Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why Enough is enough, except when it's Not Enough

Lately I've been struggling with the idea of how much is Enough. I read this blog post on poverty, which led me to this blog post on what being poor really means, which led me to a tangle of complicated emotions. Frustration at how easy it is to fall into the hole that is poverty, and how hard it is to climb out of it. Roiling, burning indignation at the stereotypes so often associated with the poorest of the poor (laziness, lack of motivation) when in most cases these stereotypes are not only untrue, but the exact opposite of true. And, finally, it has to be said, relief that I don't have to worry about where my next meal will come from, or whether to pay the phone bill or the electric bill this month. Upon reading these posts, I recognized and was grateful for the fact that in this sense, I truly do have Enough. I have enough money to buy food and gas. I have enough to buy fancy coffee in paper cups when I want to without feeling overly guilty about it. I have enough to pay rent every month on an apartment I live in alone in one of the most expensive rental markets in the country. I have enough to have a cat and even to pay for pet insurance for the cat so that if something terrible and expensive happens to her she won't have to die because I can't afford to save her. For me this last bit seemed like the (completely arbitrary and also ridiculous) tipping point of Enough-ness. E.g. You know you're not poor when...you can afford insurance for your cat. Yeah. 

However, no matter how grateful you may feel to have your basic day-to-day needs met, it's impossible to have a mental discussion with yourself on Enough-ness without also looking at the other side of it; the Not Enough. Not enough to travel or go on vacation, except maybe, if I scrimped and saved and wiped out my emergency savings fund. I could scrimp and save to build it back up again, but it might take me a few years. I have enough to pay my monthly student loan payment, but on the income-contingent plan the amount I am required to pay barely covers the interest, and not much else. At this rate I will quite literally never pay off my loan. At the current rate it would take me 38 years just to pay off the principal. Once you add interest in you can see how 38 years turns into quite possibly never, but I can't afford to pay any more than I am. Not enough to contribute to a retirement fund so that I can one day afford to retire, and in the event that I can't, no guarantee that anyone will actually employ a person of retirement age and few specialized skills when there are so many younger and cheaper alternatives. 

Basically, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of knowing that I have everything I need at the moment, while still being utterly terrified about the future. Knowing how quickly Enough can slip into Barely Enough or its cousin, Almost Enough, and how from there it's a rapid descent into the mire and muck known as Not Enough. The even scarier prospect of Not Enough becoming a relentless cycle of Never Enough. 

The mental gymnastics required of this dichotomy are, frankly, exhausting: I am fed, warm, and clothed. (I might not always be fed, warm, and clothed.) I have Enough. (I will never have Enough.) I am grateful. (I am terrified.) 

If anyone else wants to chime in, I am interested in knowing, in broad terms: Do you feel like you have Enough? Do you sleep at night?                    

14 comments:

  1. I could write an entire book on this topic. I won't. You'll disagree with me on that if you keep reading but, trust me, there's so much more that I could say.

    When I was single, renting an apartment, and had a great job, I was one of those people who, when they liked a sweater (not the $500 sweater, but the $75 sweater) would buy it in all four colors that it came in. (It came in six colors, but I only liked four of them. Too bad.)

    Then, after 12 years, I lost that job. Yes, yes, I got a contract job shortly after (which netted me serious $$$$, and then I went onto do freelance technical writing, where I got a very comfy check every month for few years) but something happened to me in the several months after I lost my job and before I got the contract job: I GOT SCARED. And I got cheap with myself. Never mind that I had about $200,000 in retirement funds. That wasn't the point. The point was that I HAD LOST MY JOB. Nothing felt secure anymore. Being cheap with myself became my way of being.

    Fast forward to now, 10 years later. I'm married, we live in a large house (that we own), we have a great cushion of money in the bank, consistent income, no debt. My husband buys whatever he wants. I buy whatever I want... for my dog. For myself? I buy nothing. Unless I *have* to. Clothes shopping? That's hilarious! I wouldn't dare. Shoes? Please. Go to a salon to get my hair cut? My hair is one length and curly; I can cut my hair myself.

    Now, this is my own psychological problem, I realize that. There's "enough" for now. Absolutely. We can go on vacation(s), we can buy all sorts of things. But my head always goes directly to WHY SHOULD WE? And WHAT WILL WE DO WHEN WE WANT TO RETIRE?

    In someone else's eyes, maybe they would say that I'm rich. (I'm not.) Someone else might consider me poor. (I'm not.) I guess "enough" is however YOU define it.

    We each have a car -- a Mazda and a Saab. Enough, right? Well, a friend of mine and her husband have six cars. The Audi R8 is the LEAST expensive of them all (and that one is about $120,000). Is that enough? For *me* it -- that one car -- would be MORE than enough. But they're always looking for another cool car to add to their stable, so I guess it's not enough for them.

    I'll answer your questions:

    Do I feel like I have Enough? Yes. I don't compare myself to my six-car friend, so the answer is Yes.

