October 3, 2007

Don't Drive Your Money

The neighborhood I live in is an affluent one. That is why it is baffling to me that I was able to buy a house there to begin with. Sixteen years ago, while my lovely wife and I were mere newlyweds, we bought the fixer-upper which we currently reside in (it is in the "mid-fixed-up" stage at the moment) and settled down there to raise a family and grow old together. Of course, we've become friendly with the neighbors, but it gets uncomfortable when we socialize with some of the parents of our children’s friends. Our kids can't seem to hang out with anyone whose parents aren't well-off.

I always joke because the new homes which are being built just down the road from us cost just under $1 million dollars. With improvements over the basic amenities the builder offers, each unit can fetch well over a million. In my opinion, If I have a million bucks to blow on a home, I don't want to live down the block from the likes of me. The folks who have moved in all have children the same ages as our own; and these youngsters have latched onto my good looking and gregarious offspring. They want to come over for play dates, sleepovers, have dinner at each other's homes, etc, while I don't want their parents to even step foot in our front door and see the 1970's vintage kitchen we still have, complete with avocado-green appliances. You get the idea. I've been in some of the “McMansions" owned by the rich folks, and I blush whenever I go inside. Trust me, I'm all for having lots of cash, but I just can't compete with them.

Did you ever wonder why whenever a builder wants to construct luxury homes in an area and some goody-two shoes, feel-good group assembles in front of Town Hall with picket signs and demands that the contractor should also build "low income housing" in the same neighborhood, that others object to the cheaper homes being built nearby? You want to murder your self esteem? Go ahead and live in the cottage at the foot of Hearst Castle. See if you can be good neighbors with the Howell’s from Gilligan’s Island on a civil servant’s wages. Welcome Bill Gates and his family to the neighborhood with an Entenmanns’s crumb cake in your hands. Like it or not, there’s a class system in this country, and it’s because we live in a capitalist society and there’s nothing wrong with that. The guys at the yacht club shouldn’t have to pal around with the man who washes their cars for a living. It’d be nice if they did; but it would get a bit awkward when they ask him if he wants to come along as they get away for the weekend at some resort he’d have to save a year’s salary to be able to afford.

It's hard to explain, but I find it rough not being able to buy my each of kids their own Sony Play Station, IPOD, Game Cube, and other expensive toy, electronic gadget or gizmo when their friends all have these things. It's bad enough the parents of my children's friends kind of look at my wife and I as charity cases to begin with, but I have to let my kids use my own laptop instead of buying them one each for the two of them, I drive a battered 1997 Honda Civic which I bought brand new, while we have an '06 Chevy Trailblazer which we use for the family.

The sad part of it all is that my wife and I actually do very well for ourselves. I'm retired from the NYPD and I work in the Information Technology field, and my wife is a licensed, medical professional. The problem is we live on Long Island where it is very expensive to live, and my neighbors are really very comfortable. Either I have to move or realize that I'm never going to keep up the Jones’s. I'm happy with my life. My family is healthy, we take nice trips, our home is coming along as far as upgrades, paint, furnishings and the like are concerned, and we have money squirreled away for the kid's for college. But, just when I'm happy buying the children some cool thing from Target, the guy down the block got his kid something from The Sharper Image. I'm out of my league.

It shouldn't have to be like this. I shouldn't have to feel guilty for not being a millionaire. I did what I could to get where I am in life. For what it's worth, I did alright considering the circumstances I found myself in while growing up. But, when we're invited out to dinner, as we were last week with some well to do friends of ours, I had nothing to add to the conversation when it came to what kind of car I drive, what stocks I invest in, or if I plan on buying a summer condominium in Florida like the rest of them own. Out of the blue, I mentioned an article I read recently which stated that buying a new car every ten years or so instead of the national average of every three years saves consumers $30-$50 thousand dollars.

The two men I was seated next to, one is an attorney, and the other a commodities broker, both raised their eyebrows and nodded their heads in approval. You see, I wasn't chugging around in my trusty, dusty 1997 Honda Civic for nothing. I was banking cash...and lots of it. For a moment, I felt like a wise investor instead of a frugal worker ant. Was I really saving that much money? Because if that is true, I can buy my kids a new IPOD each, Play Stations, laptops computers, clothes from Hollister and Abercrombie. Oh well, I'll settle for a kitchen that's not avocado-green.