Living on $200 a month gets you cereal, tofu, soy milk and happiness... What?!

Originally published January 28, 2011

When I told my family and close friends I was moving to New York City and living off of $200 spending money a month, people raised their eyebrows, questioned why I would even consider it, told me it was pretty much impossible, and foresaw that I’d be unhappy.

Moving to a city that is the pinnacle of popular culture, the capital of commercialism, one of the greatest shopping and food Meccas on the planet with any thing one could possibly want to get, eat, or do just a subway ride away- I knew it would not be the most comfortable of situations I’ve put myself in before.

In the beginning months, I would spend my weekends mystified by all the places I could go and see- and I wasn’t even on vacation. I was taken by the flashy storefronts, the colors of the hip garments, shiny jewelry, wonder of the events being advertised, and all of the different foods to taste.. someday. Through all of these afternoons, it was only looking, barely touching, and rarely ever buying- unless it was cheap food to fuel my legs to take me a few more blocks to reach a subway bound for another stop to explore or to my Sunset Park home.

After the initial wonder wore off, I realized how much I had to say no consistently through my days off- how many old clothes I could not replace with all of these new ones I saw everywhere, how much penny counting I’d resort to, how many food items I’d resist over $5.00, and how many events and experiences NYC offers that were out of my reach. I realized I was no longer middle/working class that I was in Minnesota- and it was brought to my attention that I am even eligible for food stamps.

When I was explaining my living situation to the Rocawear, Air Jordan, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, and Coogi clad students I teach, they couldn’t believe it either. They responded with, “Ms. Valerie, you can’t live like that!” and then explained to me how I could get money through housing (I get my house paid for) and food assistance. One of my students asked me, “Why do you wear the same beat up Nikes every day?” “Do you want me to get you UGGs? I got hookups.” Or “You don’t go out and spend money? Your life must be boring, I feel bad for you.”

After times like these when your actual economic status as a full-time volunteer is realized, it’s so much easier to focus on what you can’t buy, why you actually willingly chose this counter-culture lifestyle in a city where popular culture is pouring into all of your senses with most everything you see in the streets and buildings, and on the bodies of other people, in their words, values, world-views, ideas, and thought processes.

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Riding the N train in lower to mid-Manhattan gives me a glimpse of many other 20 something just grads who embraced society’s expectations and snagged a job in the city. I see these people who probably make more in a day than I do in a month, wear stiff business attire, well-pressed skirts, flawlessly painted makeup, salon-like hair and strategically matching shoes and jackets, while I stand next to them looking juvenile in my frayed jeans, jacket, and shoes I wear most every day without makeup and hair in a ponytail.

At first I tried to suppress my feelings of inadequacy in not finding a well paying job right after graduation.  I only imagined what their homes were like when they got out of the subways and stepped through their doors after long nights of barhopping, dinning, and shopping. I imagined flat screen televisions, high white carpets, double beds near tall windows with breathtaking city skyline views.

As my feelings of inadequacy burned, something was missing. Even though I felt monetarily and culturally inferior to my more wealthy counterparts, I didn’t feel envious and certainly didn’t wish to exchange places with them. Weird.

I loved the fact that I wasn’t having to dress up, put on a show, or “buy” my friendships with others. I’ve found that living in “solidarity” with my social network makes me be okay with not being willing to put a costume on, spending my Saturdays shopping, spending tens of dollars bellying up to bars and drinking my nights away in empty conversation and company.

As Willard Spiegelman examines in his publication, Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, “Is the plutocrat necessarily happier than the day laborer? Envy not the wealthy, but the contented.” (9)

Thinking about Americans who live in an age where there is an abundance of resources, food, and entertainment- it seems we should be one of the happiest, most contented people who’ve lived on this Earth yet. But somehow capitalism, media, technology, values and ultimately our culture- has set us up to have some of the biggest problems ever encountered by generations before.

Spiegelman also presents that Americans seek happiness with instant gratification and therefore, we live in a culture of:

“Giddily self-obsessed [people] eager for pleasure, advancement, wealth and well-being versus those who lived in the Old World sophisticate with a tragic and communitarian philosophy tested in the fires of centuries of war, deprivation, and sorrow. The world has seen happy Europeans, melancholy Americans.” (13)

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During my volunteer year, I haven’t had the chance to access much instant gratification to make my days and weekends better when I may feel my life might be lacking in any way. Without money, I’ve had to hold myself to a higher standard by finding what I can do for myself to make myself really happy, not what the green paper in my wallet could do for me or the higher numbers on my bank statement. I’ve had to find what can truly make me happy in life besides acquiring things to put in my room, things I can adorn my body with, or swiping my debit/credit card. Happiness means looking for the good in each day, in each person around you and within yourself to make you happy, in what you can do for others and for yourself, not the quick fixes promised by corporate America or popular culture.

Instead pursuing the institutional, synthetic materials that are supposed to make my life better in this millennium, I’ve had to resort to activities that barely cost a dime including reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing- things that bring us back to the basics.. of what we are supposed to enjoy as humans- others, ourselves, and our Earth.

“We must celebrate soberly, not giddily or smugly life’s ordinary pleasures. If we are lucky- these will suffice.” (Spiegelman, 4)