Broke but Out of Debt

Yesterday, my wife asked me if I was depressed because we have so little money.  Yes, I am, I told her.

As Tevye the milkman pointed out in Fiddler on the Roof, it’s no crime to be poor.  I do believe that it’s possible to be both poor and happy, particularly if you appreciate the things you do have and value your family and friends.

The real thing that’s depressing me is the Infinite Loop of Poverty.  I feel like a modern day Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the mountain only to have it roll back down so that we have to do it all over again.

All of this was triggered when we decided to purchase a car last week.  Not even a new car, mind you.  A low mileage used vehicle is all we could manage without going deeply into debt.  Which is the point, I suppose:  We may not have any money, but at least we’ve managed to stay debt-free.

This wasn’t always the case.  When my wife and I got married 17 years ago, we had a lot of debt between us.  With two (small) incomes, we worked assiduously to overcome this problem.  It took a lot of years, but all the credit card debt and most of the student loans were paid off.  I am proud of this, particularly since I suffered two year-long stints of unemployment in the interim and my wife worked part-time for a few years and not at all for another four years.

And so I say to those of you who think you are stuck in debt forever that there is hope.  It requires dedication, however, including paying down debts first thing out of every paycheck regardless of what you’d really like to spend the money on.  Whatever that may be, it’s probably not as important as watching that big number that you owe get lower and lower.

I am fortunate that my wife is so good with money.  I don’t do well with numbers and would rather have someone else think about what has to be paid and when.  I suppose this goes back to my childhood, as my parents did not believe in giving “allowances” or in encouraging budgeting and planning.  If they thought we needed something, they’d buy it.  Otherwise, they’d rather that we didn’t have any of their hard-earned money so that we couldn’t waste it on frivolity.

In my young adulthood, the result of this was not pretty.  If my father visited me at college and handed be a twenty, likely as not it would be gone the same day.  When I began working, I still lived at home and treated money cavalierly; gosh, I’d get another paycheck the next week, so what was the big deal?  I spent it as quickly as I earned it.

All my life, the place where this came back to bite me was cars.  Transportation was my bête noire, my Kryptonite, my undoing.  I’d use my tax refund to pay my auto insurance.  I’d fill up my tank every time I was paid.  But the moment something went wrong with the car and I needed a couple thousand dollars to make things right, I was in deep trouble.  My father generously purchased a series of high-mileage clunkers for me, none of which lasted very long.  When I saved for a new car, my father generously put up some of the cash, or it never would have happened.

Then my parents began giving me their old car each time they purchased a new one.  They took very good care of their vehicles, so I knew I’d be in good shape for a few years.  One of those cars was wrecked when an old lady ran into me on the way home from work one night.  Another was wrecked by my young niece when we lent it out to her.  Another had to be sold when it’s engine was about to go, and yet another was a trade-in on the old Cash for Clunkers program.

After owning two cars free and clear for a couple of years, we decided to buy a new vehicle even though we had to finance it.  We made some very large monthly payments and eventually paid it off.  Now, however, it has well over 150,000 miles on it and little things started going wrong with it.  We finally decided to give it to our niece (not the one who wrecked our former vehicle, leaving us with just one car between us ever since), who was desperately in need of vehicle, and to pay cash for a used car for ourselves.

The only problem is that avoiding the interest payments associated with financing meant spending just about all our savings.  Hence, my feelings of depression.  I must have a car in order to get to work every day.  Once there, I work and work to save enough so that we can spend it all to buy another car so that I continue to get to work to make more money to buy another car.  It seems to be an endless cycle, which might not be a big deal to a 25 year old, but takes on quite a different meaning to one who is rapidly approaching retirement age.  The only way out of this loop is to earn significantly more money or to up the ante on savings.  Yes, I do think that saving money faster than you use up your car is the only real answer.

Still, I am grateful that I have once more managed to escape the millstone of monthly car payments with which so many others are saddled.  As Dave Ramsey points out on his radio show, taking the scissors to that albatross around one’s neck is a significant step toward financial independence.

Just don’t ask me for money.  I don’t have any.

 

The Joy of Receiving

For quite some time now, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants has hosted a website, feedthepig.org, that is devoted to promoting savings and planning for retirement and other personal financial goals. I have a vague recollection of hearing about this site some years ago, but it again came to my attention recently due to a billboard posted in our neighborhood. The message on the sign (and I paraphrase) read “Be the rich uncle that you always wished you had.”

