Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Another Utah Homemakers for America article
This is one is very personal to me and I debated about having it published for several reasons:
1. Many people had it way worse than us during school. We felt very blessed with our situation both during dental school and after. Yes, it was hard and at times, sometimes really hard but it never felt that hard. Around us, there were people doing way harder things and we always felt we were so blessed with our circumstances. Also, many (if not most) of our friends were in the same situation (most were graduate students of some sort) and there is real solidarity when going through something like that together.
2. This really exposes some very personal financial things and while a blog is indeed "putting yourself out there", I have tried to keep it pretty light and breezy. So, this is more intense stuff and I hope I don't offend by what I have written. I also don't want to come across as authority on frugal living because I am not.
3. My husband is a very private person and I try to keep him out of this blog as much as possible. This talks about "us" which means it also talks about him.
So, why am I publishing this?
1. One of my biggest concerns around me is what I view as people not using good judgement when it comes to money. I see it on the small scale on up to our government. It scares me. As in, it keeps me up at night. We need more people living within their means and doing all they can to be wise with their finances. I feel if we do it in our homes, then it can spread to a bigger scale and it can be demanded from our government officials. I recently voted against a man whom I thought was an excellent candidate in a local primary because I knew what his current salary was and then discovered he still had debt- a lot of it. With his salary, he shouldn't have debt. I feel we really need to have our financial houses in order and have tried, with my husband, to live that way.
2. Recently I have had more than one person say to me, "You have no idea what our financial struggle is like. You've never been there." I didn't say anything but sat down at the computer and wrote this because I was angry--really angry. The way my brain works, I like to write as if a 3rd person is going to read it. It think it is from years of editing other people's work. I write often but rarely submit my things to publications. My friend Tiffany, who got me to join Utah Homemakers for America, read it and said, "We should publish this." So I did, after many days of thinking about it. Again, I hope I don't offend anyone.
So, for what it is worth, here it is.
I met my husband when he was in his first year of dental school. He lived in the basement home of an elderly lady, whose adult children gave him cheap rent if he would daily check in on her, take her blood pressure, mow her lawn and do simple things around the house. She lived on the main floor and he was in the basement.
Early on in our dating, he took me to his “apartment” to show me where he lived. The family hadn’t really cleared out much space for him in the basement but told him, he could “carve out some space” to live down there. The basement was full of their things, from old clothes, boxes of stored items, camping gear, tools, etc. They were doing him a huge favor by providing him a roof over his head and he was always very happy about his living arrangement. He really enjoyed this elderly lady’s company, liked being able to help her and felt forever grateful the family had given him this opportunity to live very inexpensively while he was in dental school.
He slept on a sofa bed he had discovered in the basement. He was thrilled it was there because it meant he didn’t have to spend the money to buy a mattress for himself. He owned one knife, one spoon, one fork and one plate which he had purchased at a second-hand store. His cup was an old canning jar. He felt bad “intruding” on the woman’s space upstairs and he discovered down the street, about a mile from from his apartment, a church that would let him use their microwave to heat up meals. He explained to me he had taken out student loans to pay his tuition, books and dental equipment and during his short breaks between semesters, he went home (one state over) and did lab work for his dad, who was a dentist, so he could earn money to pay for food and rent.
We continued dating and it became obvious that if we got married, not only would I live in this basement with him but that I would be expected to live just as frugally. By this time, I knew how much student debt we would have by the time he graduated and I was fully on board with this frugal life style. I did have a college degree in English and found a job editing for local company that took in outsourced jobs from the local university as well as the community. Being an editor sounded glamourous to me but it didn’t pay well and we lived well below the poverty level. During our time in dental school, our dates consisted of Scrabble and Master Mind games, bike rides and occasionally car drives but that used gas we needed to get to and from work and school, so we had to be careful. Occasionally, we would go to a local discounted arcade with five dollars of quarters and play until we ran out of money. One of our happiest date moments was mastering the game, “Area 51” on one quarter. We lived on cheap food and at the time, McDonalds offered 29 cent hamburgers on Wednesday nights. We would go there, order eight hamburgers, eat three that night and save the rest for lunch and dinner the next day. We loved those hamburger nights.
