Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Poverty and Abundence

One thing that is kind of hard to forget sometimes is that I'm poor as things go.  Apparently, according to a website I found, only about 12% of the married households in the United States make less than we do.  With Mom and Dad and two kids, money doesn't always seem to want to stretch as far as we want it to.  Ignoring tuition reimbursement at my work, I'll probably only make $27,500 or so this year.  While all our basic needs are met, we'd still like to be able to afford life insurance, disability insurance, a better apartment or maybe a house, a real piano for my wife, and new clothes.  While we've worked hard to build up our savings, if anything happened to either of us our hard earned savings would evaporate pretty quickly.  But, last we checked, life insurance would probably be another 50$ a month expense or more depending how the insurer rated our health.  Disability insurance is available through my work- but again that's more money down the drain.  Our apartment is nice enough, but L sleeps in the laundry/storage room.  It used to be the laundry/storage/office room, but that got too impractical and the office part got shoved into our bedroom.  We had to arrange the room just right so that if an earthquake knocked the cans of food off our storage shelves they wouldn't rain down on L inside his crib.  The temperature only stays reasonable through the apartment if the doors stay wide open, which means at night when we close the door to keep it quiet so L doesn't wake up, his room can get really cold really easily.  Our electronic piano is wonderful and a big step up from the old one we had, but its still not a real one and doesn't play quite like a real one.  As for clothes, a lot of mine have holes in them.  Every once in a while we make another trip to the thrift store or something to update my outfits with things that fit pretty close to right even if they are a little too big etc.  But when I'm looking for clothing without holes in my closet, I have to pay attention-just randomly picking out stuff would get clothes with holes a lot of the time.  My wife's body has had the common changes with pregnancy, birth, and nursing.  Unfortunately, money has been tight enough that its hard to keep buying new clothing each time something changes and there are some types of clothing that she doesn't even have any that fit properly, she just makes them fit anyways.  Even after a couple of raises at work, it still feels like there just is never enough to make everything fall into place the way we'd like to.

At the same time, I sometimes just get possessed with an awareness of how much we have and how lucky we are.  We've worked hard to save money for emergencies and long term expenses.  And as a result we have about $18,000 in normal bank accounts.  We don't live paycheck to paycheck.  Our retirement accounts are worth about $29,500- nothing to brag about in the long run but the point is I'm still fairly young and that money is growing.  Both our kids have 529 education trust funds set up for them.  Granted there isn't much in either of those trust funds, but each kid gets $5 a month added to them and when times are better for us we'll start adding more.  At the moment I do have a considerable amount of student debt, but there's actually less student debt than I have money in the bank and we have no other forms of debt.  So our retirement savings is close to our actual net worth.  That means that we're in the 76% percentile for net worth of people aged 29-30, according to  We've worked extremely hard to be able to build up our savings and I tend to be really proud of what we've accomplished on paper.

But there are every day reminders of this sense of affluence as well.  If something goes on sale at the grocery store, we don't have to sit around wishing we had money to take advantage of the lower price.  We have spare money to buy in bulk when sales come around.  If the item in question is perishable, we can still save money on it because we have a chest freezer that we were able to purchase with our savings.  When the option to use cloth diapers came around to save money we didn't hesitate because the initial purchase of modern cloth diapers can be over a hundred dollars in just set up costs.  We had the money to do it without really hesitating.  When WIC doesn't give us enough bread to eat we don't buy it, we make it from scratch with a host of kitchen gadgets at our disposal including a kitchen aid, a wheat grinder, and bread maker.  Recently we've been struggling to make our food budget work.  One area in which we spend a lot of money seems to always be our pasta, which we eat pretty much every day.  We decided we'd see if we could make our own pasta, and had the money to shell out $60 using Christmas money on a nice pasta machine.  Though we haven't run the numbers yet, I expect that making our own pasta will probably be cheaper than buying it at the store.  Regardless, the home made pasta we've tried so far has been superb tasting.  When we make bread or pasta, I feel like some how I am changing from a position of poverty eating cheap pasta and bread from the store to a position of privilege- eating excellent quality home made foods that are cheaper than anything I could buy and often better quality than anything I'd care to afford.  Granted, we do these things because the money is tight, but I don't feel impoverished by my cooking experiments.  I feel enriched.

When my wife and I were first married and we started developing our own family cooking traditions, I remember being in awe of the number of pasta's we had in the cupboard.  There was the elbow macaroni, lasagna noodles, large and small shells, angel hair, spaghetti, rotini, and acini de pepi.  I didn't grow up eating a large number of different types of pasta or even really much pasta in general.  I hadn't even know most of these types existed.  So when I looked in that cupboard I felt like I was crazy wealthy.  I couldn't believe how blessed I seemed to be staring at a cupboard full of pasta that promised so many different flavors in their different recipes.

Depending on if you focus on my income (12% percentile of married couples) or my net worth compared to my age (76% percentile), you could argue am I either  wealthy or poor.  On the one hand, very few make so little money as I do.  On the other hand, not as many people have as many cash resources as I do and their net worth can be close to nothing.  In the end I'm both affluent and very poor.  If we spent money as if we were affluent we'd have none left over and the savings would promptly disappear.  As we spend money as if we didn't have cash to spare and can only afford to occasionally invest in some cost savings measure or other, then the savings continue to pile up.  I'm really both poor and affluent at the same time.  It's just one of life's little paradoxes.

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