By Carey Restino
By some bizarre coincidence, I will be in Alaska’s biggest city the day the state doles out its annual Permanent Fund Dividend to the masses. It’s been a few years since this happened, but the fact that my birthday falls almost exactly on this day each year means that quite often, I am away from home when the surge hits Alaska’s favorite shopping destination.
And more often than not, I forget about that little factoid until I’m wading through people and trying to buy a few strawberries while the rest of the world seems to be endeavoring to cram the biggest, shiniest boxes possible into a single shopping cart. It is a consumer frenzy at best, with everyone feeding off each other’s energy, indulging the urge to splurge.
I would say it’s not as bad as Christmas, except for the fact that at least at Christmas, you can assume some of the stuff people are buying is for someone other than themselves. Not PFD-Day, though. It’s pretty much every man, woman and child for him and herself on that day.
When I was a waitress in “The Big City,” we used to wait on people who rarely came out to eat, order the most expensive thing on the menu and overindulge.
The moral of the story here is that most people in Alaska pretty much view the PFD as free money — a windfall, you could say. We don’t think of it the same way we might if we got a raise or some other earned chunk of income. Too often, we let our inner financial freak flag fly, throwing caution to the wind.
That’s too bad, because when you spend money that way, you often spend it in ways that doesn’t do all that much to benefit the economy of Alaska. Our Alaska Permanent Fund comes directly from the earnings of money derived from the very substance of our state. It would be nice if it went to mom-and-pop businesses, not The-Really-Big-Screen-TV-Store, whose profits go out of state almost immediately.
So here’s my challenge to you: We hear quite a bit about the idea of shopping locally when it comes to vegetables and fruits; trying to minimize our carbon footprint by buying locally (though I challenge you to find a locally grown head of lettuce here in January that didn’t cost more than it’s worth nutritionally.)
What about trying to spend our PFDs locally?
If every dollar from our PFDs — that’s $576.2 million — was spent here in the state, with businesses where a large percentage of the money goes back into our economy, what would happen?
That would mean flying to Hawaii is pretty much out, but you could certainly go to Anchorage instead and stay at a locally owned and operated hotel with a pool and a sauna and pretend. You could even go to that big swimming pool with the fake waves.
You could still have fun, though, if that’s what you wanted to do with your money. There’s lots of crazy Alaskans with ideas about adventure — just think of the Chena Ice Museum. Or you could go for rest and relaxation and find a really good masseuse and make it a monthly ritual.
Here’s another idea, though, that would probably bring you far more joy than a day at the pool and a massage. What about finding a cause or two to support? We may not think so, but a large portion of us are incredibly lucky. We moan a bit about our struggles. We wonder how we’re going to fix our car — the one with the auto start that saves us from having to scrape our windshields. We grumble that the price of bread and milk we’re able to buy is too high. But beyond it all, we are incredibly lucky.
There’s this theory out there that has seeped deep into the structure of our society — the theory that more money will make us happier. But that’s not supported by research. When semi-rich, rich and really rich people were asked how happy they were, the really rich people were no more happy than the semi-rich people. They were also no more happy than the just-getting-by people.
So, if money doesn’t do it, then what can we do to encourage happiness within ourselves and our family?
Well, being generous apparently is a really good way to get there. It doesn’t have to be huge — buy flowers (locally grown, of course), or a bunch of baked goodies for your co-workers. Tip your waitress generously.
If you need help finding ways to help others, there are plenty of agencies and churches in tune with those people in need in your community. Even the smallest act of generosity spreads goodness in ways that help people feel connected, loved and cared about. And you, in turn, get the huge benefit of knowing you did something selfless.
Trust me, it’s good stuff. If you’ve got kids, get them in on it. Go shovel a neighbor’s walkway. Pay up a chunk of the bill for the woman behind you in the grocery store line with four children hollering at her. Look for the opportunities, and they will present themselves.
And what better time to experiment with it than when you have “free money” to throw around.
Our Permanent Fund Dividend is a wonderful benefit of living in Alaska, and it is an important part of our economy, but we could be more mindful about how we use that resource. If we were, that money could keep circulating and benefiting us all throughout the year. And if we use it to cultivate generosity, that spirit would continue long after the dollars were gone.
Now that would really be permanent, wouldn’t it?
Carey Restino is the editor of the Bristol Bay Times, the Arctic Sounder and a freelance reporter.
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