No Renn Faire after all…

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Marry a single professional of a similar income level who followed the same path.
  3. 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.
  4. Have a sensible 1-2 children, with couple of years in between.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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  1. I can totally relate. My hubby makes a great salary, but we still can’t manage to save. We have a few more luxuries than you guys, but nothing like a lot of other coworkers of my hubby.

    Why? We have crap that keeps happening every time we’re almost ahead. It keeps happening year after year. A few years ago Hubby’s contract went away. We’re still dealing with the credit card debt we had to run up to be able to eat. I was pregnant at the time. The contract went away in October of that year. No one was hiring until January/February. The same month my second son was due. Hubby had to get his teeth fixed. My older son needed meds and therapy and the insurance only covered some, my eldest’s bio dad managed to get himself fired which subtracted $500 from our monthly budget. We bought the house up here, 1.5 hours from hubby’s job, and gas prices go through the roof.


    I know where you are coming from.

  2. There’s always something, isn’t there? Man do I know how that goes. >.< Like the commenter above, we've found it so incredibly hard to get ahead on bills, let alone save. And there's always something. For us, it was two months without renters in our other condo (which meant two months of paying two mortgages), and then a $3k car repair bill... Something always comes up. I manage to save $200 each month only because it comes out in $100 increments from each paycheck directly into my ING savings account before I ever get the chance to spend it, but boy howdy is it getting hard not to dip into that account.

    And of course, I’m constantly reminded that I don’t particularly LIKE this area, and really want to get the hell outta Dodge… But that would require selling at least one condo, if not two, and finding new jobs and somewhere to live somewhere else…


    Keep fighting, midear. It will, eventually, get better. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. 🙂

  3. Jason and I are trying to have a no buying months this month. So far it’s the second day of the month and we’re already looking at 400$ to fix the trailer, who knows how much for the car and a bunch of warning lights came on and it wouldn’t start, it’s at the shop now so we’ll see. Praying it’s not the hybrid system, that’s always a worry. It’ll be at least 45-90 dollars.

    We had planned to try the DINK thing for a couple of year but we all know where that plan went, lol.

    We’re looking at houses to buy but really I’m thhinking, we barely make enough for our bills now, we only have 750 a month in rent and we obviously don’t pay taxes. We’re looking at tiny homes with tiny yard or ugly homes with slightly bigger yards but that are far away from our jobs, and I’m not sure we can even really afford those!

    Of course we do have any easy source of money drain to point to that’s theoretically fiable, (our truck) but… getting rid of it with today’s ecnomy and oil prices…

  4. But Avdi . . .

    You have everything I really want. Yeah, I can afford a season pass to the rennfest, but I’d trade my single life in a heartbeat for all that.

    1. And YES. I am prepared not have any extra money until my (hopeful future) children turn 5 and I go back to work. I’m planning now though – maybe that makes a difference?

    2. Oh believe me, I appreciate what I have. There are trade-offs in life, and I wouldn’t have made the ones I have if they weren’t the ones I wanted…

      …but I guess the thing is that I’m surrounded by people who fall into into one of the following categories:

      1) Skilled singles with disposable incomes
      2) DINKs
      3) Couples who are comfortable letting others [partially] raise their children, and so can do the two-substantial incomes thing.
      4) People who are willing to live on credit
      5) People who waited to have kids until they were high enough up the food chain to be comfortable on one income.

      And the thing that every single one of them has in common with me is that they are ostensibly in the same bracket as I am but they can afford things like, oh, vacations. And I guess in this culture you grow up learning that if you drop out of college to be a stoner then you deserve to be living in the projects at 30, but that if you keep your eye on the ball and your hand to the plow and take care of your family you’ll eventually have an above-ground pool and a barcalounger and a college fund for your kids. But that’s not true, is it? You don’t even have to have bad luck, like ill health, for the promise to fall through. All you have to do is make the mistake of imagining that if getting married at 20 and being an old-fashioned breadwinner was good enough for your grandparents it’s good enough for you. Because the economics don’t work that way any more.

      1. Hey, babe. I never wanted an above ground pool anyway. I’ll dig my own in-ground pool. 😀

        And what the hell is a “barcalounger” anyway?

        /me is just trying to add levity…

      2. Oh my god….I had neglected to read the bottom of your post.

        those 6 steps?

        I am DESPARATELY trying to follow everyone of them. And you know what else? I HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS THE PLAN MY WHOLE LIFE. But I never thought of it in 6 steps.

        Now, if it works – go me! Hooray! I pray every day that it will.

        But – if this one doesn’t wana marry me either – then I’m screwed – and 30 – with no potentials.

        I see what you mean – choices are SLIM.

    3. May I borrow your season pass to the Renn Fest in exchange for a day with my family? *blinkblinktoothygrin*

      1. Hahahaha – I watch other people’s kids all day long! (3rd grade teacher….single (on a tax form)….still I feel like Mrs. Crabopple on the Simpsons.)

        1. On the upside, you’d get to hang out with Avdi… 😀 And besides, my kids are awesome!!

  5. I thought this was an interesting post even if I don’t completely agree. It makes me really glad, though, that I can work from home and bring in income while being there for my kids.

  6. The view from singleland

    Life isn’t completely rosy here in single-land.

    I have a job, income, and a budget.

    The job is one job. I frequently work long hours. (10 hour days, 50 hour weeks.) I’m salaried, so there is no “overtime pay”.

    I live in a modest one-bedroom apartment. I looked at the numbers and the apartment is less expensive than a house. (By about $15K per year, surprisingly.)

    I bring my lunch to work most days. The restaurant next door has half-price burgers on Mondays.

    I shop at the local food market, cook meals, and save left-overs.

    I don’t have cable TV. (I do have Netflix, though.)

    I can save some money, through the 401(k) plan at work.

    There is no trip to the Ren Fair this year.

    There is no going out to the movies.

    My vacations have to work for me. I don’t sit on the beach, I sit in conference rooms at software conventions.

    The social life is non-existent. I don’t have the time, or the energy, for such pursuits. There is no dating. There is no romance. There is no “going out” for dinner or otherwise. There is no companionship. “Free” time is spent studying to keep up knowledge for the job.

    My situation is the result of choices that I have made and the result of luck. Or “fortune”. Or “fate”. It is not what I pictured or hoped for. It is not particularly a happy life, nor particularly miserable. Some aspects are easy, others are hard. There are things about it that I would like to be different.

    It is the life that I have. I do what I can, and make the best of it.

    1. Re: The view from singleland

      My situation is the result of choices that I have made and the result of luck. Or “fortune”. Or “fate”. It is not what I pictured or hoped for.

      Would you mind unpacking that a little bit? I ask because what you’ve described is exactly what I had between the ages of 18-20, in every detail. But I don’t remember money being an issue – in fact, despite making about half what I make now, I remember almost not knowing what to do with the money I had. Not because I was rolling in dough, but because with my needs more than met but no one else to spend money on I had little temptation to spend.

      So I’m curious what choices you’ve made, and what slings and arrows you’ve endured, which have put a single man working in the same industry I work in in a position to have little excess cash flow.

  7. You know I feel your pain.

    Family values my ass. If the government really gave a shit about family values, they’d take a look at this and see what they can do to fix it.

    By the way, I think you should edit this to make it more general (replace “stacy” with “my wife” and so on) and submit it to The Baltimore Examiner as an editorial. Oh, also replace “fuck you america” with “screw you america.”

  8. […] written before on the how hard it is to catch up if you’re even a smidge behind the curve on the American dream. We’ve come a long way since I wrote that piece. But I’m still […]

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