This is wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin. It calls up a visceral reaction in my gut that makes me want to scream.

Allow me to start by saying that I do believe in the importance of saving a portion of one’s income “for a rainy day.” I get it that the AICPA is trying to encourage Americans to save, something that very few of us do on a regular basis. I see this as a laudable goal, but I also think they are utter fools if they believe that billboards like this one will change anyone’s habits.

Giving and saving are two things that are near and dear to our hearts. My wife and I tithe 10% of our income to worthy causes, such as our local food banks, and to family members in need, of which there are unfortunately more than a few at this time. At the holidays, we always end up giving extra, which is something we plan for during the year. And, yes, we do save our pennies. Literally. We have a canister for collection of stray pennies and a “change up” for collection of nickels, dimes and quarters. In summary, the message of the importance of savings is not lost on us. Nevertheless, I find the AICPA’s sign offensive.

I realize that we are entering that time of year known as the season of giving, but I believe that signs like the one I saw posted fail to acknowledge the important of receiving. Remember that in order to give, someone has to receive. I was reminded of this recently when we tried to give a few bucks to our niece. She is only 19 years old and having a rough time of it, what with having a 3 year old daughter and a job that recently cut her hours back to three days per week. Nevertheless, I could see that we were making her very uncomfortable by trying to press a twenty into her hand. We knew she needed it and she knew she needed it, but that doesn’t change how awful we feel when we’re reduced to a position in which we need to rely on the charity of others. We all want to be self-sufficient. Years ago, I saw a poster emblazoned with the logo “poverty sucks.” ‘Nuff said.

Squirming is a natural reaction when on the receiving end of largesse. I think this goes beyond the sadness that is bound to accompany acknowledgment that we are in need. It is indicative of the fact that Mom and Dad never taught us how to receive gracefully. Most of us were taught “to give is better than to receive.” The moral imperative of this statement aside, certainly it is preferable to be in a financial position to give rather than to be in such straits that we need to put our hands out. But it is not possible for us to give unless someone is willing to receive. Giving and receiving are two sides of the same coin, and I cannot put that coin into your hand unless you are willing to receive it.

I know what it is like to get laid off, to be unemployed for a year and to have to spend down savings and rely on family and Food Stamps to get by. I know what it is like to stand in line for hours to receive a U.S. Department of Agriculture food handout. I’ve been there, folks. And if this economy doesn’t improve sometime soon, I may be there again. In the meantime, however, we do what we have learned to do best: Saving and giving.

But please, please, do not tell me to be the rich uncle that I always wished I had. There is no substitute for having a generous relative and being one yourself is not the same thing at all. Remember, when you are on the receiving end of someone’s generosity, you are allowing that person to bless you. Conversely, if you are unable to accept gifts gracefully, you are preventing someone from blessing you. Think about that next time someone tries to do something nice for you and you feel weird about it.

I’m sure most of us do wish we had rich uncles to bankroll our every whim, or even to grant an occasional wish. There is nothing wrong with this. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have this opportunity. Still, it is just fine to daydream about it. There is no shame in receiving or in wishing you could receive. Giving has its own rewards, but it can never compare to being on the receiving end of your heart’s desires. Generosity is lovely, but it can never substitute for the joy of receiving exactly what you always wanted. Hence, all those prettily wrapped boxes under our Christmas trees.

Not all of us can be the rich uncle, but all of us can experience the thrill of receiving, whether from a rich uncle or just from our neighbor. And that is nothing to be ashamed of.
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My Inner Millennial

Sunday morning.

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.

College Fund

My parents tried to teach my sisters and me the virtues of saving money while we were still quite young.  They would stuff bills and coins into a cookie jar on the shelf in the kitchen, or into an empty Maxwell House coffee can.  They started savings accounts for us when we were born, and as soon as we were old enough, they’d drive us over to the fortress that was the Dollar Savings Bank on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx to deposit our birthday money.  They took us to see Mary Poppins at the Loew’s Paradise and would sing us the song about “when you put tuppence in a bank account,” over and over again.

And what were we saving money for?

College.

