broadsideblog

The (price of the) unconventional life

In aging, behavior, business, domestic life, education, life, Money, US, women, work on July 28, 2013 at 12:20 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of Broadside’s readers are in their teens and 20s, in college or university, or probably headed there. Some are thrilled at the prospect of acquiring more formal education, possibly all the way to a Phd or professional degree.

Diagram of the gown, hood and bonnet used in g...

Diagram of the gown, hood and bonnet used in graduation/presentation ceremonies of Ph.D’s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Others, like me, are wary of school, chafing in classrooms, weary of authority. Wondering how else — is it possible? — to acquire the credentials and skills they’ll need to make a living.

This recent blog post, by a student at Brown, one of the U.S.’s  most prestigious and costly universities, asks some serious questions about what “success” looks like:

i have a goal. it’s farfetched, extremely open-ended, and it might be fleeting. my goal is to refocus. my goal is to revisit this idea of being human and reinterpret the meaning of success. success has looked only one way for as long as i’ve known the word: a big house, lots of
money, a nice car. success has been the american dream. as a child of babyboomers, i’ve seen the american dream take hold and manifest itself in a lifestyle that is hard to say no to. it’s a lifestyle of security and certainty. but what i’ve learned is that this lifestyle, as enabling as it may be, has forgotten a lot of things that i find extremely important. it has forgotten how to be simply human and has focused on how to be monetarily prosperous. i’m down with the good life, don’t get me wrong. i’m just thinking that i might have a different path in mind for myself. know i have something else that’s ticking inside of me, and it can’t just sit at in cubicle and work for 8 hours then to go home to frozen potstickers and minute-maid lemonade. it wants to run wild, rampant, and ridiculously free.

I appreciate her passion and her questioning of what constitutes the “good life.”

By the time a student has been admitted to Brown, or any other super-competitive school costing $30-50,000 a year, they’ve likely been groomed from infancy to focus solely or primarily on the achievement of visible, conventional goals.

Everyone they’ve known — in prep school, at summer camp, in their SAT prep classes, on their sports teams — is expected to head in the same direction.

Up.

How about….sideways?

Surculture, Subculture, Mainstream

Surculture, Subculture, Mainstream (Photo credit: cesarharada.com)

The problem is, if your parents/friends/family have all bought into the same dream — moremoremoremoremore — it’s lonely and weird to step off the track, let alone figure out a way to do so and not live in a box beneath a bridge.

I attend a church with some very wealthy parishioners, so I’ve seen some of their assumptions of what their children will do. One woman, whose husband and daughter were safely ensconced as corporate attorneys, had a son, 28, who had not even — facepalm! — finished college.

He was not an addict, in prison or chronically ill but unfocused, and had traveled the country doing a variety of odd jobs.

English: This is a diagram depicting the perce...

English: This is a diagram depicting the percentage in US who have no health insurance by age. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But her dismay at his wandering was intense, and, to my mind, bizarre. I finally met A., assuming he was a gormless wreck. He was funny, smart, observant, charming, curious about the world. I immediately saw he’d make a terrific journalist.

When I mentioned my idea to a church friend, she gasped in horror, sniffing: “You can’t make a living as a  writer!”

I was furious — and told her how much this reaction offended me.

This, while I was coughing up $1,200 a month for my apartment and an additional $500 every month for market-rate health insurance — a yearly sum of $20,400 before car insurance, gas, groceries, dentist’s, haircuts and the rest of life.

Yes, it’s far from the $150,000 to $300,000+ that a young banker or lawyer can earn. The sort of work that young ‘uns from wealthy precincts are de facto expected to choose.

But it is a living.

It is a life.

If you want to pursue creative, non-corporate work, you will pay the price. You will earn less, far less, than many people you know or meet. You may never own a home, of any shape or size. You may never own a vehicle, or a new one. You may find yourself shopping for most things in thrift or consignment shops or on sale.

To lower your living costs, you might share space with others, or live in a rural area or work several part-time jobs.

It’s fine. It’s a choice.

