Well this sucks. I had to break the news to Stacey and the Lad today that we’re not going to the MD Renn Faire after all. Not this weekend and not this year. Nor will I be making my scheduled trip down to NC to see shadowandlight (we had already scaled it back from a whole-family trip due to the expense). Examination of the financial tea leaves has revealed these discretionary expenditures to be luxuries we can’t afford.
I’m not one to go on and on about how hard it is to be the everyman in today’s America. As I’ve written before, youthful exposure to the third world gave me a different perspective on what it means to be struggling. By and large I think that thins are still getting better all the time; whatever wages and the dollar are doing, real buying power continues to go up across the board; and regardless of anything else I have amenities a good half the population of the world can never hope to see.
But I’ve recently come to realize that the American middle class dream is now predicated on being a two-earner family. Period. Perhaps it always was; I don’t know. If you want a room for each family member, new clothes, two cars under ten years old, and a big-screen TV then both parents must be working, and both must be making significantly more than the cost of child care (or else they might as well be a single-earner family with a stay-at-home parent).
I read a lot of personal finance blogs, and they’ve started to piss me off. They always have the same sensible advice: be aware of where your money is going, avoid credit, budget, and save, save, save. The thing is, this economy does not allow a family in our position to save, even if you do everything right. I’ve followed all the sage advice:
- I work in MD but live in PA, so my rent and cost-of-living is significantly lower than my MD-resident coworkers.
- I work from home two days out of the week. The other days I carpool with another PA-resident coworker. When I’m driving, I’m driving my little Mazda 3, not a big gas-guzzler.
- I buy used cars.
- I rent a little three-bedroom house with a leaky basement for our family of four-plus-infant. No McMansion for us.
- I went over the house insulating all the drafty doors and windows to save heating and cooling bills.
- I switched to a cheaper natural gas company from the local "default" company. So far there is no cheaper electricity available.
- We buy our clothes from Wal-Mart, Gabriel Bros., and Goodwill. Occasionally we go upscale and buy from Target,
- We have cable internet, necessary if I want to work from home, but no satellite or cable TV.
- We have a dinky Wal-Mart TV, and no "home theater" system.
- We get our vegetables in bulk from a CSA. Stacey works a few hours a week for our CSA share, in lieu of payment.
- We shop for bulk food at BJ’s.
- Stacey cooks most of our meals at home. I take leftovers in to work.
- Our furniture is either decades old, or something we got from freecycle or yard sales. Almost all of it is falling apart.
- I have one credit card with a low limit. I use it only for unexpected, unavoidable expenses like car repairs. It’s not far from beig paid-off.
And after all that, on my not-too-shabby engineer salary, we still can’t save. Reading people talking about how easy it is to put a little money aside is exasperating. And I can’t help twinges of jealousy as my friends and peers talk about their new houses, Xbox 360s, laptopts, etc. I’d ask what I’m doing wrong, but I know what I did "wrong": I married young, I took in a single mother, and I committed to enabling our children to have the benefit of a stay-at-home mom.
There’s a program you have to follow if you want to make it in the middle class:
- Stay single until you are thirty. Use this period to save, get some equity in a starter home, and build your income up to a family-compatible level.
- Marry a single professional of a similar income level who followed the same path.
- Spend a few years as a DINK family (Dual-Income No Kids). Use this time to buy a bigger house, furnish it, and save some more.
- Have a sensible 1-2 children, with couple of years in between.
- If you played your cards right one of you might be making enough at this point to allow the other to quit their job and stay home. Since you already bought the house, the furniture, and the SUV while you were either single or DINKs, your expenses aren’t too bad.
- Of course, if you actually want to send the kids to college, you’re both going to need to keep working full-time until they graduate.
I think I knew about this program in the back of my head, but I always assumed it was just a recipe for conventional domestic bliss, not an economic necessity. Either way, I wouldn’t have followed it.
Fuck you, America, for making the old-time conservative dream of marriage and family and having mom at home with the kids nearly impossible.