Showing posts with label Long-Term Planning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Long-Term Planning. Show all posts

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Neal Gabler on America's Declining Standard of Living


For the May issue of the Atlantic Neal Gabler, a writer, university lecturer, and erstwhile movie reviewer, wrote The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans, a piece about how he has struggled with his finances in silence due both to his family’s personal choices and the declining standard of living for middle-class Americans. This is an interesting piece, more for what it says about the author than the people with whom he’s trying to equate himself.

Gabler’s tale is another reiteration of Aesop’s fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, padded with statistics for more effect. The problem with this piece is that Gabler wrote it, and he’s hardly the spokesperson for the down and out in America. Even if he’s shedding light on a real trend, his motivation is to gain sympathy for himself while placing himself over the unwashed in the social hierarchy.

The fact is, it is hard out there for many, many Americans these days. The statistics Gabler cites are true. The standard of living for lower income, working class and middle class Americans has definitely gone down in the past decades. While the cost of items we’ve grown to think of as non-negotiable - like housing, education, and healthcare - has sharply risen. Many more people are living on the edge of bankruptcy. As the article points out, 47 percent of respondents to one survey said that they would have to borrow or sell something to come up with $400 to pay for an emergency expense or would not be able to come up with it at all.

$400 is not that much money. There are so many things that cost at least $400 to repair or replace. This winter my refrigerator died, my washing machine died, and my laptop more or less collapsed. Each of these problems cost at least $400 to resolve. A car repair, an unexpected tax bill, or a medical emergency will easily run up into that kind of money as well, and most of us are vulnerable to those kinds of issues since we drive, pay taxes, and have bodies that break down.

The bump in prosperity the United States experienced in the middle of the twentieth century got people out of the habit of behaving in the kinds of pragmatic, cooperative, and self-denying ways that our ancestors had to live in order to survive, as well. And, unlike previous generations, the Boomers haven’t saved much and are looking winter straight in the face at this point. It’s coming.

Gabler, however, seems to have managed to either purchase or achieve most of his life goals. As a writer, he works a job of his choice in a financially unpredictable field, getting paid sporadically rather than steadily. He lived in New York City, a very expensive part of the country. His wife quit her job and stayed home with their two daughters when they were younger. They purchased a house in the Hamptons before they sold off their co-op apartment in NYC. They sent their daughters to private school and then chose to use savings and an inheritance to send them to Stanford, Harvard Medical School, Emory, and the University of Texas. (The UT degree was a master’s in social work, so the ROI on that investment will be calculated in negative numbers.) They also paid for one daughter’s wedding.

Essentially Gabler had caviar taste on a tuna budget. He wanted certain things for himself and his family - a career as a writer/professor, posh schools, owning property in a high status zip code - and he got them. He mentions them all in this article so that we know that, while he doesn’t have any money, he is still not among the great unwashed and uneducated. He chose to invest in the finer things because he has taste and refinement. This money wasn’t blown on a drug habit, cruises to the Bahamas, or an unhealthy obsession with cars.

The problem is, he still couldn’t afford these things and have a retirement that’s something other than a lead slug. And it’s retirement time.

Historically, Americans didn’t make these types of choices because they didn’t have the option. Easy credit wasn’t available, so people could spend only until they ran out of money. As a result they didn’t get all new carpeting in their condo. Instead they made their own rag rugs and called it good enough. People didn’t have designer weddings. They got married by a minister in the living room of their parents’ home, and they sat down to a homemade dinner afterward. My great-grandmother insisted that all of her children go to college because it was the only way she could see them not following in her own path of subsistence farming/seasonal work in the pickle factory. All of them did a year at County Normal and then went off to work. It was an entry level option into a better paid field instead of status signalling to everyone she knew how smart they - and, by extension, she - were.

It’s okay to be proud of the intelligence and accomplishments of your kids. It’s fine to invest your money in them. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to live in a safe area with good schools or to work a job that’s better suited for your temperament than sales, accounting, or customer service. The problem is, you can’t make those decisions when you don’t have the money to pay for them and then lump yourself in with Americans who sell their plasma to pay bills because they can’t find any work that pays over $12 an hour. There are quite a lot of those people living in America today, and they don’t feel solidarity with guys who send their daughter to Harvard Med.

Neither do I.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Piece of Advice #108: Be prepared

In general, my philosophy is "Have less stuff."  But for the stuff I do have, I try to buy quality, hold onto it, and take good care of it. 

