Modesty and the Middle Class

(and the upper class as well, but I liked the alliteration)

I have only very recently come to loathe the word modesty. Previously I considered it a badge of honor, and felt proud that I was doing it “right”. I thought a little bit about my intentions, but mostly I kept my shoulders covered and constantly tugged my pencil skirts down toward my knees (which was difficult to do while simultaneously patting myself on the back).

Blogging opened me up to a world of alternative viewpoints, and I realized that my friends wearing strapless dresses didn’t seem so bad, and my perception of modesty was altered. Modesty for me might be about cap sleeves and kept promises, but the goal for everyone should be self-respect. A modest woman dresses with self-respect, and self-respect looks different on everyone.

I am in the midst of yet another shift in my thinking that takes the idea of self-respect and expands on it.

When the Occupy Wall Street protests were going on my husband pointed out that although we might not be part of the 1% in America, we are part of the 1% when you look at the entire world. Maybe even the 1% of the 1%. I live each day of my life profoundly grateful and often overwhelmed by this. I hope to pay it forward over time. I have never wanted for food, medicine, clothing, or shelter. I not only have my needs met at all times, but almost always my wants as well. This means I shop often, use clothing as a weight loss motivator, and buy new dresses when I already have half-a-dozen in my closet. Somehow I always need another pair of jeans.

I cannot seem to nail down what modesty means for a woman like myself, spending my days without thinking twice about the necessities in life. Can I get excited about the polka dot dress from Nordstrom that my mom gave me for Christmas? And is it automatically vain to post an outfit I wore on my personal blog? Can I pine for the perfect pair of black peep-toe platform heels when I already have half a dozen black heels in my closet (and several more in the “to donate” pile)?

Of course I know deep down that the answer to these questions is something profound like “Modesty is a highly individualized product of self-respect and self-restraint” but I keep getting bogged down in the practicalities of the issue. How do I achieve modesty throughout all areas of my life?

A good starting point for me has been expressing gratitude for what I already have in my closet. The phrase “I don’t have anything to wear” should never cross my lips, because I have plenty. I’m also working hard to avoid placing importance on the name of the designer who created what I’m wearing. I think it is okay for me to care about color, fit, and the way things make me feel when I wear them, but I shouldn’t like something just because so-and-so has their name on the label. One of my favorite and most frequently worn dresses is from Walmart! Sometimes when I receive compliments on that dress I think to myself “This old thing? It’s just from Walmart,” and I know the same thought would never cross my mind I I had paid full price for it at J. Crew. I don’t want to be that person.

This doesn’t mean I’m not going to get new things, as I have no intention of living my life as an ascetic. I have two new dresses from my parents hanging in my closet that are birthday gifts, and I just sent TH an email with the link to a dress that I wanted him to get me for my 27th celebration. When it comes to my wardrobe though, I want to be prudent about how full I let it get, and work hard to remember to be grateful for all the beautiful things I’ve received and been able to buy.

Later this year we’re going to move to San Francisco, which means we are thinking about housing again. We’ve decided that renting still makes the most sense for us, and though I won’t find a rental for a few months because of the market in the particular area I have started hunting and daydreaming about where we might live. We’ve set a budget that feels appropriate, but I constantly find myself drifting toward the houses with expansive skylights and huge windows and more bedrooms than we need. What I’m daydreaming about isn’t modest because it’s moved past the point of addressing our needs. I’ve set my priorities (a backyard and at least 3 bedrooms,, safe neighborhood and good commute for TH) and I have to constantly remind myself that we are likely never going to move “down” in terms of housing and lifestyle (barring being forced to do so for financial reasons) and so it’s important that we remain modest in our housing choice. Once we have 3 bedrooms, I’m going to always feel like I need 3, and I’ll likely spend my time hoping for 4. If we live in a 4 bedroom place and find that we need to downgrade to 3 again… I’m going to feel pretty deprived (I realize unnecessarily, but recognizing that doesn’t make it less likely to happen in my brain unfortunately).

I do not write this post intending anyone reading to spend time thinking about how *other people* aren’t being modest. There is nothing productive that comes from such reflection. The debate about what type of lifestyle is “okay” is going to be never-ending (if I make $1,000,000/year and give away half, have I given enough? Is that when I get to have my Prada bag and Loboutins guilt-free?) And we just don’t know enough to understand how some people are able to experience the things they do. Maybe their travels are the result of credit card schemes, maybe your friend’s mani-pedi routine is the only time she spends money on herself, maybe the designer dress is a gift from grandma that is worn out of respect and gratitude. No two people are ever going to have the same definition regarding what is constitutes modesty in regards to clothing, cars, food, travel, housing, and so forth.

If we’re going to be talking about modesty with girls like myself, girls with closets overflowing with clothing, items that may at times never have their tags removed before being relocated to the donation pile, we need to be talking about not only self-respect, but vanity and over consumption. Modesty isn’t about shoulders and kneecaps, it’s found in the reasoning behind the choices we make. There is no right or wrong answer, no magic formula for correctly categorizing wants and needs in neat little compartments that everyone else will agree with. Each of us must be willing to ask some tough questions, look straight into the mirror and say “I know the reasons for my choices and I know they are true to who I want to be.”

Until I master that, I’m going to keep working on the last commandment of the Big 10. I can’t seem to stop coveting the new pair of heels my mom picked up at Nordstrom Rack last week.

