Driving to and from my hometown was an eye-opener. The first surprise was the amount of traffic: surprisingly little for a holiday weekend. I’m not sure whether it’s dropped because of the tight economy or if I’m so used to metropolitan traffic that everything else looks light in comparison.
The second surprise was the cost of daily life. I stopped by an outlet center that used to be jam-packed full of stores. The parking lots were still full, but many of the storefronts stand empty. I entered the information centre behind a large family – parents, grandparents, children and in-laws. From what I overheard, I understood that they had drawn up lists of things to buy from clothes for the kids to dishes for someone’s wedding. Talk about combining errands!
Now, I’ve seen families like this who are international visitors. In fact, I used to run into a Ontario university student who bought crates of books at my favorite bookstore, then took them back to Canada for other cash-strapped students. (If you wonder why, take a look at the back of a paperback book and compare the Canadian and US list prices.)
But this family was a Michigan family, living not terribly far from the outlet mall. So why were they acting as if this was a rare opportunity?
I got the answer on the drive home. First, I heard on the radio that Ford and another auto-maker had sold a record number of cars - and surveys showed that the average new-car buyer was replacing a 13-year-old model. I wondered if the fact that some people had held onto cars for more than 13 years wasn’t a ripple-effect from the Cash-for-Clunkers program. That federal program had the unintended consequence of reducing the pre-owned vehicle pool and raising the price of used cars.
Then I noticed that the “low fuel” light was on and the gauge was showing empty.* I was in a rural area, so I white-knuckled it several miles to the nearest gas station and filled the tank. After the initial feeling of relief, I experienced sticker shock.
The total that set me reeling? Forty-four dollars.
Although I drive daily, I live less than a mile from work and within 5 miles of the major errand hub (post office, grocer, library, etc.). I usually fill my tank once a month, empty or not, just because the gas stations are on my route. I rarely pay more than $25 for a month for fuel.
Now I’m looking at my neighbours and wondering how they cope with the expenses of daily life. A long commute, regular medical appointments in the nearby city, trips to the only health food store in the area - all are expensive. That family in the outlet mall probably faces the same challenge, so that one mighty shopping trip during the off-season makes the most of their resources.
One of my co-workers opines that the way to save money is to live “greener.” That’s certainly true for him, a commuter looking through the lens of his metropolitan lifestyle. But people in this community already have everyday traditions - growing their own gardens, recycling metal and repurposing ‘junk,” raising chickens, etc. – that are easy on the environment and the wallet. They know about buying local (at co-ops, no less) and supporting community resources like the library.
Ironically, it costs money to save money, whether it’s buying a new gas-sipping car or installing more effective windows or appliances. People can’t change their lifestyles on a dime (pun intended). Until it becomes a necessity – such as the existing car stops running or the windowsills rot out – most people don’t want to add another monthly payment to their lives. And it usually is purchased with credit: How else do you buy something expensive when you are scraping by?
*Note: The warning chimes and dings in my car died a few months ago, so I’ve now have to make a conscious effort to check the fuel gauge and the lights. And no, I’m not getting a new car soon. My Saturn is over 10 years old but still gets 30 mpg.