The Bohemian Survival Guide
Whatever your financial situation, I recommend that you cough up even a little money each week and put it away, then hunker down for the long term.
Here I was, taking stock of my monetary worth and thinking that I didn't have much to show for myself at age 42, only to feel the chill up my spine when I added up the figures and realized how much better off I am than what I've been reading about the "average American." (I always put that in quotes because I don't believe it exists, any more than the "mainstream" exists, but don't get me started on that.)
Here I am, clothes on my back from thrift stores and gifts, no furniture except a couple of old pieces from my family, a few momentos, books galore (the only thing I really enjoy buying, aside from notebooks and writing utensils), some tapes, CDs, and DVDs, and accumulating student loans - and liquidity from a $38,000 duplex I bought in the 1990s. Not much, but jumpin' jimminy, I didn't realize how much money I had invested over the years. You know what financial advisors say about, "Don't buy a latte every day, invest that money instead - invest even $3 a day, you'll be better off." You know what? Do it. They're not kidding.
In the 1990s I was making $5 - $6 an hour - and I still socked $35 a week away for my 401K. My financial advisor adored that. The balance blew up with the dot-com bubble and burst. I kicked myself for not playing the market when I knew that was going to happen, but I grit my teeth and rolled it into another account, forgot about it, got my first well paying job, and continued to make contributions to other accounts as I changed employers several times. Now that I've added it all together, I've realized that all those stories about little old ladies who never made that much yet saved a million dollars aren't so far-fetched after all. I haven't saved a million, but I don't see why I can't - and I don't see why anybody else can't, either.
Invest your money. I don't know how to say this strongly enough. Here I was, trying so hard not to succumb to the messages from the media to have nice things, to buy nice furniture, expensive clothes, etc., as if those things were some sort of investment. I know better and yet those messages were working on me, making me feel bad for having second-hand furniture that became threadbare and misshapen, for not living up to the standard of friends and co-workers, for having a messy, cramped house strewn with books and papers, for picking up pennies on the street and keeping them in a jar (people literally toss pennies out of their pockets!), for scanning the newspaper for something cheap or free to do over the weekend, for working in the liberal arts where the pay is low.
Now I realize what I was not spending my money on - and that those things are not really worth having. What was worth having? Free things - like trips to the museum, the Sinfonia, discounted tickets to plays (because I work in the liberal arts), bike rides, libraries, watching "Mystery" on PBS, going to the beach, UTorrent movies, neighborhood Spanish lessons, dinner parties, good books, and participating in an archaeological dig. These were worth doing. In fact, these have been invaluable experiences, nothing that money could buy.
I'm still in debt - one of my goals is to completely become completely debt-free. However, going into debt for higher education, a new laptop (I made my old one last twelve years), and a few life-changing trips abroad were decisions that I don't regret making, because they opened up opportunities for me. I've been living like a beatnik but saving like a miser and even when I wasn't going to school I was studying a foreign language (French, Arabic, and Spanish) and reading about science - and now I see the benefits from this.
So here's how I did it:
-Again, invest your money. Sock away something, it doesn't matter how much - but as much as you can. Make coffee in the morning, and bring your lunch to work. If your employer offers you matching funds, take it!
-Cook from scratch as much as possible. You save more money, eat healthier, and get more exercise (cooking is work) this way. I usually cook in bulk during the weekend, and have leftovers during the week.
-Turn off the television. TV only makes you feel bad about yourself - and paranoid about "crime." It only exists to make you want to buy things to lessen your fear/shame/guilt. If you do watch television, select your programs carefully, and mute all of the commercials.
-Spend as cheaply on furniture as possible. I got my stuff from the flipping alley - there was nothing wrong with it. I can't believe what people throw away. When it rips or the cat scratches it, throw a nice sheet or blanket over it. When it breaks, repair it or throw it out and find another cheap piece. It's just furniture.
-Have a public area and a private area in your home - don't let visitors pressure you into giving them the "house tour." What your bedroom looks like is none of their business. This is a new phenomenon and frankly, it disgusts me. (There was no way I would have given the "house tour" to anyone when we were sleeping on a futon on the floor next to the Franklin stove during the winter.)
-Invest in your continuing education. Not only for the "piece of paper," but for the contacts you make and the new situations in which you will find yourself. The higher your educational level, the more you will venture out of the classroom (and away from these infernal evo-creo "debates") and into open-ended situations in which you'll encounter the unknown. You very quickly find out what works and what does not, what is true and what is not, who is worth listening to and who is not, when you need to learn and do research on your feet.
-Turn down the temperature and wear layers during the winter. I used to close up all but the front room in the upstairs of my old house. If I was cold I would go to the library or a coffee shop to enjoy the rare latte I wasn't having every morning anymore.
-Not everyone can live without a car, but everyone can go on a car diet. If you look at driving a car as somewhat like eating, and ask yourself if you need to put on the calories from driving that you could have burned while walking, it's not such a foreign idea.
-Give to charities that you believe in. That old saw about “what goes around comes around” is true, too. And write your legislators to fund the programs that we need in this country, before the robber barons take over completely. Neutral, universally good organizations like the Boys and Girls Club didn’t receive their funding in recent years because it’s all going to “faith-based initiatives” who are mismanaging the largess they’ve suddenly received, because they don't know any better.
-And since you're reading this, it should go without saying that you never, never, never give a red cent to "prosperity preachers." Sure path to failure, folks. If there is any “Darwinian conspiracy” it’s those prosperity gospel hucksters, and they know it.
(Shimmies to Dispatches from the Culture Wars)