*Unfortunately this post coupled with my transparency regarding other areas of our life may make some feel it is appropriate to comment on aspects of my life where they feel I am not being modest. I think discourse of this nature is unnecessary and judgmental, and thus will be deleting any comments of that sort from the comment section below. I hope that my reflections and insights here have made it obvious that I am trying to work through these issues and understand how to be more modest in my daily life but I am certainly not where I want to be yet. Give me time.

70 thoughts on “Modesty and the Middle Class

  1. This is absolutely fabulous. I don’t have the answer, but I am impressed that you are working through this and I hope that you will continue to post about it as your thoughts develop.

    Jenna Reply:

    I remember when I read your modesty post (was that only a year ago?) and in that mindset I just could not understand where you were coming from. I tried to find it just now, but I couldn’t. I suspect though, that if I were to read it again I would agree wholeheartedly.

    Meg @ Moments Like This Reply:

    I also loved your post on modesty, could you link to it again?

  2. love it. this was very well said.. and i wanted to comment on your post yesterday and say the same. i especially love your point of reminding yourself to stay at a certain level for this move b/c once you have a certain level of housing, anything less will seem unsuitable. such a good point for us to remember not to let ourselves go so big that we think very suitable things will not fit our needs.

  3. Jenna, I really enjoyed this post. Thank you for being so candid.

    I struggle with “modesty” every day (although, not for any religious reason). My husband and I worked very hard through college and now in our careers to make our lives on our own terms. We have student loan debt, a mortgage, vehicles, and (since the birth of my daughters) medical debt. It all adds up to a very fear-inducing amount of debt hanging over our heads.

    We want to be free of debt (as we see the problem it has created in our economy) yet we also want to have nice things. We’ve lived without credit cards as our first step towards financial independence. The problem is that we want to fix up our home. Constantly. Call it DIY envy or keeping up with the Joneses or whatever you’d like, but we place an unnecessary amount of pressure on ourselves to be “improving” our life (through our house) constantly.

    Right now, as we pay the IRS taxes for the first time ever, we’re having some really tough conversations about how our desire to keep fixing and changing our home contradicts every other goal we have. Sure, that budget kitchen remodel only cost us $1000 and we didn’t acquire any debt as we worked nights and weekend over several months- but that’s $1000 that could have gone towards our student loans. And what did we *really* get out of it? A prettier kitchen?

    We have very few vices (we don’t buy clothes or vacation or have the latest electronics) but we do seem to be addicted to the feedback from work at our house. I think it comes back to modesty. We need to be more humble in our expectations of these lean years and live modestly so that we can see the return down the road.

  4. This was so well written! You made me laugh aloud with the patting yourself on the back comment. But I also think it touches my life in a way that will make me think a bit more about expressing gratitude for the richness of my life. I agree with you that modesty is about more than just the way you dress. I follow a different set of dress rules than you but I also fall prey to the ‘but I NEED another pair of flats nearly identical to ones I own!’ problem.

  5. Jenna – You’re thinking. You’re trying to live an examined life. In my culture that’s the highest good. If you read my blog you know I think about the responsibilities of privilege all the time. Nobody gets it all right all at once. There may not even BE one right for everyone – that’s how my culture sees it.

    Jenna Reply:

    It’s a strange place to be in because my previous mindset, someone else was in charge in telling me what to think about things like this. I like this new space that allows for people to make different choices and still be “right” though.

  6. I love this! I really like your paragraph about not judging the modesty of others. Being a SAHM with a military husband, we don’t have the money that many of my SAHM friends have. Sometimes I find myself side-eyeing the ways they spend their money and I have to stop myself and recognize that my judgment mostly comes from my lack of funds. Would I buy Miu Miu peep-toe heels if I could? Probably.

    We’re also renting for the foreseeable future because we’re currently moving every 3 years while my husband is active duty. I have clipped out more pictures of home decor than I care to admit, but I just have to tell myself that our time will come. When I think of how my grandparents lived at our age, I feel so blessed – but I am also inundated with all of our friends’ homes. So it just depends on how I CHOOSE to look at things on any given day. That’s the real rub. I can choose to dwell on what I don’t have or be grateful for what I do. I feel good about the fact that I’m choosing the later more and more often. I also spend the money we could put toward home decor on clothes – so that helps :)

    This was great.

  7. I’m so glad you wrote about this. I think the discourse about the 1% isn’t full enough and I like the ideas that you’re contributing. I think it takes courage to think through the implication of being a privileged white girl and what that means for your place in the world. When I was becoming more self aware of my status, I swung to the side of wanting to help as many people as I could, saving the world. Now I realize it’s so much more nuanced than that. A guilt ridden self-pronounced savior is still problematic.

  8. Jenna, I’m loving your blog more and more these days because of posts like this. Modesty is something I struggle with often these days because Mike and I have found ourselves suddenly in a very different lifestyle since we moved overseas. All of a sudden, we have much more than we’ve had before, we’ve been taking extravagant vacations and going out to nice dinners, but we’ve also paid off my loans and are saving money. We know that this time period will come to an end and things will go back to “normal” when we’re back home. So right now, we’re living this fantasy life that I never expected. With it comes all of this anxiety and guilt that I didn’t think it would have though!! Are we doing the right things? Are we giving back enough? Should we really go out to another nice restaurant?

