As do others, I find myself caught up in the day-to-day of life spending very little time reflecting on the amazing things surrounding us all. However, I saw something recently that caused me to pause for a moment and think about the authenticity of the American life. Ironically, it was a staple of capitalism that prompted my thoughts — a commercial. The subject of the spot was a mother speaking about the financial challenges her family have endured since the beginning of the recession. One of her lines resonated with me – “We live a more authentic life.” This got me thinking as to what is an “authentic” life? Is it the credit-fueled existence we’ve experienced since the 1970s, or it is the picturesque view Norman Rockwell captured in his famous Saturday Evening Post covers?
I suppose the answer would be different for each of us. I grew up with my grandparents who were frugal with a capital F. Both my grandmother and grandfather survived the Great Depression and maintained a distrust of the banking system throughout their lives. While they kept some money in a checking account, the bulk of their cash was hidden throughout the house. When my grandmother passed away, it was not uncommon to find $10,000 hidden here and there among drapery and under carpets. Although they did not enjoy the fruits of compound interest, they were wealthy. My grandpa worked in maintenance and the only time my grandma worked was during World War II in service to the troops. Despite this, they had amassed quite a fortune throughout their lives.
I suppose when I examine an authentic life, I defer to the examples of my grandparents. They maintained a humble home with just enough possessions to make them comfortable. My grandparents avoided using credit, in my opinion, because they really didn’t understand the concept. Think about it. If you grew up in a period in history in which you had ringside seats for a financial cataclysm, you may be a little apprehensive trusting these newfangled credit cards. I remember asking them once why they didn’t have credit cards and their answer was simple…
“If the bank is only willing to give me 2% on the money I put into it, why the heck am I going to give them 19% of the money I take from it?”
The authenticity of their life was living within their means. If they needed something, they relied on savings. Before a purchase was made, my grandparents discussed it openly and came to a decision as a family. It’s not to say that all things were put to the vote — school clothes, groceries, and day-to-day items were built in to the budget. However, when it came to furniture, utilities and any other out- of-the-ordinary expenses, they took the time to talk about it.
I can still remember the uphill battle I had in the early 80’s trying to convince them to get Cablevision in the house. Even though the cost was $19.95 a month, it was not an expense they were not willing to bear. They were mindful of my request; therefore, I was given an ultimatum. They would have cable installed providing I was willing to pay for it. Gleefully, I secured a job as a paperboy and spent 75% of my earnings on the cable bill each month — we had it for less than a year. I kept thinking to myself, “Why am I spending all this money on something I rarely get to enjoy?” You see, I spent all my time trying to earn the money to afford cable that I never really had the time to watch it.
When I think about an authentic life, I think about one that is fueled by making the most of what you have. Being in the profession that I am, I hear far too many stories of people who are unduly burdened by debt. Recently I was reading Steve Rhode’s blog about an individual who was contemplating suicide because they couldn’t afford their monthly obligations and I couldn’t help the wave of sadness that overcame me. This is only one story, but there are countless others. How many people are stressed out because of their bill payments? How many of us are held back from doing things we desire because of the impact they would have our finances? How much life do we forgo in our quest for wealth?
To me, an authentic life is a life of simplicity in which happiness takes up 90% of the day. I fear the definition of an authentic life in America resembles an observation made by Robert Quinlin — “Good times are when people make debts to pay in bad times.” As human beings we may have become too complacent in accepting things, which perhaps, we shouldn’t. We do not need four credit cards in our wallet, a mortgage we cannot afford, HD TVs, laptops, iPhones and so on. What we really need are moments to enjoy the simplicity of life — because before you know it, moments are all we have left. I think we need the life that Rockwell painted, as they were the most authentic I recall.