My wife got up early, got ready and headed over to IHOP to meet her cousin and the cousin’s husband along with her elderly aunt for breakfast. It was her aunt’s 87th birthday.
Meanwhile, I slept in after having stayed up late last night playing games online. When my wife got home a bit after noon, it was my turn to go out for breakfast. I headed to my favorite local buffet place, where even a vegan can pig out on steamed vegetables, potatoes, salad, fruit, roasted jalapeños and spaghetti with marinara sauce.
On Saturday, my wife and I ran around doing errands in the morning, then picked up our niece and made the long drive up to Chico to spend the evening with extended family at a church event.
My wife and I have been married for nearly 17 years. Among the many joys of our married life is the fact that we do some things together and others alone. It’s a nice balance. We also spend a lot of time sitting just a few feet away from each other, both of us on our laptops, she with the TV on and me listening to music over headphones, she on our landlord’s mini-couch and me at the kitchen table in our tiny rental cottage.
The logistics of maintaining this balance has become more interesting in the last few years. Before that, we could each have separate plans and execute them simultaneously. On a Saturday morning, for example, I might head off to synagogue while my wife went shopping or met a friend.
All that changed when we moved from the desert on the California/Arizona border to northern California two years ago. Having been laid off, I was out of work and didn’t need a car to commute. So we loaned one of our cars to our niece to make it easy for her to get to community college in the mornings. She promptly wrecked it, and we’ve been a one-car family ever since.
In some respects, this has been a good thing. In addition to having fewer car expenses (things like oil changes and other maintenance, insurance and annual registration), there is the togetherness factor. When you live out in the country as we do, it is no surprise that having only one car makes for a tendency to go more places together.
When we each “do our own thing,” however, it is of necessity on a sequential rather than a simultaneous basis. When you have one car between you, you have to take turns. This might not be the case in a more urban location, but out here there is nothing in walking distance and not much in the way of transportation. I get a kick out of watching the neighbor’s roosters pecking around, photographing the wild peacocks and visiting with our landlord’s cat. But that only goes so far. If you’re desperate, you can always call a taxi to take you downtown or to Wal-Mart, but that can fairly quickly run into some serious money. So the fact of the matter is that when one of us is out and about alone, the other is stuck at home, also alone.
Then there is the little matter of getting to work. My place of employment is about twelve miles away, meaning that either my wife has to get up early and make two round-trips downtown each day to haul me in and home, or she gets to sit at home with no car all day.
Circumstances have happily converged to make this situation work well most of the time. My wife works from home, so it’s possible for her to be without a car. However, I am uncomfortable knowing that she can’t get out of here if she needs to do so. Being stuck at home also means that she can’t run any errands, which definitely puts a crimp in smooth household operation. Plus, I would have to leave the house at oh-dark-thirty if I am to have any chance of finding a parking space near my place of employment downtown. I am delighted that, 95% of the time, my wife takes me to work, picks me up in the evening and has the car at her disposal all day.
In its old age, our second car was given to us by my parents when they purchased a newer model some years ago. Throughout our marriage, they have generously provided us with their old vehicles rather than trading them in. This has been a huge advantage for us, as we’ve never been able to afford more than one car payment. Now that we’ve been down to one car for a couple of years, we’ve started to think about buying another. Our current vehicle has been paid off for a while now, but after struggling through a year of unemployment, I get a bit panicky at the thought of having a monthly car payment again.
There are a number of options out there. We could pay cash to buy an old beater just to drive around town, but who knows what’s going to go wrong with it and how much money we’ll end up having to pour into it for repairs. And even old, high mileage vehicles don’t come cheap anymore.
Speaking of old, high mileage vehicles, our current car fits that category nicely. We have been fortunate that, so far, most of the required repairs have not broken the bank. But it’s not going to last forever. Pretty soon, the piece-of-crap car that I envision taking to work, to Wal-Mart or out for brunch is going to be the very vehicle we now own. Hopefully, we’ll be able to wring another 100,000 miles out of it, but really, it’s the luck of the draw. I would happily bite the bullet and sign for a car payment on a new vehicle for my wife to drive around while I used our current car. However, I know that, sooner or later, our trusty is going to sputter its last and repair to that great junkyard in the sky. At that point, we’ll be right back to square one, only with the albatross of a car payment around our necks. You can see why it’s tempting to stick with just one vehicle for as long as possible, despite the attendant inconveniences.