    I think for the most part, we’re trying to LIVE as much as possible while we have this opportunity. I hope that we’re making the right decisions, but all we can do is to try to balance our life as much as possible. I think that examining these things have helped us both appreciate and think critically about the life we live, which is making us (hopefully) better people in the long run.

    You make a lot of great points. And you’re very brave for putting yourself out there. Hope you don’t have to moderate too much. :)

  9. Hmmm…I like your take on looking at modesty in a different light. I do sort of think you are talking about two different things, though.

    For me, modesty in the physical sense involves not only me but others. If you solely define the goal as achieving self-respect, it’s pretty easy to twist that. Someone can say they feel plenty of self-respect wearing next-to-nothing, but are they really modest in the physical sense? If you keep the two ideas of modesty separate, I like it, but when they are combined, it seems like a really easy path to relativism.

    I don’t know if any of that made sense.

    Jenna Reply:

    I think my issue with this thinking of late has been that culture in large part defines what is physically modest pertaining to the ways we cover our bodies. Are cultures that have topless beaches or go nude entirely or live in warm climates where men and women alike leave their breasts uncovered “immodest”? No, I don’t think so.

    And so for me modesty becomes about intentions. If I am going out to the clubs wearing a mini skirt and halter top, I probably have certain attentions in mind. Modesty is in some ways about humility and not trying to be in the spotlight all the time (I think it can be immodest to strive to be the center of attention (though certainly you can be the center of attention without even trying, if you are successful at your chosen endeavor for instance)). Dressing in tight, short, skin-baring clothing can also be a way to try to manipulate people, which is certainly not modest either.

    But if you live in a tropical climate and you dress in small amounts of clothing because it’s hot and you are more comfortable that way, I don’t think you are being immodest. That is much different than my previous mode of thinking, which dictated that if you weren’t covering your thigh, shoulders, back, and cleavage you were immodest, no matter the circumstances.

    And so I’ve decided to stop worrying about everyone else and what they are doing, because it’s just too difficult for me to figure it out. I’m going to try to teach my kids to worry about their intentions more than what their next door neighbor might be thinking about them.

    Married in Chicago Reply:

    Hi Jenna

    I think your post is great and I don’t mean to detract from the many positive things you said in your post by pointing this out, but I think we start getting into really dangerous territory with statements like:

    “If I am going out to the clubs wearing a mini skirt and halter top, I probably have certain attentions in mind.”

    For me, this is just much too close to the argument that you can tell a woman was looking for sex/to meet a man/to be propositioned by the way she was dressed. In truth, you can never know someone’s intentions based on the way they are dressed and shouldn’t we be trying to stay away from making judgements on people based on their outward appearance?

    Jenna Reply:

    I was referencing myself, specifically. If I were to go out to a club, dressed a specifc way, that is what my intentions should be

    (by the way, that should have been intentions, not attentions)

  10. Your posts this week are spot on! I love that I have read your blog from before you were even questioning your own thoughts and beliefs. It’s wonderful to see your growth. (I think I wrote pretty much the same thing on your BYU post – but I had to say it twice because it’s so true!)

    This post has me thinking because I never thought of modesty in this way. It’s crazy to think how “want, want, want” focused our society has made us.

  11. This is such an interesting issue. I struggle with fashion modesty as a lawyer, because, especially after working in an office where I felt like a coworker was constantly looking at me inappropriately, I started coming up with all these rules. Attorneys need to wear sleeves at all times. I must always wear a suit to meet with a client.

    After I started my new job, and work in an enviornment that is both warm and more professionally comfortable, I began to challenge those ideas. Yes, I still usually wear a jacket to meet with a client, but a sweater is okay as well. I sit in my office in a sleeveless shell and I do not feel anything but comfortable. I have not yet begun to challenge my notion that I should always wear stockings and I should always wear a suit to court, but that might come in the future.

    As far as modesty in other aspects, I agree with you a lot. We moved into what is essentially a four bedroom apartment two years ago – which is kind of a shame, because while it is outrageously cheap, we have more space than we need and we are getting used to it. We plan to make room for children in our current space, but I’m worried that after I have to give up my dressing room/office space to make room for a baby, I will start lusting after a house that has more room. We will also have to downsize to move to any area that isn’t Baltimore, which is something that we will have to face one day as well. However, we do live very comfortably within our means, because we have made certain decisions about our lifestyle and our careers that allow us to do that.

    After spending a year living as thriftily as possible, it’s been interesting to transition into being a two-income family again. We strive to not spend all of our money on things we don’t need, but at the same time, it’s hard not to buy things that you really want once you can afford them. Our hope is that our spending continues to be modest, and our savings continue to be quite lavish, instead of the other way around.

    Jenna Reply:

    Modest spending, lavish saving.

    I think you just coined our new family motto. This is not something I grasped growing up, and I am lucky I have a frugal husband who is passionate about savings because we would be in bad shape otherwise.

    I also try to remind myself that it’s important to look at the big picture, and that we do have good goals. We want to set up our savings so that we can always take care of ourselves (and frankly, spoil our grandkids a bit as well). I want to be able to hop on a plane and go see newly born babies as my kids have them, and I’m going to need a big nest egg to be able to do that. Before we got married we sat down and wrote out two different budgets. The first was for what we call the “Golden Corral” 70+ lifestyle. We would be living on a very small budget and going out to eat at Golden Corral would be a treat. The second was the life we would ideally like to live, where we have the freedom to travel and visit our kids and give them things for Christmas if we’d like. It was eye opening for me to see how enormous the sum of money was that we would need to be able to live lifestyle #2. And it wasn’t even that extravagant, it was just comfortable.

