Oprah’s what can we live without challenge snatching TV’s, computers, stereos, even one child’s “excess” toys away from children and families for 7 days and recording the aftermath, vegetable gardens cropping up in urban centers, vacant lots, tutorials on how to make your backyard into a garden, people in urban areas applying for permits to own a hen for the eggs laid. Barrowing a cup of sugar has gone high tech via the web with sites that let you barrow things from individuals willing to lend it; other sites have contracts to avoid misunderstandings in this new domain of barrowing items and still others provide you with the ability to track who barrowed what from you. The new thing is rent a toy not buy one, especially for young kids; for struggling families there are more and more toy centers that operate like libraries barrow a toy or a game for a week, play with it, return it for something different. Comments bandied about during this recession include “its not about your kids being in hokey camp that goes to Canada every other weekend,” our grandparents did this and with twice the children,” and from the experts “Americans are tightening their belts living more like they did in the 1970’s.”

It seems as if, in America, we have people living on 2 extremes; one set of people buying 46 inch televisions for the complete gaming or home theater experience, people lined up for the Netbook, i-phone 4, the i-pad, hundreds will buy new computers for back to school, QVC selling Blue Ray players at discount raking in the customers. The other set of people are not the working poor who find themselves in lines at food pantries, those out of a job for at least a year or individuals working part time or minimum wage simply to have an income; we will return to them later. The second group is a group of financially stable people who choose a lifestyle of least, who choose to raise their families in an almost backward fashion. One example was a mother of 2 who went from a self described country club lifestyle to a 1,500 square foot or less home, no TV, no video games, mom and the 2 kids all had beds in one big room and nightly entertainment seemed to come from reading the newspaper. Another older couple, in order to remove the noise of modern life does not own a computer, the most sophisticated thing they own is a microwave and they print an old fashioned newspaper for somewhere between 50 to 100 persons like themselves to stay informed in the world.

There have always been those opposed to progress from the railroad to the industrial revolution, from the first movie to the first TV, to the first computer; this could simply be seen as the growing pains on the cusp of progress, one of the many rebellions waged against something perceived as bad or a situation, culture going in the wrong direction. Yet something darker looms here; it is one thing for people to want to feel closer to nature growing their own garden, a good way to get kids to eat their vegetables, it’s one thing for a person to be categorized as a tree hugger, not quite understood by everyone else, to want natural, fresh, organic food and therefore purchase a hen to get the eggs. It is another thing entirely to feel as though you must grow your own garden in an attempt to make ends meet, to meet your family’s food needs; it is whole other issue when people are so fed up with the price of basic food staples, this is their alternative. What’s next seeing goats pined in back yards for the milk? Obviously if that’s what someone chooses to do to give their kid a pet and a taste of responsibility that is their choice, but we are not in sub-Saharan Africa, we are not a receiving participant in the heifers international project and it shouldn’t look that way.

Even among the minimalists there is some evidence of poor thought process; our self described country club mom who took her children out into the middle of nowhere with no electronics is not very forward thinking. Case in point, she is not thinking about the day when it will no longer be appropriate for her 10 year old son to share sleeping space with his mom and sister, the day when he’s going to want the privacy of his own room. By that same token she’s not thinking about the day when his sister does not want to share sleeping space with him or mom, nor is she considering that in most states children’s services demands that opposite sex children over the age of one year have their own room; in addition, they also stipulate, in most states, that a child past the age of one year can no longer share a room with mom and dad. This mom’s particular choices leave the average person scratching their head wondering what is wrong with a 3 bedroom house or apartment in suburbia; she made the comment that upon moving there she heard I’m bored often from her son without the video games, but they created their own games. How about a less drastic approach, agreeing not to buy anymore game systems or games, going through the games he has to see which ones he has outgrown, no longer plays or doesn’t want; if he still has too many games, tell him to pick 5 or 10 of his favorites and give the rest away. Also consider renting games as a special treat or activity for him.

People who engage in the lifestyle of least seem to think they are better people, they are raising better kids, only time will tell if there is any truth to the philosophy; in the meantime, concerns can be brought as to what kind of people the woman’s 2 children might become, bright, articulate, well spoken, focused could all be things said about her kids, but technologically illiterate. What happens if by the latter years of high school the school is making use of the i-pad or similar devices and he doesn’t know how to use them; some schools are already making laptops as available to students as textbooks, others already purchasing i-pads to begin to replace pounds of heavy textbooks. Will she pull him out of school to home school him or transfer him to get him away from technology; how is he completing his homework at present, with web searches and internet being a key component in learning? A more immediate issue may well become what happens when the newspaper is no more, currently they all have websites giving out additional content; local newspapers, depending on how local, do not carry all the important national news. Even national television news is constantly referring viewers to their website for product recalls, more detailed health tips regarding a featured story. So here is a parent who has chosen to isolate not only herself but her children with no apparent regard for what it could do to them other than make them un-materialistic.

Consolation can be drawn from the fact that our other example is an older couple edging on retirement age, if not already there, they are adults making a conscious choice to live differently. That being said, their choice of hobby, activity or new passion begs the question how do you create a newspaper without for example watching the news; they lived in an isolated, wooded area, reporting on the town in which you live only goes so far and the paper was geared toward like minded people looking for a less technological life. Yes you can give tips on how to divest yourself of your e-mail, your computer, your webcam, your smart phone, your i-pod, yet those ideas take up 1-2 issues of the paper. After those items it becomes not only what to put in said paper but practical matters like is there a way to book airline tickets without doing it on-line, how much more you have to pay if you buy at the ticket window, assuming they let you do that anymore in your area. What do you do in say another decade when online bill pay is a must not a choice, or the fast growing European idea of using expanded ATM’s for money transfers to utility, cable and internet providers, individuals on things like social security forced to accept direct deposit. How can you report on, or warn against technology, its effects, if you aren’t even aware of it?

