The use of money

I just finished the first editing of my journal for 2003. The text came to 151 pages and the editing to thirty hours. I used to do three or more editings per journal year, but I can no longer endure so much work for so little benefit. I will go over 2003 once more, and call it good.

I have also been, at Peggy’s request, totaling our assets. She didn’t say why she wanted this done, but it seemed like a good idea. If I wasn’t agreeably surprised by the amount, I wasn’t disagreeably surprised either. After all, I have earned no appreciable income for three decades; Peggy only works 28 hours a week; our investment savvy is mediocre; and we haven’t received any large inheritances.

We have probably benefited as much from what we haven’t spent as from what we have saved. We drive a thirteen-year-old van that we bought used; we have never paid interest on a credit card; and our discretionary spending is modest. Peggy spends a good bit on her buttons, but we have come to peace with this by me putting an equal amount into my savings. She also eats out three times a month, but rarely spends more than $12.

Yet, we have never denied ourselves anything that we really wanted, and we buy quality merchandise. Sacred Heart supplies Peggy’s work clothes, and our closets are stocked with jeans and t-shirts that we bought on clearance. Our few dressy items came from Goodwill, and our most expensive clothes are the ones we wear in the woods.

We live in a modest—but attractive and well-maintained—house, but only paid labor costs on the furnace, fireplace insert, and windows; the rest of the work being done by me—and sometimes us.

The dogs run-up several hundred dollars a year in food and vet bills, but they also save us money by making it impossible for us to fly places together (we won’t leave them, and we don’t trust the airlines to transport them).
Medical care is another significant expense. I seem to need outpatient surgery for one thing or another every three years or so, and Peggy gets allergy shots.

We never travel far in our van, and we camp for free. We don’t even drive around town unless we really need to. Instead, I bike; Peggy walks; and we combine errands when we do use the van.

Peggy flies to Mississippi once a year, but stays with family, and travels on a free ticket that we get by charging almost everything to an airlines credit card. I do most of our shopping at discount stores and on the Internet, and micromanage every penny. I am an inveterate comparison shopper, and have never been one to say that something only costs five dollars.

If Peggy and I were very different in our financial philosophies, our marriage would probably have foundered (the importance of sexual compatibility being miniscule compared to financial compatibility). She does not squeeze a penny quite so tightly, or wail so loudly when it is gone; but she is loathe to owe money, and, aside from her buttons and allergy shots, has no significant personal expenditures.

Unless the item purchased is a no-brainer like a refrigerator or a hot water heater, we seldom buy any new electrical device without thinking long and hard about it. For example, I have been wanting a DVD recorder, but am debating whether to buy one now, or to wait until they come down in price. If I were to mention my desire to Peggy, she would encourage me to buy it now by saying the one thing that drives me damn near crazy: “It won’t break us. We have ____ dollars in the bank.” I can but respond, “We didn’t get ____ dollars in the bank by spending money like there was no tomorrow.”

It is a tiresome skit that has been performed more than CATS. Peggy feels badly that I don’t treat myself more, although I don’t see treating myself as the issue, but rather how to treat myself prudently. Otherwise, I feel weak, impulsive, and stupid. Spending money frivolously is so at odds with my value system that I wouldn’t do it if I were a billionaire. I would give the money to charity first, although x-rays have shown an absence of philanthropic bones.

I don’t hold my friends to my standards, although I have often been surprised to observe that the ones with the least money typically spend more on luxuries than I feel that I can afford. I silently wonder if they contemplate how many hours of their life they are exchanging for things that surely don’t bring great or lasting pleasure. Perhaps, it is not the item itself that is the motivating factor, but the feeling of deprivation they would experience if they did not buy it. As Peggy sometimes says when she is tempted: “I am worth it.”

This is not a sentiment that I relate to, because I see every purchase as a case of either/or. Either I spend money on _____, or I put it in the bank, or I spend it on _____. The decision has nothing to do with self-worth, but with the allocation of resources. I am also very aware of the cumulative effect of small expenditures. Three dollars spent on coffee each workday comes to $15 a week or $750 a year (allowing for a two week vacation). Such small but frequent purchases can add years to one’s work life. Likewise, small but frequent investments can add years to one’s retirement.

I do sometimes buy gifts for Peggy. Just today, I spent $26 for a set of eight ski movies. Such durable item purchases come as no great surprise to her, but if I were to suggest that we go on a luxury cruise, she would think I was having a breakdown.

Despite my frugality, I have never set a budget, recorded our expenditures, or tallied our assets. I couldn’t even offer a reasonable guess about how much we spend on groceries, electricity, or anything else. I consider budgets as only important to people who are hard-pressed or else trying to bring their spending under control.

Beyond the necessities and a few well-chosen luxuries, the greatest importance of money to me is that it affords a certain amount of freedom and security. There are millions of people in this country who can’t see their way to ever retire; people who lose teeth because they can’t afford crowns; people who have to work hard and long, not to get ahead, but to break even. If I were them, I would feel caged, and would take desperate measures.

The average American owes ten thousand dollars in credit card debt and is three paychecks away from being homeless. Yet, rare is the person in America who does not own luxuries that only the wealthiest possess in most countries. Everyday, we are hit with hundreds of enticements to spend money, but never a one to save it.