Poultry vs. Prada

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.)

Image credit: The AwesomeBoston.com

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.”

The neigh­bors