I’m guessing that we’re in the minority, having attained the status of seniors and being a one-car family who has always lived in rentals and never owned a home. I recently read an article in The Atlantic indicating that this type of consumer behavior is a lot more common than it used to be, although not so much among those who’ve attained my age. In “The Cheaptest Generation,” Thompson and Weissmann point out that sales of new cars and homes are way down, and that this phenomenon seems to be more than just a product of the recessionary economy. Indeed, the popularity of carless lifestyle choices has increased among millennials, the driving force behind the popularity of Zipcar, Uber and Airbnb. Many young adults seem to prefer living closer to the urban core, where the action is. Live music, restaurants, bars and shops within walking or biking distance have become more appealing to twentysomethings in recent years.
When describing millennials, one would be remiss in failing to mention the matter of extended adolescence. Young adults struggling under crushing burdens of student loan debt often choose to live with their parents for a decade or more beyond their college days. I should know. I went that route myself, and not just because of student loans. I liked having all that disposable income to eat out every day, see Broadway shows, spend weekends in Atlantic City and go on trips to places like California, where I eventually settled. It really isn’t very appealing for a recent college graduate earning grunt wages to have to spend every penny on the rent and the car. And, assuming the American dream is not dead (I know, don’t laugh), sponging off one’s parents for as long as possible makes it a lot easier to save for a down payment on a home.
I graduated from college in 1980, took one more semester of courses toward a teaching certificate that I never completed, then moved back home with my parents and worked the night shift in a chemical plant for seven years before heading off to graduate school in Massachusetts. There, I lived off my parents’ dime for another two years before taking out student loans to pay for my last year due to circumstances too complex to get into here. Twenty-five years later, I’m still paying on those student loans. And that was for one year, friends. I can’t imagine the debt facing those of us who had to borrow for their entire college educations. The real irony is that I then spent decades working at jobs that didn’t require college. Most of my bosses didn’t even have a degree. I was in my late forties before I snagged a job that nominally required college.
I should mention that life was no financial picnic after graduate school. Even with two degrees, I still ended up working for ten dollars an hour and living back with my parents for another 2½ years. When I finally moved out, to take a similarly crappy job in a neighboring state, I rented a tiny bedroom that had been an unheated, uninsulated enclosed porch, where I froze all winter. When it was thirty below zero out, I dressed in layers, including a parka and mittens, sleeping under piles of covers.
When I finally moved to California, I found myself earning ten dollars an hour and only working part-time. Silicon Valley was not kind to me. I lived with each of my sisters for several months, until my parents retired and built a house in the Central Valley. I lived with them for nine months before getting out for good at the ripe old age of 37.
I know I will never own a home, and that’s okay. Although my current job is far from secure, I no longer earn ten dollars an hour. I know that my graduate degree played a part in my landing this position. My wife and I have paid off all our debts other than my ever-present student loans, and we hope to clear even those out in another two or three years.
True, my wife and I have only one car between us and we rent a tiny mother-in-law cottage out among the goats, horses and chickens of the exurbs. We may not attend Broadway shows or travel to Hawaii, but with both of us working, we are able to eat out when we want to, buy Christmas presents for all the nephews and nieces, and go to Reno when the urge hits. I even get to play in expensive Scrabble tournaments several times each year.
We may not have “created wealth” by purchasing a home and living in it, but without children of our own, leaving an inheritance isn’t much of a priority. I am aware that my parents think it is a disgrace that I haven’t done as well as they did. Each generation is supposed to surpass the previous, or so goes traditional wisdom. “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” my mother likes to mock.
Ultimately, however, it’s all relative. Having lived a year with my wife’s family after I was laid off, complete with the joys of standing in line at food banks when my unemployment checks ran out, I appreciate what we do have so much more than I did before. It’s nice to be alone in our cozy little rental. And having just one car between us doesn’t seem so bad after all.
You might say I’m channeling my inner millennial.