Friday, November 13, 2009

Living at the poorhouse

posted Thu, 02 Dec 2004

My biggest fear is being poor – that I will lose my job and not be able to find another one and I will die in poverty, not even able to afford Alpo. My fears are not totally irrational and unfounded: it took me a year and a half to find a job when I finished Peace Corps.

During that time, I did temp work to pay for my health insurance, car insurance, and other expenses. Five dollars an hour doesn’t go very far. I was very fortunate that for much of that time, wonderfully gracious, generous friends and family let me live with them and would not hear of taking rent.

I am convinced I will be reduced to asking strangers to buy matches from me.

Still, it was an awful time in my life – I had no savings, having spent them on grad school, and it didn’t look like I would have a decent income any time soon.

After putting myself through college, then going through grad school and the Peace Corps, and then with my post-Peace Corps underemployment, I developed a rather thrifty mindset. Not that I was ever extravagant – there was not extra money when I was a kid but no one on military bases has money, so we didn’t know life was different for anyone else.

My family didn’t have a TV, either, so we didn’t see rich people on TV. We thought we were normal. Normal people whose mom made all their clothes and who never went out to eat.

It was a shock to get to college and be around people who had money – serious money. Like their parents were paying for their college because they had the money to do so! And buying cars for them! And sending them allowances! It was a completely new world for me.

Anyhow. I had these thrifty habits that are so ingrained in me now that sometimes I worry that I am becoming miserly, which is a deadly sin in case you are not up to date. I try to keep a good balance between saving for the future, donating to charity, and then living, but sometimes my fear of abject poverty leads me to silly economies.

I have been employed post-Peace Corps for seven and a half years now. My only debt is my mortgage. I have a decent start on retirement savings. I thought I had overcome my penny-pinching ways with my vow to employ a cleaning lady, to buy new underwear twice a year (I throw the old underwear away!), and to keep fresh flowers in my house.

But then I noticed the other day that I was resisting buying the conditioner I really like because it costs maybe $2 more than the other stuff. For years, I have known that I like Neutrogena conditioner. I’ve used it a few times at hotels – nice hotels on business trips. But would I buy it myself? No! I can’t spend that much money! I can’t waste that kind of money!

Then yesterday I did the math. A bottle of conditioner lasts at least three weeks. The Neutrogena costs $2 more than the cheap stuff. So we are talking about a dime a day. Which is not as much as I spend on my daily diet Coke. (I take my own 12-pack to work rather than buy from the machine – I save a lot of money that way.)

For the past seven years, I have been denying myself a small luxury that would have made a significant difference in my life to save less than a dime a day.

That is really pathetic. Dante even put misers in their own circle of hell, although I think we misers create our own hell by denying ourselves those simple pleasures that would make life nicer.

I did buy the Neutrogena, by the way – two bottles. Tomorrow, I think I replace the seven-year-old athletic socks. Life is too long to be stingy.

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