Money-Consumerism


Yesterday, after 12 weeks of being on strike, I went back to work. Actually, I went in on Sunday for half a day. HR had called on Saturday informing me that I was going to act as the head of my department until the new guy comes towards the end of November, and that I was invited to attend a managers/supervisors meeting on Sunday that gave direction on what the priorities are and how to prepare for opening to the public.

The meeting was professionally conducted, but the tone with which management spoke was subdued, quiet, even contrite, if I may say so. A few people returning to work presented themselves neutrally or with some excitement to get back to work, but most others wore grim, black expressions on their faces, smouldering silently. The room was thick with tension and distrust.

I suppose this state of things is only natural given how long the strike went on for and all the negative effects that came out from that. There is a lot of healing needed for employer-employee relations, and even among union members. Last Friday, when I learned that my union ratified the 2nd deal, I burst into tears, feeling absolutely conflicted about going back to work and letting the full impact of feeling helpless hit me in a way that I had managed to avoid the past three months.

Here are some things I learned while being on a lengthy strike:

  • it is undignifying NOT to be able to work. After two weeks into it, my sense of worth and purpose became threatened in a way I had not expected. While I like my job a lot, I thought I had a pretty good handle on not letting my life revolve around my work. But the strike revealed to me that a good part of myself needs to be productive and to know that I am contributing to society in some way.
  • people are incredibly generous and resilient in a time of trial. The members of my union showed me this by the way we shared resources, encouraged each other on the picket line, and participated in creative, community-building activities while on strike duty. I got to know a lot of my co-workers more personally while we picketed together. I felt very blessed by their openness to me to being known.
  • I have options with what to do with my life. Prior to the strike, I had gotten into a comfortable (and in hindsight, unfulfilling) rut in the routine of my life. There have been some things I have been wanting to pursue (like go back to school) but have not had the courage to make the necessary and radical changes in my life to really pursue them.
  • I can handle the stress and discomfort of living on very limited financial means. I’m not saying that I enjoy going into debt or anything sadistic like that, but I did learn to live on very little and came to appreciate the generosity of my family and close friends. God provided the necessities, just at the right time. But having said all that, I really hate being in debt. I still can’t believe that I’ve lost a quarter of my wages this year.
  • I am still marketable.
  • I can still give, even if I have very little.
  • How to increase and decrease in knitting.
  • That many of my co-workers love to play Scrabble and play it very well.

Okay, that’s all for now. I could go on.

Rupert is one of Dad’s first cousins from his mom’s side. As far as I can remember, he has always been very close and very good to my family. When we were children, my sisters and I prefixed his name with “Uncle,” but now that we are adults, we have done away with that. I characterize him as “the cool uncle” in the family. He’s fun, active and trendy, always sporting the newest gizmo and drives a spiffy vehicle. He gives the BEST GIFTS, whether it’s an interesting book or some electronic device. He gives such mind-blowing gifts that even my friends speculate on my behalf and sometimes become more excited than I am about what I might get (you know who you are)! THIS year, he gave me and Anita each a 2nd generation 4GB iPod Nano.

Those of you following my blog will know that I have agonized over whether or not to get the 2nd generation Shuffle. Eventually, I decided against it because I didn’t really need one, didn’t like that fact that iPod products are made to be disposable, and had other priority items to save up for. But I was quite pleased and grateful to get the Nano; it was completely unexpected and “better” than what I wanted in the first place. Mine’s electric blue and happens to match my running jacket!!

There is a flip side: surprisingly, I found myself conflicted and a bit burdened being an iPod owner. By observation, I gathered that having an MP3 player of any sort was pretty high maintenance (in terms of time and money), in spite of the portable convenience it promises. Also, I felt like I was violating some sort of anti-consumerist principle that I *ought* to follow (though who am I really kidding.). Also, for some reason, I found myself a bit embarrassed to be seen in public with that distinctive iPod trademark, the white earbuds. I didn’t like the idea of being possibly thought of as “being one of them,” an adherent to the Apple culture.

