Friday, October 24, 2008

The China Policy

In this election year, we have heard lots about foreign policy, health care policy, and, most especially, economic policy. The economy is big news right now, and our government, God help it, is trying to clean up the mess which has resulted, at least in part, from too many people trying to keep up with the Joneses.

You know what I’m talking about. Too many people have spent more than they have because they feel entitled to McMansions and expensive cars and riding lawn mowers and iPhones and $5,000 birthday parties for their one-year-old children. They think, “The Joneses have all that, so why can’t I?”

Sadly, Jimmy Buffet was right: there’s no free ride in this carnival world. These tough times call for new policies modeled on common sense and fiscal responsibility. Because we can’t possibly expect the United States government to operate on common sense and fiscal responsibility, we the people must take charge. I propose a new model for personal economic responsibility: the China Policy.

I’m not talking about the upper-case China that just hosted the Olympics. I’m talking about the lower-case china that sits in your cabinets most of the year, pretty but expensive and not terribly useful. George and I developed our China Policy years ago, about the same time we realized that credit cards are evil.

Here’s how the China Policy works: we just don’t have any.

I can hear your gasps of astonishment. After all, isn’t fine china a prerequisite for civilized life? Not really. Despite numerous Thanksgiving dinner parties at our china-less house, no guest ever complained about pouring gravy from a $2 pyrex measuring cup rather than a $200 Wedgewood gravy boat. The gravy tasted great and didn’t have lumps, so why should they complain? If they cracked jokes about our tackiness in the car on the way home, we remain blissfully ignorant of it to this day.

In the interests of full disclosure, we did have Noritake china on our wedding registry over 22 years ago, simply because that’s what engaged couples do. We were young and stupid, and the china didn’t really suit us. We received a few place settings as gifts and used them for a few years, which with china is a huge mistake. You just can’t use it because it chips, cracks, or breaks too easily. Eventually, we had one complete place setting left of the “fine” china, and every time I looked at the pattern, I wanted to barf. What had we been thinking?

About the same time the Noritake was failing us, our credit card debt hit its highest point ever. Then, when George’s grandparents sold their cabin at Lake Vermilion in Minnesota, they gave us their cabin dishes—a plain, white set of ironstone. I’ve never heard of ironstone, but I tell you, it’s pretty much indestructible and just what we needed. The gift of the ironstone dishes allowed us to donate what remained of the Noritake to Goodwill, and shortly thereafter we paid off our credit cards and cut them all up but one. Fiscal responsibility feels great, and we learned our lesson.

A few years ago, my in-laws offered to give us their Rosenthal, mainly because they didn’t want it anymore and hoped to send it on to a good home. George and I declined their kind offer by invoking our China Policy, which is based on four common-sense lessons of economics that can apply to lots more than just china.

Lesson One: Before purchasing anything, think about how items might be handled in the future. If small children, teenage boys, Lowest Bidders, or pets might be involved, refrain from paying top dollar.

Some of you non-military folks may wonder about that “Lowest Bidder” reference. It’s a phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of American military families. The Lowest Bidder packs and moves all your belongings from one military base to another. Military families move frequently so the Lowest Bidder has lots of opportunities to break, damage, or destroy your precious belongings. Our friends Cindy and Kevin lost $2,000 worth of fine china in a single box. The Lowest Bidder was supposed to wrap each piece of china in packing paper, but when Cindy opened the box at her new home, she found pulverized china, canned goods, and one single piece of packing paper. Cindy and Kevin got $200 in reimbursement. That’s $1,800 in the trash and an unquantifiable amount of heartache.

The Lowest Bidder could have broken all our dishes, and we would have been out $0 because that’s what the dishes from the cabin at Lake Vermilion cost us. I would have replaced these at Target for about $75, happily and with none of the heartache Cindy and Kevin experienced. If we had taken my in-laws’ Rosenthal, we might not have lost any money, technically, but there would have been heartache. Serious heartache.

Lesson Two: Know your lifestyle preferences. Buy—or don’t—accordingly.

