As a former six-figure wage earner, I know what it’s like to go from excess to a single-digit bank account balance. What I don’t understand is how everyone gets a free pass to use the “economy” as a primary excuse for their financial hardship. If you’ve been broke for most of your adult life because you have always lived beyond your means – it has nothing to do with our economy. In fact, it’s people like us that have helped cause this catastrophe. Stop buying stuff for a minute. Get back to basics. It’s time to reprioritize. I did – and well before I knew an economic crisis was about to ensue.
If you are lucky enough to secure a good job for any length of time, your bank account builds, and you start buying things. If your company thrives, you might get a pay raise and a bonus. Your head begins to swell. You become self-important. You upgrade your shoes, then your car, then your house. Now, you are working harder to prove yourself, so you can get a promotion, so you can make more money, so you can buy more stuff. Sure, you want the promotion because you think you deserve it, but more so you need it to keep up with your new lifestyle. Before you know it, you are getting insane offers from mortgage companies, car dealers and credit card companies because you’ve been working and paying your bills. You haven’t gotten that promotion yet, but don’t worry – if you really want that new dining room set, they’ll give it to you now and you can pay for later.
Now, you have a house in the suburbs that you can’t afford, expensive foreign cars, and barbecues at your screened-in pool every weekend. Filet Mignon and imported beer become the norm. You have lots of friends, but less time with your kids because you are always at work and entertain on the weekends. At the end of each day, you are worn out – stretched financially, mentally drained and stiff in the neck from hovering over your desk all day. You manage to put yourself to sleep with $30 bottle of a wine and a mild-sedative. You haven’t looked at your kids school work in a week, and wonder how you will make their school play in time tomorrow with all the work you have to do. You are going to hire someone to help with the kids, just have you did with the cleaning.
Fast forward to a few years later. Your lifestyle caught up with you – and then ran you over.
Before you know it you are robbing Peter to pay Paul. Your kids are used to laptop computers and trips to Disney for their birthday. You’ve forgotten what it’s like to paint your own nails with $3 nail polish. You live and work to buy more, more, and more. You can barely pay the interest on everything you’ve financed, and you are hardly making it paycheck to paycheck. Then again, you’ve always lived paycheck to paycheck, but now you have so much more with a six-figure salary then you did when you were making twelve bucks an hour. Or do you? When does the madness end? Well, I found the answer when I wasn’t even looking. I believe they call it an “epiphany”.
It was not so long ago that I came to the realization that I was wasting precious time. I was working at a job that was beyond my capacity because I NEEDED the money to keep my family living large, but I was a mess. When I woke up to what was happening, it was an unwelcoming experience at first. I guess I should have been relieved – and fortunate enough to see that my life was not my own. I had created this insanity. Everyone, including me, was accustomed to living a shallow, materialistic life that I vowed I’d never live. We were not the same people.
Almost suddenly you want to fix it – you want to get back to basics. You long for rainy days in your sweatpants, playing Monopoly, eating cookie dough straight from the package. You run to your dresser, then your cedar chest, then your closet, all in search of your old comfy sweatpants, which have by this time been replaced with high-end “Active-wear” (which was hardly designed for lounging). You have nothing snack-worthy in your fridge, and your kids are too busy with their own personal in-room entertainment centers to play a stupid board game with you.
You feel empowered with this new information (that, strangely enough, came from inside). You have a new found dedication – you are determined to make your time on this earth sweeter. You turn down that promotion – it goes against your new game plan anyway. If fact, this JOB goes against your game plan. Not because you are lazy and don’t want to work, but because as part of your enlightenment “package-deal”, you discovered that you hate what you do for a living, and are not real sure how you got this far into something you loathe this much. Maybe it’s because you had to keep proving to everyone that you could do it (and don’t forget, you had to buy more stuff too). Somewhere in all that corporate glory and keeping up with the Joneses, you lost yourself. Your hopes to further your education and make your dream job a reality are buried under a pile of receipts from Neiman Marcus and Whole Foods.
The euphoric phase is in full tilt. You told your boss to shove it, took a job as a home based data entry clerk making peanuts for pay. You can’t wait to pull your kids out of after-school care and serve them sliced apples while they do their homework. You’re trading in your Escalade for a used Ford Escape. The local college has sent you everything you need to get started again. Life is going to be good.
You’ve waited for the perfect moment to share your plans with your spouse and children. Sure, there are going to be cut-backs, but think of all the quality time you’ll have together? Surely everyone will see how important this change is. After all, they used to always complain about how busy you are. You’re certain that each person in the house will be happy to give up some luxuries in trade for extra family time. Who needs to vacation in Mexico when you can camp in your own backyard?
You take center stage. You are on your game. You deliver the perfect motivational speech. You are full of excitement and enthusiasm – giving them happy facts and tips for a better, less-expensive home life. You wait for cheers, hugs, thank-you’s and beyond. Nothing happens. Everyone is silent at first, and then the questions come fast and furious. Before you can mutter an answer to anything, the fighting begins. You interrupt to explain to the kids that they need to appreciate the little things. This is a difficult task, considering your spouse is growling at you, and you yourself have no idea how to achieve this goal yet. It’s all spiraling out of control. This is not what you envisioned from your loving and supportive family. What will it take to get everyone on board so you can make this new plan work?
The answer is time. Just because you’ve achieved this new level of clarity doesn’t mean everyone else in your household has. Panic is everyone’s first instinct when it comes to big changes. In the coming months, as the money dwindles around birthdays and holidays, you will have pings of remorse. You will feel something that is comparable to regret, but in the end, it’s just fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. This fear compounds the self-doubt and guilt you already feel. It’s hard to stay positive when you see the disappointment in your child’s eyes when you can’t by them a new video game “just because”. As time goes on, you child grows into it, and starts to appreciate having you around more often. You don’t notice right away because you are still juggling finances and getting used to new schedules.
Everyone is getting to know one another again. There is more laughing and talking. Sure, you are working full-time and going to school, but you find time for home-cooked meals, baseball games, and monopoly on rainy days. One afternoon, you notice the sadness in your child’s eyes as she talks about an old “Clifford” stuffed animal that used to lie at the end of her bed. He was huge – almost three feet long. You remember throwing it away a few years earlier because there were holes near the ears. You didn’t have time to sew it, so you threw it away at the end of a 12 hour work day after coming home to a mess and a pile of mail to go through. You curtly reminded your sobbing child at the time that they had tons of stuffed animals, and suggested they find a new favorite.
I recently gave my eight year old daughter that same Clifford dog that she missed so much. I spent an hour online before I found it on e-bay for $12, and managed to get it here in time for Christmas. After a long day of playing with her new toys (including a Wii from Santa), nothing made her happier than that Clifford dog. As I tucked her into bed, she snuggled up close to her big red dog and smiled the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen. Mission accomplished.
It’s really easy to stay in a job if it pays well, especially when you have a family to feed. I am not suggesting that it’s always possible to walk away from this kind of stability either – I’ve made plenty of mistakes trying to get back to the simple life, because there is actually nothing simple about getting there. Just take it one day at a time. Try to get back to basics – focus on making the most of your life, not just your free time.
Labels: America's Spending Riot: Don't Get Swept Up