Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece about the "Haimish Line." The Haimish Line is an invisible line sometimes crossed when you go from spending less to spending more -- in doing so, Brooks contends, you often sacrifice warmth and connection to attain luxury and space. According to Brooks, "haimish" is a Yiddish word that suggests "warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality."
An exclusive, white-tablecloth, four-star restaurant where servers disappear and diners are on their Blackberries would be north of the Haimish Line. A small, casual diner on the corner bustling with loud conversations from neighborhood folks talking over each other would be south of the Haimish Line. A new dorm building with a shiny, new, unused lounge would be north of the Haimish Line; the well-worn lounge of ratty furniture that students veer toward would be staunchly planted south of the Haimish Line. The Haimish Line even slices across neighborhoods: densely packed urban neighborhoods where kids run home from school and and people have stoop conversations versus spread-out suburbs of isolated living in separate homes and cars.
Brooks advises that we learn to spend our money well and stay south of the Haimish Line.
I found this essay so compelling because money often buys privacy, space, exclusivity and "luxury" -- all of which are the very opposite of "unpretentious conviviality." In America, the picture of success is a bigger house (where the family is more spread out), moving to the suburbs (with more distance between neighbors), a nicer car (to be more vigilant about spills in), and flying first class (ok, so some things are not worth getting all concerned about "the Haimish Line" over).
Seriously, though, there is something to be said for not unwittingly losing the warmth of "haimish" in our lives as we grow in our financial prosperity. Here are a few ways to spend your money well and stay south of the Haimish Line:
I grew up in a modest house in the middle-class suburbs of North Jersey. We had neighbors all around us, just a few steps away over a row of bushes in one direction or another. We ran around the adjoining woods with the neighborhood kids, played kickball in the cul de sac, and had barbecue get-togethers in the summertime. When I left for college, my parents moved "on up" to a larger, more luxurious house in a wealthier neighborhood. The entryway had dramatic two-story high ceilings. The rooms (there were eight of them) were huge and echoing; some would stay unused for weeks at a time. The plot of land was bigger, the large, stately homes more spread out. Instead of dinners over each others' houses, neighbors exchanged waves from driveways before getting into their quiet European luxury cars and driving away. I never grew to like my parents' second home: While it was bigger and "nicer," it lacked the haimish that makes a house a home, and a block a neighborhood. The next time you're financially ready to change your living situation, don't automatically assume bigger is better, or that a tonier neighborhood is the direction to move in. It may be what people expect, but consider the things that make you happy about your home--and buy south of the Haimish Line.
Dinner out is often a treat, but for some reason we usually equate a nice dinner with a north-of-the-Haimish-Line fine restaurant, replete with white tablecloths, spaced-out tables and hushed service. Next time you go out, look for a great restaurant with a communal table, a trend that a lot of restaurants are embracing. A communal table is a long table, often in the center of the restaurant, where random diners are seated to share. It is usually a much livelier place to sit, just from the effects of the cozy proximity of neighboring diners, and overlapping and sometimes shared conversations. If you can't find a restaurant with a communal table, try a place where seats are very close to each other, or eating at the bar, where you can easily strike up a conversation with the bartender or a neighbor.
Cars provide us privacy and efficiency, but they're not nearly as interesting as riding public transportation. One writer said that even if he made enough to have a private car service in New York, he would still take the subway for the fascinating people-watching. Take a bus or the subway, and share company with your city-mates. Or consider taking a train instead of driving on your next out-of-state trip. There's nothing more haimish than a group of strangers headed to the same destination, sharing a conversation or two.
It certainly is a luxury when traveling to be able to afford a nice hotel with separate rooms for everyone. And if you're a finicky traveler, this might still be the way to go. But there's something to be said for sharing rooms, staying at friends' or family's homes (just make sure to be the perfect houseguest), or even shacking up with a stranger via Airbnb. The accommodations may not be as perfect, but in exchange, you'll have more late night conversations with friends you're staying with, local tips on navigating the town, and all those interesting moments of sharing your quarters with someone else.
When it comes to your wardrobe, we always recommend investing in quality pieces that will last a long time, as opposed to buying cheaper, more ephemeral items (check out LearnVest's Priceless Style Bootcamp to get your wardrobe budget in line). However, quality pieces are often accompanied by more stress about not damaging or losing them. We still think the tradeoff makes quality items a better investment in general, but here are a few examples of cheapies you can buy in the name of haimish living: -a cheap pair of fun, dangly earrings to loan to your friend in a pinch if you're both going out -inexpensive slippers, towels and tennis rackets or bikes for house guests -an inexpensive coat, scarf or cold weather item you might give to a homeless person in passing -cheap art prints or decorative items you can use to decorate around the house, and give away to guests who love them (in some parts of the world, if a guest compliments a host on an item, it's customary for the host to give it to her guest)
Haimish living isn't about glorifying modest living or not enjoying the fruits of your labor. It's simply the idea that money should be well spent, to bring more satisfaction, fulfillment and warmth into our lives. Spending south of the Haimish Line is one sure way to do so.
A version of this post originally appeared on LearnVest.
Follow Maria Lin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/_marianalin