Even if we didn’t yet understand what college was, we understood the importance of going there.  After all, that’s what my parents were always doing.  Apparently it meant being away a lot, and when you’re home, being busy and having to be quiet so they could “concentrate.”  My father would be tip-tapping away at his master’s thesis on his manual Smith-Corona in the alcove behind the front door of our apartment.  He’d be taking classes during the day and driving a taxi at night.  Later on, after we moved to the suburbs, my parents were working as teachers and going to college one night a week and during the summer.

I learned that, to get anywhere in life, you had to have a college degree, and preferably several.  Eventually, my mother collected four.  I went on to earn two degrees myself, and I dearly hope to be able to work toward a third before too long.

Not only did college involve a lot of work — going to classes, studying, writing papers — but it also involved a lot of money.  And the only way to get enough money was to save your pennies, and to start early.

So when we learned that our 15 year old niece was pregnant, after the shock wore off one of the first things that I said was “she’s going to college!”  I informed my wife that we needed to start a college fund for her immediately.  She agreed, and we did.  We couldn’t add much to it during the year that I was unemployed, but even then we did our best to throw a few bucks into the fund whenever we could.

A couple of years have gone by, and now my niece is in her second year of college, setting a great example for her little one.  I am very proud of her efforts, which are made possible due to scholarships.  Her parents did not attend college; there was no planning for higher education while she was growing up.  She had no role models to show her the effects of college firsthand, nor did she have anyone to help her save money for college.

My goal is to make sure that things will be different for her daughter.  It is my hope that, by the time she graduates from high school, we will be able to pay for her college education.  She won’t have to work part-time while she is a student, nor will she be saddled with enormous student loans that continue to accrue interest for decades, with little hopes of ever getting out of debt.  One of the reasons we can do this, of course, is that we don’t have any children of our own to provide for.

Despite my good intentions, it recently came to my attention that I have gone woefully astray.  Establishing a college fund for my grandniece was a visceral reaction to her impending birth, something that came from my heart, not my head.  As it turns out, when I started this project two years ago, I set something in motion that has the potential to spiral out of control.  I knew not what I had wrought.

What never occurred to me was that my wife has other nieces and nephews in their twenties and thirties, and that they too will start having babies and might expect us to afford their offspring the same beneficence provided to our very first grandniece.  Uh-oh.

Well, it finally happened.  One of the nephews and his girlfriend recently celebrated the arrival of their first bundle of joy.  Initially, I thought nothing of it.  I am not at all close to this nephew; perhaps I see him once or twice per year, and he makes no effort to keep in touch with me.  But sure enough, I stuck my foot in my mouth by mentioning something about our first grandniece’s college fund in his presence, and now we have to establish similar savings for the second grandniece.

So what will happen if my wife’s other nieces and nephews start having children?  I suppose we will have to establish college funds for all of them as well.  With our limited ability to save, we may be doling out little bits to college funds for five or six (or more!) children.  A penny for you, a penny for you, a penny for you, and a penny for you.  I can’t imagine that any of these funds will add up to a hill of beans by the time the grandnieces and grandnephews are ready for college.

And this does not even begin to take into account the progeny of my sister-in-law’s blended family.  She has long since divorced her second husband, but we still keep in touch with his eight children and continue to act as their aunt and uncle.

What this shows, of course, is that I am a Class A Idiot.  I don’t think things through, talk about stuff that gets me in trouble, and have no hope of reaching any of my well-intentioned goals.

So, please, all you nieces and nephews, listen up!  Do not, I repeat, do not have any more children for a few years.  We want all of them to be able to attend college and, at this rate, I may never be able to retire.

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High on the Hog

piggy bank

One of the trickiest parts of the job application process is broaching the matter of salary.  As money has a nasty little tendency to bring out the worst in all parties involved, we often try to hold off mentioning compensation until the last possible moment.  As we glide back and forth through the steps of the interview dance, we pointedly seek to avoid prematurely stepping on that sensitive dollar spot.  Instead, the prospective employee pretends that money is not an issue and that, in fact, it would be a privilege and an honor to work for this employer under any terms.  Often, the employer does nothing to counter this notion, making the most of its superior bargaining power in a job market in which employers can have their pick of applicants.

Some employers use “salary requirements” as a means of unceremoniously culling the daunting stack of applications down to a manageable level.  This part of the application form is often specifically labeled as required to avoid having applicants dodge the issue.  Ask for too much and your application goes in “the pile or the file” (the reject pile or the circular file, that is).

