Saturday, April 3, 2010

My money and my life

This week in my "simplicity and anti-consumption" class, we are going to focus on efforts that attempt to address personal economics and what the Nearings called "bread work" -- earning a living. Many of these stories overlap with other dimensions of the simple life and anti-consumption, but the main theme is the management of time and energy. I have posted a few resources on the course's companion site, Thoreau's America. These are my own musings on personal economics and simplicity.

From the time I left for college until I finished graduate school at 31, I lived a frugal life by necessity. As a scholarship student who worked part-time and summers to pay for room, board and books, the wife of a graduate student and then a graduate student myself, my skills in making do were finely honed. Spring break trips as an undergraduate? Unheard of. Joining a sorority? Not in the cards. We drove cheap cars we serviced ourselves, and vacations were spent either visiting family and friends, or camping.

When I finished my PhD in 1980, suddenly we had two full adult incomes for the first time in our 10-year marriage. It was a considerable shock; we literally had no idea how to spend the additional money. We booked a weekend at a B&B for our anniversary, subscribed to a few more magazines and went to more concerts. The next thirty years brought a daughter, a house and then a son -- and everything that comes with kids and home-ownership in middle-class America. It also brought recessions, job loss and financial insecurity, despite my steady income as a tenured professor. We've tried to spend wisely and save for college, retirement and emergencies, and for the most part have kept our debt under control. I believe that it is impossible to discuss "the simple life" in America today without including the role of consumer debt.

To live simply in America today means to balance work and leisure, consumption and production, income and expenditure (and debt) in a complex, dynamic society. The act of "balancing" is not the same as being motionless. Try standing on one foot and you can feel the muscles in your body make tiny, continuous adjustments to help you maintain that position. My life is like that: I monitor accounts, plan my time and reflect on my current state of mind and body in order to stay in balance, to the best of my ability.

To be honest, I am never completely in balance, but always having to correct and compensate for the imbalances in my life. Financially, that means making sure I pay my savings account first, to make sure I have funds for inevitable emergencies. I plan my work, to the extent I can, to leave time every day for pause and evaluation. My weekly schedule often includes a "walkabout", an unplanned day when I ride public transportation, visit a park or read at the local library. I am especially cautious about trading time and energy for money (agreeing to a paid speaking engagement or extra teaching) or trading money (which represents my time and energy) for very expensive things. No handbag is worth a week of my hard work, but I willingly exchange the same amount for a vacation with my family.

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