But it’s a way of life you will rarely, if ever, see fetishized on television or in popular media. It is not a life filled with designer luxury goods or vacations in places your wealthier friends have ever heard of. Your social circle might be much smaller, filled with people who truly share, understand and live the same values as you.

And you may also feel very out of step with your co-hort; many people my age now own multiple homes. They drive $90,000 vehicles and run major companies or organizations.

I recently contacted a young editor about freelancing — the daughter of one of my high school friends.

If I had stayed at that newspaper, my first staff reporting job, I might be her. I might well be her boss.

Yes, that felt extremely disorienting.

But I also relish my creative freedom, deeply grateful for a husband whose union-protected, full-time office job frees me from cubicle life. I’ve had well-paid staff jobs, in offices in Manhattan buildings, working for name-brand publications.

I didn’t especially enjoy them.

Working hard, with steady clients, I make a decent income, enough to save 10-20 percent every year and still enjoy some of the things I love: fresh flowers, pedicures, travel. It’s still far less than I made in 2000; my industry is a mess and pay rates are lower than they were then.

But one-third of Americans are me, now — working freelance, contract, temp. Millions of Americans, certainly my age, will never have a job with a paycheck again. Here’s a searing New York Times story today; make time to read some of the heartbreaking 125 comments and take them to heart.

We have no “benefits” from an employer, no paid sick or vacation days. We have no access to unemployment insurance if our work dries up.

The choices we make affect our lives, now and later. The decisions we make have consequences.

Make them, freely.

But know their costs.

  1. I completely agree with your thesis that it is all a choice. I went to journalism school, straight to grad school, then law school. Now I’m that corporate attorney, about to buy my first house, but I do realize everyday that it is a tradeoff. (The hours I clock when I would like to do something creative.) But it gives me security — I don’t come from a wealthy family, I’m a first generation college grad. So I have to make my own way — and I will. I intend to circle back around at some point, but who knows when I will get there? For now, I intend to do good work and enjoy where I am while I am there, sometimes it actually is a lot of fun.

    • Congrats on your first house! Such an exciting moment.

      I really appreciate your perspective because we all come out of a specific set of circumstances, and financial fear/hope will shape our choices as well. I had once anticipated inheriting a decent sum, (low six figures), from one of my parents, but that’s gone, and so have my fantasies about it! Good thing I have stayed in a small, affordable place and kept on saving.

      I didn’t mean to disrespect corporate law…just to point out that there other options for people who are not offered a longer menu.

      • In a similar vein, I am always weighing against each other security and a need to do something meaningful. There is no safety net. Not making it on my own financially seems about as disastrous as death. I studied art, but didn’t pursue that because I realized the lifestyle would give me an ulcer if not a nervous breakdown.

      • Completely true! I wanted to be an actress, but knew I would never be able to tolerate that much poverty and insecurity — at least journalism does offer staff jobs, and often at good salaries ($60-80-100k+.) You can also save up and go freelance, even for a while, or weather a job loss (unless you have huge overhead and debts.)

        I guess the crucial question is what defines “making it on your own”? Is it just getting the basic bills paid? Plus saving for retirement? Plus owning property and a vehicle? Plus six to eight months’ emergency savings? Kids?

        You can live on very little — if you’re OK with that! It also matters a lot *where* you live…in NYC-area, simply crossing a bridge (by car) can cost $8 to 10 for a one-way toll. That really adds up fast for doing nothing more exotic than heading into or out of Manhattan. Rents here are insane — $1,400+ is “normal” for a studio apartment. That locks many people into jobs they hate for the privilege of NYC glamour.

      • Practically speaking, I think it does have to mean savings for retirement, although this didn’t cross my mind as a new college grad. It is no more fun to be broke and have no place else to go at 75 than at 30. And your body will break down and stop being able to work. You will not be able to predict when.

        Otherwise for me, “making it on my own,” means I know I can make the rent next month. I know I can see the doctor if I get sick. I know I can eat and I can get to work.

      • Indeed it does!

