I type in the web address, username and password. And then I cringe, panic, calm down, breathe.
“It’s just money,” I repeat as I wonder how to make it grow on trees, “It’s just money, and someday we’ll have more of it.”
Maybe. Someday. But not today. Today I have to pay the credit card bill. Tomorrow the mortgage; the next day the gas bill. Why did the price of internet go up? Every month is a scramble to make the numbers work, and sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever leave this place.
I would really like to leave this place, this financial ledge where our income and expenses are the same number. I would like a place to rest, somewhere we could breathe easy, but I can’t seem to find it. We’re too busy roping our family to the cliff every month.
There have been times that I have had a plan. The remnants of best-laid intentions litter my file cabinet–the bright pink budgeting folder I found at Target; the envelopes that held cash for entertainment, groceries, lattes. I create glorious systems that last, on average, for two to three months.
Then life happens. I stop collecting receipts. The car breaks down. I need new contact lenses the same month everyone gets strep throat. Christmas comes again.
And I wonder: does anyone stay on top of this? But, like most people, I don’t talk about money, except in the most generic terms. I just assume that everyone else has found a system that works for them, that they have way more discipline than we do, and that we are unique in our precarious–and somehow, deserved–position.
Forget organization. The problem is either expenses or income–and since we hardly ever eat out and buy our clothes at the Goodwill–my money (though not much of it) is on income.
It was only a few years back that I first heard the term “overeducated and underemployed,” and I immediately recognized myself and most of my close friends. At that time six of us–myself, my husband and our four closest neighbor-friends–held five master’s degrees and earned less than $100,000. Combined.
So, mostly, we were paying our student loans.
If I sound like I’m whining, I am. And I shouldn’t be–our salaries still made us some of the richest people on our block. We were not poor, and our predicament was not entirely an accident, rather, our choices had paved the way to an uneasy middle-class existence. We had stay-at-home moms and dads among our number who cleaned houses, pulled espresso shots, sold bikes, and shipped greeting cards to retain flexible schedules. All three of our “professional class” worked for nonprofits, which did not, let’s say, provide lucrative compensation packages.
We had made our cliff-ledges, and now we had to lie on them.
“We can make this work,” we said in our early thirties. Our kids were young then, and hand-me-downs abundant. Student loans went to forbearance. New couches were postponed. We bought each other socks and underwear for birthdays, cementing our identities as boring grown-ups.
“There are numbers that aren’t being counted,” we said, “like hours with our kids, the positive impact we are making on other people’s lives, the satisfaction… um, index… of an important job well done.”
And it’s all true. And it’s all worth it. But now somehow, as I tip toward my forties and realize that $3.62 doesn’t constitute a savings account, what seemed exciting and counter-cultural starts to feel irresponsible, and–well, exhausting.
I start to realize that financial instability is a place that I may never leave.
My husband says that this thought is completely depressing. “It’s not that hard,” he says, “We just get you a better job, and make some investments.” I give him an extended eye roll. Whatever–as if it’s that easy.
We’re in the kitchen, and he is shaking out peppercorns from a bulk container and chopping garlic from the backyard, preparing veal shanks that were cast-offs from our church’s foodbank. “I’m not sure how I feel about eating veal, even free veal,” I tell him, but it smells amazing. It’s Saturday morning and we have nowhere to go, the cats are posted by the woodstove, and the kids are outside playing in the snow.
Yesterday I cut our monthly expenses again, found a bit more freelance work, and directed some auto deposits to our savings account. Today I’m writing a story to meet a deadline for a blog that pays me nothing, and yet generates a different kind of abundance. It’s a balancing act I know well, and that’s a good thing–as I may be doing it for the next fifty years.
“Oh well,” I think as I prepare the hot chocolate that will soon be required. The rich smell of stew fills the bright kitchen. And we have everything we need.
At least there’s a nice view from this ledge.
* * * * *
A note about the photo: After I had finished this piece I was dropping my six-year-old off at school and saw this paper on her locker, a remnant of a MLK Day assignment. I asked her about the picture, and she said that it shows that love weighs more than money.
Next time I’ll let her write the post.