade with a sparkly zebra on front.
I loved those orange shoes. They fulfilled their purpose and always made me smile when I looked down on their bright, and a little bizarre, color. When they began falling apart on my way home, the rubber soles wearing through as I walked through town with them in Ireland, I purchased a new pair of shoes in the next shop I saw and threw the orange pair away in the trash can outside. No second thoughts.
This year hasn’t brought the same satisfaction with my purchases. I have bought in excess, whether it be because I have returned home after two years of living in a tropical climate and thus have a shortage of practical fall and winter clothes, or it be because I am starting medical school next year and feel an added pressure to build a varied wardrobe so as to decrease the amount of clothes I will buy over the next four years when everything will be on a loan, I don’t know.
Every time I have bought something this year I have told myself that this is the end of the purchasing for a while. I don’t need any more clothes for fall. Or winter. Or spring. But as soon as I buy one thing, I begin to want more. Just after I purchased a cardigan in the mall, on sale, I began to notice what women wore in the store while I was at work. I wanted the purple cardigan one women wore, who I spotted leaning over her daughter, wiping some stray juice off her cheek. I took note of the running capris one woman wore while pushing her stroller; they hit her calf in just the right place so they didn’t ride up. I observed the heels that clicked by and the brightly colored converse that caught my eye. Why, I thought, am I constantly wanting more just as I have obtained more?
When I first moved home I felt hypersensitive to the capitalism around me—the ads on TV, the radio, my phone, the Internet, the emails with sales and discounts and new products that filled my inbox on an hourly basis. They all drove me mad. I felt like there was no way to escape the noise, there was no way I couldn’t want more. I felt restless most days, going to bed with a slight buzzing in my ear.
Is this a condition of humanity? Or just of our Western societal structure? Or is it more specifically a construct of American society?
Or perhaps some of it as well, has something to do with the condition of my hometown. It’s a place filled with upper middle class families. A place where my high school spilled over with kids dressed in the latest designer clothes—Juicy Couture track suits, Coach shoes, Miss Me and Lucky Brand jeans—and the parking lot seemed like a high end dealership—BMW’s, Land Rovers, Mercedes. I was the only one I knew above the age of 16 who didn’t have their own car.
Now I find myself surrounded by that all again, just in a very different context. I am no longer influenced by the amount of name brand purses I see in the grocery store, but I do feel a certain pressure to look my best. For the first time in my existence I feel an urge to wear heels in an everyday capacity and not simply for formal events like dances or weddings or interviews.
When I was in college I once asked one of my teammates what they wore in terms of makeup. “Only mascara,” she said. “Sometimes eyeliner if I’m going to a party or something. But a lot of days I don’t wear any makeup.” I was a little taken aback.
I turned to my other teammate and asked her the same question. “Mascara and eyeliner,” she said. “But a lot of days I don’t wear anything either.”
“Really?” I looked at both of them, incredulous.
“What do you wear?” they asked me.
“Mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow, foundation.” My list felt long and unnecessary compared to theirs. I told them I always wore makeup, that I hardly ever went a day without it. “It’s not that I think I don’t look good without it, I just have never really thought about not wearing it on a normal day where I go to class.”
After our conversation, I realized that I had built my own makeup habit in high school and it had never left me. In high school I had noticed all the girls with intricate layers of foundation and blush, shades of eye shadow filled in up to their brows, thick lines of eyeliner that were impossible to miss. In class one day a teacher asked us to reveal our morning routines. Most girls said they spent 40 minutes to an hour on their makeup alone. I had the shortest routine at 10 minutes. I was tame in comparison to many of my classmates, at least that’s what I thought. Puget Sound, the place I attended college, however, was far different from my hometown and I felt it immediately.
“I like that people wear their hair natural here,” one of my friends observed at the beginning of our freshman year. It was true. Many girls didn’t feel the need to straighten their hair or even blow dry it and thus there were more people with wavy and curly hair than straight. It gave my friend the permission to ditch her own straightener and go natural as well.
Students at Puget Sound didn’t feel the need to impress others with how they looked. It was a laid back campus where designer brand purses were almost nonexistent and a natural look won over a highly made up one.
How much is the way I present myself to the world shaped by the town I grew up in? Was I never able to ditch my makeup regimen in college because it had already been so firmly cemented in me during high school? Was I never able to wear my hair natural because of the fear I had during high school that everyone would take note if I hadn’t straightened my hair for one day? If the answers to all of these questions are yes, then isn’t it reasonable to assume that my spending habits this year, especially in regards to building a more glamorous and varied wardrobe are tied to these same pressures? I am a product of my environment, as many of us are, and despite having traveled to different parts of the world and having lived in another part of the country, I am still vulnerable to the very thing I hate most about my hometown—its superficiality.
I think what bothers me most about this superficiality is not that I can’t afford the nice things so many people have around me, but that people feel the need to buy these nice things in the first place. The excess of luxury cars, designer clothing, and fine jewelry in my hometown is not so much a sign of higher income but a need for people to flaunt that excess wealth. What is the purpose behind buying a Lexus over a Toyota? A Kate Spade purse over an off brand one from TJMaxx or Target? There is something to be said of higher quality, but yet, how much of our decision to buy nicer products is entangled in what that brand represents and thereby what our status becomes when we can afford such luxuries.
As a kid, and even now, I have never understood why money ruled our world. I have always questioned how extremely wealthy people could keep all their money for themselves without ever giving much of it to others who need it more. How can one be so selfish as to live with far more than they need, and yet others do not even have the necessities of a home and clean clothes?
In high school I was strangely curious about communism. I thought, in many ways, it was more ideal than democracy because it ruled out capitalism and wealth and social hierarchy. But I knew better than to say these thoughts out loud, especially in a classroom. Even in a post Cold War world, I knew that saying communism seemed better than what we currently had in the U.S. was crossing a certain line, even if I didn’t entirely agree with that line. Communism, to me, represented this world where people could be equal, where there was no choice in being selfish and everyone was taken care of. Since visiting some communist countries, I have seen that all of these ideals work out better on paper than they do in practice. Selfishness is a part of the human condition. There is no denying that.
I, myself, who has always criticized wealthy people for keeping their riches, am guilty of this crime too. I do not need those $70 shoes; instead that money could go towards Wapiyapi (a cause that many of you know is near and dear to my heart), funding a scholarship for one of my students in Thailand, or even selfishly—my student loans.
This whole post isn’t to mock my purchase, or your purchase for that matter, of a $70 pair of shoes. In the overarching world these are small things. Yet, I find myself gripped with buyer’s remorse each time I purchase something. Even weeks after the purchase I am engrossed with possible regret. I may have used the shoes several times or worn the dress and received many compliments on it; I may even have fallen in love with the item myself. But yet, I am still burdened with the thought of returning it because truly my life would be the same without it.
My relationship with money may be rocky, but I will continue to work on making better, smarter purchases and creating a healthier partnership with money in the context of a highly capitalist world where advertisements are thrust into my lap within nearly every minute of every day—
Wait—I just received an email with deals on winter jackets. It’s only spring, but if I want to get a good deal I got to act now. . .Where’d I put my wallet?