I'm 41 And Still Don't Own Nice Things
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Laura Breiling
Money

I'm 41 And Still Don't Own Nice Things

It wasn’t that my house is messy but rather that everything in it looks old and used.

A few weeks ago, I had a job interview over Zoom. That morning, I made it a point to iron my blouse and use concealer under my eyes. I twisted my hair up into a professional but cool do, and I practiced all the things I wanted to say. A few minutes before the meeting would pop into view on my laptop, I realized in a panic that there wasn’t a single angle in my small house that looked presentable. It wasn’t that my house was messy (it was) but rather that everything in it looked old and used. And that was when it hit me: I’m 41, and I still don’t have nice things.

What’s up with that!? I can still remember looking through my mother’s Sears catalog as a young kid, admiring the fancy objects of adulthood: the patio sets and lawn games, the metal cabinets for tools and the matching washer-dryer sets. I circled all the furniture and house gadgets that I imagined I would someday own, convinced that the all-American family life presented in those glossy pages was a meaningful measure of success.

Looking around my house at age 41, it appears that everything I currently own definitely came from the ’80s and ’90s — and probably from those same old catalogs. My current furniture is all hand-me-down. None of my curtains or decor match, and the only objet d’art that graces my walls was created by my own children. Shouldn’t I have an Instagram-white living room with fancy, expensive carpets and matching furniture by now?

The more I thought about this epiphany, the more self-conscious I felt. On paper, my husband and I have created a beautiful life. He’s a wooden-boat builder, and I am a writer. We live in an idyllic spot with gardens, woods and even a babbling brook. But our bank accounts are almost always dangerously close to the last dollar after we pay our bills and mortgage. What’s more, when I look around at my friends’ homes it seems that unless they are doctors and lawyers, they appear to be lacking beautiful things as well.

Living paycheck to paycheck as we do is stressful for many reasons, but the salt in the wound is that despite our best efforts and all the yanking on our bootstraps that we can muster, we can’t seem to attain the same wealth that our parents and our grandparents had. And it shows. The paint on my house is beginning to peel. Maybe it was the 2008 recession, or perhaps it’s that kids seem to require expensive tech gadgets that eat up our budgets — or heck, maybe it’s even that things just aren’t affordable anymore, but it seems like I’m still a 20-something trying to find a way to make my house feel like a grownup lives in it.

I brought this up to my girlfriends. They agreed that it sometimes feels like the standards of success we each were raised on — to work toward the nice house in the nice neighborhood with a nice car in the driveway — seem ridiculous these days. My friends and I no longer dream of what we can have, but now dread what we are stuck with: debt. Student debt. Medical debt. Mortgage debt. Credit card debt. The endless bills to cover daily living. Each thread of our conversation came back to the same thing — we’re all in debt, and what exactly do we have to show for it?

I think about all of this as I watch my tweens attempt to level up from Kindle Fires to iPads and from mom and dad’s phones to their own, and I wonder what messages I’m sending them about obsessing over things that are only as cool as the trending moment in which they exist. What is the measure of success that they should idealize? It might not be as fun to tell my kids how awesome it will feel about retiring without debt, but as I look at the next 25 years of my life, I sincerely wonder if I’ll even be able to afford it at all when the time comes to retire.

Despite my shabby chic surroundings, I landed a job offer after my Zoom interview. I vowed that although I won’t trouble myself with trying to have a perfect-looking house anymore, I would like to buy a simple — and new — set of matching living room furniture before I’m 50. Besides, my new colleagues aren’t going to want to look at the same beige armchair with glitter slime stains all down the front for very much longer.  

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