In the midst of love and laughter, you still gotta pay the bills. Yuck.

This post will make some of you angry at me.  I can live with that (have I mentioned before that it’s my blog? 🙂 )
People flatter me that I am “smart” sometimes.  You know, it’s not so much that I’m smart as that I’m the last person standing in any argument.  I wear people into submission, therefore I am right.  It’s not that I’m *not* smart: I know I’m a smart-alec, smart-ass, smarty-pants, and that I can say things that sound really smart.
Nothing makes me feel less smart than trying to understand what has happened to our U.S. (mostly) and global financial markets.  Especially in light of my upbringing.
My parents raised me conservatively, most notably with regard to fiscal matters.  My father is so tight that my brother Bruce says you can’t retrieve a penny clinched in his…fist (actually, he says “cheeks,” and not the ones on your face).  Growing up, Mom made Bruce and I promise not to ever tell our father how much blue jeans really cost.  My Uncle Jack wrote Dad a thank you note after my (first) wedding, stressing just how many premium liquor drinks he had ordered from the bar and mentioning the total price tag a time or three for good measure.  Dad is not just tight; Dad is tight, opinionated, and has a will of iron.  It’s a lethal combination.
So, growing up, I learned to save money.  Even more, I learned not to spend it in the first place.  I learned the difference between “want” and “need.”  I learned that I was expected to hold a job.  I had to lie about my age when I was 15 to get a job at McDonald’s, at my parents’ insistence.  They explained that it was a stupid law and kids my age should be working any time they could.  (I wore a hair net.  I’m still scarred.)
At Texas A&M, I drove my roommate Jenny crazy by refusing to run my car air conditioner in the humidity and heat of a College Station, Texas summer.  I waited tables at a nice Italian restaurant, and the owner allowed us to eat all the salad and bread we wanted.  And, people, I am here to tell you, I gorged on the free food.  If I stuffed myself at the beginning and end of each shift; that eliminated two meals I would have otherwise had to pay for.  As for the money I made, my family allowed me to keep some of it to spend on myself, but I contributed the lion’s share to defer the cost of my schooling above my scholarships.  I had friends living on student loans plus their meager earnings, so I counted myself very lucky to have parents who were willing and able to cover the bulk of my expenses, in undergraduate and law school.
I don’t mean to say I didn’t live (and still live) a privileged life.  I did.  I do.  I am so thankful.  But I can do more with one dollar than most people can do with $100.  My husband Eric long since begged out of my financial disciplines; he will follow my detailed budget and listen to me explain the monthly cash flow, positive and negative deltas, and discovered opportunities for spending reductions, but he doesn’t want to be part of the data analysis.  He swears I wait for PMS-time each month to update my spreadsheets.  And he’s right — the exercise feels about like my notoriously horrible PMS, so why not combine the two?
I buy generic.  I use coupons.  I wait for sales. I work — hard.  I work very, very, very hard.  As hard as I used to play!  And almost as hard as my husband.  When one of our kids needs something (not wants — NEEDS), Eric and I will make it happen.
It’s not that difficult.  It just requires willpower and deferring or eliminating self-gratification.  {There may be a reason some of my friends call me “the General.”}
But it’s NOT * THAT * DIFFICULT.  Decide what you have available to spend, prioritize your needs, and spend only what you have.  Maybe your house will have to be smaller than you want, or you will live in an apartment, or a trailer.  It may not be what you dreamed of, but no one guaranteed us a birth right to our every desire.  In fact, as my warm, soft, and fuzzy padre often told me, “no one said life would be easy or even fun.”  No one promised you a fairy tale ending.  {Damn!}
So we all face some tough stuff.  For some of us it is medical, for others, like me, it’s struggles with mood, alcohol and a failed first marriage.  And some, like my husband, have battled financial woes and bankruptcy.