(I know some of you think I overthink things, like the way I have done here, but that’s just the way I am. I have an obsessive need to find meaning in everything.)

Anyways, for the first few days of use, I tried to be “like everyone else” that I’ve seen in public carrying around an MP3 device, just to see what the appeal is of having something to listen to all the time or anytime I wanted. Some conclusions:

  • I found that I didn’t like not being able to hear what’s going on in my natural surroundings. I felt unsafe and edgy. If I turned the volume low enough to hear my surroundings, I couldn’t hear the music. If I turned the volume up, it hurt my ears. Therefore, much to my disappointment, using it for commuting is not feasible.
  • Figuring out what to store on my iPod requires a lot of my time. It can fit about 1000 songs. I love music, but I generally don’t have that time to sift through my large CD collection to pick what goes on my iPod. Therefore, I am using not even a quarter of the memory, which feels like a waste. It will take a few months for me to fully utilize the storage space.
  • The Nano is incredibly slim, but fragile. Also, the package was pretty bare bones minimum and didn’t come with any protective casing. Increasing its functionality will require accessorizing, which means spending money that I simply don’t have. Until I’m ready to “invest” more into it, I’m limited to using it at work, in bed, or when I go out for a walk/run.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not complaining or being ungrateful. But, as I suspected correctly in the first place, having an iPod hasn’t made that much of a difference to my lifestyle as the marketing seems to promise. Or I might be more of Luddite than I thought myself to be. Maybe, as I get older, I’m adapting to the technological advances around me less quickly. Or, I have come to have different ideas with what to do with my time and money.

With too many adults living under the same roof, things got really hairy at home last summer, so I made up my mind to move out (which, in hindsight, I should have done at least 5 years ago, after I had finished my second degree). At that point, I hadn’t determined whether I would rent or buy, but either way, I needed to make some drastic changes to how I was managing my money to afford independence.

Actually, I had already started tracking my expenses more diligently after I started working full time, just over three years ago now, to get a sense of where my money was going. Over a couple years, it became very clear that my car (which was nowhere near to being paid off) was by far my biggest expense. With insurance, gas, maintenance, and parking, my car cost me almost $5000/year. This money could be going to my rent, a down payment, or a mortgage! Thus, much as I loved my car and having the mobility, I wanted to have my own space more. I felt really sore about idea of giving up the car, but it was a no-brainer. I needed to live within my means. The car had to go.

car.jpgMotivated to sell, I put the word out that it was for sale last spring. I managed to sell my lovely blue car over last September to E&E, cousins of some good friends of mine. They are great people, for whom I have a lot of respect and admiration, so I’m happy that my car is in good hands. The timing was also impeccable (providential, really) because I was in the preliminary stages of negotiating the contract for the place I’m currently living in.

So far, I have done remarkably well without a car. It’s a 3 minute walk to nearest grocery. If transit’s on schedule, it takes just over half an hour to get to work, and a bit less on the way back. It’s also about 30 minutes to my parents’ place. It’s a 10 minute bus ride to Bethel and Metrotown. And because I live so much closer to my friends now, they have been GREAT with giving me rides or running errands together with me, when I happen to be on their route or doing similar things.

I do have to plan ahead a lot more when it comes to getting around nowadays. I’m constantly checking the bus schedules. I know exactly how long it takes for me to walk from point A to B. Ironically, I’m more punctual nowadays than when I was driving.

I notice that my pace in life has slowed down; I’m in less of a hurry, probably because I have a better sense and acceptance of my limitations and know how to work with them. For some reason, when I had the car, I fooled myself into thinking that I had THAT much control with my time and could get somewhere faster than it actually took; I found myself running behind constantly.

I also like having not to be as responsible for the safety of others. Being a passenger on transit gives me plenty of time to think, observe and read. It’s nice to be able to look out the window.