        I live in a building full of people in their 70s, 80s and beyond. It seems that many/most of them have pensions (!) and decent Social Security incomes. We plan (hope, if we are healthy and alive) to have our mortage killed within a decade, sooner if possible, so our only housing cost is our co-op’s maintenance fees on the apartment (which is still an annoyingly high $9K a year.)

        Being able to see a doctor is crucial. Even at my lowest moments, and there were several very difficult years on my own, freelance, I always paid that effing $500/month health insurance. I would not live one day without it, and it meant a very bare-bones life for a while.

      • I’m pretty sure that by the time I need to retire, Social Security won’t be robust enough to cover everything. Also, because I’m a public school teacher, it’s a bit more complicated as I pay into a separate teacher’s pension plan that I may never contribute to for enough years to get an adequate pension out of, but that also means I will get reduced Social Security payments when the time comes. It would all be a lot simpler if I had stuck with a single profession instead of making a change, but I don’t seem to be the stick-with-one-thing-forever kind of person. I seem to be the do one thing for six to eight years and then try something radically different kind of person. Oh, well…

      • You are much more the norm now than Jose or I who have done one thing since college…

  2. Thanks for writing this, Caitlin. You’re talking about me and my work ‘pattern’ for most of my adult life. Out of sheer desperation I succumbed to a more conventional work choice over the last two years and it has squeezed almost every drop of blood from my soul.

    I have never questioned the rightness, for me, of my choice. I unequivocally accept the compromise because the pay-off can be so rich – happiness, fulfillment, self-worth.

    I am currently taking steps to reclaim my old pattern and already a significant weight has been lifted.

    • It’s a tough call…the arts pay crap and no one seems to value them but those of us who do it!

      I recently applied for a fancy FT job at a fancy place. I may get an interview and we’ll see what happens after that. But my heart always yearns to do a certain sort of work, (like that in my book proposal and last two books), and the endless dilemma is $$$$ versus creative satisfaction.

  3. Caitlin,
    Wonderful reflection. As one who attended an elite, and very expensive liberal arts school, it still disappoints me that so many of my incredibly talented classmates, got right on the fast track to corporate lives in New York City or Boston working for banks or law firms.
    Working obscene hours to accumulate money to accumulate things without any time to enjoy a different “version” of life certainly has no appeal to me.
    I suppose if I were a parent forking over 50,000 a year for school, I’d be nervous if my child didn’t seem to care for economic stability. How many parents send students to expensive schools and are simply content with their children becoming enriched, set off on a life journey, but don’t necessarily have a master plan?

    • Thanks so much! I thought of you when writing this, as you work with students and see this in daily life.

      There are many things to think about…1) why is corporate life so appealing beyond income/status? Or is that what people most want? 2) why is a “sure thing” so obvious a choice? Yes, if you’re up to your neck in student debt, you do what you must to get free of that…yes, if you want multiple children and need a place to house them decently. 3) why pay $$$$$$$ for an education if you want to choose a non-corporate life? It seems to me that college is now a sorting mechanism in that respect.

      I would not spend $50K a year to “educate” my child if their goals were artistic or creative freedom. I’d suggest they learn a valuable set of immediately useful, mobile and practical skills (teaching ESL, nursing or carpentry or bar-tending, whatever) to support their ambitions.

  4. I’ll probably be taking a regular job after college to support my writing. I don’t expect to own a house or anything, but an apartment with a cat might be nice.

    • I’m pretty sure both of those are do-able.

      • I’m glad, because the fact that I haven’t sold 20 copies of my book yet has been a little bit of a wake-up call.

      • With all due respect, if you have (?) self-published and are also a FT student, I would not necessarily expect huge sales…The self-pub. market is very crowded (as is commercially published work.) It is not easy to find readers for anyone.

        Many commercially published books never sell more than 500 copies == which is insane and a total waste of everyone’s time. If you can move 10,000 copies into readers’ hands these days, it’s considered respectable. (Just for some metrics…)

      • Seriously?

        My point is not to”bum you out” but to explain the larger realities of trying to sell (a lot of) books. It is difficult as hell. If you didn’t start out knowing that, you will discover it, whether it’s pleasant or not.