Actually, I'm not really a very good minimalist.  I've spent the last decade or so stocking up on old lady detritus picked up dirt cheap at rummage and garage sales.  Sometimes I think if I died and they held an estate sale, people would wonder how old I was?  75.  80?

Except the decor's not right. 

I have a sewing machine and a fabric stash I got mostly second hand.  I've got all kinds of canning equipment.  I have flannel sheets and enamel pails, old guy tools, jars of herbs, and a set of World Book Encyclopedias from 1954.  I have wooden train tracks and camping equipment and garden tools and walls and walls of books.  Children's books, history books, books about politics and geography, economics and science.  I've got books on raising rabbits and books on herbal remedies, I've got books in Russian, dictionaries in 7 different languages and a small collection of old hymnals.  No, I'm really not the poster child for minimalism. 

But in my defense, I got nearly all of this stuff second hand, most of it is sturdy and exceedingly practical and has been used (by me, even), and I've carefully organized it so that it's at hand when I need it.  If my son needs a costume for school, I can make it.  If he grows out of his size 10 pants, I've got the next four sizes in boxes, by size, for him to look through.  If my kitchen faucet develops a pinhole leak that, hypothetically say, sprays you in the face when you turn the water on, I've got a reasonably comprehensive set of tools, or, failing that, a decent selection of duct tape.  My pantry's stocked and my freezer's full.
A long time ago, I read about The Pantry Principle in Amy Daczyczyn's The Tightwad Gazette.  She talked about it in reference to cooking.  She said that she never cooked by recipes, in the sense that she had to assemble all ingredients in order to cook a meal from a magazine page.  Instead, she stocked her pantry over time so that she always had the basics and cook a decent meal from them, making substitutions if necessary.  Like Amy, I don't cook from recipes.  I take a trip down to the freezer in the morning and pull out a roast (or some brats, or a whitefish fillet) and while I'm down there I look to see if I've got any frozen green beans left or if the potatoes in the pantry look like they might need to be eaten sooner rather than later.  Later, when I'm making mashed potatoes, I'll think about what's in my herb garden that could be used and I'll grab a handful of parsley or dill and throw it in there.  I'll buy butter, olive oil, or honey in bulk and mentally keep track of how much is left.  I am continually in the process of stocking up.  And I never run out.  I mean, really, almost never.  Before a storm I don't have to go to the store because I know there's plenty of toilet paper and batteries and blankets and water in the house already.  My challenge is using up the stuff I have, turning the pantry over so nothing goes past date or completely stale.  Not that you can't use stale.  There are a hundred good uses for stale, if you can think out of the box.

I've extended The Pantry Principle to most everything, and it does save time, money, and peace of mind.  About the only thing I can't do this with is our cars, except for adding oil and antifreeze - I just don't know enough about auto repair.  So when my car leaks coolant like it is right now, I'm at the mechanic's mercy, more or less, because I'm not good with cars and I haven't stocked up.  I keep thinking I should do something about that.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Piece of Advice #63: Don't trade something for nothing

The comments on Jaclyn Friedman's "My Sluthood, Myself" are quite revealing.  It's hard to know how representative the audience at Feministe is of women in general - obviously it is an echo chamber, but how commodious is that chamber?   Numerous indicators reveal that women have more sexual experience and more sexual partners than women did twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years ago.  The "slut" label seems to have some built-in elasticity to it.  But how many women are journeying down that path?  I really don't know.

In any case, one of the comments made an impression:
AMAZING writing. I really appreciate having stumbled upon this, as it has really made me wonder about my own life – I am 22 and have been in a serious relationship for two years. He’s amazing, and I think he might be “the One”, but he is the only man I have ever slept with. This bothers me because I am quite confident that if we were to ever break up, I would undoubtedly embrace “sluthood” – and I really feel like I may be missing out on something that is important for defining who I am. I discovered who I am sexually through my relationship with him. But I love him to bits so this is just something I will need to wonder about for the rest of my life? *Sigh* if only I had slutted it up earlier.  
I find this so sad.

Dear Ahria: There are innumerable women who would love to find "the One," just one [1] man who is amazing and build a life with him.  That you've done so at 22 means you are ahead of the curve.  Be grateful.  Be happy.  Treat him right, make a commitment, raise some kids.  Do not spend even one minute regretting the fact that you were never an unpaid prostitute or that you didn't spend your young womanhood under sweating strangers who care nothing for you.  The fact that you've thought about this, that you've gone so far as to put this desire into words and post it on a public forum tells me that you are tempted.  But do not - do NOT - toss away respect and love for cheap - or, rather, very expensive - sex.  Sex does not define you.  You define you.  Your good choices will make that definition worth reading.