    Once we have ourselves taken care of, we can move on to making life a whole lot better for other people (and that will be a beautiful thing).

    Ellie Reply:

    My parents are living Lifestyle #2. They’re in Italy right now. They travel between 10 and 20 weeks a year. Growing up, I never realized how much money my parents actually had, because they lived very frugally – we took a lot of trips, but we stayed with friends and ate picnics outside museums and carried our coats around instead of paying for a locker. My parents both drove beat up old cars, shopped for clothes at discount stores, and bought everything on sale. We had hand-me-down furniture from my grandparents until I was 15. They didn’t decorate the house or buy “nice things” (corelle dinnerware, rubbermaid cups, my sister slept on a folding roll-away bed). We didn’t have “cool stuff” if my parents didn’t think it was practical.

    As an adult, I struggle with my desire to have “nice things” because I didn’t have them growing up. At the same time, I struggle with my desire to give away everything that I have. I work for a nonprofit and I volunteer a lot of my time as well. I struggle to remind myself that I am a valuable person, that I’m not worth nothing because I charge nothing, and that my time is a valuable thing that I am donating, even if I am choosing not to give money.

    Can you post about sitting down to write a retirement budget? I know a lot of the finance guys write about it, but I would be very interested in your perspective.

    Jenna Reply:

    Interesting that you should bring up non-profits and being valued when you charge nothing. I’m contemplating a post on the Ann Romney “not working a day in her life” jazz and so working for free for non-profits has been on my mind.

    I’d need help from TH to write it, but I’ll ask if he has the time to help me writ ea retirement planning post. At least something detailing what we did.

    Jackie Reply:

    Ugh, that whole debacle is ridiculous. No one agrees with that crazy Hillary lady!

    April Reply:

    my husband I aren’t what you’d call upper middle class by official standards– since both of us work full time to make what we do– but we’re big on saving, so after a few months of living, we can afford more then our friends and even more then most of our relatives.

    I constantly hear “Oh, it must be nice to be able to do XYZ, wish I could” and it boils my blood sometimes I want to answer back “Yeah, sure is”. It’s extremely frustrating.

    Jenna Reply:

    I get this sometimes as well, and sometimes I want to say “It must be nice to go out on dates and watch movies and eat out 1-2x/week” something that we never do! If we’re part of the “wants not needs” group (instead of the group focusing on meeting their needs) we all spend our money differently on the things that we value.

  12. Jenna, I never comment on ANYTHING but I want to say thank you for this post! This has given me a lot to think about and I’m going to email it to friends. You are so right when you say this is something we all need to decide for ourselves. Modesty is about more than covering up our private places. It’s a way of life and an inner goal.

  13. Right on! Self-introspection is much more important than looking (and judging) side to side. I just watched a documentary about Guinea and the tree people. Those people wear next to nothing, but they consistently cover up in specific ways – their own form of modesty. Then some Christians (don’t know what kind) came in and told them they were evil for not covering up. I felt so bad for them. You know, like rather than teaching that they’re God’s children and do you want to know more, they jumped straight to the sins these people don’t even know about?

    Modesty really is an important topic for our day. It is difficult to be content and know that what you have is enough. I wonder sometimes about the housing market collapse and excessive debt. It seems that if modesty was practiced in home purchases leading up to the housing market collapse, more people would probably have been able to keep their homes. And as ridiculous as accepting the premise of the ’1%’ is to me, when the 1%ers pay 90% of the federal income taxes or something like that, it is prudent for all Americans to recognize how blessed we are. Have you seen the show “American Ride?” I totally love it, because it teaches about the humble beginnings of our great country.

    Jenna Reply:

    I think often about how our message might come across as critical of other cultures when we visit warmer climates where we tell them God is disappointed in them unless they dress a certain way.

    Jackie Reply:

    Actually, the top 1% pay 38% of all federal income taxes and control 42% of the wealth.


    When you think about it that way, it doesn’t seem unfair to the rich at all!

    Furthermore, we are the 42nd (!!!!) most stratified country by wealth (meaning wealth is unequally distributed). Countries that are more equal than us include: Iran, Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Russia, Turkey, and developed countries like Canada, France, Spain, UK (those beat us by a long shot!).

    So it is an important issue, I think.

    Eva Reply:

    I remembered later that it’s the top 10% who pay 90% of the taxes. Still, if money makers are hiring we all benefit.

    Jackie Reply:

    That is true when you are talking about corporate taxes (the more money businesses have, the more they will probably hire). But the issue people are talking about with the top 1% is personal income tax.

    Let’s say you have $100 in tax cuts to give. You could give it to A) a single mom who will go straight to the grocery store with it or B) a wealthy corporate owner who will put it in his savings account. Giving it to A is going to help to economy a lot more, because that money will actually stay in the economy and boost it. Giving tax cuts to people who are already rich doesn’t actually contribute to any more hiring.

    So while the political line is “don’t tax the job creators” it’s not actually true that taxing them means less jobs. It’s just a political line.