However, NOT having a car also means I have less options to go whereever I want, to do whatever I want whenever I want. Making trips out of the city or going furniture shopping on my own is generally out of the question, unless I find someone willing to go with me. NOT having a car also reminds me that I can’t have it all, which is sometimes not a pleasant thing to remember. Most of my other friends seem to be able to afford a lifestyle that includes a car, so why can’t I? But of course, when I go down that route of comparison, it becomes illogical because my lifestyle isn’t actually comparable to that of others. We all have very different situations and live by different values, which means we all spend money very differently.

But not having it all hasn’t killed me (hm, does this mean it would if I did strive to have it all?). It doesn’t “feel” good at times, but for some reason, I must admit that my life and person is the better for it overall.

Last week, I received a Notice of Assessment from the Property Taxation Branch stating that I don’t qualify for a First Time Home Buyer’s Exemption from Property Transfer Tax after a review of my conveyance documents, and that because I don’t qualify, I owed the Government of BC over $3100, to be paid by the end of this month!

My eyes nearly started out of their sockets. What an unexpected blow! I had taken great care through personal research and legal help to ensure that I would be exempt, so what happened? And where was I going to find this money?

After allowing myself to freak out for a bit, I decided to do something more constructive and dug out all boring paperwork and various contracts related to this matter. After some crude analysis of numbers, my audacious conclusion was that the government made a mistake. I say “crude” and “audacious” because, coming primarily from an arts background, I tend to doubt my own abilities when it comes to understanding “government stuff,” business concepts, legalese and the like. Anything technical, dry, and requiring an expert, really.

But how was I going to make my case? While on the one hand I felt that I was in the right, I wasn’t completely sure. I was afraid that I would be talked down by some government official who might presume to know better than me.

So I thought I’d run my situation by my lawyer, just to see if I was on the right track. Unfortunately, my lawyer’s office too quickly assured me that “this is typically what happens,” that the government can tax me if their reassessment shows that the market value of my apartment has increased. But this was not quite my case. By my calculations, it appeared that the government had double-counted some large amount that had already been accounted for, which constructed a situation where I wouldn’t qualify for a tax exemption.

Because I sensed the law office wasn’t all that interested in sussing out the details of my case to give me the best advice possible, I decided that I had to take things into my own hands, in spite of my insecurities about my ignorance of such matters. So I left a phone message with the Ministry of Small Business and Revenue, and padded that with a very professional email explicitly detailing my concerns. I spent over an hour crafting this piece of correspondence, trying to get the right tone and articulate the exact questions I needed answers for. By way of contrast, I also politely offered my own understanding of things, but basing it on the Minstry’s definition of certain concepts (e.g. “consideration“). I thought this rhetorical strategy would enhance my credibility, and not a little bit.

I like to think that my preparation counted for something because at work on Wednesday morning, I got the following email from the Administrator at the Ministry:

“You are right! The contract was misread. I have corrected the error and reinstated the first time homebuyer’s exemption. Please feel free to contact me if there are any other issues.”

These were the sweetest words I have encountered all week. I was so relieved that I burst into tears, right in front of my co-worker Neil! The poor guy, having to put up with my weirdness.

But I was also very proud of myself, that I managed to figure this how-de-do on my own. Sometimes, I surprise myself, that I am more resourceful than I thought myself to be.

OK, enough tooting on my own horn now. But thank God I have brains. And tenacity.

The closer I approach the anniversary of the completion date of my apartment (i.e. mid-December), the more I play with the idea of selling my place. The couple who rented my parking space up until the end of September sold their suite (the ground floor version of my unit) for a very good price. And the entrepreurial side of me cannot ignore that. Because I’m higher up, I’m sure I can sell for a little more. Then I would take my profit, invest it semi-conservatively, and use the return to pay rent. That would allow me to save whatever I would normally contribute to my mortgage and maintenance fees and wait for another good opportunity to buy. Even my dad thinks it’s worth pursuing, especially since I don’t have a whole lot of responsibility on my plate right now. I would only have to take care of me.

But these thoughts give me a headache. The idea of making another big change is tiring and stress-inducing. It’s a given that another move is necessarily inconvenient and stressful, but is it worth it? How do I measure worth here? Is it about money? Security? Emotional stability? My well-being? Staying flexible to future life-changing opportunities? I don’t know!!