During this time in dental school, friends would come over and visit and say things like, “I would never live here.” We would smile, think of the scary pile of student debt that was earning interest (he had to take out both subsidized and unsubsidized loans) and continue living. There were times when it was no fun. Times, when I would drive past the student housing complex and think, “Wow. Maybe we should go move there.” I laugh about it now because student housing was far from luxurious but it seemed like it at the time.
My husband graduated, we had our first child and we moved to Utah and he started working for and buying his father’s dental practice. We purchased a home from his grandmother who was being moved into an elderly care facility. It was in the Sugarhouse area and was a true fixer-upper. It was built in 1941 just before World War II. My husband’s grandparents had lived a frugal life and not much had been done to the home since it had been built. Our kitchen had original cabinets and 1950’s appliances. The only bathroom had a bathtub and the shower in the house was a bent pipe with a shower curtain over the basement drain. My husband’s grandfather had somehow tapped into the water supply and fashioned a shower head from some pipe in the ceiling. It was directly in front of the basement stairs and you couldn’t go downstairs while someone was showering. The basement was unfinished with the exception of one small room. The house had its original lead paint, a converted from coal to gas furnace, and no air conditioning.
Within days after moving into the house, my husband and I sat down with our finances and had an honest talk. He was making money now but he wanted the majority of his paycheck to go to buying his father’s practice so he could own it free and clear in a few years with little interest paid. We also wanted to pay back our student loan as quickly as possible. We had run the numbers and if we paid the minimum amount for our 30 year student loan, the interest would double what he had originally borrowed. Compound interest is a scary thing and so, we decided to continue our “frugal” life. We made a goal to pay back the student debt in five years instead of the 30 we had signed on for. This time it was harder. We had a child. I was home all day. We lived in a neighborhood where most people purchased fixer-uppers, and fixed them up. I remember coming home from play dates and crying because of the beautiful things people had done to their houses. We had the money to do it but instead we paid that money to debt. Again, many people said to us, “I couldn’t live this way. I would not shower in that shower. You guys are crazy--a 30-year loan is there for a reason.” Those were the nice things. Other people were more unkind and questioned my husband’s ability to provide, commented on my ugly decorating style (almost everything we owned was used), and some accused my husband of being abusive to me by forcing me to live in this fixer-upper house while he paid back “his debts.” Um, excuse me, we are married; they are our debts and we made this decision together.
Every once and awhile, I would think, “I can’t live like this.” We would have contractors come over and give us bids on a shower for the bathroom, a new oven, window coverings, etc. We would then see the price and think, “Wow. If we put that money towards our student loans, we could save on interest and pay back our debt faster. We just can't spend the money.” And, we didn’t.
I would also play silly games with myself. I would tell myself I would take my kids to McDonalds for lunch and then instead, take that cash out of my wallet and put it in our “debt jar". I did the same with new clothing purchases for me, treats at the grocery store, movie rentals, etc. At the end of the month, we would take that money and mail it in as an extra loan payment.
At the end of four years, instead of the five we had planned, we had paid back our 30 year student loan. And, the same day, we put our house up for sale. We weren’t completely crazy. :)
There could have been a million things that came up and made paying back our loans harder. We had plenty of them, (a flooded basement, needing a new roof, no insulation in our attic, a second pregnancy) but we also know we were blessed. A major medical crisis could have ruined our plans and that did happen to one of our friends. My husband’s dental practice thrived when many of our friends in similar situations did not, through no fault of their own. Owning a small business is scary and really, from month to month, we have no idea what our dental practice will do.
Life, in general can be hard and full of trials and often financial things hit people unprepared and they can’t always meet their financial goals. That said, many things can be avoided and we can live our lives in a way to limit those risks. We can save until we have an emergency fund to pay for those unexpected expenses. We can avoid debt at all costs. And if we have debt, including our home mortgages, we can work, scrimp and save to pay our debts off early. We can say no to our children and tell them they have to earn the things they are dying to have. We can meet with our children monthly and talk about finances and explain how hard we work to have the things we own. We can drop our TV cable, not have caller ID, and grow our own food. We can take our children shopping and show them the difference in price between name brands and generic brands. We can take personal responsibility and have our financial houses in order. Peace of mind often doesn’t come easy or cheap but it is worth every penny.