    Sophia Reply:

    So, if job creators create more jobs when they get tax cuts and thus make the economy strong, why did our entire economy implode in 2008 after almost a decade of tax cuts for the rich?

    Also, if the top 1% already controls the majority of the wealth, but somehow the economy is in the tank and there aren’t enough jobs, then at what point will they control enough money to generously give us all jobs? In other words, when will we appropriately satisfy them enough in the way of tax cuts before they relinquish their blessings?

    Kinda sounds like people desperately praying to weather gods to make the crops grow “If we just sacrifice 20 virgins this year, instead of 15, maybe then…”

    I just think it’s an awfully convenient story to convince the lower 99% of us that we must appease the top 1% so that they will graciously bless us with jobs. Who does that myth benefit?

  14. This is a really thoughtful post! I think about stuff like this often, actually. I go through phases where I won’t buy clothes or I’ll only shop at Goodwill. But I have to admit my reasons are mostly selfishly motivated, i.e., trying to stay on budget. And I hate when I start feeling like I “need” a new dress or shoes or whatever. It’s a crummy feeling when I really sit back and think about how much I already have.

    I’ve found that the people I spend a lot of time with really tend to help me either a) realize that I’m lucky to have what I have or b) because they spend a lot more on luxury items than me, make me feel like I deserve those things too. I think being careful about the people you spend time with is very important to living a modest lifestyle, whatever it means to you.

    Jenna Reply:

    This reminds me of someone I associate with who puts a lot of her income toward her clothes. They are very important to her, and the areas where I spend a lot of money (like hobbies or food) aren’t as important to her. It is often hard for me to be around her without feelings of jealousy and inadequacy creeping up.

    I think this is an interesting and yet touchy discussion. I’m going to expand it with my husband tonight and see what he thinks :)

  15. Jenna, I’m so impressed with your posts lately. You make me want to live a more examined life as well.

  16. Thank you for this post! I struggle with the “Mormon” definition of modesty (which has pretty much has been whittled down into “girls cover your breasts, shoulders, and knees”). Nothing is mentioned about lifestyle or words or deeds or what’s appropriate anymore.

    I don’t believe that “covering everything up” is what the Lord’s definition of modesty is. Personally I have no problem with a bit of cleavage or shoulders or knees showing. I haven’t the arms for strapless but I have a gorgeous neck and back (not my words just repeating a lot of friend/stranger comments since I was young) and I have no trouble showing it off a bit.

    I also have a serious issue with the focus on (just) women to be modest. I was reading on another blog a comment from a man who complained that all the young women in his ward had taken to wearing so many shapeless layers they were no longer attractive. Why was he looking? Concerned parent maybe? I hope.
    I’m an adult and I can give a pretty good stink-eye if I catch a man staring at my (fully) covered rear. I would have no trouble calling someone out on it either. Yes sir, you’ve been caught!
    I can say a man or woman is attractive and not let my mind go to a place it shouldn’t…why are they teaching these youth (and adults) that they can’t control their own thoughts?
    We should be teaching both boys and girls to control their own thoughts about other’s bodies. Focus on the person, not their body, and certainly not their clothing!

    While I’m ranting about the unequal pressure for women to dress attractively and modestly all the time may I point out that it goes both ways? Um, men can be “immodest” too! Those skinny pants that leave NOTHING to the imagination are a good example. Or the other side of men’s fashion…the baggy pants falling off and showing the underwear.

    Again thank you for this post! It’s given me the push to finish and publish my post on modesty :)

    Jenna Reply:

    I find it a little gross when the same women obsessed with making sure that young women cover up will say strange lewd things about Twilight movie characters. That to me is just gross, and though it isn’t necessarily “immodest” it certainly feels like a double standard to me (they like him because of his looks and because he doesn’t wear a shirt, but if a girl wears something that shows more skin she is a tart).

    Gwendolyn Reply:

    Ugh. I think that’s gross too.

    (Personally I have issues with the whole Twilight moms thing anyway. But I won’t get into that and anger everyone up!)

  17. Hi Jenna,

    This is probably my post favorite post of yours to date! It was so well written, so articulate and full of wisdom. It really made me think of areas in my life where I can be more modest and I love that. I love how you have grown, matured and stretched. And I love how I am growing and expanding my horizons as well!



  18. What you said about having a 3 bedroom house and longing for a 4 reminded me of my current search for our next home purchase. When looking at larger homes in our budget first I get excited, then I get uncomfortable.

    There’s a phenomenon most people fall into and I can’t recall the term psychologists use but basically, when you upgrade one thing in your life, everything else starts to “need” an upgrade too. Say you splurged and bought a really fancy watch, your shoes suddenly don’t “match” and so you buy fancier shoes. Next it’s your clothes, then the place you eat lunch, then your car, then your home decor, then your house, etc and so on. I struggle with getting a larger home (which we truthfully do need at this point to expand our family) but not getting started down the path of an immodest, wasteful lifestyle. I think being aware of this tendency is half the battle though.

    Jenna Reply:

    For whatever reason your comment reminded me of Hsee’s Happiness Heuristics, something TH learned about in his MBA classes.

    One of the concepts is that stable things (like couches, cars, houses) are things that we get used to over time. Once you buy a couch, it doesn’t change, and soon you get used to it. Even if it was a luxury, over time it doesn’t feel quite so luxurious anymore.

