line items

Isn’t it fascinating that the line items we create in the budgets of our lives sustain the lives of others?

Lots of people buy ClassPass memberships each month, and because of that, I can pay my rent, buy groceries and do other things with money that adults do. Because other people made room in their lives for ClassPass, I can make room for Trader Joe’s, and so on and so on.

Clearly my unit economics are wrong. Clearly this model isn’t about making line items to support people, it’s about the service we’re getting.

But what if it were about the people? What would change about my attitude toward money and where I place it if I thought about the people behind that money?

Like every not-new headline I see about millennials, I’m prone to spend big on experiences and eschew spending on things. Of course I’ll spend almost $200 on tickets to an event — but I remember leaving IKEA with my mom after furnishing my first room post-grad:

You only spent $400? That’s pretty good!
Yeah, but I spent $400…

You really don’t like spending money, don’t you?
No (because I don’t think about where it’s going).  

When I was in 7th grade, my social studies teacher taught a lesson around the music video to World on Fire by Sarah McLachlan. She’s sitting in a living room or hotel room somewhere with her guitar, just playing and singing. The video opens by citing a production cost of $150,000. But she’s just sitting in a chair — the video cost just $15 to make.

Throughout the video, she compares production costs ($5000 = cost of makeup and hair for one day) to the cost of supporting a developing country ($5000 = one year of schooling for 145 girls in Afghanistan).

$500 = sound playback OR all the nuts and bolts to hold 50 Bangladeshi houses together
$1150 = filming equipment OR 5 bicycle ambulances in Nepal
$10200 = 2 hours of film stock OR 6 wells built in 6 different countries

I remember feeling sobered as a 12-year-old white girl from a nice suburb; who am I to consume this expensive media when so many needed the money more than I? As soon as the bell rang that day, I raced home and talked at my dad — “have you heard of this music video? Isn’t it crazy how expensive music videos are to produce and so cool that she used her platform for good instead?”

Ever the contrarian, “no,” my dad said, “what happens if everyone stops making music videos and production assistants and sound editors — people doing the jobs they absolutely love — are out of work?”

Twelve-year-old me hated to consider his point, but it was valid.

A comment from a couple years ago on the Youtube video struck me:

“My country Kenya is here twice or more, I live next to that largest slum. AID is killing us. Can we be given a chance to save ourselves? PLEASE?? Kenya is wonderful. Are there no hungry people in Europe or America who need saving? Ya’ll have been trying to save us since you showed up at our doorsteps with that imaginary friend of yours called Jesus and have been royally screwing us ever since.”

“AID is killing us.”

“Are there no hungry people in Europe or America who need saving?”

“Ya’ll have been trying to save us since you showed up at our doorsteps… Can we be given a chance to save ourselves?”

“Kenya is wonderful.”

I can’t claim to understand the efficacy of aid; I don’t know whether aid is helping developing countries or hurting them. But I want to at least think about both sides of the coin.

Drake’s God’s Plan music video is a 2018 version of McLachlan’s, where the rap game Robin Hood gave away his label’s almost $1 million budget to people and organizations around Miami. It’s beautiful — I teared up watching — but did that mean Karena Evans, a talented up-and-coming 22-year-old director who headed up the video, as well as his for “I’m Upset” and “Nice for What,” had to work for free? I doubt she did — and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

The message I understand from Drake and McLachlan is small-part PR stunt, large-part heartwarming aberration: I live in excess, so it’s high time I give some of it away, then get back to my regularly scheduled programming. That’s both beautiful and intentionally unsustainable.

What if — I’m no economist, but I believe this to be true — we invested in both? I want to value human survival and art at the same time, and I don’t think pitting them against each other in a scarcity ultimatum is what will end exorbitant spending on entertainment and solve inequality forever.

Some line items I’m excited about in my life right now are for Preemptive Love Coalition and Rent the Runway. Have you heard of one, both, neither? Preemptive Love serves on the front-lines of conflict and disaster areas in Iraq, Syria, and the US — supporting refugees and those displaced by fulfilling basic needs, hosting skills trainings and creating jobs. Their mission of “local solutions to local problems” gets the closest to maintaining personal dignity and rejecting dependence on continued foreign aid of any nonprofit of I’ve seen.

At surface level, supporting Preemptive Love checks off the box McLachlan and Drake ask me to. Don’t spend your money on this — spend your money on that.

But like lots of people in the world, I also like to play with personal style, and have an “unlimited” membership to Rent the Runway. That means I get a rotating set of items from a closet numbering in the hundreds of thousands — all that other women have rented, too. Through their model, RTR attempts to chip away at the waste created by the fashion industry. (It’s the second largest polluter in the world.)

I’m learning to hate spending money less — and it’s easier when I think through where my money is going, and understand that companies and products can serve the world in both explicit and implicit ways. What are your favorite unexpected line items from your budget this month?

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