        My first book sold very poorly, despite some very high praise from reviewers. Authors quickly learn that “success” is a crapshoot.

      • Well, I’m not going to stop trying. Heck, today a friend of mine bought two copies of my books. At least one of them I might sign. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

      • My goal is not to depress anyone — the web is filled with chirpy, perky, you-go-girl blogs encouraging writers. But I know the world of publishing and I would rather have readers enter it fully aware of their choices than naively.

  5. I gained a degree, and then found myself in a career that I didn’t essentially want to be in. I was earning a great salary and could afford things that I’d always wanted, but I disliked my job and spent all my time at work.

    As I’m not married, I don’t have children or a mortgage and my partner pays his half of everything I’ve decided that this year I am going to work part time, simply because I can. I’ve already been granted Monday’s off, so I’m going to devote Monday each week doing something that I actually want to do that will make me happy. I’ll have to take a pay drop of a fifth of my current salary, but I’m hoping that it will be worth every penny!

    • How did you end up there, though? Was it just the income that made you take the job? Or had no idea how much you would dislike it?

      But — yay! — a four day week. I can’t much imagine that easily happening here in the U.S. I bet that one extra day is going to change your life. I hope you’re blogging about it.

      • My Honours degree is in music. After four years at music college, which was highly competitive, I never wanted to see a violin ever again! I found a job as a Learning Mentor, working with students with behavioural difficulties, which I loved. Unfortunately, the funding for my job was cut after a year, but when the Head of Music at the school found out I had a music degree he offered me the chance to train as a teacher.

        Eight years later, I’m working in a lovely school. I’ve been a Head of Music myself – I covered for my boss’s maternity leave, and while my school is great I’m exhausted and stressed… We had the capacity for me to drop a day, and so I jumped at it. My boss was surprised at first, but she’s been very supportive…

      • Thanks for sharing the details…It’s interesting/challenging to combine vocation with income. The great myth of “just do what you love” is really misleading. One can end up hating what one once loved.

        Hope it all works out!

      • Thanks! I’m certainly going to write more with my extra time!

    • Congrats to you!! Someday, someday for me…

  6. You have said it well, as usual. You should Google Mike Rowe’s recent talk at the Boy Scout Jamboree – it is about the profound disconnect that has occurred when so many are directed down the college path to get essentially abstract jobs and the concrete or skilled jobs are abandoned as not worthy. We need to resurrect the idea of vocation as relevant and honorable.

    • Thanks for the kind words — and a terrific tip! Mike Rowe is a central character in my book proposal, as I read every word of his testimony on this issue to a Senate committee on this issue. If this book sells, I will definitely want to hear that Boy Scout speech. Rowe is right.

      • I will cross my fingers for your proposal to be picked up – this is a highly worthy topic!
        Here is the link for his speech:

      • Thanks much…I’m speaking to my agent tomorrow so I hope to have some news on this after Labor Day, when editors return from vacation.

  7. I’ve been on the corporate track for years and sacrificed fun times with friends and family and dream daily of a flexible schedule”. I hope that I am so lucky to have a freelance writing career some day as my “second career”!

  8. I have a professional degree, and have learned the lesson of what truly is important to me by reaching a point where I had to re-evaluate many of the choices that brought me to that moment. It’s not easy correcting some of the previous actions that left me feeling next to zero (I wrote a poem titled Zombie, it’s about me checking off the list of a conventional achievement-oriented life that ended up with me disconnected and not living with eyes wide open). I have the 6 figure income and am gradually pairing back so that my daughter and I can have the life I hope for us and that she knows money, prestige and conventional living are a large price to pay in exchange for not being oneself. Great piece, I have a hood and gown that collect dust, but my mind has expanded in ways I never though possible simply from picking up a pen and writing.

    • What a powerful comment. Thanks for sharing.

      I was fortunate, I think, not to ever have been pushed toward a specific life or income or type of work. Whatever choices I’ve made, for good or ill, are mine. I have often wished for a much higher income, but I know that the compromises needed are not something I am skilled at sustaining.

