25 June 2006

Where does the money go?

Ever since I read Mom to the Masses' post on money a few weeks ago, I have been thinking about it.

It seems like everyone I know has run out of money all at once. If I listen hard enough, I can hear the sound of change jars being emptied out all around me.

Last year I took a job making more than the average American for the first time in my life. Every time I see one of those news articles about what the average American makes, I am above that line. I don't have a husband, I don't have kids, I don't have a mortgage, no car payment, no credit card debt - I should be home free, right?

Wrong. I seem to be hovering somewhere in the "just above broke all the time" category. I find it sort of baffling, considering my well-known penchant for thrift. I am no friend of designer labels. Have bought 2 articles of clothing in the past 6 months. Don't buy much jewelry, or travel much, or even eat out much anymore. Yeah, I brown bag it every day and don't even a television.

Back when I made half as much as the average American, thrift stores and garage sales seemed like part of the deal. Now that my job actually pays a decent wage, it seems like it shouldn't be this hard.

Yet every day my prayers include "Dear Lord, please don't let me get sick and miss work;" "dear God please don't let the dog have to go to the veterinarian;" and "Dear God, please keep my car running."

I realized that I, like Mom to the Masses, have become an expert at the mental calculus of saving money. I try to work it all out and sometimes I mess up. I berate myself for tossing out spoiled food or staining or tearing a piece of clothing beyond repair.

Sometimes I get so tired of obsessing over every penny that I want to go out and spend a couple hundred bucks. But I don't because I know my inner shitty committee would yell at me for weeks or months afterwards.

Sometimes my penny-squeezing is an abject failure. I was dropping off my gas bill at the grocery store payment station and saving a stamp when I got a $174 traffic ticket. THAT one didn't work.

So how is it going for you? Do you obsess, or do you just blow it all and wince and peek with one eye when that credit card bill comes in the mail?


Holly Capote said...

I make less than $10,000 a year, so I don't have to wonder where the money goes. Money has to come before it can go. But what you wrote is the canary in the cage. Hard times are coming for many Americans. Too many Americans have been seduced into debt. They are already strained. They'll buckle with further rises in fuel prices...or downsizing. Luckily,

I get a kick outta small things: it doesn't take much to make me happy. And I try to squeeze as much out of my lawn as I can: 13 kinds of berries, nuts, veggies, etc. In a few years, the maple trees are also have to do a spring sap shift. America is going to become a poorer nation and this might not be a bad thing if it reconnects us. I think consumption has always been a poor substitute for community.

Janet Evening said...

Give something away... And what you need will have room to arrive. Weird but effective...

super des said...

I put my money in a big hole. It might even be a black hole. The universe makes it so that I can pay my bills (including minimum payments on credit cards) and very few extras. This is a good system, and it's been the same my whole life. I figure when I start making more money and thus depositing more into the hole, it will work out to be exactly the same. I'm not getting calls from creditors or resorting to begging on the subway, but I'm not buying new shoes anytime soon.

annelynn said...

Scraping along here as well. The grant I'm paid from runs out in 8 and a half months, and I'm really afraid of how we're going to make it at that point. My husband just started a new career; he's not going to be making decent money for a long time to come. I'm 2 1/2 years away from an RN, so I won't be making money anytime soon myself. We're frugal as all get out; sometimes it's hard to see where more cost-cutting can come in.

Thankfully, we have no debt (beyond our mortgage, and thankfully that's pretty low with a decent interest rate)... but it does get tiresome being so excruciatingly money-conscious all the time. I am not the shopping type, and I don't have expensive tastes... but you're right, sometimes the constant penny-pinching makes me want to go crazy and spend hundreds of dollars. I know just where I'd go, too - Barnes and Noble, and Adam's Fair Acre Farms. Books and good food.

I think Holly's right - I think Americans are in for a rude awakening sooner than later. It's kind of a scary thought.

Holly Capote said...

Annelynn, as the rich get richer, the poor drop into deeper and deeper debt and servitude. Too many Americans own houses larger than they can afford and more cars than they can afford. Last year was the first year since the Depression that the country had a negative savings rate. And BushCo has borrowed about 2.5 trillion dollars, which undercuts the dollar evermore.

And what are we told?

Spend! Borrow! Be merry!

Consumption is a sickness.

annelynn said...

Consumption is indeed a sickness - even more so than back in the day when it took the alternate name tuberculosis. Our consumption-driven society upsets me. I try really hard not to be one of the many who is immersed in it, taken over by it. By and large, I think I succeed. When I do spend money, it's usually on fancy food (read: really good produce or cheeses) or on some outdoor accoutrement like new hiking boots or a new field guide.

The rich are indeed getting richer. Everyone else is becoming the poor, if they aren't there already. It is a system bound for collapse.

I have to say, though, that consumptionism is a desire of much of humanity. I have lived abroad on two occasions and saw the same desires there that I see here. The main difference is one of monetary capacity. True, that desire has gone completely wild in this culture - absolutely over the top - but it's certainly not exclusive to North America. I think it speaks to a desire to fill a hole in our hearts/souls/spirits. Consumerism is not the answer, but it masquerades as such many times.

