Monday, January 19, 2009

The Angst of Affluence

Ready for your weekly jaw-dropping bout of "I'm glad that's someone else's family!" reporting? Well, here 'tis:

New York Times: As Economy Shifts, So Do Family Roles

It's mostly a write-up of the Berry family of Darien, Connecticut, and the skirmishes caused by Mom's unwavering consumerism in the face of Dad's job loss. I went looking for a paragraph or two that'd sum up the whole mess. I believe I'd have to go with this bit:

How to spend is a continuing negotiation — one that sometimes devolves into heated discussions, outright arguments and bouts of sulking. Tracey is trying, often unsuccessfully, to spend less on clothing for herself and the children. “Don’t make me look like a jerk,” she told a reporter, “but I cannot bring myself to buy my children’s clothes at Wal-Mart.”

“But do you have to buy them at Ralph Lauren?” Scott shot back.

Ah, yes. The angst of affluence rears its ugly head at the corner of Unemployed Avenue and Entitlement Way. Bedtime conversations are a blast at the Berry homestead. You get favorites like this:

The Berrys have been at this long enough to make light of the well-worn nature of their disagreement. “It goes like this,” Scott said. “ ‘How can you complain about me not earning an adequate income, when you can’t control your spending?’ ”

On cue, Tracey chimed in. “And I say, ‘How can you complain about my spending when you don’t have an adequate income?’ ”

Wowsers. I've never watched a single episode of Desperate Housewives,, but I always imagined the scripts would contain snippets like that. At least on TV I'd eventually get to see Teri Hatcher and/or Eva Longoria Parker in lingerie. That's worth something.

But with this Berry story we merely get an introduction to ... clickers.

Amy Reiss, a divorce lawyer in Manhattan, said that she had seen a spate of women seeking to end their marriages after they re-entered the work force or expanded their careers to replace their husbands’ income. The wives don’t resent working, she said. In fact, they’re pleased to contribute.

But “the husbands become what I call ‘clickers,’ ” Ms. Reiss said. “These are unemployed men who sit on the couch all day, holding the remote and watching TV, unable to step up and take over some of the household tasks and chores associated with raising the kids.”

I'll say this: Lisa and I feel tremendously fortunate to be able for her to be a SAHM. My income is well above the median for our area — but if that were to change, I'd like to think we could pare down from our current, pretty-modest spending levels. No kid clothes from Ralph Lauren in our house; no Beemer in the driveway. Our house isn't paid-for yet, but it's not the seven-figure variety, either.

I've always believed it's the long-term spending commitments we make that are the most deadly — the "stretch to get it" mortgage, the "I deserve it" SUV payment, the "how'd it get his large" balances on high-rate plastic. Those recurring, high-payment expenses you can't easily back out of are the ones that crush you when job loss or other financial instabilities hit.

Throw a sense of outright entitlement on top of that, and you have the makings of a full-on disaster.

One mother in TriBeCa, who is married, at least for now, to a Wall Street executive, put it rather bluntly: “My job was to run the household and the children’s lives,” she said. “His job is to provide us with a nice lifestyle.” But his bonus has disappeared, and his annual pay has dropped to $150,000 from $800,000 a year. “Let me just say this,” she said, “I’m still doing my job.”

One has to wonder: Will rising divorces, and the fees derived therefrom, count as economic stimulus in the coming months?


— Posted by Michael @ 9:07 AM


When she says "don't make me look like a jerk" about not being willing to buy clothes at Walmart, my response is: You are too late. You look like a jerk.


One correction: Darien is in Connecticut, not New York.

Aside from that...

I suspect there's still hope for the Berry family, but the sweetheart in Tribeca needs a reality check, and quickly. $150,000 a year may be only a fraction of what her husband used to make, but it's money coming in, and it's not precisely poverty wages.

From : In 2005, Manhattan's median household income was estimated at roughly $56,000

Even accounting for the fact that the median likely rose in 2006 and 2007, $150,000 is still an above-average salary.

And at that point, his earnings aren't too low. Her definition of a "nice lifestyle" is overinflated.


Thanks for the locale catch, Denise. Dunno why NY had stuck in my head.

The seven-digit neighborhood in the article is looking smack-dab at price deflation, too. Those prices are WAY above 3-4x the median income.

Recipe for homeowner sorrow.


Wow... DH and I have talked about what will happen if he gets laid off, and our conversations look nothing like this. His work just announced cutbacks, so this is a possibility. I too am a SAHM and he makes higher than the average income for our area, but our conversations look more like this:

Me: I can get a job with health benefits at the school - I've been keeping tabs on what positions are open. Do you think it would be worth it if I got a second job at the new WalMart?

Him: I don't know. I can stay home with the kids, and I suppose we'll have to take DD out of preschool. We need to check out what my unemployment benefits will be. We can decide if it's more cost effective to use that for a couple of months while I focus on job-hunting instead of just taking a minimum wage job to pay the bills...

Anonymous Anonymous
, at 3:19 PM, January 19, 2009  

Michael, Darien is effectively a well-to-do suburb of NYC, and both Scott and Tracey Berry worked in Manhattan. If you aren't familiar with the area, it would be an easy mistake to make.

I'm not all that familiar with Darien, so I can't judge how overpriced the houses were before the bubble, but yeah, judging from $180k median income and 7 digit median home price, there's room for deflation.

Although, if I'm reading the article correctly, the Berry's may actually avoid the worst of that pain: "In good times, they saved, set up college funds for their children and paid off their mortgage. Aside from a modest car loan, they don’t carry any debt." Sounds like they own their home outright at this point.


Yeah, they apparently had put some savings away. And with no payments other than the car, they'll be better off than many ... I betcha.

Still, the insistence on Ralph Lauren, thirty-seven activities for the kids, and all that? It's gonna be their undoing, savings or no.

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