Choosing, as any freshman economics student knows, is what consumer-oriented economies are all about. From the economist's perspective, spending is a way of casting a vote in the marketplace.
But buying is also a highly visible way of creating an identity, of making an impression and of expressing values. For better or worse, judgments are made on the basis of how people choose to --and are able to--present themselves. One man's necessity is another woman's luxury.
Everyone needs food, clothing and shelter. But how we take care of those needs makes all the difference in the world.
Like 12 million other workers in America,
32-year-old Floriberta Bravo Garcia is looking for full-time work.
Since December, she has been earning $90 for two days a week as a housekeeper in Northwest Washington. She pays a babysitter $40 a week to take care of her own 19- month-old child, Sandra.
In the best of times, before her own daughter was born, she had a full-time, live-in job and made about $8,000 a year. A series of mishaps and an infection she contracted in the hospital after childbirth kept her from looking for work until last fall.
Until December she was getting $236 a month in welfare payments, but just about the time she found part-time work the payments were temporarily cut off because of an administrative problem she does not understand. She still gets $115 a month in food stamps, with which she buys most of the groceries she needs, but she has to add more money in from time to time to get by.
Although eligible for Medicaid, she uses a pediatrician who will not accept it. He charges $20 for the bi- monthly visits she makes, and she has to pay $5 in cab fares since Sandra is too heavy for her to hold during the long wait for a bus.
Her apartment on the first floor of a house at 11th and Lamont Streets NW is sparsely furnished--a table, two simple chairs and bench in the dining room, a dresser, a single bed and a crib in the bedroom. A fluorescent light and a bare bulb hanging from a cord provide the only light in the living room, which serves as the entrance hall for the house's other tenants (with whom she also shares the kitchen).
She and Sandra rarely go out. "I don't like to leave Sandra with a babysitter at night. I leave her with a babysitter during the day. I don't like to at night," she says.
Since she has no washing machine and has to pay 75 cents a load at the nearest laundromat, she uses disposable rather than cloth diapers for her daughter, whom she is trying to toilet train. Sandra wears lots of hand-me-downs.
Flora has no money now to buy clothes for herself. "When I was working," she says, "I didn't save money. Right now I have a lot of clothes."
She buys her groceries at a nearby Safeway, although she finds the quality of the meat and produce poor. She prepares spaghetti, hamburgers, pork, chicken and steak once a week. When she can get a car, she goes to the Farmer's Market to buy fresh poultry, fruits and vegetables.
The last time she went to see her family in Mexico City was in 1978. Her last vacation was a $400 bus trip to Disney World in 1980. Now, she says, she can't afford a vacation. "If I had a rich godfather," she says, laughing, "maybe he'd send me."
Seymour Weinstein gets up at 4:30 a.m. six days a week to exercise and meditate before driving 50 miles from his home near Frederick to his dry cleaning shop, the Cleveland Park Valet, in the 1973 Volkswagen he bought used. He opens about 6:45. His wife, Francoise, comes in a little later, driving her 1980 Plymouth Champion (which they still owe a little on). She arrives about 9:30 and stays until 1:30. He leaves at 2:45. He used to work 15 hours a day, but now that he's almost 59, he's decided that eight is enough. He's in bed by 9:30 after dinner with his wife and two daughters, who are high school cheerleaders.
Lunch is a sandwich he makes himself in the back of his store and eats on the run. Fran cooks almost every night. She buys her groceries at the Giant in Frederick. Fran Weinstein, born and raised in France, is a gourmet cook, her husband says. On Saturday nights, after they have spent most of the day at the shop (they close at 6), they have a candlelit, champagne dinner at home. She often makes steak au poivre.
They live in a 10-year-old, four-bedroom, two-story brick house in Maryland. A 13-year-old thoroughbred grazes in the back yard on a portion of the four acres of gently rolling land they own with the house. They pay about $300 a month for their house.
The living room is a game room, stocked with pinball machines Seymour picked up used. The family room, where they spend a lot of time reading and listening to classical music, has a color television, a stereo, a fireplace with glass doors, wall-to-wall shag carpeting with comfortable country primitive furniture.
Their main--perhaps their only--indulgence sits just outside the family room--a 20-by-40 swimming pool (unheated)--where Fran spends all of her free time in the summer, while Seymour, who is fair-skinned, sits in the shade of the family room, talking to her and whatever guests show up for Sunday brunch. "We go nowhere during the year," she says, "so at least we have the swimming pool." The pool was paid for with money that came as a windfall from an old debt that they never expected to collect but did.
On Sunday, which constitutes their entire weekend, the Weinsteins stay at home, winter and summer. They look forward to Sunday visits with their 18-month-old grandson, Ian, whose parents come out from Gaithersburg.
Once a month, after closing their store on Saturday night, they check into the Georgetown Inn and have dinner at Jean-Pierre or another "fine restaurant." He describes Vincenzo's, on Connecticut Avenue just above Dupont Circle, as "our favorite."
On Saturday nights in the summer, if Fran is too tired to make dinner after working in the store all day, they may stop for dinner at the Thai Room at Connecticut and Nebraska Avenues before going home. Perhaps four times a year they go to a movie--"if it's something really big," he says.
At work, he wears blue jeans and a T-shirt in the spring and summer, a turtleneck when the weather gets colder. He says he has a closet full of suits and sport jackets he buys at Dash's, although she laughs when he says he wears a suit at least once a month.