Ultra-fiscally responsible Pamela married the man of her dreams and knowingly stepped into his impending bankruptcy for a failed business.  I worked incredible hours so we could make household ends meet and keep his daughter in college while he used nearly his entire salary to pay his married, nonworking ex-wife alimony and repay personal loans from his parents he wished he would have never taken in the first place (to prop up the failing business, mostly).  And I wouldn’t have had it any other way, because we are partners and this is love.  But some people close to me questioned my sanity.  😉
I learned how it felt to walk on the other side of the line.  To live in a household where we had no prayer of earning enough, even at the high wage levels each of us had, of breaking even any month.    And slowly we worked more hours, eliminated more expenses and dug our way out of the incredible hole I had jumped into with him.  This financial part of our relationship has not been fun.  Truth: There are days I resent the living hell out of giving away everything I work to earn to pay for the sins of a past life I didn’t live.  *Sigh, deep breath *
Most days, though, I just feel blessed to be with the love of my life.  And grateful that he eagerly confessed to and left behind the spending habits of his past life and joined with me to get our house in order.  He expresses his gratitude and never shows any frustration when he hears the sermonette in this post, over and over.
So this is where I get confused about what the hell is going on with our economy.  Because it’s not that difficult for the vast, vast majority of us; if you fall into the minority, I exclude you from this statement, obviously.  The concept:  You work hard.  You buy only what you need, and only within your means.  Whether you are a citizen or a country, you follow this simple rule.  This entitlement mentality, this “gotta have more than my neighbor” syndrome, this GREED extending from the highest echelons of our society down to the poorest — this, it seems to me, is what has fargled us all up.  I’m not excluding myself from this condemnation.  I long for more.  I covet my neighbor’s possessions.  I want to say yes to my kids.  I have spent far more than I should on things we don’t need.  I cringe remembering some of my own flamboyant excesses.
My step-son lent us “The Big Short”, an excellent book by Michael Lewis that describes his view of the cause of the collapse of our financial markets.  I could follow it, mostly.  I understood it, kinda.  Derivative this and credit swap that, holy crap, all it amounted to were people wanting more than they could afford, or to get something for nothing.
Maybe my father needs to teach the financial experts a class on basic economics.
Work hard.  Manage your expectations.  Live within your means.
“But, Pamela, you don’t understand, it’s so expensive, we have health issues (or this or that or the other thing).”
I do understand.  We’ve gotten ourselves into quite a pickle, haven’t we?  So, how did our great-great-grandparents manage?  They lived in houses the size of many of our garages.  They didn’t spend thousands of dollars a year on electronic (disposable) gadgets.  They didn’t have a budget for Netflix and Blockbuster.  They didn’t have gym memberships and pay $150 a pop to enter triathlons.  They didn’t have closets full of clothes they rarely wore.  They didn’t eat at restaurants all the time.  They didn’t file lawsuits over every imaginable slight or perceived injury, driving up the costs of insurance…and health care.  I daresay they were no less happy than us, maybe more happy.  Happiness is not a factor of means.  Eric travels to some of the poorest regions of the world, and he speaks of the joy he sees in the most dire conditions, like the mother washing her baby in dirty water in India, both of them laughing and splashing.
I get it.  I really do.  The question is, how much are you (or I) willing to sacrifice, how much luxury (and don’t kid yourself, you may buy it at Wal-Mart, but you live in luxury compared to most of the world, if you have the time and means to read this post) and comfort will we concede to achieve balance and responsibility?  And if the answer is “not very much,” I get that, too.  I do.
Our economy seems to be “recovering” a bit, at the time I write this.  I think that’s great.  I have a lot of property I’d like to sell, and it won’t unless our country regains its financial health (and it is all about me!).  But I don’t believe we are achieving a long term solution.  I am convinced we will cycle down again, maybe harder.  Because we haven’t solved the foundational issue.
Maybe we’re all just a little too comfortable to really fix what’s fargled up.  Me included.
So those are my thoughts; that’s the path we’ve trod.  I know some of my readers have one or more person in their household who is out of work.  How are you making ends meet during such a difficult personal time?  What have you had to give up that you don’t miss?  What have you discovered about yourself along the way?

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