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In Tough Times, Rethinking Wealth
Families Turn From Luxury Spending to Greater Spiritual Prosperity

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

In the midst of all the bad economic news, Kerri Wright Platais hears signs of possibility: in her neighborhood, at her church and near the sports fields where her children play.

The conversation, she says, is not only about cutting back on restaurant meals and movies. Now people are asking themselves about life's larger priorities -- about what is important and why, and about the kind of sacrifice and hardship that was deeply woven into the lives of their parents and grandparents, the generation of the Great Depression and World War II.

"We just have never done without, as a generation," said Platais, 46, an international agricultural consultant who lives in Garrett Park. But with all of the financial loss and turmoil of late, she said, "this is more than a wake-up call. It's a reality call to get back to the basics."

At a time when the magnitude of the nation's economic decline has been staggering and panic-inducing, a quiet resolve is emerging in many middle-class families to take a step back and reconsider their lives in a spiritual or philosophical way, according to interviews with clergy, economists and residents.

It may be a natural response to crisis, but some, including Platais, suggest that the accumulated loss and turmoil have produced a will to find meaning in other ways: refocusing on relationships and values, helping people in need. Many parents are talking to children about buying less, saving for what they really want and delaying gratification.

"We have to go back to the things that are really important, which aren't things at all," Platais said. "They are people and relationships, and it's love and your faith and your neighbors and the people you take care of."

This concept is easier for those whose losses are few or more abstract -- say, in retirement accounts that might not be touched for a decade. It is tougher for those who feel immediately imperiled by the downturn, who have lost homes, jobs or money they need now.

"I think this is what happens when people are threatened," said Stephen S. Fuller of George Mason University, an expert on the local economy, who compared the meltdown with a terrible car crash. "It's a time for reflection, and there is a reordering of priorities that are pretty fundamental."

The rethinking of life as it was has also extended to the spiritual, many suggest.

"At times like this, it's a chance to evaluate and assess what's really important to us, and what's ephemeral and fleeting," said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac. Weinblatt changed his Yom Kippur sermon at the last minute to address the economy because of the prevailing anxiety.

Weinblatt said a worried public has just begun to "grasp and hold onto the bigger picture, in terms of values, in terms of life, in terms of what really matters." Compared with tragedies such as Sept. 11, 2001, in which so many lives were lost, the economic decline is a different kind of crisis, he said; "many people realize that in the end, it's only money."

For James Joyner, 69, a retired Smithsonian facilities manager in Sterling, such rethinking would be a good thing. He wonders how this generation of parents and children, with their BlackBerrys and cellphones and flat-screen televisions, will adapt to new realities.

"When I was growing up, there wasn't so much out there," he said. Now, he said, "parents want their kids to have the best, and if you're going to have the best, it's going to cost you." He added: "Maybe a certain brand-name label on your pants isn't really necessary, and what's necessary is that you're wearing pants."

If there is a benefit after all the distress and turmoil, he said, he hopes it will be that people "become less materialistic."

These echoes of another era have been hard to escape as the crisis is often cast in comparisons to the Great Depression.

Platais said she has been reminded in recent weeks of her grandfather, a minister in Kansas during the 1930s. She has his ledgers, showing his earnings of $45 a month, 40-cent haircuts, 95-cent grocery purchases, tithing to his church. In his lifetime, she said, "it was patriotic not to spend money but to produce our own food and take care of our neighbors and look out for people."

"Our generation has never ever known any of that, for the most part," she said. But with the economic crisis, "I think we are spiritually at a time when we need to tune back in and figure out what is best for us."

She said she has tried to avoid giving into the panic and fear that seem to flow from daily headlines. She has discussed the issue with her children, ages 13 and 15. Not long ago, the family did a major house renovation, and now Platais is unexpectedly in the process of changing jobs.

"Will we be okay?" her son and daughter have asked. Platais assures them that this is a time when they will forgo some pleasures, but will stay steady in relationships with family members and friends.

Last week, the subject came up with two dads at her son's hockey practice in Rockville, and they all spoke about how "it wouldn't hurt for us to do without, to save more for things, to prioritize as a family and to tell our kids it all doesn't come automatically."

The way she sees it, she said, is that "delayed gratification is something that we talk about, but it's harder sometimes to put into practice."

Darren Flavell, 45, of Rockville, said that last week his 13-year-old son noticed a "bank auction" sign in front of a house, which touched off a family conversation about the economy and financial responsibility.

He said he reminded his son about a pricey radio-controlled truck the teenager bought. His parents would not loan him money; they did not want him to go into debt and hoped he might reconsider the purchase if he had to save. "You want to make sure as you go through life you don't live beyond your means," Flavell said.

Perhaps as people absorb the economic events of recent weeks, other changes will occur too, he said. "I think it would be good in the long run if there was less focus on materialistic things and more focus on the good of the community."

At St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, the toll of the country's economic plunge has been clear -- not just in headlines of stock losses but in the swelling lines of needy people who show up at the soup kitchen and the food pantry.

Last Sunday, the Rev. Mark Brennan addressed the decline during Mass for the first time -- suggesting that the real value of people's homes, as "a shelter and a place of sharing or communion with your family," has not fluctuated at all.

The most important priorities in life are far beyond Wall Street's reach, he said he reminded them. "What's really important is not the monetary value people put on everything," Brennan said.

Parishioners thanked him after Mass. "You get the sense that these things are on people's minds," he said.

Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, said there is often a strong pulling together in the aftermath of crises such as the economic decline. But he said that it usually is not long-term because ultimately the strain of the problems created by the crisis overtake the good will. "What we're seeing is great," he said, "but it is hard to sustain that in the long term."

Whether any larger change of thinking about priorities in some families will outlast a rebound of the economy is not certain, said Fuller, of George Mason. Often, such shifts are temporary, the way people who shed bad habits sometimes pick them back up again. "For some," he said, "there may be a lasting impact, but for most, it may not be a long-remembered lesson."

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