She buys her clothes at Syms. "Basically," she says, "I hate shopping," and buys clothes "when I'm desperate and I have nothing to wear. Clothes aren't my thing." They have no trouble agreeing that she spends well under $1,000 a year on clothes. Once in a while, when a jeweler who used to operate a store nearby comes around with a nice piece of old jewelry, Seymour buys it for his wife.
Once a year the store is closed for two weeks in the summer while they go on vacation--either to France, where Fran's mother has a country house--or to Avalon, on the Jersey shore. When Seymour gets bored at Avalon, which is about every other day, he goes to Atlantic City and shoots craps at Bally. He clearly is not one of Atlantic City's high rollers.
Besides the house they live in, they own an apartment on 16th Street NW, which they bought both as an investment and as the place they will live when they eventually move back into the city. After taxes, they just about break even on the apartment. The only other investments they have, described by Seymour as "modest," are in public utility stocks.
"We don't owe anyone any money," she says.
"We don't owe anyone any money," he repeats. "We have put money away to send our girls to college. That to us is very important." What they have saved, he explains, falls far short of what college will cost. The Weinsteins will pay for their daugher dters' education from what they make. "One way or another I will see to it that I have the money," Seymour says.
The Weinsteins agree that they don't worry about money, although Seymour acknowledges he is conscious of inflation. Since he has no intention of retiring, he focuses on the here and now. "I don't want to retire. I absolutely in bold letters want to state, 'I DON'T WANT TO RETIRE.' They're going to have to carry me out of the store."
"What I want," his wife says, "is more free time."
James Christian, 34, is a lawyer--Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Howard in political science, Harvard Law, former counsel to the D.C. council and now a partner in the firm of Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Heine, Underburg & Casey. Alexis S. Christian, 30, is a professional services representative with Pennsylvania Blue Shield, working in the Washington area. She is a graduate of Virginia State University with a degree in psychology.
The Christians have been married slightly more than a year and have no children yet, although they plan a family. They live in a very comfortable $239,000 three- bedroom, brick, wood and stone house with more than an acre of wooded land. In the driveway is a 1977 brown, four-door Jaguar XJ 12L sedan with beige leather seats that James Christian bought used. It has about 18,000 miles on it. Her car is supplied by Blue Shield.
The sunken living room has wall-to-wall carpeting and overstuffed, plush sectional couches. The dining room has a maple burl wood table adorned with pink silk roses.
Every other week or so the Christians have another couple or two over for dinner and about once a week they invite some older members of their church--Zion Baptist--over for dinner. They give about $2,000 a year to their church.
They do most of their grocery shopping at the Van Ness Giant, favoring fish and poultry. James Christian likes to cook escargot himself. "It's a little treat," he says. "I'm the one who loves escargot."
After church services on Sunday they like to brunch at Twigs, and they have dinner out once a week. "One of our favorite restaurants is Germaine's," he says, although they also like House of Hunan and Jacqueline's. His favorite lunch place is Mel Krupin's, one of the places he takes clients on his expense account. The Christians try to have lunch together once a week, usually at Mel Krupin's or Tiberio. For the meals they eat out together, James Christian figure they spend about $100 "max" a week. For their six-month wedding anniversary he took her to dinner at Le Lion d'Or and then to the Kennedy Center to see the Pennsylvania Ballet. For their first anniversary they went to Paris for a week. "It was a good package," he explains. "We wouldn't have done it otherwise."
James Christian buys his suits at Raleighs and James Ltd. He says he likes "designer-type stuff." He wears Hathaway and Cardin shirts and is a little embarrassed to say that he bought eight shirts from the Custom Shop.
Alexis Christian, who was a model, says she buys her clothes in boutiques, shopping alone since her husband has no patience for it. If she has one indulgence, they both agree, it is gold jewelry. "She loves gold jewelry," her husband says. "I have no problems ever worrying about what to get her for a gift. If I get any piece of jewelry--and it doesn't have to be ultra-expensive, but anything that's a nice piece--she's satisfied."
"Very," she agrees, softly.
When they were married he owned a house on Eastern Avenue and she had a condominium apartment which sat vacant for five months before it was rented. Because his house was on the market for almost two years before it was sold, they did not have to go looking for tax shelters. "We've had them. I'll look forward to having that kind of problem." They hope to save about a third of their gross annual income.
The Christians, who went through college on scholarships, make it clear that they are not living now in a style to which they were always accustomed. She grew up on a farm near Petersburg, Va. He is from Louisiana. "We just consider ourselves very blessed with the ability to splurge on ourselves once in a while--not luxuriously, but comfortably," he says. "That was not always the case, though." CAPTION: Picture 1, Floriberta Bravo Garcia, with daughter Sandra: Until she can find a full-time job, she augments her earnings with food stamps and makes do with sparsely furnished rooms, hand-me-downs for the toddler and no nights out; Picture 2, Seymour and Francoise Weinstein: Early to bed and early to rise for a man who drives 50 miles to his dry cleaning and shoe repair business, doesn't worry about money and wants never to retire. But she would like more free time, Photos By MARGARET THOMAS; Picture 3, James and Alexis Christian: Two incomes--he's a partner in a law firm--enable them to own a $239.000 house, with a Jaguar in the driveway, dine out frequently, give to their church and indulge her passion for gold jewelry, By JOHN MCDONNELL