zen habits : breathe

Is Our Addiction to Saving Money Destroying the Real America?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Paul Michael, Senior Writer for Wise Bread.

As a young boy growing up in a gray, rainy seaside town in England, I had a fascination for America; maybe even a love affair. America was the land of opportunity, sure. But it was also vastly different and eccentric (in a good way) from state to state. So when I came to the U.S. around seven years ago, I was somewhat disappointed. The roads were lined as far as the eye could see with signs for fast food chains, corporate-ran hotels and big, bad gas companies. Where was the other America? Had she disappeared?

Clearly I’m not the only weird Brit who feels this way, because a documentary called “America Unchained,” based on the book of the same name, explores that very theme. It stars Dave Gorman, a fellow Englishman and a guy on a mission; to cross America, coast to coast, without giving one cent of his hard-earned money to “the man.” No stays in hotel chains. No money to the chain gas stations. It had to be independent, family-owned mom & pop shops all the way. So, how did he do?

At first, I thought the premise of the movie was simplistic and perhaps a little too easy. Surely it was possible to cross America without spending any cash at a corporate-owned store or establishment. About 30 minutes into the movie, I realized it wasn’t just a difficult task…it was almost impossible.

But let’s backtrack for a second and understand why Dave had set out on this historic quest. A few years earlier he was touring the States with a comedy stage show called Googlewhack Adventure. Entailing seven to eight shows per week, over a period of four months, Dave spent night after night in a seemingly endless array of hotel chains; the Holiday Inn; Best Western; Comfort Suites. He’d eat at chain restaurants and buy gas at Shell or Texaco. And just like my good self when I first saw this new America, he was disappointed. His dreams, to a certain extent were shattered.

Where was the America he’d fell in love with as a young boy; the family-focused US of A that featured in so many of his favorite TV shows? There was only one way to find out; rediscover America by visiting only those family-owned establishments that we both saw in so many of the TV shows we grew up on. If that kinder, more charming America did exist, driving coast-to-coast without spending a dime at anything owned by “the man” was certainly one way to find her.

The first part of the trip, staying true to the mission, was to buy a used car from a private seller. This car, classic Americana in every way, proved to be both a curse and a gift along the way. Yes, it broke down more often than a jittery manic depressive in group therapy, but these breakdowns also helped Dave find some of the most amazing little stores and motels.

From the mechanic who made mufflers while you wait, to the motel with themed rooms like Little Tokyo and Little Africa, there was character and a sense of belonging. One small eatery had been in business over 60 years. Family owned and operated, an old couple in their 70s had started dating there some 50 years earlier, and a woman’s water had broke on the third stool from the right. History was frothing up from these places; they were rich with memories.

I’m not going to tell you how Dave did, you need to see the movie for yourself (or read the book). But what I can say is that after years of trying to save money, any way I can, I am guilty of letting this part of America disappear. And I’m not the only one.

Every time we make a decision to give our patronage to a Target or Wal-Mart instead of a family-owned grocery store, we may save money…but what do we lose? When we fill up at a Shell or Texaco, we’re missing out on the family-owned gas station that still pumps the gas for you, cleans your windows and checks the air in your tires. When we stay at a Best Western, we’re missing out on the kindness and genuine good will of the smaller, independent motels.

In one very memorable scene in the movie, Dave had run out of gas and the family-owned gas station in town was closed. But, one quick phone call and a guy arrived on a bicycle, with his cat in tow, and opened up the shop so that the happy Brit could fill up and carry on his journey. How many corporate-owned stations would do that? You already know the answer. In another scene, the local hotel owner invited Dave to stay for Thanksgiving dinner, with his family. Again, corporate America wouldn’t care…you’d have to make do with mac’n’cheese.

During these difficult financial times, it’s hard to think of anything other than the bottom line. Yes, we have saved money. Yes, we have the ability to put more food on our table for less money. But hearing the amazing stories, and seeing the wonderful people that Dave met on his travels, I do wonder if we have made too much of a sacrifice for those few extra bucks in our pockets.

I don’t want to see the magic of the family-owned America disappear. I don’t want to see highway after highway of Taco Bell, KFC and McDonald’s signs. I don’t want every hotel room to look like every other hotel room. Life is about experiencing the differences and the riches that make us all so unique. And if I have to pay a dime extra for a can of green beans or a gallon of gas, well, maybe that’s well worth the price.

Read more from Paul Michael at Wise Bread, or subscribe to Wise Bread’s feed.

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