When I first graduated from college, I would ask my father for advice on how to fill in the spot on the application form where the employer would ask how much money I want.  He would tell me to just write “Scale,” an indicator of submissiveness that rises to the level of utter capitulation.  Some aver that this tactic is a clever way of saying “pay me whatever you think I’m worth,” but really it’s just a statement that the applicant needs this job and is willing to roll over and accept whatever paltry sum is offered.

I have read articles suggesting that an applicant that always negotiates his or her salary will, over a working lifetime, earn much more than those of us who simply accept whatever is served up by the employer.  The idea is that an employer has more respect for those applicants who are willing to ask for and justify the compensation that they feel they deserve.  The hidden implication, of course, is that the applicant must be willing to walk away from employers who will have none of it.  This may be possible in an economy that is close to full employment, something we haven’t seen in the United States for quite a while now.

Of course, applicants with sought-after skills will have more bargaining power than those with, say, a liberal arts degree and no job experience beyond fast food and babysitting.  The problem is that it can be hard to know what skills are valued by this particular employer.  I once worked for a small business for more than a year when the owner admitted that she had been so desperate for someone who knew how to work her finicky computers that I could have asked for much more money and she would have gladly paid it.

The fact remains, however, that applicants for many positions have absolutely no ability to haggle over their compensation.  Salaries are often set in stone, either by union contract, corporate policy or employer stubbornness.  Many employers treat applying for job like purchasing a gallon of milk:  The price on the sticker is non-negotiable.

And there will always be employers who take offense at the mere mention of pay.  I recall one phone interview that went swimmingly right up until the very end.  I had answered all of the interviewer’s questions to his satisfaction and he asked me whether I had any of my own.  That’s when I took the opportunity to ask about compensation.  It’s not as if I demanded a particular figure; I simply asked what the salary was.  The employer made it abundantly clear that I had a hell of a nerve to even bring up such a topic.  Obviously, I was more interested in money than in working for the company.  I was shocked, and of course I never heard from them again.

Another land mine that applicants can step on is the “salary range.”  Some employers advertise a range of compensation that leads applicants to believe that the starting salary may be anywhere in that range.  So, if I have a great deal of relevant experience and education, I could potentially start near the top of the range, right?  Wrong.  Most employers hire at the bottom of the salary range as a matter of course; the top number is the compensation to which an employee may work up to over a period of years.

These days, I am employed in government work, where salary ranges for most positions are matters of public record.  It is, at least theoretically, possible to start at a salary above the bottom of the range if you have particular skills that are needed and can’t be easily found.  I didn’t immediately understand how this works, but it didn’t take me too long to figure it out.

After two interviews with my current employer, I noticed that I had a missed call from Human Resources.  When I called back, I was told that they had started to call me but then realized that they would have to do further research and call me back because I had requested ham.

Excuse me?  Now, I am a Jewish boy from New York, and a vegan to boot, and I have never eaten ham in all my life.  Why would I ask for ham?

Well, what a doofus I was.  It turns out that HAM stands for “hiring above minimum.”  And it’s true:  Based on my years of experience, I had asked to be hired at a salary above the bottom of the range.  I ended up getting turned down for HAM, because they don’t offer HAM to unemployed people.  To get HAM, you must have a job which you may or may not leave for new employment depending on whether the compensation offered makes it worth your while.

Instead of HAM, I would have to be satisfied with BACON:  The Basic Agreement on Compensation Of New-Hires.  Oh my goodness, I had totally forgotten!  This is a union job!

Okay, it is what it is.  I very much need this job.  But that doesn’t mean that I have no negotiating power whatsoever.  I knew I had to stand up for myself and get everything I possibly could.  So I demanded the California Retroactive Income Supplement to Paychecks.  That’s right, if I’m going to bring home the BACON, I’m at least going to make sure it’s nice and CRISP.

Oh, and I wasn’t done yet.  I am no dummy.  I know all about the various programs for which state employees are eligible.  The legislature has been good to us and I plan to take full advantage of that.  So for my next move, I insisted upon being signed up for Salary Augmentation Under Senate/Assembly Grant to Employees.  You read that right, folks.  I demanded my SAUSAGE rights.

