About That Avocado Toast
Lattes aren't down payments, but...
Readers: This week marks the one-year anniversary of this newsletter! I’m offering an anniversary discount, in case you’ve been on the fence about upgrading to a paid subscription. Thank you for your support, whether reading, sharing, or subscribing. Here’s to another year of The Deleted Scenes!
If you’re familiar with the “YIMBY” movement (for “yes in my backyard,” as opposed to “not in my backyard,” or “NIMBY”), you may have noticed that an avocado is the sort of unofficial YIMBY emblem. Apparently, this is a reference to the notion made popular some time in the 2010s that Millennials can’t afford houses because they spend too much money on avocado toast.
That, of course, has always been a ridiculous assertion, more generational warfare than economic analysis. You can add up the cost of a bunch of unnecessary expenses like this, and while the totals are significant sums of money, they’re basically pocket change compared to a down payment. For a lot of young people, homeownership is out of reach regardless of how much they save. The only way out is to make a lot more, to have family with money—or, as we YIMBYs never stop talking about, driving down the cost of housing. Housing prices are a genuine, objective problem, not some sort of figment of young people’s poor financial choices.
I’ve made this basic point over and over again, and I’m not walking it back at all here. But I am exploring the broader claim that my generation’s spending and saving habits explain, to some degree or another, our low rate of homeownership and the extent to which housing has become a major issue for us.
Despite the “avocado toast” claim being nonsense, I can’t say for sure—when I look at the attitudes of some of the people I know, or even of myself—that our own habits, attitudes, and expectations have nothing to do with it.
I think, for example, of the things my parents did in the early years of their marriage. First, they moved in with my grandmother for a period, while they saved up some money for a starter home. My father worked full-time during the day, and then went to graduate school in the evening. They took some vacations, but modest ones, and they stayed in the cheapest roadside motels (to be fair, they were probably nicer in the 1980s than today. I bet some of them have the same furniture.) They understood that they were going to start a family, that they wanted a larger house with some private space in the coming years, and they oriented their finances towards that goal.
I look at myself, and that kind of grit and determination almost mystify me. How could you work all day and then go to school? How could you deny yourself those early years of time together as a married couple? There’s enough of a generation gap, or a class gap, that I find it hard to grasp doing that at all.
On a lighter note, why would you stay in an iffy roadside motel when for another $50 or $60, you could stay in a Hampton Inn? What’s $50, anyway, compared to a good night’s sleep? (I’m exaggerating a little: I’d be happy to stay in an old motel if the reviews were alright; my wife usually opts for a higher-quality chain establishment, and I’m not going to argue.)
I read something recently that got me thinking along these lines as well. I’ve tried to find the page, and I can’t, but I remember an entry at the excellent cooking/recipe/life blog The Woks of Life, run by a Chinese-American family of four. Judy, the mother, wrote in one of the recipe intros about working in New York City long ago, back when she and her husband had just had their first child and didn’t have much money to spare. There was a noodle shop not far from her office, she recalled, where she would occasionally splurge, rather than bring lunch to work. It was a real treat in those lean years.
It’s a simple and unremarkable story, but it captured for me a poignant sense of hustle, of willpower, of resolve, of the sort I wish that I could muster. There’s something poignant about it; it makes me think of these lines from Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”:
They furnished off an apartment with a two room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale
But when Pierre found work, the little money comin’ worked out well
“C’est la vie”, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell
We didn’t furnish our place with a Roebuck sale (it didn’t help that Sears was basically dead.) We bought more expensive, mostly solid-wood furniture, on the idea that it would last decades and save us money in the long run. Maybe, but if you treat Ikea well, it will last decades too. I think we just wanted nicer furniture. We also bought a Sleep Number king bed, which I’d always wanted. I like it a lot, but I also think about the fact that people slept just fine before Sleep Number was invented.
What it came down to, really, was that we wanted it, and the money was in the account, so why not buy it? The kind of grit that my parents seemed to effortlessly summon is something I’ve had to teach myself; the idea of making hard, serious trade-offs, of telling yourself “we can’t afford it,” feels like something of an abstraction. That all happened before I was born—my parents shielded me from that (though they didn’t buy me everything I ever wanted), and in turn I’ve had to sort of learn it myself. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
Aside from the furniture, if I try to put myself in that mindset, I start to notice all the casual spending habits that altogether add up to quite a bit. For example, my wife and I chose a vet in Leesburg, Virginia about a half-hour northwest of our home. There were plenty of closer vets, including one about two minutes away. But we called a whole bunch, and we liked the one in Leesburg the best.
We were chatting with one of our neighbors—his wife works at a veterinary clinic—and we mentioned that our vet was in Leesburg. His eyebrows went up and he said, “Wow, you must really like your vet!” Well, I didn’t think I really liked him—he just seemed pretty good. The idea that there might be something extravagant about driving half an hour didn’t really occur to me. (It’s difficult to remember that each mile you drive costs something; I fill up the gas, groan, and forget the expense of driving till the next fill-up. Not for nothing I’ve tried to give up unnecessary driving for Lent.)
I think of that solid-wood furniture and that Sleep Number bed. I think of the times we bought jumbo sea scallops or Chilean seabass at Whole Foods, or bluefin tuna sashimi at H-Mart, or USDA Prime ribeye steaks at Wegmans. I think of our international vacations—we live in America, so why vacation here?—or our (very occasional) dinners at Sushi Taro, a Michelin-Star Japanese restaurant in Washington, D.C. (Several people we know have gone there.)
