It’s really not all about money

Froma Harrop, syndicated columnist

A young couple I know, recent grads from a state university, share a walk-up apartment in a gritty part of town. They buy their T-shirts used. They share a 22-year-old Honda Accord with well over a century of miles on it. Their health club is weights in a garage. And they spend about $700 a month on food.

They know what they spend because they put every single purchase on a spreadsheet. “We spend more on food than most frugal people — we eat out sometimes — because our other expenses are so low,” the guy told me. “Otherwise we could probably cut it by 100 to150 bucks if we really wanted.”

Thing is, they are happy as clams. The spreadsheet is a fun puzzle. Finding a cool T-shirt for a couple of dollars at Savers is not sacrifice but a victory.

Now switch over to stories of Americans concerned that their children might not be better off financially than they are. If the family were living on the edge of starvation, then sure, that might be something to worry about.

But once destitution is not an issue, these surveys — sometimes headlined “Is the American Dream Dead?” — suffer from two faulty assumptions. One is that money is the only way to measure the good life. The other is something’s gone terribly wrong if the next generation doesn’t have as much money as the one before. So what if it doesn’t?

Is the couple described above worse off than their parents who have a bigger house and newer wheels? They don’t think so, and neither should anyone else.

Yet another bit of flawed scorekeeping involves Americans’ growing skepticism about the value of a college, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. If a college degree’s value is set simply by what its recipients will earn in their chosen fields, then that education is just a job-training program. Nothing wrong with job training, but doesn’t education also create wealth of a non-monetary nature?

In any case, some universities have big engineering programs that train students in fields offering high pay. Others produce large numbers of teachers who may earn less but have summers off. Their graduates may derive great happiness from doing socially useful work.

Education, whether formal or not, helps people become better citizens, parents, human beings. Surveys that rate colleges solely on what their graduates earn are simply monetizing life.

If personal wealth is the measure, then I am not as well off as my parents had been at my age. But my daily struggles are so much less than theirs were. They worked their tails off in grueling jobs. Having grown up poor, they found great happiness in seeing their kids financially secure.

Advances in medicine have given us the luxury of long lives, regardless of how our incomes compare with our parents’. As a baby, I nearly died from an infection. Would I have preferred to live in a mansion at a time when there was no penicillin or in our tract house when there was? That’s a meaningless question because were it not for penicillin, I probably wouldn’t be here to amuse or irritate you.

Walk down Rodeo Drive, Worth Avenue or any platinum-label shopping street, and look at all the resentful faces dressed in $10,000 suits or holding $1,500 handbags. Look at the stressed drivers in the $150,000 cars angry and resentful over who-knows-what.

And so what do we mean by “better off”? Is polo a superior sport to pickleball because it costs more? Not to underplay the benefits of economic security, but there’s a difference between the high life and a good life. It’s not all about money.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.


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