On the opposite side of the coin, it’s one thing to see college graduates returning home to mom and dad to pay down college loans, likewise it is one thing to see older parents living with their children’s family to get proper care, avoid a nursing home, or just be in better health, but it is a big red flag when grown children and their families are living with mom and dad for a roof over their heads, many times due to a loss of job, only working part time or working minimum wage with 1-2 kids to support. These are the suddenly working poor, the suddenly marginalized; faces of the recession have been profiled on the news large families where mom, dad or both had a good job for decades now struggling to feed their kids. A family with one child unsure if they can buy milk weekly, an 11-year-old boy crying because he’s hungry. For most it has never been about hokey camp going to Canada ever other week, but possibly the art, music and sports schools no longer can afford to offer; on a more day to day level it’s the computer and internet your need so kids can complete homework, it’s the cellphone you and your age appropriate child need to stay safe and in touch with you. It is a big red flag when even corporations are hoarding cash, when the average person, who has a small amount of disposable income, feels like they can’t spend on for fear of the future. And it’s an even bigger red flag when people have no disposable income.

Supersavers, coupon queens and other wonder women and families have been featured on the morning shows saving families thousands by switching their cable, phone and internet, coupon clipping reducing a cart load of groceries and household items to mere cents. A family making 80 thousand dollars a year saving half of that per year, buying their first then their second home in cash, doing the same with their car and apparently they are not suffering, they still get what they want it’s just delayed gratification. However if it sounds too good to be true it probably is; switching your phone, cable and internet is a good idea until you read the fine print and realize the discount is only for a year, until your sacrificing speed for reduced price, in terms of internet, until someone goes over their minutes or you realize you no longer have the one phone feature you used most. Coupons can be another sticking point, expert savers routinely combine multiple coupons for the same item or use a coupon in conjunction with in store discounts or additional in store coupons getting items for free or for pennies; yet some stores do not allow that, make you choose either the in store discount or the coupon, only allow you to use one coupon. Sometimes discounts apply only to store brands not the name brand; you could be wasting more in gas or merely breaking even between your savings at the store and the gas spent getting to and from if you have to go to multiple stores to take advantage of sales.

The family making 80,000 dollars a year did phenomenal things; still most people make about 30,000-40,000 a year, if they’re lucky. They were able to choose a city and state where the cost of living was low; most are where they are because they were born in the area and can’t afford to move, don’t have the job flexibility, can’t find a job where they would like to move to. One of the secrets for this successful family seemed to be delayed gratification and lots of research and planning; pitfalls are unfortunately found in this too. For those unwilling to do online shopping, those who do not have a credit card and do not feel comfortable placing debit card information online, worse still those who have been burned by doing so, bye, bye go a lot of deals. For those with limited transportation utilizing super centers like Wal-Mart delayed gratification can turn into zero gratification in a matter of days or weeks, if you see an item you want but can’t afford right then, when you return looking for it, it’s gone or no longer available in your size, possibly has gone up in price. Waiting for new release DVD’s to become reduced price often produces the same result; by the time it is half price or even a quarter of the price it is no longer in the store where you saw it, if you go somewhere else you will pay more or spend months even years on the hunt for it.

The dirty little secret of credit card debt in America no expert wants to discuss or admit is not so called instant gratification, wanting things immediately, it’s any gratification represented two fold between instances just like the ones here and the utter lack of disposable income. They work and work hard thus wanting simple pleasures to show for it DVD’s music, a cool t-shirt to wear to a barbeque or family reunion. People who want to give to their kids in the same way; people who are not shopping Goochie, Prada, The Gap, whose only interest in $50 jeans is they fit correctly, high priced sneakers are all about foot comfort and durability hints the $60 spent.
This is what’s so alarming about the 1970’s comparison and the save, save, save mentality going out as feverishly as everyone thinks the spend, spend, spend mentality once did; in the 1970’s the cost of living was less, you didn’t need a TV to get a complete weather outlook or a computer to be fully informed of local and national news. Typewriters were how you created letters of grievance, business letters, rèsumès and so on, not word processing software. The majority had cars but they were not the only way to get to work outside of big cities like Chicago and New York, fewer people had to commute from one city to another for work, towns were smaller and therefore existing bus systems covered more of a needed area. Public areas had payphones businesses many times had public access phones free for local calls and no one gave you dirty looks for asking to use it. In the ’70’s there was lay away for items wanted but not affordable immediately; many used it for big ticket items like such as furniture and appliances but it could also be used on smaller values. The 1970’s model doesn’t work in the 21st century because it does not take into account what we need to function in the 21st century to learn, to get jobs, to find the best bargains, keep in touch with loved ones, stay safe or do something as simple as call a taxi or pay your bills. Neither does it take into account the cost of obtaining small luxuries.

Can we exist without TV’s, computers, video games, smart phones, e-mail, internet, blackberries, yes, but can we thrive? Not so fast, not if we want our kids to be prepared for the world, not if we want to stay connected to, informed about the world around us, not if we want to compete as a nation in the global market. Can we exist without all the “excess” stuff, yes, but if you already have it, already paid for it, why not enjoy it? Not everyone who has things is mean, selfish and decadent; neither are all people who chose not to have stuff always benevolent, caring, environmentally friendly, world conscious individuals, something to keep in mind before diving in to the belt tightening, money hording currently taking place.