I was talking to the guard this afternoon at the building I work at. It’s become pretty common for us to have a conversation as I’m on my way out the door. She’s a very interesting person. Very strong, and sure of herself, but open minded and interested in other people’s perspectives too.

Today I learned that she’d supported herself for 20 years with a business doing hair, and that only relatively recently with the economy as bad as it is did she have to get a job “outside”, as she called it. She has the kind of confidence that I’d always assumed came from years on the job, but now I think it comes from years of being her own boss.

Her hair business is still up and running, it just doesn’t bring in the income it used to. Fancy hair is something that many people cut out of their budgets.

But she’s still doing well enough with the hair business that she only has to work as a guard four days per week. Technically it is full time, so she gets benefits, but she doesn’t need to work the full 40 hours, so she doesn’t. Our conversation this evening was sparked based on that.

Today’s society is so strange, really. Many of us make more than our parents made, but we can do less with that money. I don’t just mean because of inflation, either. These days people have certain expectations, things they will spend money on without thinking twice, and which they call necessities, but which even 40 years ago would have been absurd luxuries.

Cars. I know people who have 3 cars for two people. I know others who get new cars every few years because they get “bored” with what they have. The amount of money that goes into this is astonishing.

And then there are the electronics. Growing up, I think we had two TVs in that entire 18 years. These days it seems like people are getting new TVs ever couple of years. I’ve never been into TV, and so I don’t have one. I used to laugh because when people find out that I don’t have one, they often offer me one. If I’d accepted all of these TVs I’d have about a hundred.

But most people don’t have just one TV! It’s one for each kid, one for each room. The only place you don’t see TVs is in the bathroom.

And then, holy smokes, the cost of the cable or the fios or the satellite or whatever it is that people use to get the gazillion channels! The guard, who uses an antenna to get the “free” channels…like we used to when I was a kid, said her friend reportedly pays $170/month for whatever tv channel stuff she gets.

I find it absurd to think about how much I pay for my cell phone plan, but I pay it anyway. It’s become something that feels necessary, yet I know it’s really really not necessary at all. My phone has gone mad in the past couple weeks, with what are often called ghost touches. In other words, if I unlock my phone’s screen, it selects things on it’s own. If I fight it to, for instance, check my email, as soon as the email program comes up it will select random emails, scroll through them, etc. It’s 99% unusable.

I’ll be replacing it, once I decide what I want to do, but for the past two weeks? I might as well be walking around with a fancy paperweight that tells time. And it’s been okay. The smartphone is a choice, not a necessity.

And the truth is that much of what we spend money on without thinking – the new cars, the tv, the cable, the phones – they are choices we make. They are not necessities.

It’s sobering to acknowledge that if we’re in the rat race, it’s because we’ve chosen to participate. It’s helpful to be honest with ourselves about the choices we’ve made, and the ones we’re faced with, so that whatever we decide is our priority when it comes to our time and our money and our lives, we’re deciding consciously. We’re not just buying the new car, the new tv, the expensive million-and-one-tv-channels and the smartphone because “that’s what you do”. Nope, if we’re buying all that stuff, if we’re spending our money on *that*, it’s because that’s what we have chosen to do.

It’s empowering to realize all the ways we make choices, and even more empowering to realize that we often have a lot more options than we might think.

In programming we have a term that we use, called “the happy path”. This refers to testing the programs we write, with the happy path being the most common and most obvious “path” through the application. In our daily lives, and in society, there are similar well-trod paths, and there are a lot of expectations surrounding these paths. However, I don’t think it’s truly a happy path for most of us. Not when we’re walking that path *only* because it’s the one that everyone else has walked, and the one that people expect us to walk.