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American Beauty by Lorie Sheffer

“This isn’t life, it’s just stuff. And it’s become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that’s just nuts.” – Lester Burnham, American Beauty (1999)

There seems to be a story I keep hearing over and over again from friends with adult children. Their “kids” have decent jobs and yet they can’t seem to pay their bills. Without batting an eye, the parents are dipping into retirement savings to “help”. With the median family income in this country at just under $50,000 a year, I’m floored when I hear a newly married couple can’t make ends meet on an $80,000 a year combined income.

Some quick research showed me what I had suspected could be at the heart of this seeming sense of entitlement for many of today’s young adults. Growing up, I can’t think of one single friend of mine who lived in a house with more than one bathroom. Many of them shared a bedroom with one or more siblings. Nobody had more than one TV. Most teenagers borrowed the family car. I found that in 1950 the average size of a home in the United States was 983 square feet. In 1970 it was 1,500 square feet, in 1990 it was 2,080 square feet and by 2004 it had risen to 2,349 square feet.

When a friend was visiting from Germany several years ago, he commented on how many SUVs he saw. In Europe, they take public transportation or ride a bike or drive a smaller car. They have to pay a high yearly registration to drive something that uses a lot of gas. Of course gas is much cheaper here in the U.S., he told me. Over there it was around $8.00 a gallon.

When I was growing up we went on a vacation every year. Campers were the big thing back then, as were Howard Johnson’s and their signature orange roofs. For most of us, luxury hotels were something we only saw in the movies. I remember people being upset by the “new luxury condos” that were being built in Ocean City Maryland. They would block the sun in the afternoons, and who was going to rent or buy them anyway? Only rich people could afford those!

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think the problem is big homes and nice cars and extravagant vacations. I think the problem is thinking we HAVE to have those things, even if it means needing to ask for help to pay for that life. Maybe in wanting to see our children achieve The American Dream – which is becoming increasingly larger- we have lost sight of the fact that it all has to be paid for.

While chatting with my son over the phone today, I asked him why he had his wife have never asked us for money. He seemed kind of taken aback. I explained to him that I was preparing to write this post, and asked for his opinion. Bottom line is, he feels it is a good idea to live with less than you can afford instead of more than you can afford. Also, in doing so you tend to learn how to reuse and repurpose, which leaves less of an environmental footprint. (Well done, Grasshopper; well done.)

“ My company sells an image. It’s part of my job to live that image.” – Lester Burnham’s wife, Carolyn.