As I read through the 100-odd answers I got from readers about what they've refused to give up in the recession, I was struck by the different ways people characterize what they want least to sacrifice. Sometimes, correspondents presented their cherished purchase as an entirely personal weakness—an indulgence, small or large, that alleviates the pain of loss of income or employment. While some clung to certain expenses because they saw consumption of a particular good or service as vital to their own identity, other readers framed their must-haves as investments in themselves or in their children. Judging by this admittedly unscientific survey, people seem to be clinging in the greatest numbers to good food (20), pets (18), Internet and cable TV (13), education (11), and travel (10). And less often, but tellingly, readers are hanging on to things like staying home with their kids or throwing their own wedding.
Pet lovers poured affection for their dogs, cats, and (in one case) horses onto the keyboard. "Our cats will never see a change in their quality of life," writes Wendy, a 28-year-old lawyer. "While my health care lapsed earlier this summer, and I haven't been to the doctor in over two years, I couldn't not take care of my cat and sole daily companion," writes Stephanie. A visit to the vet costs her more than $200. "I'll eat cat food WITH them before I let them go!" wrote another reader. (This is probably a bad time for me to admit that I gave my own affordable dog away.)
Other readers wrote about their human family members. "Even though money is tight and my husband is unemployed, I am not giving up staying at home with my children," says Krista, whose children were cared for by others when she worked for several years. She's given up cable, eating out, and vacations. "If things don't change we'll move in with my parents next month."
Another working mother, a self-described Type A lawyer, was more ambivalent about trading off income for more face time with the kids. "The choices that I'm making with my schedule to preserve bedtimes and weekends with my baby and young child are eroding the career success and security I've been building for years." This is no small thing. Layoffs are regular at her firm, and her husband's income alone can't support the family. But her own mother worked long hours, and, "I know that my time lost with her when I was a child influences my choices now." In addition to investing time in their children, some readers are continuing to invest money in their kids' development. "My kids are African-American and I have watched the Seattle school district fail my 11 African-American godchildren one by one," writes one parent who is intent on keeping her children in private school. "We have cut everything we could think of … and have downgraded everything we couldn't cut."
The recession has forced Americans suddenly to make tough choices about a favorite pastime: discretionary spending. Carson, 28, and her husband gave up their monthly date night so they wouldn't have to skimp on school clothes for the five kids they're raising (four of them are nieces and nephews). Carson calls herself lucky, and I think that's because hers is a small example of the kind of selfless frugality that feels right. Of course, not everyone is re-enacting O. Henry's classic The Gift of the Magi. * "I'm not giving up my Corvette or selling my diamond," writes Susan, who is suffering with her husband through a three-year drought of underemployment. Emily won't sacrifice travel because "it's too important to my identity and what makes me me." Jen, meanwhile, spends her days not working in an office but searching for freelance work at a coffee shop with Wi-Fi, drinking iced lattes because "it keeps my world normal as I know it."
These writers demonstrate the difference between being knocked back by the recession and really being poor. It should help explain, though, why people living in poverty also splurge, if often only in small occasional ways, on things that aren't essential to their survival. A cup of coffee in a cafe can buy a bit of dignity as well as normalcy. And some self-directed spending is an investment in the future. Cynthia, downsized out of two jobs in the last year and living off savings, is still paying for dance classes. Being in the studio each week with her 85-year-old teacher "reminds me there is more to life than day-to-day subsistence." She may have to choose rent over dance class at some point, "but then I'm sure my self-image will take another hit, and that may reduce my chances in job interviews." At the moment, "a perfect turn, completing a combination correctly or progressing just a bit further in a stretch gives me a feeling of accomplishment which is missing from other areas of life right now."
Another smart tactic is to hang on to the heart of what you want while letting go of the trappings. Betsey, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., got married in front of 125 guests for less than $1,000—silk flowers, and only cake and punch at the afternoon reception. "Our honeymoon, a car trip through New England, was paid for with my husband's cashed-in day-trade stocks and our gift envelopes, which we quickly opened before leaving town!" The marriage was more important than the wedding—a worthy cliché.
But in tough times—as in flush ones—people don't always make important life decisions based purely on economic rationality. In my last article about what people are giving up in the recession, I wrote about one woman's choice to have an abortion rather than give birth to a child she and her husband didn't think they could afford to raise. (A common rationale.) "We are the flipside, I guess, to the couple that elected to terminate the pregnancy," notes one correspondent. Keeping her unexpected "recession baby" is stretching her family's finances to the limit. When she was pregnant with her first child two years ago, "I worried about eating all my organic veggies and how much labor might hurt. Now I worry about losing our home or not being able to put food on the table at all." But since she's not broke yet, she's appreciating the smaller trade-offs: "There are no more meals out, but there are ice cream cones on a summer afternoon."
How will you know the recession is over for you? Please post your responses below or send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. E-mail may be quoted in Slate unless the writer stipulates otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let me know.
This article also appears on DoubleX.
Correction, Aug. 19, 2009: This article originally misspelled the pen name O. Henry. (Return to the corrected sentence.)