I am tired of talking about money. I recognize how that sounds, given that I talk about money for a living. Still, it feels like an inordinate number of conversations I’m involved in lately end up about how much more expensive everything is now (which is true) and how much the economy sucks (which is false). Can you believe how pricey that restaurant was? I’m shocked at the cost of my wedding. Tipping culture is so out of control.
It’s not that these issues aren’t painful, it’s just that they’re also exhausting. Some of them have simple solutions, too, just not fun ones. You can cook at home. A fancy wedding is not compulsory. Tips are optional, and if you’re that upset over giving the barista a dollar or two, there are cheaper alternatives for your morning coffee.
Part of the issue is that we seem to have blurred the distinction between a want and a need. Child care and a place to live and a tank of gas to get to work are necessities. The latest iPhone, not so much. On this, some people — and I include myself here — have lost the plot. If you took a European vacation this year, what a delight. Also, it was a privilege, not a right. It’s a choice, too, and one that might make your financial goals later down the line harder to attain.
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The Big Squeeze
The American economy remains one of abundance. Said abundance isn’t equally distributed, of course, and lots of people really are struggling. But as angry as consumers say they are about the economy, they’re not, on aggregate, changing their spending habits. For many people in the country, life is pretty good. And yet, they often don’t feel that way. No matter how much we’ve attained, we always want more.
The landscape has gotten me thinking about expectations lately — what is fair to expect out of life, financially, and what is not. It sometimes makes me wonder if part of the answer here is that we need to scale back expectations. Things may not turn out as perfectly as everyone wants, but fine is also, you know, fine. Just because something doesn’t feel great doesn’t mean it’s fundamentally unfair. (Sometimes, the most unfair things are the ones that feel really great — as long as you’re on the right side of the trade.)
I say all of this recognizing that I am in a bubble — I am a millennial living in New York City and surrounded largely by middle- and upper-middle-class people, though many of them don’t see themselves that way. I also say this as someone who is upwardly mobile from a solidly working-class background. If I could tell the child version of myself how things were going to turn out — that I’d be living in a big city, be able to afford to rent an apartment in said city, and have the chance to regularly take trips that involve a plane — she would not believe it. I am aware this is not the case for everyone in my generation or those before or after me. Still, I sometimes catch myself feeling like it’s not enough.
All that being said, why are we like this? Why do so many of us feel like whatever we have, it’s not sufficient?
A lot of it isn’t our fault, really. We live in a consumer economy that tells us that more is always better. We’re constantly being bombarded by more and more choices, which leads us to chase the latest version of the “best” of everything — an enthralling but impossible quest.
There is nowhere you can look in society that isn’t screaming at us to spend, spend, spend
“When there are lots of options, one consequence is that your expectations go up,” said Barry Schwartz, Dorwin P. Cartwright professor emeritus in social theory and social action at Swarthmore College and the author of multiple books on psychology and the economy. “When [businesses] start making all this variety, it’s just inevitable that your expectation is something up there is the one that’s going to be perfect. If that’s your standard, then everything you ever choose is going to end up disappointing.”
There is nowhere you can look in society that isn’t screaming at us to spend, spend, spend — and, frankly, we view it as un-American to live any other way. It causes us to conflate nonessentials with essentials; we don’t just want the thing, we feel like we have to have it.
Modern technology puts all of this on overdrive. To “keep up with the Joneses” means contemplating an expanding universe of Joneses, because we’re not just comparing ourselves with our neighbors but also with that TikTok mom and YouTube hustler who seem to have everything figured out. The availability of so much information makes what’s possible a presence in our daily lives in a way that was much less salient a generation and two generations ago. If XYZ is possible for someone, you get to thinking, well, why isn’t that possible for me?
Credit cards and smartphones make spending money easier than ever without having to do the math. “We just have a lot of people that really don’t know how to budget, and this is because of the credit card society,” said David Mick, a professor of commerce at the University of Virginia who focuses on a mix of consumer behavior, marketing, and mindfulness. “People have ready access to buy a lot of things quickly without a lot of thought.”
It all feeds into the hedonic treadmill, where we’re constantly chasing down the next dopamine hit but ultimately return to our baseline level of happiness, whatever happens. The pursuit of constant pleasure or fulfillment is enticing, but it’s also not wise — eventually, that Big New Thing just doesn’t have the same kick. Even if we can buy that $40 bottle of wine to have with dinner, it’s genuinely often better to stick to the $15 bottle and keep the pricier option for special occasions. Really good and special experiences in life should be rare, Schwartz said, so they don’t become commonplace and can still deliver satisfaction. (He joked that as far as he knows, “no one on Earth” has ever taken this advice.)
“Money is a zero-sum game”
Some of the ugliest truths about the economy are the ones that we prefer to keep from ourselves. The future may not be rosier — you might never land that perfect job or make that “right” salary. A college degree will certainly help you in the labor market, but even a Harvard MBA isn’t a guaranteed ticket to an ideal life. The lifestyle you aspire to may not be compatible with the cost of living in the city you want to be in. That down payment for your dream house may be out of reach, not just because of economic forces but also because you didn’t save in your 20s. Maybe you couldn’t because of student loans; maybe you were a little frivolous. If you do get what you think you want, it may not feel sufficient; you can’t have it all, unless you are Elon Musk or something.
“There is always a trade-off, because money is a zero-sum game. If you’re spending it on X, you’re not spending it on Y,” said Kelly Goldsmith, a marketing professor at Vanderbilt University who studies consumer psychology and behavioral science. “Unless you’re increasing the pie,” she added, which isn’t guaranteed.
I don’t want to undercut anyone’s hardships, whatever their income level. Part of the reason many of us feel such pressure in the economy is because everything is so unequal — the 99 percent are left fighting over the leftovers of the 1 percent who are indeed in a real-life, permanent fantasyland. This makes it easy to want to say screw it and just spend whatever.
“It’s hard to deprive yourself ever, and it’s especially hard to deprive yourself when it seems like the economy has turned in a way that is not favorable to your current situation for reasons that have nothing to do with you,” Goldsmith said.
Still, it would do us a favor to take a step back. Sometimes a simpler life is a better one, Mick said, despite all the social pressures to the contrary. “There’s a lot of entitlement out there,” he said, particularly in American culture.
Life shouldn’t be entirely absent of some treats. But if you’re boxed out of necessities because of spending on extras, it’s something to consider. It’s completely fine and wonderful to want to see Taylor Swift and Beyoncé live. What a joy! Just know that if you’re not in the 1 percent, it’s likely going to cost you, possibly even at the expense of something you need later down the line. Lucky for you, Taylor and Bey also have movies out, which are much cheaper to see and also, hopefully, fun.
We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Each month, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.
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