Friday, March 31, 2006

Splurge, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Consumerism

Bought these babies off eBay. Mmmm, Marc by Marc Jacobs ballet flats. My eyes are welling up, they are loverly. I have a lot of shoes, but only my Enzo Angiolini kitten-heeled faux-loafers resemble these and even then, it's only because of the bow and closed-toe.

Watson, I do believe I double-splurged today. First, a belt from BCBG, and now, grandma's YMCA senior night craft project. Yowza! That's a lot of happiness. Don't hate the player; hate the game.


Woohoo! What could be a better reason to shop than receiving an unexpected A (albeit, an A-minus) for the media law final? None, that's what! Well, none this week. So off I went taking my pampered ass to chichi boutiques. HaiPhia accompanied me with the same goal in mind, except ... it took an awkward turn as the day progressed. As someone so dreadfully young, I realize money isn't a taboo subject for nought. But I also don't know how painfully disconnected I am from those who do not have much of it. (Don't worry, this is not an entry about "liberal guilt".)

I don't perceive myself as a frivolous spender. I find conspicuous symbols of wealth vulgar no matter the price tag. From street vendors to high-end retailers, I make no distinction between the two as long as they offer me what I set out in search of. My friends say I'm an informed and entertaining shopper, open to all price points, which takes the stress out of searching when they're with me. What I'm trying to say is that I make a conscious effort to make shopping a social experience and not a competitive sport. I'm not out to rub anything in anyone's face.

So it came as a surprise when I felt like I was being judged by my (constant) companion today. At first, I didn't much notice what she was trying to tell me. "You won't like anything here," she warned before entering a newly opened shoe store. "40 dollars? I can't afford that. I knew you wouldn't like this place: their stuff is mostly clunky." I laughed it off thinking it was motivated by our common aversion. But as the night progressed, her "advice giving" increased. She told me to ask myself: 1) Do I need it? 2) Will I get much use out of it? 3) *insert another cliched shopping maxim* I appreciated her input, but did she have to lecture me every time I remarked that something was "nice"? She'd mouth "But it's ___ dollars!" when salespeople had their backs turned after helping me find my size. I wanted to mouth back, "I know, I checked," but I felt too guilty to carry it out considering how much she emphasized the price and how nonchalantly I was treating it. This occurred at almost every store. When we started turning back towards my apartment, still empty-handed, I made a mad dash to BCBG and decided to purchase a handmade leather belt. I reasoned it was sturdy, classic, but also quite unique and decided it was just functional enough to justify the exorbitant price. As I handed over my credit card to one of the sales reps, HaiPhia tapped the store policy sign obviously enough for me to notice as if to say, "You're making a big mistake because they don't have refunds here ..." She went down the list, one by one, stopping beside each numbered paragraph as if teaching a child how to read. I laughed and told her to stop patronizing me. I've been shopping for myself for most of my life, I know what to expect. She chuckled, copping to her faux-pas. But when we continued down the street, she continued making snide comments to me. "You better take extra special care of that thing. You don't want to lose it. You have a tendency to do that." Or in an unnecessarily loud voice, she boomed, "You know, Lily. Eating is more important than buying clothes!" It came out of left field, as if a strategy. The looks I got from strangers humiliated me. What she said might be an irrefutable truism, but I've also never sacrificed food for vanity (although I have said it in the past as a joke).

Is this why friendships forged between income brackets fail? Does money present such a contrast in lifestyles and "normalized" habits that one cannot effectively come to grips with the other? I sometimes feel cheated when she repays me with a gesture or two, thinking (perhaps over-confidently) that they're enough to erase any compensatory expectations. I've happily bought sitdown dinners for the two of us whenever restaurants refused to accept debit or she had insufficient funds. But when she promises she'll treat me "next time", is it wrong to look foward to more than a five-dollar rice bowl from the food court? Math Judas says, percentage-wise, we're probably making the same dent in our wallets. But I feel it's an insensitive interpretation of the reality of relationships. I know it's unreasonable to expect her to see my dilemma eye to eye. "Some people feel that the richer you are," Sexy Spinster tells me, "the more you're expected to pay for things." But that's not how people stay rich.

I'm not asking for a Mercedes here. I just think if it is agreed that something is done as an aid of friendship, it's still appropriate to assume it's far from free. (It's different with gifts because I give up my rights as the proprietor as soon as they're received.) I mean, I appreciate good intentions, but again, I feel like it's a bit unfair to have to swallow my pride and forget about all the money I've coughed up because the other party believes one unselfish act is enough to restore the balance. I don't think people seem to understand that I am not wealthy nor are my parents. My mother is simply very kind to me, which allows me to maintain the lifestyle I've grown accustomed to (if not better). I am given a lump sum each month which is my only source of income. So whether I am guilt-tripped or sympathetically offer a hand, the numbers on my bank statements always move in one direction - down - simply because I never get anything tangible back. I never invite people along to activities I know they can't afford - I've since learned to keep those luxuries to myself to avoid generating feelings of inadequacy. But is it kosher to say, "She's paying" before I'm even asked?

I'm not a magic lamp you rub to grant wishes.

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