Recently there have been several books published highlighting the effects of women who made the choice you are thinking about making.  These are cautionary tales.  They do not have happy endings.  You have something great; don't get greedy now.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Piece of Advice #5: Don't volunteer for single motherhood

Throughout history there have always been single mothers - widows, jilted wives, women who were raped and conceived, women who got pregnant and had no options or couldn't bear to be separated from their children so they braved social ostracism.  My grandmother was a single mother for most of her children's childhood - her husband was permanently disabled and in care for years.

This was never an ideal situation.  Never.  But as long as these single mother-headed households remained a small minority of families and there were uncles, grandfathers, or other men available as role models, it was not a catastrophe for children.  It was just another bad circumstance to survive.  Poverty was likely, but criminality not so much.

Now of course women feel entitled to be mothers - at any time, under any circumstance.  This is sheer folly and hubris.  Fathers are not optional, they are necessary for all children.  Women who go the sperm bank route place their own needs and wants over those of their children - the #1 no-no for any mother.  Unwanted pregnancies are another story, but it isn't as if women do not have options these days - birth control, abortion, and adoption are advertised continuously, and all are readily available.  Yet single motherhood seems today to be almost the "brave" choice now, instead of a shortsighted and selfish one.

For women who are not swayed by moral arguments or who do not believe that men are necessary to properly and adequately bring up a child, here's one more thing to ponder: having a child severely handicaps your ability to make the best marriage you can with a guy who is at least middle class, emotionally and financially stable, and of good market value.  Very few guys want to raise children who are not theirs biologically, and your child is infinitely less safe with a man in the house who is biologically unrelated to them.  You want to work harder than you have to, struggle with money and living arrangements, age before your time, and experience significant emotional stress?  Have a baby on your own.  If you'd rather start your life on a simple, easier, less stressful track, don't have a baby if you are not married.

My advice for an unwanted pregnancy - consider adoption.  Your child will very likely thank you someday for making a more stable choice for his future and for sparing his life so he might live it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Piece of Advice #2: If you're going to prostitute yourself, at least charge

There are reasons that prostitutes have historically charged for their services.  Prostitutes:

  • are in physical danger due to their extreme proximity to men they don't know
  • risk acquiring a sexually transmitted disease
  • risk pregnancy
  • have low value on the marriage market because men are not attracted to women who have had sex with many men.  This means they are more vulnerable in terms of their financial security in the long run.
Ultimately, I would advise women not to have sex outside of marriage so as to maintain their value among men they may seek to marry.  However, if you are the type of woman who wants or needs to have casual sex, prostitution seems like a more practical outlet because you earn money in addition to having sex, money that may help to moderate the above complications.  Additionally, business transactions require more direct communication about services to be rendered.  This means less confusion between men and women about the sex they are having, and no one need feel used afterward except the one who did a job and was paid for it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Piece of Advice #1: Stay married.

If you are married, first of all congratulate yourself.  You have managed to accomplish something many women of our generation and future generations have not and will not: persuading a man you are valuable enough for him to take himself off the sexual market and render himself vulnerable to a legal/economic system that favors women.

Now that you've congratulated yourself, don't screw it up.  Don't get complacent.  Don't get bored and have an affair.  Don't take him for granted.  And for God's sake, don't leave him and screw him over financially in family court.  Think long term.  Divorce is expensive, but separate lifestyles are financially ruinous.  Your children need a father (who doesn't hate their mother) living in their house parenting them, and you will not be happier divorced.  If you think Prince Charming is waiting on his white horse right around the corner to swoop you up in his arms and take you to the palace, think again.  Odds are, ten years ago you were better marriage material: younger, thinner, hotter, less desperate, and less bitter.  If Prince Charming wasn't making a bid then, why would he now?  Divorced you will be lonely, poorer, and harried taking care of your children on your own.  Your vacations and holidays will be exponentially more complicated since your ex-husband and in-laws will still want to see your children.  People get married because it is the least expensive, least complicated way to raise happy, healthy, successful children.

If he is not beating you or your children, sleeping with an army of skanks-on-the-side, or spending himself into an abyss of debt and taking you along, don't get divorced.  Trust me: happiness is cyclical, poverty lingers, and your kids have a better chance of staying out of jail or trouble if their father is present in their lives.  Isn't that worth staying for?