As perhaps you’ve heard—because, really, I won’t shut up about it—I have a new purse. It’s made of rubber and looks pretty much exactly like a chicken. It cost $34.99 on Amazon.com.
The last time I was this excited about a purse was more than a decade ago. I was living in Manhattan, and the purse was Prada. It cost something in the range of $500, and I did not buy it on Amazon.com.
This realization got me thinking once again about the ways my life has evolved since moving back to western Massachusetts a year and a half ago. In particular, I’ve been reflecting on the key role of “reference groups” in shaping consumption patterns.
I first came across this term in sociologist Juliet B. Schor’s The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need while researching an essay for SecondAct on The Secret to Living Well on Less. As Schor explains it, we tend to compare our own lifestyles and possessions “to those of a select group of people we respect and want to be like, people whose sense of what’s important in life seems close to our own.” This is our reference group, and it’s malleable. It shifts over time and depending on life circumstances.
Not surprisingly, my Manhattan reference group was way different from my reference group in a college town smack in the heart of what’s often dryly referred to as The Happy Valley. And if that’s not a clear enough explanation, consider this socio-cultural map of Massachusetts. (N.B. We are the bright pink sector.)
As I wrote in my living-well-on-less essay, the fact that I’m spending far less money these days isn’t because I’m now a “better” or less materialistic person. What’s changed isn’t the core of who I am. What’s changed is who I hang out with.
But while I may not be a better person, I do have a better life. And by “better” I mean more in sync with things that really matter—the things that really make me happy. By way of illustration, I offer the following comparison:
What I Got out of My Prada Handbag
I do not love shopping, and for this reason, it was great to have a single item that, by dint of simply carrying it, would take me pretty much anywhere. In 1990s New York, the uniform of black Prada purse, black dress, black boots saved me countless hours of boredom in our finer retail establishments and, despite the hefty price tag The Purse carried, it likely ended up saving me money given the alternatives.
Plus, it was, in some strange way, like being part of a club—or at least putting in an application. As I recall—and it’s getting a bit hazy now—such accessories were popular at the time in the NYC publishing world, and while I was still practicing law, I wanted to be writer. I can’t say that the purse helped me write, but it symbolized the intention, and in this way, it may have helped just a bit in keeping the dream alive.
What I Get out of My (Non-Prada) Henbag
I make people smile. And laugh! They stop me on the street and say: I LOVE YOUR PURSE! WHERE DID YOU GET IT? Then we chat for a bit. They tell me why they love the purse—about their friend who has chickens or their own chickens or how much better fresh eggs are than the ones you buy at the supermarket (true), and then we smile and move on, but it’s sort of like I have a new friend somewhere.
When I meet someone who loves the chicken purse, I also know I’ve met someone with whom I’ll likely share other common ground. Carrying the chicken purse is like walking a puppy. Like it or not (and I do), I’m going to end up more connected than I was when I left my house that morning.
As go my purses, so goes my life.
The other day I bumped into a friend on Main Street, and after showing off the new henbag, I launched into a disquisition on my Poultry vs. Prada musings. I could tell he couldn’t fathom the notion of spending hundreds of dollars on a pocketbook. But rather than saying so, he simply observed, “I think you’re heading in the right direction.”
© 2012, amy gutman. All rights reserved.