Recession Confessions

Coping with the downturn can be as simple as giving up a cologne or as hard as giving up a baby.

What is deprivation? Is it best measured objectively? That’s the idea behind the “poverty line”—although that yardstick, which dates from 1939 and is based on the cost of a minimal diet, is in desperate need of updating, as a new bill in the House would do. Or does deprivation in our still well-off country have as much or more to do with relative measures as with absolute ones?

The idea that deprivation is relative seems especially relevant for people hurt by the recession. They have less than what they had before. And sometimes they also have less than the friends and neighbors around them. What do people give up when they have to cut back, and how deprived do those sacrifices make them feel?

I’ve been thinking about this in light of the responses I received to my question about what readers have forgone because of the recession. I heard from about 100 people. Some listed more than one thing they’ve given up. Their responses break down like this:

Eating out 21
Salon/beauty products 13
My own place/future home12
Shopping for fun9
Going out to the movies7
Health or car insurance6
Coffee out5
Peace of mind/sense of security or freedom5
Having a child3
Hobbies (pets)3
Hopes for retirement2
Private school for my child2
Time with my family2

A lot of people, in other words, are doing without what could be labeled as luxuries: restaurant outings, trips, manicures, getting their hair highlighted, cable TV. That’s what you’d expect in a downturn, and if it’s not good for the economy collectively, because it means less consumer spending, it makes sense individually. More bleakly, there’s also a set of big life-altering sacrifices: deciding not to have a child or buy a house.

You can’t really compare the luxuries to the larger things surrendered. Babies, of course, trump cologne. Moving in with your in-laws or not being able to travel to see your child isn’t in the same category as giving up a trip to Cancun, however longed for. But the emotional effect of each category, small sacrifice and large, merits its own exploration. Sometimes, small luxuries are the vehicles for larger expressions of identity.

First, the heartbreakers. “I gave up my pregnancy,” writes one woman who asked me not to use her name. Her fiance’s company was in meltdown and hers was midtakeover. They are both still in school. “When we found out we were going to add another life to this chaos, we couldn’t do it,” she writes. “An unplanned pregnancy coupled with an uncertain job market, then the fact that we would have to accelerate our marriage plans … and find a home suitable for a family (instead of tiny one-bedroom) was just too much.” Women have for decades cited economic concerns as one of the top reasons for having an abortion. But that doesn’t make the often difficult decision to have an abortion easy. This reader said she also suffered a second loss: her best friend, who could not understand the choice she was making.

Another reader, who is 28 and lives in South Boston, has lost contact with his 7-year-old son, who lives a few towns away, because of his dwindling income. Along with regular work has gone his “pride and self-confidence [because of] having to beg for change or free food.” (He adds, “I am at a temporary work P.C. by the way, in case you are wondering how I can type this on the internet but not eat.”) A 61-year-old, Margaret, sent me a long list of sacrifices, including half of her 401(k), “a sense of security,” and “the hope of retirement any time in the near future.” She explains that her job is tenuous and says that of all the losses she listed, “The fear and loss of any sense of security is the most painful. … For older people the deprivations are especially acute.”

Maybe she is right, but I felt equally bad for readers thrown off course at earlier stages of life. A woman in Yuma, Ariz., has moved in with her husband’s mother and grandmother. (She is working but her husband is not, and they have a lot of credit card debt.) She expressed her gratitude: “They are the most giving, lovely people.” But she says she has given up “privacy, freedom, independence” to the new living arrangement. “I’ve gone from leading a normal adult life to feeling like a child again in his mother’s house.”

For parents, the pressure to take a second job means the loss of time—hours no longer spent at home, day after day. One wrote:

Now when I get off work rather than picking up my kids and enjoying an evening of playing with them, I go to work again. I don’t miss the cable or eating out or shopping, but working two jobs to make ends meet has caused me to make the biggest sacrifice of my life and one that I never thought I would have to make, my family.

That is brutal. I turned with some relief to the notes from people who are giving up luxuries. These e-mails often started with a bit of self-deprecation and awareness that in the scheme of things, they know they can’t complain. “I feel a bit superficial and silly for this one,” writes Angela. Then comes the catch. “But for years a personal dream of mine has been upsizing the stone in my wedding ring. I LOVE jewelry, but never really liked the style of ring my husband gave me when he proposed. (Love the man, love the ring??)”

For their 12th anniversary, Angela and her husband put a bigger stone on layaway. But as the owners of a small business and the parents of four children, they’ve realized they can’t afford to keep making the payments. “To come so close to a long-time, admittedly utterly selfish dream, and then have to give it up, was really heart-wrenching,” Angela concludes. “But I am still absolutely certain it was the best decision for our family.”

Vanity is a quality we’re taught to deride. But it can tie into deeper feelings, can’t it? Bryan, a substitute teacher in Bridgeport, Conn., who is having trouble finding work, has given up his beloved cologne: Allure. “Doing without it has been very, well, depressing,” he writes. “It’s an essential piece of my everyday identity.” The equivalent for women was giving up coloring their hair at a salon. “I feel stupid and vain for caring so much about my hair color, but I do,” one wrote. “I feel less attractive and confident, and carry myself differently. … For heaven’s sake, I’m unemployed, that’s what I really should be bitching about. But changing my hair color disproportionately upsets me.”

Bryan was wry and funny about his failed efforts to replace Allure with a cheaper scent. A cologne he bought because of the online reviews smelled, upon arrival, like “stale potpourri, combined with an indescribable something that only a Danish hooker would wear.” Bryan’s solace is that he has landed a part-time job at a local university and can look forward to having the leeway soon to “turn my bonus into the familiar heft of Chanel’s 3.4 ounce little brown box.” And then he will have a piece of himself back.

Giving up the outings that connect you to your friends is another small loss that can loom large. “The people I know don’t appreciate the fact that we can still get together at each other’s homes/apartments,” write Sharon. “So I’m left at home alone. As a single mom who was already feeling a sense of abandonment from my kids being away at college, [I’m left] feeling very lonely. … Other than the hours spent at work I spent at least 85 percent of my time alone.” This made me worried.

And I also felt sad for Mei, a self-proclaimed geek in her mid-30s who works in software 60 hours a week. She had to give up going to the Comic-Con International in San Diego this month, her one time during the year to drink and hang out and “misbehave with geek boys.” When her co-workers show her their vacation photos, “I feel like I’m going to be sick,” she says. *

These e-mails are a trail of psychic sores and wounds ( more of them posted here). Some of them are nicks and scratches, readily healed. And some of the larger hurts won’t leave lasting harm, because the people who suffered them are resilient. But some will. That’s one way to think of deprivation: the inability to recover from what you’ve lost. Sacrifices are supposed to make us stronger, I suppose. But they can inflict a lot of pain in the process.

Next question: What haven’t you given up despite the recession that matters to you, big or small? Please post your responses below or send them to me at E-mail may be quoted in Slate unless the writer stipulates otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let me know.

This article also appears in Double X.

Correction, July 24, 2009: This paragraph originally misidentified Mei as male. (Return to the corrected paragraph.)