    Things that change are areas where you should invest your money. Something that varies regularly is your commute to work, and each day you will find yourself cursing the horrible traffic. This is one reason that investing in a smaller house closer to work makes the most sense for happiness. Over time the small size of the house will feel normal, but each day you have your short commute you’ll feel happy about how short it was.

    It’s not my theory so I hope I explained it well!

    Stephanie C Reply:

    That is awesome. Thanks for sharing that concept. I’ve recently struggled getting used to our one income family. I used to buy clothes whenever I wanted, we hardly ate dinner at home, and I ate out for lunch a couple times a week. Then I started grad school. It took me a while and I felt (ashamedly) depressed about it all, but now I’ve gotten used to it and think it’s ridiculous the way we used to live! I hope once I start working again that we can continue our current lifestyle (but save more this time) and not get back into that old habit of buying unnecessary/expensive things.
    I’m going to remember this concept when I get back into the working world!

  19. Our finances have tightened since moving back to Cali (we pay 9% more in taxes here than in Vegas) – but we haven’t felt the financial squeeze as much as we’d expected. We realized that instead of spending cash lavishly (to borrow an adjective from another commenter) we’ve instead been spending our time lavishly. More often than not, we have less Time than we have Cash (or credit, but that’s another conversation!). But we are finally doing things with the actual time we have. Since having a baby, we’ve been taking a lot of family walks, family picnics, family sitting-in-the-park time… time that was otherwise spent working on our laptops for And now we are taking the time to go to France for a week – Time we never would have spent a few years ago. Our lives haven’t gotten less busy (arguably more busy since adding a baby), but we are no longer letting a shortage of time stop us from spending it.

  20. I so agree that modesty is more that “what is covered”. I think that modesty is a condition of the heart. Having enough self esteem that you don’t rely on physical objects (bodily or possessions) to prove your worth. I also think it encompasses respect. Respect of ourselves, our Maker, and others. When we respect all, we are truly modest.

    I remember that I felt I had achieved my comfortable level of self esteem when I could go to town looking very simple: hair just in pony and no make up. I didn’t need to rely on my looks to establish or set my worth. It was very liberating.

    Jenna Reply:

    I really like this dimension you added. It’s not just about the things we have, it’s about being okay with who we are. About feeling like we are “enough” and that we don’t have to meet some impossible worldly standard.

  21. I firstly want to say that I never have an issue with you taking about a desire for ‘more’. I think it is part of the human condition, and not necessarily a bad thing. I never understood why people criticised you for blogging about your travels, your new boots or your camera gear.

    As for living a modest life, I think it is a lovely goal. That being said, I also think modesty does have different definitions and one person’s luxury is another’s simplicity. I have friends who see my life as lavish and then I have other friends whose lives I see as incredibly lavish. Swings and roundabouts :)

  22. I think you are using “modesty” here the way I would use simplicity. I believe in the idea of simplicity – that we aren’t supposed to be extravagant in our lifestyle because doing so a) takes away from others and b) takes away from our relationship with God. I think modesty is how we present ourselves to others, so it’s not something I think about much. (Though I get why it’s the phrase you use since you grew up with that value).

    Clothing wise, I think it is important to dress appropriately for situations.

    We’ve been living in a small 500ft apartment for two years. I want SOOO many things – a guest bedroom, a dishwasher, a washer and dryer – all those things! But they are wants not needs.

    Gwendolyn Reply:

    I think my apartment is about that big too! It only feels tiny when I go to someone else’s home.
    I have a guest room, but it’s about the size of a closet: big enough for a bed and a small table, that’s it. And I want so much too! Big windows (it’s a basement apartment), washer, dryer, a big tub (something more than an old efficiency shower would be so lovely), a patio to eat outside. Plenty of wants but not needs!

    Sheila Reply:

    I love the word simplicity. Thank you!

    Jenna Reply:

    I don’t know what it says about me that I barely think of a dishwasher as a luxury :) . Growing up in the northwest, I didn’t know ANYONE who didn’t have one. My parents were under mountains of debt living in a single-wide trailer (the kind raised up off the ground) and we *still* had one. And a washer dryer.

    Now that we’re in Chicago I’m surrounded by people living in buildings without dishwashers and washer/dryers and I realize how different things are based on the region you live in.

    Jackie Reply:

    I never lived without one until after college, actually! Moving out to Spokane was the first time without one. I think it’s just older places. Our apartment was built in the 70s, and they are pretty small. Probably more common in cities too!

    Gwendolyn Reply:

    My husband always had one (a dishwasher) growing up but my family never did. We both come from low-income families but I’m from the rural Mid-west (less standard in homes I guess??) and he’s from suburbs on the East Coast.

    My parents didn’t have a dryer either. (Well the house came with one but we kids kinda broke it *face palm*)
    We used to hang all our wash in the basement or outside to dry. I still wash my sheets at the laundromat and then hang them outside for that outside air fresh smell.

    I do appreciate learning to live simply though. I don’t mind hand washing and air drying delicates and work clothes rather than dry-cleaning. (And I really don’t mind not paying for it!)

