The financial cost of insecurity
JESSICA LIO // ONLINE EDITOR
The other day, I went to the post office to return some clothes I’d purchased online. Usually, it’s as simple as throwing the items back in the box and slapping on a prepaid return label, but this time I had three separate packages and only two of them had return labels ready. When I explained to the clerk that I still needed to pay for shipping on one of them, she was visibly unimpressed, rolling her eyes as she measured and taped the package.
By the time all three packages were ready to go, a lineup of people had formed behind me. Expecting the shipping to cost around $10, I was eager to pay and get out of there. To my dismay, she measured the box and told me that it would cost $28. When I asked if I could get a smaller box to put them in, she let out an audible sigh and shrugged. Feeling anxious, I grabbed a small shipping bag from the beside counter and shoved the clothes into it. On the second measure, she told me it would be $23 plus the cost of the shipping bag.
I knew I could have easily said, “Sorry for the trouble, but I thought the cost would be lower. I’ll take them to the store myself instead.” But my insecurity told me it would make me look cheap, and that it would be easier to just follow through with the transaction. So, I forced a polite smile and handed over my credit card.
In the end, I paid $25 to return $40 worth of items, just because I was afraid to embarrass myself. When the refund came through on my credit card statement later on, I still couldn’t shake the feeling of frustration with myself over the post office interaction. Sure, part of it was that I didn’t want to cause more work for the person behind the counter. But what really bugged me was knowing that I cared more about getting out of other people’s way and not being a burden than I did about giving up my hard-earned cash.
It got me thinking about all the times I’ve spent money because I was too shy to speak up and didn’t want to find myself in an awkward situation.
Whether it was going out for food with colleagues even though I’d brought my own lunch so I didn’t feel like I was missing out, buying a new outfit so that I could “fit in” at a party, or picking up the tab for a group meal and then feeling bad about asking for my money back. All these moments are about taking the comfortable route and avoiding the awkwardness of saying no or feeling left out.
Maybe it sounds trivial, but if small incidents like this happen once a month, then we’re talking a few hundred dollars wasted every year that could be much better put to work. Suddenly, that small habit doesn’t look so small.
In the past couple years, I had built the habit of declining offers to sign up for loyalty programs that promise discounts and deals that I don’t need. But only recently did I learn to say, “Hey, I brought food, but I’ll come for the walk anyway,” when invited to get takeout on a lunch break.
Every year we hear about income inequality growing at alarmingly unsustainable rates, and it feels as if there’s no way for us to individually change the course of that story. While it’s natural to feel a little helpless in the face of economic problems of such scale, I think the insecurity we feel over our own role in the economy is rooted in the notion that money is a measurement of who we are as people, and the equation of not having money with failure.
During this journey of getting my own personal finances in order, I’ve really taken to heart the concept that we vote with our money. Along with unlearning our insecurity comes with realizing the self-efficacy we actually have when it comes to spending our money, no matter how small or mindless a purchase may be. When I look at the breakdown of where all of my hard-earned dollars went every year, I want to see that they went towards building an economy that will make life better for the people and communities around me.
It would be foolish to pretend that money doesn’t represent power and status in our society. In so many ways, money (and the lack thereof) determines how individuals and societies organize themselves to achieve common goals. Money itself is not the measure of our life’s work or the choices we make. None of us will be on our deathbeds smiling because of the time we hit the high score on our bank account balance.
The true financial cost of our insecurity is that we go through our lives thinking that our participation in the economy is passive, that we can’t individually affect change. As global income inequality grows and the conversation around affordability in Vancouver intensifies, it’s absolutely crucial that we take it into our own hands to unlearn this reality.