Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Judging People by Their Covers

My dad has given me so many valuable pieces of advice over the years that I wish he had written a book. Many of them were given under such particular circumstances that I remember them vividly. For example, when I was in elementary school, my friend's family got a very expensive new car. I was quite impressed and commented (to my dad) that her family had a lot of money. He told me that I had no way of knowing that - that you could never judge someone's circumstances, be it their finances, their marriage, or whatever, from the outside looking in. He told me that they could be in debt up to their eyeballs (for the record, I don't think they were) - we just didn't know. I have never forgotten that lesson. You would think that this is kind of "duh," but you would be surprised at how often I feel judged by my "things."

My house is almost 20 years old - Henry had I "built" it (you know - new neighborhood, we chose the floor plan and the finishes - that kind of building) in 1999. Now it is looking a little small and dated. Back then it was large and gorgeous. Back then we had no pets and no children. Now we have a lab and four teenagers. We consciously made the decision not to "upgrade." The house was perfect for us once upon a time, and we'll size back down into it again in no time. It will be paid off. We love it. Recently, though, someone commented to Therese that he knew that she was (I can't remember the exact wording, but it was essentially this) poor because he had looked up her home value on the appraisal district's website. I was first angry and then, very quickly, bemused. You can't judge a person's finances based on their home value! So many decisions have gone into our keeping the home we bought when I was 23 years old, and not a single one of them is that we can't afford a more expensive one, although one is definitely that we don't choose to purchase a more expensive one.

Not helping the appearance of my being "poor" is, I'm sure, my 13 1/2 year-old minivan! Darn those Hondas...they go forever! We have been so blessed not to have had to pile the miles on the car we bought before the twins were born. My 2004 Odyssey has 125K miles on it, and it shows no sign of slowing down. Now, the paint job on it had something wrong with it (there was a recall and we got it redone, but it didn't last), so the clear coat is peeling. It looks awful. The automatic door locks are broken on both passenger side doors. One-by-one the dashboard lights are dying on us. Little things that aren't worth fixing are giving out. The big things are hanging on, though, and does anyone really *want* to buy a new car, especially when family size dictates that you have to buy a bigger (read - more expensive) car? I sure don't. Now, Henry has said that we will be buying a new minivan in the next few months simply because I have to have a reliable car, and cars with that many miles just can't be counted on, so...I guess at least part of me will look a little more prosperous.

The point is, prosperous looking people don't always have money in the bank, and people who live in older, smaller neighborhoods driving old cars aren't always skint. People have different preference orderings. Some people like having money in the bank and in the 401K more than they like living in it and driving it in the here and now. Some people are more now-focused and assume the future will take care of itself. I am sure that some people have it all, and a whole bunch of people have nothing. Don't make assumptions, or if you do, keep them to yourself because you're probably wrong.

One last story to illustrate the importance of not making assumptions: when I was a kid, my dad made large donations of food to our food pantry at church (the same pantry over which he is now the director - which means it's actually a completely different pantry at the same church, but whatever). He would buy entire cases of peanut butter at Kroger when it was on sale. One time, the manager at Kroger came out and said, "I just had to see how fat the man was who was buying all this peanut butter!" I'm sure she meant it as a joke, but really? Assumptions galore at work there. Another lesson learned for me. A few years later when I worked at Kroger, I had customer after customer justify their groceries to me, a lowly checker. They were embarrassed about what they were buying. I made it my mission to put every customer at ease. Their groceries were none of my business (although I did have to break it to my younger brother's friend that he couldn't use food stamps to buy cat food).

Everyone knows what they say about assumptions and it's not very flattering. It does, however, tend to be true.

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