Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Needs and Wants

I was starting to think about an article about needs vs. wants, but some of my recent browsing has adjusted that train of thought. 

A couple of years ago on my old blog, I wrote a post titled Second-Generation White Collar.  I see that the link hasn't stayed with that post, it's based on a CNN Money blog post, "I'm First Generation White Collar."

As I start to pick up the threads of my story again, this becomes more relevant.  Because when I was *just* a college student, I could side-eye the Greeks, and classmates who spoke of "luxuries" as "necessities."   I could feel frustrated by the co-op interviewers who seemed to put too much stock in the clothes I wore.

Because, believe me, I DID know to dress up, in skirt and jacket with a nice blouse.  Shoes were harder.  On a,15 to 18 credit-per-semester courseload, many of them engineering classes, I didn't have time to ride the bus to the mall and pick up a new pair of dress shoes that would absolutely, positively match the outfit.  I tended to look through my closet for the dress shoes I had, and hope that they would be good enough.

Sometimes I think that the telephone interview made the difference in getting the cooperative education job offer.  Because I had to dress for the campus job interviews, and  I fear that my thrift store jackets and Mom's hand-me-downs didn't stand up against the students who not only had the funding for their education, but also substantial pocket money.  The secretary at the EE office did let me know about some program like Dress for Success, that would let me borrow a suit, but I thought the business clothes I had would be good enough, so I didn't ask.

So, yesterday I found this scholarly article about class origins and academia, and it got me to thinking some more.  Presumptions of access: to transportation, to nice clothing that fits well, to safety.  I mean, most upper-middle-class students wouldn't have experienced their parent's house being defaced with graffitti, broken into, or shot at.

Most of the women engineers I've studied with, worked with, or met through SWE... well, many of them had high school jobs at mall clothing stores, which offered employee discounts.  They not only knew how to look their best, they had the moneys necessary to afford clothing.

Which gets into the thoughts I was having about needs and wants.  As my parents went back to school, and then changed careers, one of the easiest things to stop doing to save money can be clothes shopping.  There are some things that are necessities (shoes that fit, weather-appropriate clothing, replacing socks and underthings that have worn out), but a lot of clothing stays functional long after it has gone out of fashion.

Computers, too.  Many fellow students had computers on campus.  As an undergraduate, I made do with the campus computer labs.  This concept of carpeting one's dorm room, of having a TV, a microwave, a futon, and a dorm fridge?  From my perspective, those were luxuries.

Some of that attitude has carried through, even to today.  I grew up without cable tv, and I don't see cable TV as a "necessity"... although I know that there are people who do.  However, knowing how many companies have switched to online resume processing, I have come to see internet access as necessity.  If a cable/internet package makes the best financial sense, I'm not going to knock it.
So I have my budget.  Savings, retirement, paying the bills all come high on the priority list.  Groceries.  Car maintenance.  Some clothing, especially replacing what has gotten worn-out or stained.
But therein lays the dilemma.  I have two jackets and a coat, all from our Purdue days, at least 12 years old.  They're a little bit worn, but still very functional.  I look at them, and I think, I don't need a new coat, these are perfectly good, and they keep me warm.

And then I look at them from the perspective of a coworker who doesn't have my background.  I look at them from the perspective of a hiring manager.  And they're a little shabby, worn from the years.  While school loyalty can be a thing... they're not particularly fashionable.  And from THAT perspective... I need a new coat.

And there's a million little decisions like that, throughout the year.  Do I *need* furniture?  What I have is functional.  Do I need furniture?  While I am starting to invite friends over again, I still wouldn't want to host a professional dinner party with what I have.

A few years ago, when I was with the Texas Space Center section of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), we had lunch with a group of Collegiates from Texas A&M University SWE.  I don't know exactly how it started, I got to talking with a young woman who seemed to be having some struggles, and I started talking about how I got through.  Purdue's Emergency Student Loan program for textbooks, working, some things like that.  I ended up with a handful of students listening intently and asking questions, I lost track of time and someone else called time.  As they got ready to leave, one of the young women asked "Can I just hug you?"  "Uh, sure..."

I read a couple of other articles along with the one I posted here.  One spoke of "covers," the things people don't like to talk about, that they feel like they need to hide in order to get ahead.  Being a co-op... I guess it did help me become "employable," as I could SEE what my coworkers were wearing, and adjust to that.  It gave me some pocket money to improve my own wardrobe.  And we had training classes on resume writing, interview skills, in addition to the campus resources that I used.

I think, in Houston, I tried to cover up my family's struggles, to leave it all behind.  But I'm finding in recent years that this class mobility, this experience of having been on both sides of the tracks... while I don't *feel* Upper Middle Class yet, we're actually starting to get there...  This is a perspective that I'm starting to feel like I HAVE to share.  Speaking truth to power... and, moreover, not forgetting what it was like, as I approach having power myself.