  9. Greatr post! To me, the terms of ‘up’ or ‘success’ are socially mediated; we are told that academia reflects ‘intelligence’, money ‘success’ and so forth. In reality it doesn’t. My experience of academia is of a vicious world of tiny minded and grossly insecure intellectuals desperate to tear each other down to assert their own place. Cynical? Maybe, but that’s how I saw it and why I don’t work in it now. It was a choice. I don’t regret it. Money – absolutely buys choices and security, but again on my experience those who have the most of it usually have to sacrifice something to get there, often happiness. I made the choice to write, among other things, which society certainly does not value monetarily, but it’s been a lot more satisfying than some of the alternatives.

    • Academia has never appealed to me, although I admire people who are experts in their field.

      No one in my family has a graduate degree and my mother and step-mother never went to university (but did very well in creative fields anyway.) So I’ve never had the requisite reverence for it.

  10. I could not agree more! However, I came to similar conclusions after spending quite a time in academia and then in the corporate world.

    I think I would have regretted it if I would have never known what it really felt to be part of these communities – I would not be able to convince my younger self now, I guess :-) Probably I wanted to prove to anybody (including me) that I can “make it” if I really want – it took me quite a time to find out that you can excel at something without really enjoying doing it forever.

    From a pragmatic perspective my – financially rewarding – stint in the corporate world allowed me to make a transition gradually now – without having to worry about revenue from day 1. I admire anybody who goes for an entrepreneurial career right after college, but I am a paranoid control freak and rather played it very safe.

    However, I would not draw the line between “employed” and “freelance” jobs – I think it depends a lot on the industry sector. As a self-employed IT security consultant I earned more than as an employed consultant.

    • All true — good point!

      I worked freelance for four years after graduating university, then four years on staff at two newspapers, then a few more years on staff at magazines in New York. I think it’s necessary to understand the pressures facing your clients — if freelance — and the credentialing is as useful as steady income.

      I feel more confident in my skills having tested them at three big newspapers in three highly competitive cities with 4+ dailies each.

  11. when i was 40, i chose to leave my career in advertising, to go to grad school and change careers to teaching young children. i knew the money and professional acclaim would be much less, but i have loved every minute and never looked back. i still have an arena to use my creative skills, love working with children, and have incredible time off. time and a stress free life became much more important to me than money, and it has been so worth it. )

  12. a life with a small community of close friends and family sounds lovely, but i’m beginning to understand that the price of the unconventional life is more than just a dollar number. the story of the traveling 28-year-old man reveals quite a bit for me. the costs of stepping out of the beaten path can have a domino effect that reaches not only for those who make these decisions for themselves, but also those who are close to them. it is encouraging, and very helpful, to hear your perspective, thank you.

    • The bottom line remains the same — whose life is it? Who are you on this earth to placate and please? Yourself? Your parents? Your peers?

      The happiest people I know have chosen their own path and, however it turns out, know their life has been what it was meant to be. Some people have a powerful sense of vocation — literally — called to be or do something. Others don’t.

  13. Great Piece! I’m one of those who stalled going on to college for 29 years. Like in the Mike Rowe speech I waited until I knew what I wanted to study. Which was probably good since the field of study I’ve chosen didn’t exist when I got out of high school. I agree that the work place is undergoing radical adjustments to what it once was and I’m not entirely sure that the new direction is a good one either. Mike’s point about “Profoundly Disconnected” really resonated with me and I think he’s correct, though I’m not sure if even he has a full understanding of just how profoundly disconnected this society has become…

  14. My job of 36 years has just ended and I’m in a vacuum state of not even wanting to contemplate ‘what next’.
    So it was great to read an inspirational blog of what you can achieve when you follow your passion rather than a salary.
    I will start to work out my passions in life and then how I go for it. It’s a fear and one I will embrace.
    http://recoveringmeuk.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/face-your-fears-it-could-be-more-fun-than-you-think/

  15. Such a spot on article. I graduated college in ’08 and continually finding myself between two choices: continue working for “the man” and make minimal money while continually re-investing in an educational system that has not paid off (salary-wise), or drop it all and see what happens. The second option is not so much an option now… I’m the breadwinner for my home, and bills unfortunately could not be paid upon my partner’s salary. However, I dream of the day I can walk away from it all and pursue my creative dreams and passions. You’re very blessed to be able to do that daily. I wish you the best!