The poor HR lady sighed.  I could tell she hates dealing with know-it-alls like me.  Well, she informed me that, in that case, I’m going to have to choose one of the two SAUSAGE options.  If I have dependents, she told me, I should select a Partial Adjustment to Taxable Income for Employees of the State (PATTIES).  Otherwise, I’d be stuck with the Low Income/No Kids Subsidy (LINKS).  I ordered up PATTIES and thought that I was finally done with this whole unappetizing mess.

But, as it turned out, HR still had one more course to pile on my plate.  It was my own fault, really.  I stupidly admitted that we provide day care for our two-year old grandniece, and wouldn’t you know, that changed the picture entirely.  I was forced to take an additional payroll deduction for a savings plan based on the state’s acknowledgment of the effects that the Price Of Raising Kids Can Have On Personal Savings.

You guessed it, folks.  I’m stuck with PORK CHOPS.

On Student Loans and Dreams Deferred

Most of us who attend college these days have to take out student loans and then spend years mired in debt, trying to pay off the costs of their education.  I am no exception.

The ironic thing is that I nearly escaped this trap.  I was this close when I blew it.

You could say that I had it made.  My parents were teachers and school administrators for years, were frugal and saved their money, and made it clear that they would pay my college expenses and those of my two sisters.

As you may imagine, education was near and dear to my parents’ hearts.  From earliest age, they planted the seed in our brains that all of us were going directly from high school to college, no two ways about it.  We lived in a solidly middle class enclave, and nearly all the kids with whom we associated at school had similar college plans.  Not college dreams, mind you.  College plans.  We vaguely heard about kids who went to work straight out of high school or who went into the Armed Forces.  For us, however, there was a direct college preparatory path into the halls of academia.

In the case of my sisters and myself, college was far more than an abstract idea or a simple expectation.  From our elementary school days on, we understood what college was all about because we lived it.  My parents were always going to school.  At the age of four, my father bought me a toy typewriter because I wanted to be just like Dad, whom I observed, day after day, typing his master’s thesis on a battered manual typewriter in the corner of our New York City apartment.  When I was in fourth grade (and my sisters were in second grade and kindergarten, respectively), we had a babysitter one night a week so that my parents could run out of their jobs and straight to class.  Now that we lived in the suburbs, the drive to the college was two and a half hours round trip.

Then there were the summer classes.  By the time I was in junior high, my mother was working on her master’s degree and my father was on his way to a sixth year certificate in educational administration.  All of us would wake up at the crack of dawn to head up north to the college.  My sisters and I would amuse ourselves on campus while my parents were in class.  We’d walk the tree-lined paths, chill out in the library, play board games in the student lounges, beg my father for quarters to raid the vending machines.  I would pretend I was a college student by researching topics in history and geography and writing papers on what I had learned.  I thought it was the coolest thing to stretch out beneath a tree with a book.  No one bothered the three of us, and many of the professors recognized us.  “There go the Smith kids.”

One summer, my mother had to take a class in entomology at the college’s field campus in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.  This was an even longer drive, but at least it was only one day per week.  My father didn’t have a class there, so he would take my sisters swimming in the pond while I, a fat klutz and certified water hater, holed up somewhere with a book.  Back at home, we’d help my mother get a good grade by catching butterflies, grasshoppers and beetles for her to preserve and mount on pins in her insect collection.

I would burst with pride when my mother was doing research in the college library and asked me to find a particular book for her.  Familiar with the Dewey decimal system from our public library, I quickly learned to navigate the college’s Library of Congress cataloguing system.  We watched my mother tip-tap her papers, and eventually her doctoral dissertation, on her Smith-Corona electric typewriter.

College was in my blood.

All three of us ended up attending the State University of New York, paid for in full by mother. (By this time, my parents had begun managing their finances separately — and they’ve now been married for nearly 62 years!)  As my wife frequently reminds me, I had the kind of advantages that many others do not.

After college, I worked for almost seven years before deciding to attend graduate school full-time.  Once again, my mother fully encouraged me in my plans, agreeing to pay for me to attend the best graduate school that I could get into.  Sounds like a dream, right?

For a while, it was.  I embarked on a three-year course of study at a small private college in New England.  There was the tuition, obscenely expensive textbooks, rent, food and the costs of maintaining my car.  My mother paid for all of it.

