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Independently Speaking

Publication Date 10-6-22

I recently read a newspaper article about a young couple shopping for their first home. They’re in their mid-twenties and living in an apartment but had recently rescued two dogs, so a yard seemed like a necessity. He’s an elementary school teacher and she’s a legal assistant who wants to go to law school someday. So, they went house hunting for their starter home.

Their budget was $800,000.

I don’t know what teachers are complaining about. I had no idea they made that kind of money.

I did some math, because I find that an insane amount of money to spend on anything that doesn’t grow corn. Figuring mortgage, insurance, and taxes it looks like their monthly payment would be around $7,000, which is a few thousand dollars a month more than a new teacher’s salary.

It just makes me think I may be missing part of the story.

The photo of them in the article certainly presents them as a nice young couple and I wish them well.

It’s not a crime to have rich parents, because that seems like the most plausible way they could afford the house. If I could buy all three of my children $800,000 houses, I’m sure we would all be grateful.

Grateful AND surprised.

What bothers me is that a lot of couples in their mid-twenties are going to look at that article and think, "Man, what a loser I am.”

Just a guess, but there may be a few couples in their, oh, I don’t know, mid-sixties who couldn’t afford an $800,000 house either.

I think you could make the point that life in the United States took a turn for the worse when the show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” went on the air. After that one broke the ice, we ended up loaded down by all sorts of drivel about the good life of extremely wealthy people. Before then, we all knew that there were people out there who were living much larger than we were, but it wasn’t rubbed in our faces. Maybe if you were the doorman in an apartment building next to Central Park or cut the grass on a big plantation in the South, you could see how the rich lived, but in the place and time where I grew up, no one had much money, and no one noticed. I can name a few people who were living pretty well, but their houses didn’t look different than anybody else's, and if they flew first class, no one in Big Stone County knew. Of the many problems in my hometown when I was growing up, jealousy wasn’t one of them.

But now? About half of what you see on TV or on the internet seems designed to make you feel worse about your life, feel like you’re not measuring up, like there’s a whole wonderful world out there and you’re missing out.

I remember the feeling. We started farming in 1976, in time for the worst drought in 100 years. We began the year with nothing and ended it with less. I raised hogs, sold some certified seed - anything I could think of to piece together a living. A young man the same age as me, living a few miles away, appeared to be living a charmed life. I farmed a few hundred acres; he had ten times as much and toward the end, fifty times as much. We’d started farming at the same time and in only a few years he had land in three states and was on the cover of farm magazines, while I was shoveling manure, working way too many hours and trying to stay on good terms with our banker.

I remember thinking, “Man, how is that possible? I’m such a loser.”

Turns out he couldn’t do it and over the next few years his life unraveled.

We kept plugging along on our little hog farm, just paying the bills and trying to remember not to wear manure-covered clothes to the grocery store. I’m mocking myself here, but in many ways, it was the best time of my life. The biggest fly in the ointment was that tinge of jealousy, comparing myself to people I had very little in common with.

At this point in my life, I do not care at all that a couple of fortunate young people in their mid-twenties can afford $800,000 for a house and then hire an architect to remodel it. But I must admit, I really wish so much of our media offerings didn’t revolve around celebrating conspicuous consumption.

Copyright 2022 Brent Olson


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