    • Thanks. I think the American economy is at an inflection point and we’re living it.

      One reason I never invested time or $$$ in graduate education (and all due respect to those who did!) was that I saw very early that I could get paid to write (and improve) instead of paying to sit in a classroom to learn to write. But many fields do not allow for that sort of apprenticeship.

      I am lucky, indeed, but let me be clear — I write plenty of stuff that is NOT a creative dream or passion but pays bills, adds to our retirement savings and grows my skills and reputation. If I ONLY wrote exactly when and what I pleased, we’d starve!

      • Haha, I completely understand you! I have recently taken up copywriting to support my income. Some of the topics are… less than favorable to say the least. But it helps pay the bills, which brings me one step closer to being able to pursue passions one day. And I couldn’t agree more about graduate school – I graduate in December from it, and with only a few months to go, I’m questioning what the purpose was when it’s literally to just pay the bills and even at that, will take years to get there.

      • Ouch. Sorry that grad school was not the experience you had hoped for.

        The one bit of study I did after university was my interior design studies, which I absolutely loved and planned to switch careers. But I felt others in it had a LOT more talent and the requisite $$$$ social connections to get their businesses thriving, so I stuck with this.

        I like it and don’t regret it, but I do wonder “what if”?

  16. I enjoyed reading this thought-provoking and inspiring post. Some of the points you made remind me of a book I read recently: “What the Best College Students Do” by Ken Bain (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/07/17/new-book-looks-college-students-motivated-creativity-not-grades).

    It is a fascinating book and Bain interviewed a lot of people, including people who loved their college experience as well as others who found that college didn’t work for them and who decided to go a different route. Fundamentally, Bain’s message seems to be that intellectual and creative curiosity is the key to ‘success’, in whatever way one chooses to define that word. In other words, people who study and work for the sake of success aren’t usually the ones who break new ground.

    Personally, I love college and I’m pining to go back into my sophomore year after taking a year out to look after my mother. My goal is to become a college professor because I thrive in academia and I feel inspired to share my love of my chosen subject (Linguistic Science) with others. But I recognize that college isn’t right for everyone and I don’t think young people should be pressured into going to college simply because it feels like the prescribed route. There seems to be a mentality nowadays that not going to college equals failure. And I think that puts even more pressure on people in this already frenetic, high-pressure world.

    • Thanks!

      If my book proposal sells, Bain’s book will be required reading for one of my planned chapters, so thanks very much for the tip and recommendation. I had not heard of it.

      I agree that without curiosity, you’re toast. I think many kids are given no option…how else CAN you make a living without a college degree? The answer might be a vocational path — manual labor, cosmetology or hairdressing or massage — but these are derided as “less than” when many people make a very good living at them. I enjoy what I do, but sometimes really long for a job that uses my hands and is outdoors, not just tapping at a keyboard all day long.

      I attended interior design school in my late 30s, intending to leave journalism. It was a revelation! I was very good at it and absolutely loved the experience. All of it. I loved that it was visual, three-dimensional, experiential. A very, very different experience, and a much happier one, than my prestigious university and my expected BA in English. But there was another key difference, which was small classes and professors who really seemed to care how we did. They were not soft! But they noticed and praised talent, which happened rarely for me at U of Toronto.

      Your mother must be very proud of you.

  17. What an inspirational post, Caitlin. Clear-eyed, no-BS, matter-of-fact assurance that it’s possible to make your own way in the world. And not only possible, but more rewarding. Those “costs” you talk about are also investments in pride and self-worth and confidence. I’m very slowly but very surely building a life for myself that’s prioritizing writing and a sensibility somewhat different than what I grew up in, and I feel so much better than I ever have. It hasn’t been easy, but the internal rewards are priceless, so the money I might be making somewhere else wouldn’t do me any good anyway.