When I had one year left to go before obtaining my degree, it all fell apart.  A situation developed that I handled badly and from which I have never been able to financially recover.

Here’s how it all went down:  Just after I completed my first year of grad school, my mother accepted a position as superintendent of schools in a tiny school district in upstate New York.  She rented an apartment there and made the eight hour round trip to visit her house near New York City on the weekends.  By the time I finished my second year of grad school, my mother decided that she would like to buy a house in upstate New York and, eventually, retire there.  (She never did, instead retiring to California to be near her grandchildren.)  She planned to purchase a large house that had plenty of room for me to move in with her and that had a separate office wing for me to set up my own business.  Talk about having everything handed to me on a silver platter!

There were just a couple of small problems.  For one thing, I was thirty years old and didn’t want to live with my mother.  And for another, I didn’t want to set up my own business.

Well, you can figure out how this ended up.  I broke the news to my mother that I had other plans, to which she reacted by withdrawing all financial support.  But I still had one year of school left before graduation.  What to do?

The most sensible course of action, I decided, was to quit school, get a job and move on.  This, however, proved to be problematic.  Without the graduate degree, there would be no professional job for me.  I thought I’d go back to working as a typesetter or proofreader, but the economy had tanked and there were no jobs in that field to be found.  I answered every ad in the newspaper for clerical positions, anything on which I could support myself.  I had no luck whatsoever.  The only job I was offered was in fast food at a subminimum wage that would not pay my rent.  And so, as much to avoid homelessness as anything else, I took out student loans to get me through my final year of school.  All these years later, I can still see myself sitting alone in the grad school lobby, agonizing over this decision.

In retrospect, I should have told my mother what she wanted to hear; later, I could have reneged on my promise and there wouldn’t have been much she could have done about it.  But I’ve never operated that way.  I have a thing for honesty that has screwed me over royally more than once.

There were other factors involved as well.  I felt terrible about wasting two years of hard work.  I knew it was now or never, that I’d never be able to cobble together enough courses at night to earn my degree.  Additionally, I was invested in the school’s culture, stupidly being unwilling to leave behind trappings that, in the long run, did not matter at all.  It didn’t help that, at the time, I had a girlfriend who threw histrionic fits at the thought of me living with my mother forever.  If only I’d had half a brain, I would have gotten in my car and driven to Alaska.

In the intervening decades, I have never ceased to regret my decision to take out those student loans.  In the end, I graduated but was never able to find a position in my field anyway.  Eventually, I was able to make my way back to working as a desktop publisher.

I will be paying on those loans for the rest of my life.  My experience has included defaulting on my student loans, having them reinstated at lower interest rates, obtaining forbearance during two periods of unemployment, combining loans, being mercilessly dunned by telephone collectors and having my wages garnished.

Unlike other types of consumer credit, student loans have the distinction of being non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.  If this were not so, it would be easy to attend college for free by taking out large student loans and then declaring bankruptcy upon graduation.  If you are a low-wage worker, you can have your monthly payments lowered (or even temporarily reduced to zero if you become unemployed), but the interest on the amount owed continues to accumulate.  After a while, the compound interest becomes so huge that, short of winning the lottery, most of us can never hope to repay the debt.

One good thing about student loan debt is that it does discharge at the end of the life of the debtor.  The idea, I’ve been told, is that no education is ever wasted and that it is useful in any type of job, even if the student never works in the field in which the degree was conferred.  Because education is not transferable to another, however, the benefit obtained by the money borrowed ends with the death of the borrower.  As I took out my student loans many years before I was married, I alone am responsible for my debt.  It is comforting to know that the debt will be forgiven when I die, and that my wife will not continue to be saddled with payments after my demise.

Considering my difficult experiences with repaying student loans for a single year of education, I can’t imagine what hopelessness must descend upon those who took out loans to finance four to eight years of college.

But I have learned one thing in the process.  Regardless of the mistakes of one’s youth, we must go on.  Sure, we’ve made other financial mistakes over the years.  My wife and I have had our little dances with credit cards.  With the aid of her superb money management skills, however, we have managed to become nearly debt-free without declaring bankruptcy.  I say “nearly,” because those student loans remain.  They will never go away.

