Nov 30 2012

Raising Your Standard of Living

I’ve always been somewhat confused about the term, “raising your standard of living.” It seems to me that it’s based more on material things than it should be. The dictionary defines standard of living as a “level of material comfort as measured by the goods, services, and luxuries available to, enjoyed by, or aspired to an individual, group, or nation.”After World War II, there was a big push to raise the standard of living in the United States. It began innocently enough. Every family had a car, and home buying was in vogue. The so-called “American dream,” was facilitated by the G.I. bill which assisted our troops in education and home purchase.

I even used the G.I. Bill myself, to purchase a home and four years of education. I used those benefits to the max, as a matter of fact, the education benefits allowed me to attend a very good private university in Chulula, Puebla, Mexico. It was enough to pay for my housing, food, and tuition.”

After WWII, everything seemed possible. The U.S. was the top dog, while the Soviet Union and the Cold War gave us an enemy we could focus on for the next 45 years. Meanwhile, the war helped get us out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. There weren’t credit cards yet, so people still paid for things in cash after saving up for them. They bought homes with 30-year mortgages and actually paid them off in 30 years. It’s no wonder that they called these Americans the Great Generation, for they did so much for the country. Good, solid, hard-working people who wanted to raise the “standard of living “to make life easier for them and their children.

Lots of things were invented or improved upon in this era and, by golly, every American had to have one (whatever “one” was). After all, it was our right as Americans. Do you remember when television was young, and there were ads for new refrigerators, stoves, and other appliances designed to make life easier for housewives and all Americans. At this time, many women had started entering the workforce and it was common to have two paychecks and maybe two cars in the driveway.

As the years went on, gradually, everything grew. The consumer society was in full swing and you no longer needed money. You could do it with credit, and better yet, a credit card. If you were a really good credit risk, you might have several credit cards. At this point, you’d considered yourself very successful. Now you could finance the American Dream on credit and pay over time. Wasn’t that wonderful?

Well, as you can imagine, all this purchasing, all this raising of the “standard of living” got us into a lot of trouble & a lot of debt. Credit and credit cards made it possible to live beyond our means, with lots of things, lots of stuff to fill up our basements, attics, garages, and even storage units. We thought all that stuff was so important and we just had to have it. Of course, it all took time and energy to pay for and maintain.

In the late 70s and early 80s, people in the United States started talking about the “leisure ethic” and what they were going to do with all that extra time. With the advent of the computer, we were going to have a paperless society. We were going to be more productive. They often talked about the 35 hour work-week like the French had. Whatever happened to that? Instead of working 35 hours, we started working 45 and 50 hours or more.

So, what is “standard of living” anyway? And should it be redefined? Personally, I think the U.S. always had it backwards, but I’m the first to admit that like most Americans, I bought into it too. It seems that we all got it wrong. It was innocuous enough. I mean, what’s wrong with raising the standard of living, making life easier for all of us so we can work hard, be productive, and pay for all that stuff? Wasn’t it our right as citizens of the “greatest country in the world?”

As a country, the United States always felt entitled, that we were number one in everything. We were insulated by two oceans from much of the rest of the world. We had the perception that we could do no wrong. That we were going to lead the world. We were the most generous. We were holy. God was on our side. However, we’re not number one in everything. Far from it. Matter of fact, we hardly number one in anything except maybe the number of prisoners we have in jail. Have you seen the video clip with Jeff Daniels in “The Newsroom,” where he talks about these issues? I think he says it well:

It’s kind of like we lost our way, and materialism had a lot to do with it. Makes you think, huh? It seems to me, the “standard of living” has less to do with money and things and more to do with health, family, friends, and more specifically, your mate or partner. And it helps if your expectations are low and you are satisfied with less. After all, you’re born naked, you die naked, and you can’t take any of that stuff with you.

That’s why we recommend that when you come to Costa Rica, you rent before you buy and hold off on shipping all your stuff. Live here for a while, at least a year or two, and then if you still want all the stuff you left behind, you can ship it down. If you are like us, I promise, you will realize how little of what you left behind is important, and how little of it you really need. If you lost everything, the loss would not be as great as you first perceived as your views on what is important will have changed, and hence, you will re-evaluate your whole “standard of living.”

We’ve been in Costa Rica over three and a half years. We haven’t shipped anything down, though we have brought belongings in suitcases on the plane. We didn’t bring our car down.  We live a simple life, but we do have more than the basics. We’ve got our health. We’ve got each other, and enough money to live. We have high speed internet, good food to eat, transportation, telephones, our freedom, and a sense of adventure.  We go on trips when we want, but mostly we just like being at home together. We may be living the Retire for Less lifestyle, but we’re not suffering. We have, what we think, is a very high “standard of living.”

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