Originally published on the blog on January 3, 2010 and previously published elsewhere.
About 40 years ago, my grandfather, who was a successful entrepreneur and made enough of a fortune to give me a great start in life, wanted a car. Not any car. He wanted a Jaguar. I think one of those really cool classic 1960s models.
My mom's cousin, who worked for him at the time, occasionally went to the showroom with him to look at them. My dad did too. Clearly he could afford it and one could argue that he had earned it. But he never got the Jaguar.
Why? My mom's cousin told the story of his simple explanation:
"What will the neighbors think?"
My grandfather was a creation of the great depression whose business ventures failed more than once before he and my great uncle evntually succeeded. He knew the meaning of money and he didn't waste it or show it off. It was too important for that. I suspect that the "neighbors" were an excuse. The neighbors, by that point were mostly family and old friends, many of whom also did quite well for themselves over the years and none of whom would have begrudged him a bit of luxury. He just didn't think it was appropriate to show off.
To his way of thinking "bling" was something for people you wouldn't want to be associated with. "Pimps" and their "pimped out rides" were not "cool," they were criminal and anti-social. People who were sucessful could be content in their success without flaunting it. People who flaunted it were suspect.
We've come a long way, and not in the right direction.
What do the neighbors think today?
They have a tough time seeing why I've downsized and downscaled my cars each time over the past 15 years. I can afford it, most of them seem to think, so why not buy it? Why should I drive today's logical equivalent of my grandparents' 1973 Dodge Dart? (Sadly, today's logical equivalent made by a Japanese company, as nobody's been more focused on promoting chrome plated bling than the folks in Detroit.)
They have a tough time seeing why I don't bother with HBO or any other premium TV, and don't even have a DVR. As if there was anything on TV all that important or interesting to justify the fees charged.
They are amused and sometimes amazed when I inform them that I often ride the bus or use my bike for minor errands and commutes. They're shocked that my brother and I can't see the point of waiting 20-30 minutes in our cars for the privelege of paying $15 to park at Dodger Stadium when we can park free in Chinatown and walk up in less time. (During the playoffs when it can take over an hour just to get out of the lot, our method is much quicker!) They're amazed that we sit in the $28 seats when we could afford so much better, but as my brother asks "would you really enjoy the game three times more if you paid for the 'better' seats?" Judging by the number of people in those $100 seats who show up in the third inning and leave at the seventh inning stretch, I'd have to guess that many of them are more interested in bragging about the great seats they got than they are about enjoying the game.
Some of my business school colleagues can't see why I often shun opportunities to participate in "high end" events: the ones that are designed to show all the other people in the world how much cooler than them I am. Somehow they don't get that I'd prefer to take a hike in the mountains with a few friends rather than spend the day acting "cool" and getting drunk on the golf course. They can't understand why a guy like me who can afford such stuff would nonetheless find it unnecessary.
And they think I'm downright crazy for actually knowing how to do anything for myself. Stupid stuff like changing a tire, painting a wall or installing a ceiling fan. Stuff that everybody in America used to seem to know how to do.
Despite the current economic climate, few of the "neighbors" seem to conceive of the fact that life without bling is not only possible, but might actually be desirable. Living without bling means you live for yourself rather than for whatever your friends and neighbors think about your possessions. My grandfather and the "neighbors" of his generation knew that. Today's neighbors spend all their time worrying about what possessions the others have that they don't.
My grandfather's generation left this country with a fortune. Today's "neighbor-watchers" have squandered it showing off to each other. Fixing it is going to require a whole different way about looking at many of the things we have taken for granted. We're slowly moving in that direction and it can't happen fast enough.
Since the first time I put these thoughts down a few years ago, I've considered that my grandfather may have missed something too. There's nothing wrong with buying something you really want, can afford and will use just because somebody might mistake you for showing off. Depriving yourself of something useful and elegant because of what "the neighbors" might think is just as mistaken, though clearly not as stupid, as going into debt and buying something you don't want and won't use just to move their thoughts in the opposite direction.
I'm glad that I don't much care what the neighbors think. My life's a lot happier that way.