It makes me rather sad to hear people say “I can’t do this, I can’t do that…I have student loans, you know.”  One of my favorite bloggers has posted that she is planning to defer or renounce an opportunity to pursue a dream because she would need to stop working for a while and can’t do that with $50,000 of student loans.  I have unsuccessfully urged her to reconsider this decision, reminding her that loan payments can be reduced or suspended.  And when she achieves her dream, those good old loan payments will still be there for her to begin making again.

After all, student loans eventually go away when you die.  And you only live once.

Don’t Go Begging for Money When I’m Dead. Please!

My wife informed me yesterday that someone on Facebook is seeking donations for an online memorial to honor a deceased relative.

I do not even pretend to understand how this song goes.  I plead ignorance as to what constitutes an online memorial and why it is necessary to collect money for it.  I am guessing that there is some connection between the online memorial and the dear departed’s family offline.  Perhaps funds are required to pay for the funeral of the deceased or to help the family cope with final medical bills or a loss of the family breadwinner’s income.

This reminds me of a phenomenon that I have often witnessed in both northern and southern California (but not in my native New York):  Children and adults waving signs at intersections and street corners advertising homespun car washes being held to raise funds to pay for the funeral of a deceased family member.  Typically, the entire family, from kids to grandparents, is out there in a store’s parking lot with buckets, rags and squeegee bottles filled with liquid soap.  Whether the sponge-and-rag crew does a good job or not is almost beside the point.  What really matters is the one holding the sign and the kid jumping up and down and waving his arms to attract the attention of captive audiences stopped at the red light.  A common prop is an enlarged photo of the deceased mounted on a sheet of cardboard.

I can’t help but think that the dead guy (or woman) must be turning over in his or her grave with embarrassment.  Oh, wait, I almost forgot — they’re not even in their graves yet.  That’s what the car wash is supposed to pay for.

I wonder where they keep the corpse in the meantime.  Is she still stuck at the morgue waiting to be claimed by the family?  Or maybe stashed in someone’s garage?  Every time I pass one of those U-Store-It places, I wonder whether they’ve ever found a body swathed in a shroud in the back corner of Unit 72.  I can see the employees chatting in the front office now.  “I say, Bertie, what do you suppose is that rank odor wafting out of Unit 72?  You don’t fancy there’s cheese fermenting in there, now do you, bloke?”

Calling the story writers of Storage Wars:  I think you’ve got your next plot development nailed down.  I can see it now.  During the auction, Dave Hester can yell “Nooooooope!” while Barry Weiss falls off his golf cart when he passes out from the fumes and Jarrod and Brandi bicker about how much to bid and whether a coffin would be likely to sell in their store.  Fade to the car wash on the corner with the sign twirler displaying a photo of the dead guy.

But seriously, I can’t think of anything more tacky than raising money for a funeral.  Well, maybe the decorations in fancy script affixed to the rear windows of automobiles:  In Loving Memory of David, March 18, 1952 – July 21, 1993.  Rest in peace, Daddy!”  Someone ought to start marketing these.  Just think, now you can always have your loved one’s headstone with you where’er you may roam!

It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for cash-strapped families who are faced with the sudden death of a loved one.  But the whole car wash thing is nothing but a form of begging.  I don’t see families with the chamois as any different than the panhandler with the styrofoam cup.

So what’s the answer?  What’s an impoverished family to do when a family member suddenly casts off this mortal coil?  In days gone by, I believe that churches stepped in to provide the deceased with a decent burial.  But today, so many are not affiliated with any house of worship, and local churches tend to be so cash-strapped as to be without the means to offer such generous gestures.

Of course, this was less of an issue in the past, when funerals didn’t cost $10,000 or more.  By the time you add up the costs of the casket, the embalming, the beautician, the burial plot, the headstone and the clergy, you’re talking about a lot more money than most of us have in a savings account or a coffee can.

I once asked my father what the morgue does with corpses that no one claims.  He told me that in New York City, where he grew up, the deceased would be interred in a pauper’s grave on Hart Island in Long Island Sound.  Many thousands are buried there in mass graves dug with prison labor.  Not exactly what a loving family aspires to, but it caters to the needs of the destitute and those without families.

I have no idea what northern California’s equivalent of Hart Island might be, but I will tell you this:  When I’m dead, whatever you do, do not go begging total strangers for money for my funeral.

As for my father, he tells me that when he passes on we should tie him up in a burlap sack and throw him in the ocean.

Um, need your car washed, mister?