Saturday, October 23, 2010

Your Money or Your Life?

I am reading this book now. I can’t put it down. I hadn’t realized for how many years I have turned a blind eye to my spending and earning practices with money. Really delving into your monetary personality can be a dark thing you don’t want to face. I love this book. It talks about “life hours”. How many “life hours” did it take to buy that latte, that sweater, that meal out at that nice restaurant? And you don’t calculate the life hours by looking at your hourly wage. No, you subtract from your hourly wage all that you spend to support your job. For example, transportation expenses including gas, insurance, maintenance, etc.; clothing - “costuming for work”, all of the elements in your wardrobe you would just not wear if you did not have to wear them to work; Food and drinks: coffees, lunches and snacks you would not otherwise have eaten unless you were out at the office; Donations – money towards parties, retirement donations, etc.; Health – costs associated to massage, chiropractic care for sitting in front of computers all day, therapists to manage stress, etc etc etc; recreation costs – to help you unwind after a tough day including movies, dinners, alcohol, tv, internet, etc. or money spent on nice clothes, cars etc to help soothe you for working a job you just might abhor. Subtract all of that, and you might be making less than half of what you thought you were making per hour. If you were originally making $15, you discover now you really only make $6 an hour for a job you don’t really like. Hmmm. And, you spent $50 last night on dinner and drinks to help you feel good, to escape your reality, but in actuality you had to work 8 hours for that experience. An entire day of your work week. Was it worth it? I don’t think so.

I am looking forward to selling most of our possessions for our trip, particularly our car. I have felt guilty about the purchase from day one. It was an extravagant purchase that I now realize I made to help soothe my commute to a job that I had become not so inspired by anymore. I paid a ridiculous amount of money each month to have this car and to pay its insurance. But then something happened to me. I went to Tucson to visit Brian’s family and we rode bikes around the whole time and it was so darn pleasurable and cheap and easy and I thought to myself, why have I thought it impossible for so many years to commute by bike to my job? Because its 14 miles away, because I’m scared, because I need to justify my car purchase? Brian and I share the car and he biked often to his job which was only 5 miles closer than mine to our home. I decided one day I needed to pull out my not used for the last year and a half bike from the basement and give it a try. Brian rode with me the first time and I was delighted. 9 miles of the ride are along a beautiful bike trail along the Hudson River, and for the 5 up the hill to my work, I placed my bike on a bus in the morning, and in the afternoon I coasted the 5 miles down to the bike path. I believe it was this ride that started this sort of new awakening in me. I feel like there are so many things we can do to improve our physical, mental and spiritual health as well as our community and planet health. But there are just these behaviors and ideas and norms and fears that are imprinted on us as we move through life as an American that somehow take hold of us even though we may not believe in them, even though we don’t endorse them. It is almost scary - I am starting to see how many of my behaviors do not line up with my morals, ethics or priorities. It’s all little changes though, little things we can do to make a difference. Little things we can do to consume less and give more. I ride my bike about 2-3 days a week now, more if the weather is good. I would be thrilled if Brian and I could swing not having a car at all when we return from our trip. We shall see.

Back to money. As I think about all of the ways we can reduce our spending and be financially healthy, the one elephant in the room that does not go away is our student loans. Brian has two Masters Degrees and I have one Master Degree and spent one year in a Phd program. We both have a large amount of student loan debt that is not going away any time soon. I have been paying off my loans for years but have made only the slightest dent in the principle balance. I do understand this education is a privilege and I am lucky to have experienced it, but somehow this equation doesn’t feel right to me. I am riddled with debt for an education that I really feel I could have (with much motivation) largely gotten through books in the library or information online as well as interviews with professionals in the field or volunteering in the field I was interested in. I feel cheated somehow. I read recently (I don’t remember where) that the vast majority of money from student tuition at colleges goes towards sports programs and food for the university. Hmmmm. That was interesting. What are we really paying for? If our expenses can be looked at in terms of “life hours” how do we define our educational debt? Especially if you find you are no longer interested in the original field you studied in? (me for example?) Were the discussions, exams, activities, reading lists that we were all given in our college courses worth the lifelong debt many of us are carrying? I say a loud no. Now what? Where do we go from here? You can cut back your spending to next to nothing and save as much as you can, but even still, I think many will still be plagued with an economic hardship that will continue to hurt so many families, so many young professionals. I don’t know what the solution is. I am not sure I would encourage my child to enter into our college education system if they had to take out many student loans to pay for the experience. I would not want them to have to deal with this burden. And a degree does not guarantee a sustainable, fulfilling, fruitful career. My husband received his Masters in Library Science last December and has years of library experience, another Masters in Religious Studies, and he simply just cannot get a full time librarian job anywhere in the country. He got the degree in the first place to try and get a job that would make more money for our family. Instead he has an enormous student loan debt and still no job….

Leaving the country makes you think a lot about what it is you are leaving. And what you are hoping to learn while you are away. And what you want to help make different when you get back.


  1. I think about the education issue a lot, too. My parents' goal in raising their children was to see them well educated. For them that meant college. But higher education, especially liberal arts education, provides no vocational or lifestyle support at all. It's an expensive socialization summer camp for four years; in the case of elite institutions, it's a ticket for admission to a power club. I want my children to be well educated, too, but I want their education will be more about life - starting with rejecting the snobbery of middle-class education values that tell us vocational work is not good enough, when in fact plumbers and mechanics and chefs are necessary and well paid and can certainly arrange their lives so that they can make their own schedules - and then moving on to broader lifestyle education choices. Sitting all day is bad for you. Commuting is depressing. Spending money is a poisonous balm we apply on wounds we inflict on ourselves. Long story short I will not pressure my kids to go to college. It has almost nothing to do with creating a life you want for yourself, and if my kid decides s/he really wants to be a teacher at some point, college will always be there later, whenever they want to go. And go to state school. Private schools are rip offs.

  2. There's a fundamental difference between the way we live in our culture and in the lifestyles of those few tribal, hunter-gatherer based societies we haven't managed to stamp out yet. People who live harmoniously and in accordance with nature are some of the most relaxed, well-adjusted, and healthy people on the planet, and it's because they don't have to endure countless hours of drudgery and toil to sustain themselves. These people have no quota for the number of hand-axes they need to make. They have no need of money because anything they need they have the knowledge and time to make or otherwise obtain with their own two hands, quickly and easily.

    Our culture doesn't work because it as no history, each generation is required to come up with a way of living that works for them. We have histories dating back to 1963. If only people could reach out and see and reconnect with these truly ancient cultures whose ways of life have been refined and simplified over countless generations, we could cast off the unhappiness which, I suspect, has inspired you embark on this endeavor in the first place. I have heard these same concerns from many different people in many different walks of life, and yet no one seems to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to live this sort of life; they dismiss a cultural return to a way of life that is functional and pleasing to live in as impossible. Our cultural gestalt psychology has an answer for this notion: that in order to remain civilized and keep all our wonders of technology and communication, we must sacrifice our very lives at their altars. That even if we wanted to change, we've come too far and we couldn't let go of our creature comforts and worldly things, even if it means saving ourselves and planet from destruction. I hope the two of you succeed in doing some part in proving these notions wrong.