Giving the recession the finger

My job prospects were diminishing, the economy was convulsing, but I said "screw it" -- and took a vacation I couldn't afford.

Published April 13, 2009 10:35AM (EDT)

As I was lying beneath a lustrous sun last week, with a top-shelf daiquiri in my hand, at a luxury resort that I couldn't afford in good economic times, I thought to myself: So what if we're on the brink of the next Great Depression? This was a good decision.

Days earlier, I'd been informed by my boss that my consulting job could likely end in June. My wife's freelance opportunities were drying up as well. We'd downgraded our cat from Fancy Feast to Meow Mix. And if things were about to get really bad, as some economists have been predicting, we only had a short window of time before we’d have to renegotiate the lease on our glamorous, 350-square-foot Brooklyn, N.Y., studio.

There'd be plenty of time for boiling raccoon bones into soup broth, I rationalized, should a full-fledged depression hit, but for now I was going to enjoy my drink and watch the azure waves crest into gold. I was on a beach in the lovely town of Tulum, Mexico. And I was relaxed. This was my "last hurrah" vacation.

There's no denying that I should have been stressed. In the days since, the jobless rate has risen to an unsettling 8.5 percent. Wall Street remains unstable. The government has committed taxpayers to $800 billion in new spending. What's more, some communities have been hit so hard by the economic downturn, they've started printing their own money. The times feel so apocalyptic, I even get jumpy checking the status of my bank account online. I mistook the buzzing sound my computer makes while booting up for a plague of locusts.

But despite the economic abyss potentially lurking on the horizon, some carpe diem vacationers continue to live in denial. According to the Air Transport Association, air travel is down 20 percent, and yet I keep running into other people who, against their better judgment, are taking vacations precisely because of the stress related to uncertain economic times.

"I call it the 'fuck-it phenomenon,'" said Matt Wallaert, a social psychologist with the financial advice site Thrive. "Everywhere you go the media tells you that things aren't going to get better any time soon," he said. "But if you feel like life has dealt you a bad hand, it's easy to say, 'Fuck it, I deserve this.'"

Matt Casper, a marketing consultant who lives in San Diego, is no stranger to the fuck-it phenomenon.

"I am between successes," Casper confessed to me, making light of the fact that he hasn't had steady work in months. Casper, 40, recently booked his own last hurrah vacation to New York with his wife and two children.

"I am looking [at] about two months of money left, no real job prospects," he said. "I need a vacation and I just decided not to worry about the money."

With a jobless rate of 10.5 percent, California has been hit hard by the recession, yet Casper refuses to be dissuaded by the shakeup.

"I basically started envisioning a return to a simpler existence that includes churning your own butter," he said, only half-joking. "I’m basically thinking, hey, we can build a chicken coop."

While in Tulum, my wife and I came across dozens of vacationers echoing the sentiment. Travel may be on the decline, but there was no shortage of people basking in the sun as their 401Ks suffered an extreme burn at home. We overheard one couple at a beachfront bar take a break from their Scrabble game to make a toast. "To poverty," they said with a smirk, raising their matching Montejo lagers in the air. And as we tried to steer clear of a stalking mariachi band that seemed to know only two songs, "La Bamba" and "Guantanamera," we coincidentally ran into one of my wife’s friends from college. She was staying at an adjacent resort. Our conversation inevitably turned to the elephant in the room, how none of us could afford the vacation we were currently enjoying.

Wallaert, who has offered financial advice to thousands of young people, worries that refusing to buckle down in these tough economic times is indicative of a culture of entitlement.

"If I lost my job I would not be taking a vacation," said Wallaert. He acknowledged the unsettling reality behind last hurrah vacations, since overspending and living on credit is what catalyzed the economic meltdown in the first place.

"What a recession does is push people to be more of what they already were," said Wallaert. "The people who were probably overspending in the first place are going to overspend more."

Not surprisingly, the airlines have become willing enablers to the impulsiveness, enticing customers to throw caution to the wind with their dramatically low fares. In the last two months, many flight fares have been slashed up to 50 percent. Flights to Mexico and Florida are the lowest they’ve been in years and American Airlines is offering summer flights to London, Manchester and Dublin for under $200, with a round-trip fare from Chicago to Dublin for $147.

Intrepid Travel is even offering discounts to people who’ve recently been laid off.

"Laid off? How about taking off?" suggests its latest promotion. It promises 15 percent off to the recently unemployed.

In a similar vein is the JetBlue Promise Program, which encourages people to book a vacation with the promise that their fares will be refunded should they get canned. (Which seems gracious enough if you operate under the assumption that all newly unemployed customers will actually cancel. "Unpack your bags, son, Daddy just got fired. We can’t afford Disneyland.")

Adding fuel to our temptations, hotel rates in most major chains are offering rooms at record low prices at up to 50 percent, some with free room upgrades, spa treatments and credits on meals.

Cruise lines are practically doing a striptease to get people on board. They've lowered their fares and launched aggressive ads, including a Carnival campaign that turned urban vacant storefronts into interactive screens that advertise an escape to better, warmer climates. And it's working! In March, Carnival boasted a record number of bookings.

Dr. Marlin Potash, a psychologist and founder of the blog Feeling Up in Down Times, noted that the adjectives used by marketers in the travel industry have changed.

