I've been working on my online classes to get them ready for winter term. I came across this question that is posted for the unit on social class & mobility:
"Because there is such great wealth in the hands of some in the U.S., and a great deal of commercial exposure to the range of material goods available, those who live modestly may feel poor even if all their basic needs are met. Different people have different ideas about what standard of living is “good enough” for them. What has had the greatest impact on how you feel about your own material circumstances in relation to your community and/or other family members? What factors do you believe have the greatest impact on whether or not a person will feel satisfied with what they have?"
That question got me thinking...
I grew up poor without the advantages of summer camps or music lessons. I wore hand me down clothes most my life as a child and didn't have much in the way of pretty things. I used to think having matching furniture and wall to wall carpet in your house meant you were rich.
I've heard lots of people who grew up in similarly humble circumstances say that in retrospect they realized their family had been poor when they were little, but that they had never really been aware of that at the time. That was not the case for me. I was very, very aware of my family's low status. My parents fought incessantly about debts and things we could not afford. I heard snide comments from other people about the way we lived. Even when I was quite young, I defined my life as lacking basic things other people took for granted. I used to dream of one day living in a pretty house and having enough - not being RICH necessarily, but simply having ENOUGH.
I left that home at sixteen to marry my first husband. During that volatile seven year marriage we lived pretty much hand to mouth, bouncing around from one rented hovel to the next as my ex husband seldom held a steady job very long and a lot of what money he did bring in went to getting high. We were on food stamps most of the time and had no health insurance. We took our kids to county hospital if they got sick.
Fast forward several years to when I married my current husband. We struggled our first 10 years together, but it was a different kind of struggle. Once all the bills were paid and the groceries bought there was not much of anything left over. But the key thing is all the bills WERE paid on time and we never had to worry about having enough groceries. We bought a house and were stable in ways I had never known. We NEVER had shut off notices from the utilities and our standards were about establishing decent credit and putting away a little saving for the future. (Savings? Unheard of in my former life.)
Then there were some promotions for my man and eventually our kids were emancipated. Since we no longer were paying for the many expenses of raising our boys and then I was available to start working full time suddenly we had a level of discretionary income I'd never known before.
We were always pretty scrupulous about living within our means and having some savings. To do that we had to watch the budget closely. We seldom went to the movies or out to eat. We did not buy a lot of "STUFF". It took a while to pay off my student loans and pay for a car - but we did it. Eventually the only debt we had in the world was our mortgage, and that was manageable. We had two or three credit cards and used them plenty, but always made sure they were paid off in full every month.
Once we got to that point my man and I started taking some trips - Costa Rica, Fiji, Hawaii, Alaska. Every year we made sure we had a vacation for at least a week to ten days somewhere. We still had to watch the budget closely to make this possible, but it WAS possible. With both of us working full time we had a pretty comfortable lifestyle according to our level of expectations. We knew people who had a lot more than us, we knew people who had much less. But for us, if felt like we had just enough to truly appreciate our abundance without so much to let it go to our heads.
We had a handful of fat cow years during which we were able to do more things, help others, and dream of a cushy retirement.
Now the lean cow years are here, or so it seems. Due to some unforeseen circumstances beyond our control, our financial picture has changed. Some of our long range plans will have to be scrapped and others adjusted significantly. We're still doing ok, but the balance sheet definitely isn't as promising as it once was. And that triggers a fair amount of anxiety for me.
I don't need a pile a cash or stacks of shiny THINGS. But I do need to know that we will always have a secure place to live and be able to pay our bills on time. I never want to go back to the marginal way of living I came from.
So long as we both work full time we could continue on pretty much as we have been, minus any exotic travel anytime soon. But my husband is 63. At some point the time will come for him to step away from his job. Also, just from a point of prudence, I'd like to be in a position so that if something were to happen to either one of us (or to the jobs we hold) that we'd still be able to manage.
That was a big part of why we chose to sell our place in Athena. To get out from under the mortgage and to free us up to be able to choose to stay here or leave to another area depending on what opportunities came up.
But now that we are in the process of selling that house we have to decide what next.
Do we buy some tiny little place here locally that we can get for $120K or less? Or do we keep the money in the bank as a parachute against potential woe in the future and continue to rent our current place out at the farm?
How do I feel about where I live? I admit I do miss having my big fancy house where I was comfortable doing lots of entertaining. But I've kind of gotten over the worst of the homesickness I initially felt when we left it. I've come to appreciate the snug house we are in now in a lot of ways, even though I don't have walk in closets or a garage. (With all the snow we have now I REALLY miss the garage!)
As I plan for the future, what factors will determine how much is enough in what sort of house I expect to have or how much wiggle room I need in my budget to feel comfortable rather than stressing over the wolf at the door?
My ideas about this are in flux at the moment - shimmering with iridescent contrast between wanting something VERY simple and basic on some days while other days I long for something more upscale. Also the level of anxiety I feel on a day to day basis over the current financial crisis in our national economy varies a lot. At this point I don't even want to open up the statements for our investment savings. I just want to stick them in a box for later, cover my eyes and ears and shout LA LA LA LA so I don't have to see or hear about the decline anymore. Some days it makes me crazy, and I fret hopelessly about having 30 years of hard work and savings go up in smoke. Other days I'm more serene, trusting that even if we have to adjust our lifestyle considerably from what we had planned, God knows our needs and will provide for them. We may not get much extra, but I generally have confidence that we will have enough.
How much is enough? As I come to know more and more people who are living in serious poverty I see my grumbling about giving up the excess of my former abundance as rather petty.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having abundance. But as I wrestle with how I feel about what I have now, what I most appreciate, what I long for, what I think of as futile pipe dream that I NEVER expect to get...it's interesting which things land on which lists. How DO I decide how much is "enough"?
How about you?