A separate issue, though, is that many times our incomes have not kept pace with the cost of living, including taxes (we are taxed within inches of our lives here in NY), gas, heating bills, and the increasing cost of everything one needs to live. My raise this year? 3.6% of a salary that was already paltry.

Meh. Good topic, Stapler! One close to my heart, though I wish it wasn't.

Holly Capote said...

Annelynn, do you live in Wisconsin? If so, we should do coffee.

I loved your correlating consumption and tuberculosis. A former prof said that there are no coincidences in the words we use and choose.

MrsFortune said...

Shitty committee. Hahaha.

As far as money, I don't obsess, at least, not anymore. I have all my bills on auto-pay and that's a good way to not obsess. But now that I'm unemployed, that's all about to change. I have to stop practicing the ostrich dance.

Goon Squad Sarah said...

I used to always operate at zero. We would spend all of our money every month, and if I had an unexpected expense I used to play off my credit card in two months at the very most.

Now I have two kids and a big house and I feel like our finances have just gotten away from us. Like you, my husband makes more now than he ever has before. I'm not sure what happened.

Holly Capote said...

goon squad sarah, your finances are supposed to get away from you. Everywhere you go, people want to lend you money. Then more money. There was once strict standards for loans. Now, nearly everyone is loaned money. They want servitude, I say. They want people to be serfs, even if those serfs live in big houses, for those big houses can be illusion: too many of those big houses owned by banks, which are owned by rich folks. If the economy collapses, and there are soooo many ways that can happen, the rich folks that own the banks will take the big houses, the cars, etc.

marshamlow said...

When I married my husband almost six years ago I was in an enormous mess in regards to money. I don't know how it happened. I am smart, successful, I even majored in math, but I couldn't handle the money. I think the problem for me was that I felt that I deserved all the nice things that everyone else had.

When we got married, my husband is in the service and was stationed in Italy. I sold everything I had and even then couldn't pay off all my debt. I showed up in Italy with two suitcases, a nine year old daughter and a big black hole of debt. He paid off all my debt. I was so humiliated.

But, from that day until this one I no longer buy things just because everyone else has them. We don't carry any credit card debt. However, living on a military base in Japan means that we don't have a house payment, a car payment, electric bill, etc. I hope we will continue to be able to keep our heads above water when we move back to the US.

Christina said...

We lived in debt for awhile, and then we pulled ourselves out and lived in the positive (other than student loans) for awhile. Now, however, we're back in the negative and falling fast.

I think the average person is becoming poorer every single day. Trickle down economics doesn't work, despite how much W and his rich buddies try to make us think it does.

Holly Capote said...

Christina said it succinctly: many average people are growing poorer everyday, whether they realize it or not. They're kept afloat by debt and that debt masks and furthers their poverty.

Lisa said...

We had a biz go bust and that's when it "hit the fan with us." It has taken years to get out of the monumental mess we were in. But we emerged alot smarter about money. And now we save -- something we didn't do before that.

ed bacchus said...

I just keep thinking that money grows on trees so I keep looking for the money tree to start growing in my backyard. Still nothing

Anonymous said...

Yes- love the inner shitty committee comment. Boy do I ever have one of those. Mine works overtime pro-bono.

I am a huge frugal penny pincher. I teach, my husband farms, and we have twins. Nuff said.
We shop @ Aldi's, yard sales, and don't really have any debt other than our mortgage. However... if you looked at our bank account, you would think that I have a closet of Jimmy Choo shoes and Coach purses. I don't know where it goes.
I HATE carrying a balance on my credit card. If I have one.. my inner shitty committee just loses it.

Suzanne said...

Holly is right: America is in big, big trouble some time soon. the rich get richer and everyone else is fucked. Thanks, Bush administration, for blowing a gap between the rich and the rest of us into a bottomless chasm. Fuckers.

That said, I am very fortunate to be doing OK. My husband and I both make good livings, my husband enough so that I am going from a well-paying (for my industry, anyway) job to a well-paying part-time job and a likely to fail attempt to be a writer of some sort in my non-paid time. I often feel guilty about it. It's all fucked up because I grew up in a struggling working class family in a very wealthy community and I have serious class issues. I am pretty much the class I hate and always feel the need to justify it and explain how we are different from the "other" assholes. Does it matter if your heart (and your wallet) are in the right place? Still, the people who live in my co-op who are my age have incomes and assets that scare me. How the fuck did they get so far ahead of everyone else? Oh, family wealth...

Anyway, I know how damn lucky I am, and I appreciate everything I have. I worry nonstop that we don't save enough, but the fact that we can save at all means we are doing fine. I just think about all the times I had to put back groceries when I was a kid because we did not have enough to pay for them...

SUEB0B said...

Thanks, everyone, for sharing your stories. It makes me feel less alone.

Holly - it is definitely time for you to bust out your own blog. I can feel it coming.

Suzanne - I can't wait to meet you in person in San Jose.

Suzanne said...

Ditto! (And sorry I ramble so much. You inspire words to come out of me.)

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