Thursday, April 22, 2010

Got my mind on my money and my money on my mind

Growing up, we switched off every year between a white Christmas tree and a color Christmas tree (the tree was the same plastic tree every year; it's the decorations that changed). The color tree was decorated with colored lights, a fabric chain that I think my mother had made long before I was born, and all the collected ornaments of our family life - gifts from others, gifts to each other, ornaments we'd made as family projects, ornaments we'd made in school with our names and "Class 2B" scrawled on the back. All at varying degrees of craftsmanship and aesthetic value. The white tree was the pretty one. White lights, fluffy snowy garland, and white, silver, and clear glass ornaments. It always looked more impressive, more regal, more expensive. That's the one that I wanted up for our wedding (which was the day after Christmas).

Being the overly-sensitive and guilt-ridden child that I was, I always felt bad that I liked the white tree better. I knew it was shallower in the sense that it didn't have all of the memories, the fun, and the love put into it as the color tree. But it was just prettier. So I liked it better.

For years the color tree/white tree conflict has been a symbol for me, a metaphor for two different (and, in my mind, mutually exclusive) ways of living and looking at the world. I'm a sucker for good design (graphic, interior, whatever). But I also feel that there's a coldness to a lot of it, a lack of love and family-friendliness. A misalignment of priorities. So, on one hand (and assuming I'm ever organized enough to keep a nice home), I can see myself making a home for my family that is the white Christmas tree: pretty, with nice things that we have to be careful with, something photogenic, and something I can show off to guests. On the other hand, I can see myself making a home that is less put-together, less attractive over all, but also more conducive to having pillow fights and hanging aluminum-foil stars from the ceiling: the color Christmas tree.

In my heart of hearts, I'm a color tree person. One big reason? I'm not clean and organized, and my surroundings tend to lapse into a default state of creative chaos. Also, I put fun and family-goofiness on a pretty high pedestal. Another good reason? Money.

As we contemplate the move to California, of course I'm concerned with our new home there. If we get into the one we want, it's a nicer (if smaller) apartment than any that we've lived in so far. Our last place had its perks, but its inherent grunginess and insect-friendliness were not among them. This new place is not a mansion, but it's clean and open. Exciting.

So I start to think about a budget. Due to either selling some bulky furniture or returning borrowed items, we now have no sofa, no dresser (for us. The dresser we did keep is too small for our clothes, so it will be the children's), no coffee table, and no TV-stand. I look at IKEA and start to get caught up in fantasies of corner sectionals and chaise lounges. I justify my fantasies thinking that, since we'll likely be living in this Cali apartment for at least five years, we should get some stuff we really like. How much is a good budget? $300? $500? $1000?

The old me would have balked to think of spending $1000 on furniture. Now that we have a little money (what an illusion, as we're about to have a new baby AND move to California AND start grad school), it doesn't seem so bad. But it? I feel like I have no grasp of monetary value. Sometimes I feel like we have a really good attitude about money (no debt - yet, credit-cards as debit-cards, decent savings, good jobs, thrifty habits) and sometimes I feel like we're wild spenders (going out to eat a little too often, buying more electronics and a fancier entertainment system than most everyone our age). I can live on used furniture, that's fine. I still have a pretty luxurious life despite that. Then there's the whole concept of having a nice home, which is important, too. Remember that Ensign article, Our Refined Heavenly Home? To be fair, the article encourages tidiness and good care more than nice things, but there's a point where those overlap. Our last couch, for example, came from D.I., and it had a few holes and several stains on it. I have yet to find a used couch in tidy and well-cared-for condition that doesn't cost just much as a lower-end new couch.

That's just justification, though. Of course I can make it work with what I've got. So how much is too much to spend on a couch? Is it worth the savings to spend $70 on a used couch with stains and holes, when you could spend $300 on a new couch you like more and will keep longer? Say you give up birthday and Christmas presents in order to put more money toward nicer that okay, or is that just highlighting the frivolity of birthday and Christmas presents and showing you that you could get by without them and pay off your student loans faster?

This may not seem connected to the white tree/color tree conflict to you, but it is to me. Is there a balance? I'm sure there is, but I don't see it. Is it worth compromising if you spent more money but you still don't love what you bought? I want to find the balance. I like it when fun and thriftiness combine with high design. That's why I was so thrilled to see plastic dinosaur toys (something that looked so tacky, yet awesome, in my yellowish 70's bathroom in Provo) used in one of those interior design magazines...what's it called? It got shut down last year. I had a subscription to it. Talk about spending too much money on design. I wanted to write them a letter once telling them how outraged I was that they were praising a $40 set of wood pencils...just because they were pretty.

6 reason(s) to click here:

Whistler said...

I've been thinking about this too. We were offered some free furniture and I was like "but that's not the kind we want." It felt kind of like I was being future-spendy, but at the same time, why would I want to look at things every day that aren't what I want?

Laurie said...

A few thoughts:

1. We had a fancy white tree too, meaning a passel of matchy white-and-gold ornaments. Then we had the tin bucket that had once held tri-colored popcorn. That was the one that held the popsicle-stick ornaments and the wooden football bear that we always fought over. The tin tree won for me almost every year.

2. I'm actually a firm believer in saving up and then spending big on stuff you want, can afford, and will keep for several years. I just bought myself a new iPod and stereo system to replace the radio/CD player I inherited from my brother Paul. Who first got it in 1993.

3. I once read a money blog where the guy's whole point was to cut mercilessly on the things that don't matter, but spend good money on the things that do. If your $70 couch works for you, get a few more years out of it and save up for the $500 one. If you can't stand it and it makes you cry, then go out there and buy the best one you can afford. This means there will be less to spend on something else, but as long as you prioritize your purchases, I've found there's usually enough for the stuff I want/need.

Lindsay Koelling said...

Oh how I have so much to say about this entry. But I will not bore you too much. First, I am right with ya! I have been planning the design of our new apartment every spare moment we have; however, when it comes down to it...what do you spend the money on? Or do you spend money at all? Let me know when you figure things out...because I have no clue!

Holly K said...

Gah. I could have a whole conversation about this. Since moving in with my sister, we have been buying furniture like crazy. She doesn't really know what she wants; she wants me to pick something and then talk her into it. And she's got plenty of money budgeted to the point where price is at best a tertiary concern. So I'm picking out nice things, and she's all "Okay!" And I'm all... really? You can afford that? And she's all "Yeah. Totally. That's less than I was expecting to spend." And now I'm somehow feeling guilty for being totally frivolous even though it's not my money. In fact, more guilty BECAUSE it's not my money.

I realize this is not helpful ranting. Maybe you should just come boost some of this new stuff and hope my sister won't notice. That would help, yes?

Erin said...

Domino is that magazine. It was really great.

And I feel like that is a great battle for me too. Where is the line between tasteful and pretty and nice and overdoing it for what you can afford?

When we moved into our last apartment, we took a few months of putting aside money, then I went out and bought new stuff. It was like $125, so I wasn't buying couches, I was buying frames and vases and curtains and such. And I really felt so much better about living in a place where I liked what was on the walls and wanted people to come over. I think it's worth setting aside some money to get some things you enjoy.

My word verification was latinma. I think that means that in California you will be a latin mama.

Mina said...

Laura Bennett (who was a designer on project runway) got a lot of flak for saying she shops at ikea precisely because the furniture isn't super expensive but still looks nice and she has 6 kids who bounce around. but she made a good point that even though she and her husband can afford more expensive furniture doesn't mean that it's practical. so i think ikea is a brilliant idea for people with children. you won't freak if a kid spills juice on it or something.