  23. I really, really enjoyed this. I recently got called as the second counselor in YW in my ward and I have had MANY opportunity to think about modesty since then. I want to portray modesty in an appropriate manner to the girls. I was talking about modesty with the other leaders, and mentioned how modesty also applies to our hair and makeup choices, and both told me they had never thought about that. Whenever I think of living in a giant house or wearing an elaborate diamond ring, I think about modesty, too. So I totally agree…it’s about much more than having your shoulders covered. Even though it’s different for everyone, modesty is definitely a lifestyle — not just fashion!

  24. I don’t know if you’ve read “The Help” but the only line of much consequence I found was, “White women. Always wondering if they’re happy ENOUGH.” I think this is something that everyone needs to think about. All our “first world pains” are so ridiculous.

    And as far as I’m concerned, just the fact you’re thinking about how fortunate you (and most of us that read your blog) are, says a lot. I refuse to think I’m a horrible person because I want things that aren’t necessarily fiscally responsible because a.) I don’t actually end up getting them and b.) for God’s sake, there are people murdering, thieving, and forcing women into sex slavery.. those people are monsters. Not the women who want the fancy shoes. (Not to say that just because you don’t kill people you are automatically a saint or anything.. but you catch my drift.)

    As long as people continue to move forward and do the best they can, that’s enough. It just has to be. We’re all just doing the best we can.

    Jenna Reply:

    Life was certainly a lot easier before I started dealing with the guilt of privilege. But I’m in a better place now I think!

  25. I really enjoy your posts, especially ones about modesty and a few older ones about your relationship with TH. They really make me stop and take a look at myself, and how I used to approach situations. My past is not perfect, and I am struggling as well to find my definition of modest.

    It is so easy to take things for granted, and I think many people forget that having a job that pays the bills and a roof over your head are more than enough to be thankful for (at least I know I take them for granted). Thanks for the reminder to enjoy and appreciate the small but important things.

  26. Oh friend, thank you! I loved this post for so many different reasons. I think I loved it most of all because you are the catalyst that sets so many others to thinking and examining their own lives. I think you’re awesome.

    During a time when so many people are struggling, it is galling to me to hear people complain about their walk in closet not being big enough. I guarantee that you know *at least* one person that would be considered food insecure. I can further promise that this person is probably working and living a typically middle class lifestyle. I work for a local non-profit organization that helps millions of children every year and I can tell you with certainty that one of the Director’s that I work for on more than one occasion has been worried about providing food for her family. Worried as in, we used up the last of the bread to make sandwiches for dinner, worried.

    What we really need is subjective to where we are in our lives. What we want is also variable to where we happen to be at the time. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with enjoying the fruits of your labor, I also don’t think there is anything wrong with feeling proud of your accomplishments. But I DO think there is something wrong with understanding how blessed with how you are (not *you* personally), feeling proud, enjoying those benefits, and then sitting by and not offering aid where you can.

    Personally I’ve become very passionate about hungry children. Do you know that millions of children nationwide depend on free breakfasts and lunches provided by their schools to eat? What do they do on the weekends, holidays, and summer? Answer: Not eat.

    I don’t sleep well at night knowing that.

    For me, donating a few hours of my time a week at the food pantry seems like such a small way to show my gratitude for the many blessings I have. It also helps me to stay grounded in where I am. It took me a long time to realize that if I’m not enough *without* the fancy clothing, fat paycheck, and designer house that I’ll never be enough *with* those things.

    Jenna Reply:

    You are the kind of person I want to be (except I want us to both be able to sleep at night). Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Andria Reply:

    Thanks Jenna, the feeling is entirely mutual!

  27. As someone who has lurked since discovering your website through WeddingBee, I have to finally come out of hiding to say that I am really enjoying this new series you are working on. I like that you are making public the questions you are having about your faith and beliefs about many things in your life. It just feels so authentic to the reader and it’s enjoyable to have such real content in the blogosphere.
    Just wanted to say that I hope you continue because I am interested in your journey.

  28. True stuff. For me I try to exclude and avoid shops or online blogs, sites etc… that leave me feeling “I need that!” It works wonders when you eliminate factors that produce those types of feelings of want and need. When those feeling are reduced you have so much more energy to focus of what we REALLY want and REALLY need, like a loving family, a home of learning, health, a marriage full of trust and honesty you know the list. I find those not so modest thoughts that I have distract me from my real goal, my eternal goal.

  29. Without reading the other comments first, I wanted to tell you that this is why I admire you so much. Your willingness to self-reflect on some issues that aren’t really talked about elsewhere is admirable.

    During the last 2 1/2 years I took a major, major pay cut to work from home with my son … and I’m a single mom. In that time I have spent less than $200 on new clothes and you know what I realized? After so many years of buying basically disposable clothes, spending money without thinking about it, I’m not really missing out. That’s not to say that I don’t aspire to a new wardrobe at some point, but really … in the bigger picture it’s not such a big deal.

    Thanks, again, Jenna.

  30. I just think you are so lovely. Really!

    Substantive Comment:
    One of the reasons I knew I could (would) love my girlfriend was when, on one of our first outings as friends, she mentioned hearing of a remote civilization whose language does not have a word for “want”. She said this seemed like an ideal society. Since then, I have often felt guilty about WANTING things and I have decided that it’s okay to want, as long as you keep it in perspective, you know?
    It’s cool for me to WANT an in-home movie theater, because I don’t classify it as a NEED. And should I ever have the financial means to do so, it would also be cool for me to have one, because it would make me happy — but that doesn’t mean it’s where I get all my happiness from. I’m rambling now.