    My burgeoning not-white-picket-fence sensibility is maybe what that Brown student is longing to find, or at least an example of what she might find. I was her ten years ago, and while her goals are still open-ended, mine are becoming refined and realistic. I hope she comes to believe that her goals are not far-fetched and I certainly hope they’re not fleeting – for her sake and, if you’ll permit me a grandiosity, for our country’s in general.

    Anyway, thanks so much for this post – I needed it. I always seem to need it, because I seem to always be fending off the luxury high-rent two-cars-cars-in-the-garage lifestyle pressure. Knowing you’re out there doing your thing, and doing it so well and enjoying it so much that you’re compelled to share it and its hurdles and rewards with so many people so often, is really motivating.

    • Thanks…

      I hear you. But…and you know there’s always a but…I’m actually earning LESS than I made in the year 2000. That’s worrisome, indeed — and that’s since writing two well-reviewed books and with clips from virtually every publication you can think of. Pay rates in my field are lower now, and I refuse to work nights and weekends to catch up financially. We do not have children or parents relying on us financially, so we are very fortunate in that regard. I really scramble hard every year to make an income that would shock you it is so low (relative to my media visibility, for example.) People have assumed I make $100k+. I wish!

      Many people end up (through a series of choices) stuck on a treadmill of very high overhead — $5,000+ every single month just to survive and manage bills and debts — and they have very little flexibility as a result. The less it costs you to live safely, the more choices you have. It’s that simple.

      In other words, could I still afford to live like this on my own, buying market-rate health insurance? It would be very difficult. So, I’m glad this is inspiring, as that’s my goal. But it’s a really challenging choice to skip the 401(k) crowd and try to consistently earn enough on your own. My husband has a decent job and it gives us affordable health insurance; that is a very significant help.

      The larger issue — how to live and in what (more) modest fashion materially? That’s personal. I’ve made twice this income, sitting in a NYC office tower, loathing every minute of it. So it’s not just about the $$$$ we make, but the lives we lead as we do so.

  18. It’s certainly worrisome. But so, to a lot of people, is a 401(k), or whatever corporate retirement fund. I don’t want to sound like a wild conspiracy theorist, and I don’t think we’re back to the post-1930s-Depression money-in-the-mattress days, but I know a lot of people my age and younger (“The Millenials”) are increasingly wary of big banks and the corporations that feed/rely on them, and are trying to be creative not just about how they make their money in the interstices available to them now, but how they’ll save and invest that money they do make for the future. I just don’t think the corporate job is the same safe default it was for the thirty or so years before the later 200Xs.

    I think that “modest fashion” mindset is spreading, or more and more people are adapting to it as it becomes their reality. One of the consequences of a shrinking middle class and growing class disparities, I guess. New realities require novel paradigms. Which is the test of my and the following generation.

    • Absolutely!

      One of the themes of my new book (if we can find a publisher) is the new “contract” between worker and employer. There isn’t one! We are 100% vulnerable and it is a very frightening prospect to know your job can disappear overnight with no warning. Let alone a six month (for you young ‘uns) to two year+ job search for the next one….usually for 50% (!) of the last salary you had.

      Which is why you have to save a TON of money! Americans have a shockingly low rate of savings…really, really bad. So part of this new paradigm is that you will have to live lower, and save — as NORMAL behavior — 15 to 20%+ of every penny you earn, starting as soon as you make money (and are free of college loan debts.)

      No one wants to hear it. Saving is boring! Saving is tedious! (It is. I hate it. But I do it anyway, always guilty for not saving more.) Who in their right mind (like me, sigh) wants to live their entire damn life in a small apartment? BUT….the cost of a larger place (upkeep, maintenance, rising property taxes, huge mortgage) is something people hate to face as well.

      The American economy is 70% (!) driven by consumer spending. We have a serious problem here in just that one regard…

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