Fine china like the Rosenthal cannot go in the dishwasher. I LOVE my dishwasher. It’s bad enough that our cookware is not dishwasher safe because my darling husband is a cooking snob and insists on expensive pots that must be hand-washed. Given the quality of his cooking, it’s a price I am willing to pay, but dishes…dishes just hold the food off the table.

Lesson Three: Don’t buy something just because everyone else has it. In other words, don’t be a lemming and mindlessly follow the crowd over the cliff of economic disaster.

How often do those of you with fine china actually use the stuff? Be honest, now. Thanksgiving? Christmas? Easter? Is it really a good investment to spend thousands of dollars on place settings, gravy boats, serving bowls, and platters that get used in less than 1% of meals in a year? For us, the answer is no. George and I prefer to spend our money on things that we can and will use frequently, like cameras and bikes and rubber stamps. Yeah, lots of rubber stamps. Just because the Joneses expect us to have fine china doesn’t mean we have to.

Lesson Four: Your money is finite. Set your priorities, and don’t spend more than you have.

George and I prioritize our spending rather than go into consumer debt. That’s why George looked like such a ninny in his patched-up wetsuit at Ironman Wisconsin; we were too cheap to buy him a new one. He’ll get a new one next year, after we’ve saved for it. We learned the hard way years ago that you can’t have it all, no matter how many credit card applications you receive in the mail. We do not have china because we would rather spend what money we have to spend on other stuff. Of course, the Rosenthal would have been free for us, but only until we started breaking pieces and needed to replace them. (See Lesson One.) Then it would get expensive.

Now you know our China Policy. It certainly makes more sense than adjustable-rate mortgages, hedge funds, and keeping up with the Joneses. And wouldn’t it be great if all four of these lessons were adopted as economic policy by our next president?

Oh, my goodness. Did I really just type that? Please excuse me while I laugh hysterically for a few minutes….

I’m back. Whew. That was funny. Or sad. I’m not sure.

As for the Rosenthal, my in-laws decided to keep it, which I think in their case is pretty smart. Despite owning fine china, my in-laws are among the most fiscally responsible people I know. Since they can’t get anyone to pay what the Rosenthal is worth (certainly not in this economic downturn) and neither of their children wants it, they might as well keep it. Who knows, it may still be useful someday. Probably not, but you just never know.


  1. Susan, you will be proud to know that we don't and have never owned any form of china!! :-) just not our style, at all!! I agree, spend what I've got on my son, books, and rubber stamps...those things make me much happier!!

    Glad the cards were inspiring...can't wait to see that beautiful BG paper!!

  2. Your China Policy makes glorious sense. Is everyone taking notes?! When my Paul retired from the Air Force, we began the next phase of our lives armed with a military retirement check and a very nice civilian paycheck. While others were searching for/building their dream houses, we set out to live below our means (what a concept!) and buy what to some probably seemed like an unremarkable home (but I cherish each nook and cranny of its 1,835 sq. feet, and delight in the backyard that backs up to a cornfield). Although initially I found myself irritated by such things as the width of the dining room, it was one of our best decisions. It has meant the freedom for me to stay home during Arielle’s youth, wonderful vacations, money to help others who need it, Christian school K-12, college costs covered and savings in the bank. It also taught our only child, who is remarkably nonmaterialistic, the value of frugality (some may call us cheap!). I often hear people complain about money, and my husband must gag me and lead me away or I’ll start giving unsolicited advice: Buy a used car and downsize your home! Lest I sound prideful, I give all the credit to Paul for starting us on this path.
    Oh, but I have one confession: China is my weakness, and if I didn’t have limited space I would likely have several sets!!!

  3. OK, so we're pretty frugal and bought a modest home that we could afford. We asked for no wedding gifts when we got married(did not have need or room for stuff). We live within our means and do not value ourselves or others based on posessions. However, I was in Crate and Barrel last year and saw some not cheap china (or at least fine dining set) that I crave. I was planning on getting a place setting at a time and using it(not the 8 and 6 year old--they wouldn't be allowed to look at it). You have ruined this for me now. Thank you so much, sister. I love you anyway.

  4. You're brilliant, you know that. My husband and I are so frugal that the clearance aisle is our favorite date spot. :) Thanks for the awesome post!


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