"Instead of advertising something as being 'luxury,' marketers are now more likely to emphasize the word 'discount,'" said Potash. Even high-end tourism brands, she said, that traditionally didn't want to be associated with terms like "bargain" and "cheap" -- such as W Hotels and Four Seasons -- are offering recession discounts.

Potash worries that young people, especially those who have never had to endure sustained economic difficulties, are being snookered by the so-called travel savings, when they should be putting money in the bank or, at the very least, staying put and sucking it up.

"There is a kind of adolescent thinking that does not pay attention to the fact that there are times when you can't have everything you want," said Potash. "Many young people, and people in their 30s, have always had it good. They aren't used to living without, and it's going to take them a little bit longer to adjust."

Brock Boddie, 31, was happy to take the bait of discount tickets. He just returned from his own last hurrah trip to Antigua -- a $1,200 all-inclusive package -- with his fiancée Jenna Goodman, 33.

"We stayed at some horrible place called the Grand Pineapple," he said, mocking the corniness of the name.

Boddie currently works as a Web consultant at the United Nations Development Programme, but his contract will expire mid-summer. He's worried he’ll have few prospects if the economy keeps tanking. His fiancée is a teacher at Brooklyn Friends School, a job that, as Boddie points out, is dependent upon people having money to send their children to private school. Goodman and Boddie recently postponed their wedding, largely because of financial concerns.

"What the hell are we doing? We just canceled our wedding," Boddie said with a laugh, acknowledging the contradiction. "It was the most spontaneous trip we'd ever taken. I just needed to take a break from life."

And who doesn't want that? Grim days have left many of us scrambling to find the escape hatch. And there's something intensely gratifying, however unwise and fleeting, in giving the economy the finger -- if only for six days and seven nights at a beachfront resort with all-you-can-eat chicken wings.

But for some, these last hurrah vacations have taken on deeper meanings. One of the few silver linings in the merciless rounds of layoffs has been that they offered many people an exit from the suffocating sameness of their lives. Yes, the recession brought increased anxiety as well. But for many, that fear became a catalyst. It's enabled them to strive for something more meaningful in their lives, even if that means a temporary break from common sense.

Lauren (not her real name) is a 37-year-old business owner who owns a small restaurant in Brooklyn with her husband. They were on target to make a profit last year, until getting pummeled in the last quarter.

"We've decided to slash our asking price in half," she said. "We're getting out at the worst possible time. But we have to do this for our sanity."

If they're able to find a buyer, they plan to travel across Europe, even though they'll both be returning to New York sans employment and with a depleted bank account.

"Fiscally it may not be wise," she acknowledged. But Lauren says the chaotic economic climate has made her more impulsive.

"And who knows," she said, excited by the prospect of starting over, "maybe some [employment] doors will open while we're abroad."

Meanwhile, photographer Christopher Wray-McCann, 35, is planning a similarly brash trip to Africa. As the slowdown gains momentum, he's found that his bread-and-butter contractors, including Condé Nast, have stopped calling. The trip, he says, will be his last hurrah before he’s forced to really buckle down.

"The advertising market has almost completely dried up," said Wray-McCann. "It’s the worst I’ve seen it since after 9/11. Last month I asked my business managers how much time I had before I had to give up my studio and join the Navy," he joked. "They told me three months."

Later in April, Wray-McCann is taking the opportunity to travel to Ghana to begin a collaborative video project with author (and friend) Mohammed Naseehu Ali. It’s a stretch financially, but he’s committed to spending a portion of his remaining assets to begin work on the project.

"Mohammed and I have been talking about this trip for years, and when the bottom dropped out, the stars aligned, and we said, 'Fuck it. Let's go.'"

Fuck it. Let’s go. It’s become a common mantra, as we wait and wonder -- bank accounts dwindling -- if we're headed for an economic black hole. Maybe we should collectively heed the wisdom of our Depression-era grandparents and learn how to quilt trousers out of flour sacks. But most of us grew up spending, and we’re having a hard time stopping now. Irresponsible? Perhaps. But I think it's also evidence that we are refinancing our priorities. Changing the accounting on what’s important. And we're perfectly aware -- well, hopefully many of us are -- that tighter budgets must follow. Last hurrahs, after all, should be a prelude to change.

"There's an expectation in America," said Dr. Potash, "that you can enjoy whatever you want now and the money will eventually roll in. It's good to be optimistic but at some point one has to face reality."

She's right. And let's be clear, if the proverbial floor does drop out, we'll all have to make some painful sacrifices. But as everything that we once depended on shifts and changes unpredictably around us, it's refreshing to see people beginning to devalue the significance of the almighty dollar in their lives. Even if it is a bit reckless.

"Seeing my family and spending time with them on this trip is more important than worrying. And if I have to take a job at a video store to pay for it, I guess that’s OK," said Casper. "The vast pyramid scheme that is our economy has collapsed and now that money is worthless it’s less important to me," he continued, acknowledging that his trip to New York, like so many last hurrah vacations, will be financed by credit.

By Robert Lanham

Robert Lanham's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Maxim, The Huffington Post, Radar, Nylon, Playboy and Time Out New York, among others. He is the author of the satirical anthropological studies "The Hipster Handbook," "Food Court Druids," and "The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right." Lanham is the founder and editor of the trendsetting publication

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