By the time you read this, I will have been a very contented employee at Michigan Sea Grant for *checks calendar*…*hesitates*…*tallies on fingers*…fifty-nine days. I finished my master’s program this spring and slid almost seamlessly into my dream job as the communications editor for this respected Ann Arbor nonprofit, where I’m surrounded by people who love the Great Lakes as much as I do. Life is good.
Here’s something else that feels good: for the first time in my life, I have a salary. This still blows my mind. After years of part-time, freelance, and temporary jobs, a salary feels comfortingly, reliably stable.
Little did I realize, though, that having a steady income—and the purchasing power that comes with it—would leave me clutching a pair of Smartwool socks in the throes of a little moral conundrum.
I’ve always been fairly intentional (or obnoxiously over-analytic, however you want to say it) with my shopping habits. I try to spend money on things I truly want and which fill a specific need in my life. And I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a mammoth, unearned privilege to be able to make these kinds of choices. I’m fortunate enough to have a steady income, good health, cheap housing, manageable debt, and no kids to support. My parents have been similarly blessed (except for the kids part, obviously), and most of my financial perspective comes from them.
Deep down, I feel like every purchase I make sends an implicit message—even if I’m the only one receiving it—that the product or service I’ve bought is important, useful, beautiful, necessary, or worthy of being sustained.
To a degree, my spending habits reveal my priorities. I could shell out a few pennies for a Hershey bar from 7-Eleven and a few bucks for a machine-milled plastic basket at Walmart. But if I value fair-trade supply chains that pay Ghanaian cocoa farmers a living wage or give women in Bangladesh an opportunity to start their own businesses, I’ll splurge on Divine chocolate or a gorgeous hand-made basket from Serrv.
And I know firsthand the sneaky ways that purchasing habits can affect lifestyle choices. After two years of biology classes at Calvin, I realized I was no longer comfortable putting my dollars toward the environmental, social, and ethical consequences of the modern meat industry. So I stopped buying meat. Before I knew it, I’d lost the taste for chicken, beef, and pork altogether. I’ve stuck (fairly) close to a vegetarian diet ever since.
So, if I truly believe in small-scale farms, earth-friendly materials, and hand-crafted goods, I should be prepared to vote with my dollars in favor of products and producers that align with my values. And, since I’m in a position to do so, I should be willing to pay the price premium required to fairly compensate farmers, artisans, and other workers for their labor.
But here’s the rub: I’m cheap.
Or, rather, my instincts push me toward cheapness. I grew up in one of those Dutch families where frugality is considered the eighth heavenly virtue. I’ve always been a diligent little saver and can usually talk myself down from the cliff of impulse purchases (except when shopping at thrift stores. Lead me to a Salvation Army, and all bets are off).
Ever since I earned my first paycheck folding bulletins in my church office, I’ve kept my financial habits in “student mode.” I scrimped pennies at the grocery store and maintained a cheap pay-as-you go cell plan with an equally cheap low-tech phone.
Now that I have a somewhat more disposable income, I find myself navigating the tricky waters of being an adult consumer. Purchasing habits may reveal priorities, but it’s unexpectedly difficult to choose which priority should rise to the fore: organic black beans or half-price conventional black beans? Quality threads or thrift-store togs?
A few weeks ago, I found myself lingering in consternation at the Smartwool display in an outdoor gear shop near my house. Is it more responsible to buy a few pairs of nice, well-made socks that’ll help me feel a little more mature and capable of dressing myself nicely? Or is it more responsible to save the money and keep wearing the twice-repaired, flagging socks I already own until they disintegrate completely?
Now, as I frown at my grocery list, my inner cheapskate is duking it out with my inner foodie. Should I follow my frugal instincts and save at Aldi? Should I opt for good deals on delicious mass-produced food at my beloved Trader Joe’s? Or should I wait a few more days and hope I have time to check out the farmer’s market?
I know. #FirstWorldProblems.
Weary of these mental conniptions, I’ve taken a step toward a #FirstWorldSolution (that’s a real hashtag, I promise). I decided to put my money where my mouth has been since I started touting the importance of small-scale local agriculture six years ago: I joined the Ann Arbor People’s Food Co-op.
For a one-time refundable $60 deposit, I get a ten percent discount on Wednesdays, a cut of year-end profit-sharing, and the knowledge that my post-work grocery runs are supporting a business that takes good care of its employees and sources its products from local, small, and organic enterprises. Yes, my grocery bills are higher. And it’s my privilege to pay them.
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.