Back in April I made some pretty significant life changes. I have had a job since I was 14 years old, which makes that a good 17 years now. Always at a job that necessitated getting up and dressed and going in to the city each day. Over the past two years or so I had found myself getting more and more panicked at the thought of doing this same thing for the next 30 years of my life, only to retire and die a few years later. As I mentioned in my about section, I am an atheist – a very convinced atheist. There is no great hereafter, no heavenly reward, no hundred virgins, no seat to the right hand of anybody waiting for this girl when she dies. This is it, this is what I’ve got.
So with this in mind I was going about my day to day work in an increasing state of unrest. I am sure everyone feels it to some extent. Honestly, if you didn’t have to work at the job that pays your bills – would you? I am sure there are a few people who have found that perfect occupation and would answer yes (and good for them), but for most of us I suspect the answer is a resounding NO. What I found most, among all of my frustrations – was that I missed my home. I kept thinking about how I spent all of my time working to pay for and maintain a home that I only spent time sleeping in 5 out of 7 days every week. Weekends would come and I would hole up – not wanting to go anywhere, do anything except cuddle with the boy or critters, play in the dirt or work on one of the multitudinous projects round here.
I spent a lot of time working for something I rarely got to experience. Back in April I decided to take a big leap and accepted a job working part time from home. I didn’t see a pay increase with the job switch and working part time effectively cut my salary in half. It was scary, but I didn’t want to continue on the same path I had been on. There was a bit of transition time. I was diligent about watching my money and expenses, and spent a lot more time planning purchases and looking for deals than I had before. And now, 6 months into my leap of faith (or exasperation?) I have learned a ton.
I cut my earnings in half, and yet I still make enough to pay the mortgage, bills and usually stash some money away in savings. The biggest surprise was perhaps the amount of money I spent working outside the home everyday. When you add up the fuel costs, lunches out, coffee breaks, semi-mandatory happy hour excursions after work (but never on the company’s buck), holiday gifts and the liquor therapy/self medication it takes to get over the work week – I realized I was paying a hell of a lot to earn a living.
I fill my gas tank up about once a month now. I have not spent any money on clothing (save for one pair of overalls) since I left my city job. Our highest expense outside of the mortgage is still our food bill, but that is in part due to the fact that we are willing to pay extra for local produce, dairy and humanely raised meat. We don’t eat out nearly as much as we used to, in good part due to the fact that I am not exhausted come dinnertime. It used to be that (if I wasn’t staying late at the office) I would get home around 6:30 or 7:00 and roll dinner out by around 7:30-8:00. The reality of overtime (a lot of the time) made a more normal day getting home closer to 8 or 8:30 and facing the decision of making dinner and eating by 9:30 or just picking something up.
Even on a high month in the summer when we are putting out a good deal of money in deposits on meat and stocking up on produce to preserve for winter our average grocery bill comes to just about $7 per person per day. The more accurate number would probably be closer to $5 per person per day over the whole year. Six months ago I would have blown through $5 on coffee and a scone on my way in to work, and now it feeds me for the day.
And the time! Oh the time! Realistically I am still working between 60% and 75% of a full time job, averaging between 24 and 30 hours a week. But I instantly reclaimed 3-4 hours of my day back by not commuting (we live 10 miles from city center and it takes almost 1.5 hours to get there by bus). I can get up in the morning, put some coffee on and get a load of laundry going – then go work while the washer does it’s thing. I can take a break from work around 3 to prep a meal for the evening that needs to braise for 3 hours, throw it in the oven and go back to work. I try to work around 6 hours a day, mostly in the morning so that by 2pm I can get outside and work in the yard if it is nice. No commute, no gas, no chaos (except that I have created for myself).
I have shifted my spending habits, and I definitely don’t spend as much as I used to (ugh – I just cringe inside to think of all the cash I wasted). I’d like to think we are on a very comfortable austerity plan. We eat well, we occasionally go out to a restaurant, we even go out to the movies every once in a while. We meet friends to play pool at the local bar but intersperse that with evenings at home, where the drinks are cheaper and the games are free. We live a good life – and perhaps for the first time as an adult I feel like I have a life outside of work. Or more accurately, my work life doesn’t overshadow and consume all the other aspects of my life. I have time to do the things that interest me and spend with the friends, family and critters I love.
Throughout this learning process, this six months of the most rewarding austerity I have ever experienced -the rest of the American economic system has been veering toward collapse. The past few weeks of emergency measures, corporate bailouts and implosion of credit markets has spurred me to think more and more about the fatal flaws of our system. The looming collapse of our markets, and the rationale for the bailout is all based on credit (or lack of). It is all based on the need for both ever expanding growth and ever expanding consumption. What ever happened to “enough”?
On a personal level this translates to recognizing excess. I have enough clothes, we have enough cars, our small house is enough for us. We don’t need to upgrade our closets, cars and homes every two years based on fads and what we will be allowed to borrow. I realize that systemically this acquisitive tendency is crucial to a capitalist economy. But at what point do we all stop being dupes feeding the system and say enough?
I have a hard time feeling pity for the couple that took on a 400k ARM mortgage for a 3,000 square foot house. I know that there were some people out there that were geniuinely misled, but I think that there were more people just chasing the dream. Trying to materially represent thier social class comeuppance when they couldn’t afford it.