Lemons and luxuries

EVERY Thursday my neighbors' maid parks her shiny new Mercedes next to their trusty Chevrolet. The sight would make some people shake their heads at the ridiculous waste of money. It makes me think of hopes fulfilled. And choices. The maid has put her limited funds into a dream car, and, I presume, stints everywhere else. The neighbors, who could afford a fancy car, prefer to have maid service and take exotic vacations.

More power to both. My neighbors, and their maid, are exercising their freedom of choice. What bothers me is the poor souls with decent incomes who feel trapped by choices they don't even know they have made. You know the kind:

The editorial assistant who spends her weekly hair appointment wondering how Charlotte can afford that delicate antique table.

The teacher with a new house in a trendy suburb, who whines that his family has not eaten steak in four years.

My cousins who take their minds off an empty bank account by dining out in restaurants.

These people aren't paupers. Each has at least one extravagance. But they talk poor. And they really feel deprived. (They might get new insight on deprivation from hunting shelter in a doorway on a rainy night - or from living a month on minimum wage.)

However they choose to spend their money, I wish they recognized their choices. The editorial assistant fails to notice that Charlotte is her own hairdresser. My cousins don't connect restaurant bills with bad bank balances.

I dislike complaints about money from middle-class adults with steady incomes (unless burdened by real misfortune). To quote my father, ``We can afford it. We just can't afford it and everything else.''

I understood when I had my own family, and my own extravagance. Our budget would cover travel or clothes, but not both. We could fly last class to London in threadbare Sears raincoats, or wear new London Fogs to the nearest Sears store. We traveled.

My friend Tina was jealous. Unwittingly, she had chosen the London Fogs - and good wool suits, and Sunday outfits for the children. Her family expected no less, and she fell into the trap. It never occurred to her that she had a choice.

Friendship lasted longer with Jo, who bought a house when we did. Ours was a 50-year-old handyman's special, surrounded by tall trees in a settled community. For a like sum, Jo got her dream house with flowing spaces - set in the raw mud of a new development. No jealousy there. In fact, each secretly pitied the other, proof that we both chose well.

We can't have it all, so we choose. The lesson is easily forgotten. Our family has just taken a refresher course, as we began our own ``Mercedes'' payments: private college educations for the children. Resistant at first, I gave in to an eager husband and a son willing to cover his part with jobs and loans. Yet I resented the effect on family finances - until the day I caught myself complaining about money.

That's when I started to adjust. A review of ``fixed expenses'' uncovered many that had started as luxuries and gradually burrowed into our lives. Why did we still buy yearly memberships to the zoo, where none of us had gone in recent memory? Did we really need the second car, with its chief driver away at college?

More: Waiting at the post office to mail that perfect inexpensive gift to everyone on my Christmas list, I heard a neighbor murmur, ``I wish I could shop where you do.'' Only then did I notice the specialty shop labels on my boxes. It triggered a memory - of a similar comment I had made 10 years earlier to someone else.

Obviously, our standards had risen. We had fallen into the trap of expecting to add ever more goods and services. Equal satisfaction has come from shifting our standard of living. By trading old luxuries for new ones we have regained the excitement of doing something beyond our means.

The trick is not just to see the cup half full instead of half empty, although attitude counts. It is rather to make resources work for us. Whenever we feel caught on the financial treadmill, it's time to remember our freedom of choice, and to recognize that we do choose.

Nearly everyone has income limits (there's a book about ``surviving'' on $50,000 to $150,000 a year). Most of us can afford a frill or two. (While adjusting to the large luxury of home ownership I kept one small luxury: fresh lemons.) Recognizing choices gives us the possibility to make dreams come true.

The neighbors' maid must smile as she makes the monthly car payment. Now I too smile when writing the tuition check. It's the right choice for now.

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