I think of the stuff I watch on YouTube, like a neat steak-focused cooking channel called Guga Foods. Guga can teach you how to cook an ordinary steak really well, but he also often features Japanese Wagyu beef and other rare, expensive meat—stuff that retails, if you can even find it, for well over $100 per pound, or more. I don’t know many nights my wife and I have watched a Guga video and salivated over this stuff. Of course, we’d like to try it.
Most people my parents’ age probably never heard of Wagyu beef, let alone saw it in the butcher’s case at their local supermarket—here in Northern Virginia, I’ve seen it in multiple supermarkets. My parents couldn’t go get Michelin Star sushi, or even buy USDA Prime steaks (they’re mostly sold to high-end steakhouses.) The vast majority of Americans, before 20 or 30 years ago, would have never heard of such delicacies. At most, they were curiosities. The idea of buying them and giving them a whirl was just not even on the radar.
The internet, cheap shipping, and the trends towards dining out more often and cooking better at home have opened up worlds and worlds of possibilities for the average consumer. It’s cool. It’s awesome. But it can also very quickly become a money pit. Living in a place like Northern Virginia, where you can go out for Salvadoran or Vietnamese or Korean or Ethiopian food and then shop at one of the two high-end Tysons malls and then swing by Balducci’s or Wegmans means you have almost limitless opportunities to spend money.
And being surrounded by such opportunities on a daily basis means that saving money becomes a conscious, constant choice—an unending series of no’s, day after day. The explosion of choices has raised the cost of saving. It would be easier to save money in a place with fewer opportunities to spend it.
Sometimes I almost long to live somewhere that’s a little more boring. Far from an international airport, far from a major city, far from premium supermarkets and high-end shopping malls. The kind of place that works with you if you’re trying to save, the kind of place where you have to invest and make your own life interesting, rather than outsource it to your surroundings. Where things like going to church and starting a family are part of your social life, not impositions on it.
But that’s not something we’re willing to do. It’s barely something we’ve ever considered. The panoply of choices I’m used to wasn’t even on my parents’ radar, and giving them up isn’t on mine.
In a similar vein, I occasionally see commentary on Twitter to the effect of, “Why would I want to be pregnant? Then I couldn’t eat oysters.” I think that’s probably a little facetious—nobody really starts or refuses to start a family over oysters. Housing prices and other economic factors unquestionably play a huge part, as do social attitudes. (And as far as material factors here go, one of the core arguments made by urbanists, housing advocates, and the like is that this stuff is actually good for families and children. Think of all the neighborhoods that are “good places to raise a family” but which no family of modest income, let alone a child who grew up there and is becoming an adult, can afford.)
But it’s easier to love your oysters, and harder to give them up, when you can order them online and pick them up the next afternoon, or just buy them—and choose from three or four varieties—at the supermarket fish counter. Multiply that by 1,000 and that’s the point I’m making. There’s no question that this all makes it harder to deny yourself, and to focus on the future. As I said above, it raises the cost of saving.
One of the problems is that our standard of living, from a consumer point of view, has gone up, while the cost of fundamentals like housing, college, healthcare, and childcare have skyrocketed. It is rather odd that you can buy a little piece of Japanese Wagyu beef for $50, or hop a plane for almost any country in the world for less than a thousand dollars or so, and yet daycare or rent can consume your entire salary. In some ways we are rich, and in other ways we are poor. The avocado toast is not the problem.
But the “avocado toast” isn’t literal avocado toast, or $4 lattes, or any other particular thing, really. Rather it’s the accumulated expense of the USDA Prime steak from Wegmans; the Michelin Star sushi dinner in D.C.; the Sleep Number king bed; the Marriott or the Hilton brand hotel over the budget option; the two-week international vacation; the oysters on the half shell, the eating-out habit fueled by the panoply of cuisines within a 15-minute drive.
And it’s the fact that each of these possibilities acts as a sort of friction when you’re trying to plan for the future. It’s like trying to cancel your subscription (not the one to this newsletter, of course): “Are you sure you want to cancel?” “Are you sure you want to cook tonight?” ask the Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, Salvadoran, and Korean restaurants.
And of course, for people like me who grew up upper-middle-class in the suburbs, there’s the fact that we’re being asked to forego things we grew up taking for granted. It’s a very strange thing to grow up in a detached house, with two cars, going out to eat fairly often, having two-week vacations, and then suddenly being told to give all of that up so that one day you can afford it in your own right. Millennials are often said to be the first generation to do worse than our parents’ generation, and that’s probably true.
If that sounds like me whining that I’d have to give up some niceties for a little while, I’ll remind you that my parents were able to save up for a starter home, and then a much nicer, larger home in which they still live. They sacrificed and scrimped and saved for a few years, but they could achieve and imagine the payoff, and they did. That was a sort of social contract. No pain, no gain. But also no gain, no pain. Maybe their grit was possible because they knew it would make a difference.
When homeownership is out of reach no matter what you do financially, that doesn’t incentivize saving. It does the opposite. You could eat out every week and take fun vacations and buy whatever you want, and forego homeownership. Or you could pinch every penny for years and…still forego homeownership.
There’s a chicken-and-egg problem here, and the cost of housing is absolutely the primary thing that has to change. Like higher education, housing costs have exploded, far beyond the rate of inflation in the most desirable and growing metro areas. That is a social problem. Working hard and saving has to count for something.
But I’m old-fashioned enough that I see a certain inherent value in these habits, and I wonder how different my finances would look if I had grown up differently, lived somewhere different, or if I’d taken a more rigorous approach to saving years ago.
I could say more—and, well, I will—but I’ll leave you with this. Buy your avocado toast. Buy your $5 latte. Enjoy the place you live and make the most of it. Advocate for more housing.
And yet. I’m not going to say that’s the entire story.