From Dumpster Diving to the American Dream
My husband and I are unintentionally living our version of the American dream.
Our home and family probably look normal to everyone else, but it’s far from what I imagined back in college. As part of a “Claiborne-again” intentional community that eschewed individualism and excess, I learned to live extremely simply then. My housemates and I sat together on the floor (no couches or tables for us!) and ate food salvaged from the almost-spoiled discount rack. We shared clothing. We found ways to creatively use everything.
But after college, instead of giving away our last penny and living with the poor in some remote corner of the world, my husband and I did what most people do: we got jobs. We started accumulating wealth. While others got laid off in the recession, my husband stayed on, receiving generous raises as his company recovered. We didn’t feel God calling us anywhere else, so we stayed. It made economic sense to buy a condo instead of rent, so we did. Then, when we had a baby and outgrew our condo, we bought a house further out in the suburbs.
So here I am, the college kid that dumpster-dived and lived in a commune, paying the mortgage on a five-bedroom house and wringing my hands over a steady stream of disposable income and growing net worth. I’m rich (relatively speaking), and I’m really uncomfortable with my new status.
I look back at my old self with nostalgia and incredulity. Following Jesus was built into my lifestyle when I was living simply, sharing everything, and willing to go to the ends of the earth for him. What does it look like for me now?
Like many in the millennial generation, I remain passionate about social justice. And yet, I find myself on the advantaged end of an unjust social system. While my friends who are undocumented immigrants labor overtime without benefits for measly wages, we enjoy my husband’s health insurance, three weeks of paid vacation, and more-than-enough paycheck. While working-class families have their homes foreclosed and wages garnished when they can’t make payments, we know we have well-off family members we can rely on, not to mention a cushy bank account. Sure, we’ve worked hard to get where we are, but others have worked harder and gotten nowhere.
On the one hand, I am grateful. I’m glad we don’t have to fret over paying bills and that we can take an international vacation without penny-pinching for years. On the other hand, I feel embarrassed and guilty. Our enclosed suburban life seems a far cry from the account of the early church in Acts 2, where “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” It feels wrong to enjoy more than I need while knowing that others near and far lack so much.
Many in my generation face a similar impasse as our youthful idealism collides with the grown-up world of careers, mortgages, and kids. We want to change the world, yet here we are cashing out on the status quo. We remember our radical commitments as college students and wonder how to follow through given our current realities. As we settle into our lives, we realize we have more money than we need, and we don’t quite know what to do with ourselves.
Much of the popular conversation has defined my generation by its lack of financial stability. We’re waiting longer to get married and have kids; we’re renting rather than buying our first homes; we’re switching jobs. Yet, as the economy recovers and more of us marry and settle down, the habits we learned during the lean, unpredictable years – like saving at a greater percentage than previous generations and learning to live below our means – may put us at an advantage as opportunities arise. Even now, there are plenty of rising middle-class millennials like me. Among people in their late 20s and early 30s, over 20 percent have over $20,000 saved. The question, for both those inside and outside the church, is – what now? What should we be doing with this money?
I’m thankful that many others have already started much-needed conversations on money, privilege, and following Jesus. On this site, Jen Pollock Michel and Caryn Rivadeneira have wrestled with their own wealth and privilege, making space for others with them to move beyond guilt and avoidance to responsibility and empowerment—stewarding what we have for the common good. Ron Sider’s classic, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, continues to challenge a new generation to act justly and give generously of our resources.
While these conversations move me in the right direction, I need more than that. Part of me still walks around with clenched fists and fear: Do I really need to share that? But I worked really hard for it and would rather keep it to myself. Get close to that person? But what if her needs are just too much? What if she asks more of me than I am willing to give? I need a changed heart and renewed vision.
It’s so much harder now to follow Jesus in his call to downward mobility—to love and identify with the lowliest among us, to give sacrificially and not just out of the leftovers—now that I am upwardly mobile. “The more money you have, the harder it is to give away,” others have pointed out. This is why I feel incredulous about my cheap and grungy college days. Would it even be possible to live that way now, given how much I have, and (to be honest) how much I like having what I have?
Maybe someday we will start another commune with my old college friends. Or maybe, ten years down the road, we’ll still be living here in the ’burbs in this big old house. Wherever we are, I pray for the courage and faith to follow that still, small voice that says: Don’t get comfortable where you are. Follow me to those uncomfortable places. Share what you have. Give to those who ask of you. Open your home, your heart, and your wallet. Don’t draw lines around who is your family and who isn’t. Welcome the stranger. Honor the poor. My kingdom is more astonishing and abundant than you can imagine.