    Do I sleep at night? Yes. Now I do. If you'd asked me that 10 years ago, I would have cried myself to sleep. No, I would have TRIED to cry myself to sleep.

    Rachel, I didn't read the articles that you linked to, but please don't drive yourself crazy about defining "enough." I did that 10 years ago. I made myself sick. That craziness has still not gone away. Live your life. Enjoy what you have. Don't think about what you're lacking. Snuggle with Ellie -- snuggles are free and their best thing around.

    I'll stop now. Snuggles. Ellie. Go.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You can contribute to a retirement fund, even if it's a very small amount. This will go a long way to making you feel in control. If you don't have one through work, open a Roth IRA. You can do this. You can do it if it's $40 a month and you buy generic cereal and a few fewer coffees.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're totally right. I have one but haven't been contributing because I felt like I couldn't afford it. I should fix that.

      Delete
    2. It feels really good to check it after a while and see the money I've socked away. Even when it's a modest amount, I think about how it will grow in the future (one hopes...). I'm totally with you in that I worry about having enough all the time, too. Paying attention to a retirement fund has helped me, at least a little.

      Delete
  3. As a one income military family I can often be found to be in a mini panic because we're not putting as much away as I'd like. And I'd like to travel, but I freak out about spending money on it. We're planning to go to Pris next fall...if I can bear to not spend that money on things like student loans, car loan, etc.

    On top of that I enjoy nice things. I like to have my own version of a chic life (bubbly all the time). But I struggle with feelings of guilt when I do spend money on myself. And yes, we've totally been in a spot where I think, "Hmm, we're screwed." Living in a similar market to you (which is whoa different from where we grew up), it makes me panic when I think that at some point we will need more room and how on earth can we afford it here...even worse if he were to get a job in D.C.

    I think you just have to follow my grandmama's advice: "Watch your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves." Basically, you save even change when you can, worry about the little things you might be overspending on, and you'll slowly find the dollars to tuck away.

    And for God's sake woman, you're still young. Do. Not. Panic.

    ReplyDelete
  4. You have put it into SUCH PERFECT WORDS.
    At this very precise specific moment in time, I have Enough. In that, I have the heat on and I have a jacket to walk out of my rented apartment with and I will eat today.
    BUT. I am 30, single, with income so low that I cannot afford to put money away for retirement and am not in a career where you make more as you go along. I feel like I may never actually OWN a home, it takes months to scrounge up money to visit a friend in another state, and I can rarely buy myself something new.
    I alternate between waking up in my bed with a down comforter feeling LUCKY and waking up literally shaking with fear about where I might be 5, 10, 20 years from now.

    I HEAR YOU.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I feel like we need to form a support group.

      Delete
  5. Sorry to ask but do you plan to go back to teaching? Have you thought about online schools (virtual). I have a french teacher friend (masters too) who does it for a school in florida. Another friend who teaches for a virtual school in georgia though it is english class. Also my french teacher friend taught at university level starting as a continuing education teacher then an adjunct and also a high school french teacher. If i were you and had a superior degree in something specific id give it a go again. But maybe this time be in a higher rated school. My french teacher friend was my fisrt french teacher. What i loved abt her class was it was fun! She really poured everything into it. It was like kindergarten youre having fun but learning at the same time. Good luck

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have a friend who teaches Spanish online. If I found an online teaching position that paid enough I would consider it, for sure.

      Delete
  6. I feel like that all of the time. I listened to a news story this morning about a DC woman who is homeless and walks the streets every night with her two month old becUse she doesn't have anyplace to go. When my child was two months old I could barely get out of bed and she has to walk the streets! So I feel lucky. But then I think about my own situation and I worry. If something happened to my husband I'd have to sell our condo at a huge loss pretty quick. And I haven't had a raise in 4 years and I don't know when i'll ever get one. I lived with my parents for years after college so I could afford a 3 week trip to Europe. My husband never thinks about the future so I feel like the burden is all mine. So I save. Until I reach the breaking point and then I buy everything in sight. I just at target and I spent almost $200 on clothes I don't really really need. But it felt good.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is so reassuring, you don't even know. Worriers and overreacting Target shoppers, unite!

      Delete
  7. Enough is a really hard concept. I try to not go out to eat and to not buy coffees/chai lattes because I know I'd rather put that money else where - does that mean I never do? Of course.

    People in Australia often think of their finances in weekly instead of monthly terms. Could you afford $5 a week into retirement? $10?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Er, I forgot the main point I was trying to make which is on a weekly level I find it easily to conceptualise how much I can actually afford.

      Delete
  8. I've been down to my last 4 bucks and i've had more money in a shoe box than one should ever have and everywhere inbetween... enough is whatever you think is enough and you can have enough with nothing or enough with everything, just depends, and it may make you happy and secure or miserable, in the end we all just is..

    ReplyDelete