    Fluffy Comment:
    I really love your Style Files — and I mostly really love seeing how you use pieces in versatile ways. One of my favorite things that a TV series can do is have characters repeat wardrobe items. I hated that on Friends you’d never see a character repeat an outfit, you know? So anyway … I love seeing you use different pieces in different outfits. It has definitely inspired me to up my ante in terms of my own personal sense of style (nebulous at best).
    So while you might think of these Style File posts as vain — you’ve actually been just as helpful to me as Stacey & Clinton on What Not To Wear.

    Gwendolyn Reply:

    Maybe that’s why I never got into watching Friends…

    And why I love shows like The Big Bang Theory. When they reuse wardrobe pieces it makes me feel like they are living real lives. (I love the laundry room scenes!)

  31. I wish your blog had a “like” button for comments reading this post. I think this is my second ever comment, but lots of things here made me think.

    For me, being concious of what you have is important in part because it helps you to connect with other people. Lots of people have referred to the “keeping up with the Jones’ effect” where your social circle’s norms make you want things. But there are so many people fudging it, and feeling terrified. Being aware that if you have any cash for luxuries (whether that is clothes, travel, organic food, in-home cleaning, hobbies, DIY house stuff etc. etc. etc.) you have something someone you know doesn’t should change the way you talk about those things. You;ll make closer, deeper friends if you find stuff to talk about that isn’t just about material things. You’ll find yourself someone people feel good about talking to, and the constant pressure to have more, nicer, stuff and experiences starts to fade. I’m terrible at this, by the way, I want a new kitchen, and an overseas trip so bad I struggle enormously with jealousy around people planning those, or who have just got them. And at the same time, I love to talk about our newest tech purchase, which we always seem to ‘need’. But my closest friends are people with different incomes and vastly different spending priorities. We support each other with stress about money as well as other things, but mainly we talk about books, love, family, and ethics. Focusing on what is important brings people together.

    More trivially, I’m fascinated that everyone likes bigger houses. It’s just the two of us, so it is easier, but I LOVED moving into a smaller (1.75 bdr) space. Less to clean, less to heat, and we’re always within yelling distance of each other. Heaven!

    Oh – and having lived in a variety of climates, I think it does, or should, change your mind about “rules” for dress outside of context. In the tropics, I wore a lot of very loose clothing, lived in skirts, and often wore sleeveless tops. In the cold climate I live in now, I wear pants a lot for warmth and comfort.

    Gwendolyn Reply:

    This is exactly how I feel about modesty and material things! Every time I get depressed or jealous that others have money for luxuries (or even basic wants like health insurance and doctor’s visits, to pay down debt, or to save for the future…which feel like needs when you don’t have them!)

    …I have to remember we have jobs and enough money for rent and healthy food. We are blessed with a close knit group of family and friends that support and help each other.

    I still dream about the things I want but as long as it’s not my focus then I feel I’m doing “ok”.

  32. This is such a great post Jenna!

    It definitely helped pull me back from the mindset of wanting more. I tried to add more to this comment about my life and living situation now but it kept coming off as so vain.

    I realize I have so much!
    I have an amazing husband who has not 1 but 2 jobs! We are so blessed that he has a job!
    I have a perfect 1 year old daughter who is the light of my life! Rocking her to sleep at night is the perfect way to end my day.
    I have a bed to sleep in, food to eat, and all the water I could ever drink.

    I see the beautiful and expensive things that people in my life have and sometimes I do really want those things. But I have learned that those things aren’t going to make my life more beautiful.

  33. I love this post, Jenna. I think there’s a philosophical shift going on, and this is something I want to post about, too. We’re looking to buy a house an an older realtor suggested that we push ourselves to spend just beyond what we’re comfortable with. I find myself asking WHY? This thinking assumes that 1. the economy will continue to expand 2. salaries / earning potential over a lifetime will continue to grow 3. houses will increase in value and 4. bigger is better.

    Fundamentally, I don’t know that I agree with any of this thinking, nor do I think we can assume that the economy we’ve seen over the past 100 years will be the economy of the next 100. It seems backwards to me right now. I want my son to have a good school, I want to be safe. I would like a neighborhood where the people are invested in one another. And I want a home that is well built. That’s all. We’re blessed. I want to count the blessings and not wish for more.

    Andria Reply:

    Yes. This exactly!

    I think there has been such a paradigm shift since our grandparent’s time that living with excess has become the norm. The problem is (in my opinion) that the cost of that excess is so high that we can’t sustain it. My husband and I have started asking ourselves why we really need a huge house, the newest cars, the nicest designer labels… Our family has been making a real effort to shift back to trying to live more like our grandparents did: Carefully, frugally, and gratefully.

    What has been interesting to me is that as we’ve done that I’ve started noticing a lot of stuff that I didn’t before. Long ingredient labels on our food led me to research that led me to learning all about GMO’s (and scared me to death). That led me to shifting back to eating more cleanly which led me to gardening. Finding a love of gardening is leading me to explore other ways to live more simply. This week it was discovering that vinegar with citrus makes a killer cleaner that I prefer to any store bought brand.

    Shoot, at this rate I’ll be the weird old lady with too many cats and a couple of chickens roaming around her backyard. But by golly I’ll be grateful for it! :0)

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