Ross Gittins wrote an article in the Sydney Morning Herald the other week reporting on a fascinating study which should have been, but wasn’t, titled Why There Is Never Going To Be A Revolution.
The study found, basically, that the majority of Australians in every income bracket thought that most people lived on roughly what they themselves did. This was true for households living on between $20,000 and $40,000 per annum; it was equally true for households living on $120,000 to $150,000. More of those on over $150,000 had the grace to admit that perhaps they were more affluent than most – presumably because this income band includes the mega-rich, who one assumes have the grace to realise that most people don’t buy an extra Lexus just for the nanny – but even then close to half thought of themselves as normal.
There are, of course, a number of flaws with the study, one of which is that it doesn’t take into account fixed costs. The day to day life of a family of six in Sydney on $120,000 may not bear many similarities to that of a 20 year old apprentice plumber living with his parents – for one, I suspect more housework is involved – but the amount of disposable income at the end of the week may be comparable.
So, let’s discount fixed costs. Has our family of six burdened themselves with an $750,000 mortgage in order to live in an old Glebe terrace? That’s $4000 per month they’re up for, and don’t even talk to them about rates and utilities, you wouldn’t believe the prices, so you can’t tell them they’re richer than Dave the not-quite-a-plumber, who pays his Mum $200 board a week. Well, hang on, says Dave. I’d bloody love to live in Glebe, not stuck here in a dank bedroom in Gagebrook, Tasmania. Just because they choose to spend their money that way doesn’t make us even. It’s like saying that you have to deduct the caviar from their food bill. Their lives are richer for having the option to live somewhere like Glebe.
Well, alright. Is housing a fixed cost or not? What about transport? We all know that poor people don’t drive, but they do have to spend a lot of time in their imaginary cars, which are usually older and less fuel efficient than the real and not at all made up cars of the rich. Is that a fixed cost? What about children? I used to earn exactly the same as another friend; we started our law careers at the same time, in the same firm, and merrily broke our contractual obligations by comparing our salary raises, so I know this to be true. But five years down the track, I was paying $1000 a month from my after-tax salary in childcare, and it was only that low because I’d dropped to part time, which means I also lost 20% of my salary before we started. But then again, having children was my choice; in a way, that’s discretionary spending too. What’s a fixed cost? At what point in the monthly ballet that is income and expenditure do you start calling money ‘disposable income?
The flaws are many, is my point, and to make a proper, scientifically rigorous comparison is beyond my abilities, although one of these days I’m going to have a damn good crack at it. What I’m interested in today, though, is the fact that, flaws aside, the study feels instinctively correct. Everyone does, in fact, basically assume that most people are on sort of around what they themselves are. And in fact, everyone I know looks at everyone else I know and thinks well, hang on, how is it that they can afford to do A Thing when I cannot? They can’t earn that much more than me, surely? Or can they? Am I, in fact, massively underpaid compared to my peers?
It’s because we notice the things we don’t have rather than the things we do. There’s probably some fancy sociological term for this, covering the human desire for status, and awareness of one’s position within any given group because we’re social animals by nature, and good old fashioned grass-is-greener syndrome. But it happens all the time. I notice that one friend sends her children to a private school whereas mine are state; how does she manage that? But I’m not exaggerating when I say that as I typed this, I just realised that my annual budget for books is probably equivalent to the fees for one child. (In my defence, it’s a cheap private school) (I actually can’t believe I just admitted that). Another friend buys entirely organic food, but cuts her hair at home, which I have to make myself remember. And so on.
What I’m saying, really, is not about their expenditure at all. It’s that my own expenditure feels invisible. I have to really think very hard about it to realise that actually quite a lot of my spending is discretionary, because it doesn’t feel like it. Most of the money I spend isn’t fun to spend (books excepted), it’s just…what I feel like I need to keep up with the people who are my peers. And because it isn’t fun, it doesn’t make me feel well off to spend it. I felt richer when I was 14 and my birthday cheque from my Dad arrived and I had to decide whether to buy three new CDs or a dress. The limitless horizons!
It’s awkward, talking about money, and this whole post makes me feel very vulnerable. But although on a broad, intellectual level of course I know that I’m better off than most people in the world who would love to have fresh water and good sanitation and food left on the plate at the end of dinnertime, on a day to day basis it never feels like that at all.
I wonder if there’s a way to go back to the feeling of one’s first paycheque and make it fun again. Maybe if we had some sort of system whereby the basic needs of everybody were met from a communal pool of money, after which the little disposable income left was shared out, and although it was very little, it would be for frivolous spending only, like my birthday CDs, and all the more valuable for it.
We could call it something like…I don’t know. Communal..community..communism!