I could type you a grocery list hundreds of items long detailing all that my husband and I have said ‘no’ to as we’ve cut our expenses and our time commitments. The tangibles (gadgets, toys, clothes) that we didn’t collect. The experiences (vacations, cruises, dining out) that we don’t indulge in.
Looking back on the six years we spent in California, however, what we really said ‘no’ to was fitting into the consumer culture around us. Going against the norm takes energy. It feels strange. People ask you, subtly or not, to explain yourself.
When we moved to California from France we landed smack in the Silicon Valley. Although we lived on two teacher’s salaries and the cheapest homes in our town at the time were selling for upwards of $600,000, we faced plenty of pressure to buy. Family, friends, colleagues offered their advice. “Owning a home is the best investment ever,” they’d say. My comments about not wanting to pay as much in interest on a mortgage as we did in rent sparked conflicts with family and cool annoyance with house-poor colleagues.
Realizing we could easily live on 30% of our salary was easy. So was drawing the conclusion that eating at fancy restaurants, going out for drinks or strolling around trendy shopping centers like Santana Row did not make us happier than riding our bikes up on Skyline. The difficulties came in realizing we’d need to make new friends–new kinds of friends—in order to continue this lifestyle without living as hermits. We needed friends that would not quip, “Put it on your credit card!” when we’d say that a spa vacation in wine country was not in our budget.
After several years of training our California family not to expect gifts at Christmas, after dropping the bomb that I’d be putting aside a small savings account for my baby niece rather than buying her the seemingly obligatory series of cheap plastic toys, we finally had made some headway in terms of family pressure to conform. Eventually, we did manage to make some new friends too–people you can converse with even if you don’t follow American Idol (um, or have ever seen it). People who enjoy free activities in nature or stopping by for a home-cooked meal. Relocating to San Diego certainly didn’t hurt!
But living through the pressure to conform to someone else’s standards and refusing to do so left us changed—more radical in our convictions. As stressful as it can seem to go against the grain, and as odd as it can be to have nothing much to say to your colleagues, social pressure, we learned, was something we could handle.
Without the strange excuse of doing things a certain way, “because that is the way they are done” or because it’s easier, you find yourself constantly confronted with reasons to question everything. It’s not such a bad feeling.
Since learning not to fit in, we’ve moved back to France. In some ways, the pressures to conform are less. People accept frugal lifestyles more readily, partly for cultural reasons and partly for practical reasons—if you can believe it, the French have been living without credit cards all this time! Regardless, we feel fairly poised and ready to do things in a way that our French friends and family find strange and unusual (like experimenting with not using the heater or eating a mostly vegetarian diet).
We’ve given up on fitting in—regardless of the culture in which we find ourselves.
Originally posted 2010-04-25 09:25:08.