Friday, July 22, 2011

Austerity: Buying back your time

I've been fortunate to make a decent living doing what I love. I've always enjoyed work, whether it was my years as a bass player/dishwasher, a construction worker/poet, or a journalist/novelist. I've dug ditches in the pouring rain while wading in raw sewer. I know what work is.

And I have a keen sense of worth and value, linked to the value of time. To me, money is literally time (I've written a short-story cycle using this concept). If you work for X amount, then you have bought yourself X amount of free time, or freedom to do what you want. Most of my practical life decisions are based on this idea.

That house? Sure, I have a 30-year mortgage, but I can pay it off it in twelve (it will actually turn out to be fewer than eight). And my quality of life didn't suffer at all. I have never deprived myself of anything I've needed, though God knows I could stand to have skipped a few meals. I drive rusty used cars and use them until they fall apart, taking enough care of them to fulfill their natural lifespans but adding no adornments like studly hubcaps or headers or Thrush mufflers. I just don't care. Gasoline muscle won't make me a man.

Clothes? When I went back to get my degree in 1994, when I was working as a carpenter and maintenance man building student apartments, I found a box of fresh, clean clothes in a dumpster, tossed by some vacating student. I still have many of those clothes. I doubt if I've spent more than $100 total on new clothes in my life (yeah, and I know it shows, but measure how much I care...yes, one year, the time of my life I have earned back by not spending $25,000 on clothes).

When I went to refinance my house a couple of years ago, my credit score was through the roof. The only flaw was I didn't owe enough! Something had to be wrong with me! But I drove in with a ratty car and a lower-middle-class income (you're not all that far above the poverty level if you're a newspaper reporter) and I walked out saving thousands of dollars over the life of the loan. And I did it not just to buy myself more time, but to keep from giving more of my time to the bank over the long haul.

I try to share my views with my family, but it's hard not to come across as a stinky old meanie who won't let anyone have any fun, because all the words for "thrifty" seem kind of small, mean, and petty--miser, frugal, austere, pinchpenny, cheapskate--and imply selfishness, when in most cases, the opposite is true. I am lucky to live in a rural community where we value self-reliance and nobody's trying to outflash the neighbors with the newest tech toy or biggest SUV. In fact, we think people who race to the top of their credit card limits are idiots.

And yet our entire nation is doing it, like we collectively drunk some Kool-Ade in the 1980s and then passed it on to our children. I know people who are about to lose their homes yet have children with $100 a month cell plans. And I am sad to see people lose jobs, but rarely do I see people adjust their standard of living until they are forced to do so. People whose jobs are at risk don't start cutting expenses immediately--they wait and then hope to coast on unemployment checks. It's taken me about three years to (gently, I hope) display to my wife that as long as you have debt, you have no true financial security.

Of course, security is an illusion anyway. I aim for paying off the house, figuring that will be a huge monthly burden removed. But security only comes from faith. So I slip on the rubber boots I used to wear while wading in sewer and walk down to the garden, where God and nature have consistently kept their end of the bargain and always given more than I take. I hope to give back a little of the time I have earned, because I feel like I owe a whole lot. It's just not money I happen to owe.


Alan Ryker said...

I'm with you on this.

There are a number of words people rediscovering this old value use: simplicity, minimalist, so on. People have reclaimed the word "frugal." But I actually kind of like "cheapskate."

Neal Hock said...

Samantha and I are making a choice to be pinchpennies. A lot of the "stuff" we're told we need is exactly that: "stuff." Debt is the true ball and chain.


Nicholas La Salla said...

Beautiful post, Scott -- it's so true. My family and I live on next to nothing, and though we have our tough times, we're still able to make it and have a little fun here and there. We still go to see the movies we want to. We pick up the books we want to own.

Do we go nuts and buy enormous plasma TV's and the latest iPad and what not? No, we don't. But we have fun with what we have.

It's not so much about what you have, but what you do with what you have. When you can make what you have enough, you don't HAVE to go out and throw down big bucks on something that, chances are, you're going to be bored of in a week anyway and just take for granted.

That being said, we still have more debt than I would like. This life is an ongoing process though, a journey rather than a destination, and I'm eager to start whittling that down year by year, day by day, step by step.

Take care Scott and have a great weekend!



author Scott Nicholson said...

@alan I think "cheap" is a word to own!

@neal, chickens are a good starting point!

@nick imagination is still free--we grew up very poor so we had to construct our own play worlds--I guess I still do that!

Vicki said...

Only $100 on new clothes? Yikes! And here I thought I lived frugally. :o)

Another thought-provoking post, Scott. I really admire your down-to-earth attitude.