Obviously, there are significant pros and cons to my staying or selling.The main problem is that I don’t know what I want, which affects my ability to assess what trade offs to make.

I DON’T like not knowing what I want. I feel really ungrounded and vulnerable.

Having passed through a crisis of conscience with the shopping craze on Saturday, I am now ready to gloat about my top three bargain finds.

  1. A pair cream-coloured cords from Banana Republic. On sale it was already $24.99. But there was an in-store sale for another 40% off. And on top of that, our total purchase as a group qualified for an additional 25% off. Final total: $11.24.
  2. An olive green knit skirt with lace trim from the Gap. On the clearance rack for $3.97. With an additional 40% and then the 25% group discount, the final total came to $2.08.
  3. A set of coupons for 8 junior frosties at Wendy’s for $1. This was my favourite “bargain” (I confess that I have completely missed the point of charitable giving). We had stopped over at Wendy’s in Burlington for a quick lunch. After I polished off my sandwich, my soft ice cream cravings kicked in again, so a chocolate frosty was in order. I was in the middle of asking for a large frosty when the pimply-faced, stoned-sounding, teenaged cashier cut in with another idea.

img_1945.jpgPfSsTC: “Would you like to donate a dollar to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital?”

Me (wondering what this has got to do with frosties): “Um … uh ….”

PfSsTC: “You get a coupon book for 8 junior frosties. And you can trade in 4 coupons for a large frosty.”

Me (incredulous, but feeling like I’m depriving kids from their rightful frosties): “Uh, okay, um, I’ll take the coupon book. Then, uh, I’d like to trade 4 in for a large chocolate frosty, please.”

I was so tempted to ask the cashier, “Are you sure?” because I was a bit stunned by this offer. It didn’t sit well with me that I should gleefully benefit from this fundraising initiative. Also, my entrepreneurial mind couldn’t figure out how Wendy’s benefitted from this arrangement. Quite possibly, this employee didn’t know any better.

Instead opportunistic me (hucking the principle of charity) asked, “Can I use these coupons in Canada?”

The cashier checked with his manager, who reassured me I could use them at any Wendy’s in the world.

Very pleased with myself, I brought the large frosty back to my party, who was also very incredulous, to the point where I briefly questioned whether I had unwittingly taken advantage of some poor child with cancer. Also, I realized that I should have simply gotten 4 SEPARATE junior frosties for the 4 of us, instead of making everyone share one large one, thereby causing them to double-dip. But I was obviously too enarmoured with the idea of bringing home the “the big prize.”

Sometimes, my tenacity scares me. If choice of dog is supposed to reflect the owner’s personality, I always thought I was the border collie type, but I seem to exhibit pit-bull tendencies at times.

Haven’t decided what to do with the remaining 4 coupons, but maybe, just maybe, I’ll end up “doing the right thing” with them.

Yippee, going shopping across the border tomorrow, according to plan. I had considered jamming out on my friends because I’ve been run down and tired. But because nothing else has gone my way this week, I do want to do at least one thing I set out to do for my break. Also, I need a pick-me-up these days. Although I know better, shopping MAY do the trick, made more enticing by good company.

I recently complained about being strapped, but I figure that is true only in Canadian dollars, for living on this side of the border. It doesn’t technically apply to USD, which my New York relatives most generously bestowed on me during their visit. Spending USD doesn’t affect my biweekly budget in any way! Okay, okay, enough justification. I should probably save this for my trip to NY next May, but … I’m not.

Don’t have a lot to shop for actually, but I would really like a new pair of high boots. The heels of my old ones are wearing off and the leather has stretched to the point where I’m swimming in them. Very unsexy. But it’s been challenging in looking for leather boots that fit my calves snugly (yet another issue I have with being too thin). Anything I found that has fit costs over $400, or is synthetic, which I can’t bring myself to pay pver $100 for.

Anwways, I should turn in now. It’s going to be a loooooooong day tomorrow.

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