Things I Learned From Buying a House #2: Money Does Not Grow On Trees

If it did, I’d have a lot more than I used to, because I didn’t use to own any trees, and now I own six.  Well, three trees, and two lilac bushes, and a cedar shrub.  Nevertheless, money doesn’t grow on any of them.

I have gone through periods in my adult life when I had almost no money.  One particularly trying time was right after I finished my Masters degree but before I found any steady work.  I had two cats who were often sick, so my credit card was maxed out on vet bills.  My rent was mercifully cheap, but weeks would go by when I had to scrape dinner together from whatever cans I found in the store cupboard, without even the luxury of a bunch of spinach or a carton of milk.  I’d have to refuse invitations because I couldn’t afford to buy bus tickets, and certainly couldn’t splurge for a taxi if I was out late and didn’t feel safe coming home alone.

Those months were truly terrible, and there were a couple of other periods like that, but these terrible times were mitigated by a few factors.

  • I knew the misery would end.  I had three university degrees, a wealth of working experience both in and out of my chosen field, and a clear career path.  I was in a rough patch, but I never had any doubt that someone would hire me to do something.  If need be, I would go back to working retail jobs until someone gave me work I wanted.
  • I had support.  I wouldn’t end up living on the street – if I had to, I would sublet my apartment and move back to my hometown to live with my father.  (During one tricky period between leases, I actually did move into my mother’s apartment for a couple of months.)  Friends offered to buy me dinner.  My ex-husband started picking up the vet bills when I couldn’t afford them.
  • I had, for the moment, a roof over my head, some cans in the store cupboard, clothes to wear, and working electricity and plumbing.  I was in no real physical danger, even if I felt like crap and was consumed by anxiety.

Once I landed a full-time, tenured teaching job, I stopped worrying about money.  I had no big-ticket items/bills in my life.  I consistently earned a bit more than I spent.  I paid off my student loans.  I occasionally had large expenses and didn’t have the cash in hand (a new computer; a trip to Banff; our wedding), but I put them on my credit card with the knowledge that I’d pay them off in a few months, and I did.

Then the landlord called to announce to my husband and me that he was reclaiming our apartment.  We had the money for a down payment, and everyone said, “Buy! Buy! Buy!”  So we did, and we don’t regret it, but the days of “not worrying about money” are over.

Since moving into our new home in July, I have been living paycheck-to-paycheck for the first time in many years.  I can’t just go to Amazon and order a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of books on a whim.  I can’t eat out five times a week if my week just happens to fall that way.  I can’t afford these 5 pounds I put on, because I can’t afford to buy new bras, but I can’t afford to join Weight Watchers again, either.  I spend a lot of time thinking about money.

This is the source of a lot of strain.  First off, the factors above still apply, but differently.

  • My poverty is once again a temporary situation, although much less temporary than in the past.  The mortgage payments and larger utility bills are not going to go away, nor will the maintenance our crumbly old house requires, nor our property and school taxes.  However, the massive expenses of the first year of home ownership (down payment, “welcome tax,” moving, major emergency repairs that we knew we needed to address, essential furniture) are taken care of.  If we stay in our new home, most of those expenses will not recur, and we can mete the other repairs, renovations and purchases out as we can afford them.
  • My support system is very different than it was when I was in my twenties.  My family is no longer in a position to help us out financially (my father, for example, already has a house full of adult children much younger than me who can’t seem to leave the nest, and so has no room for his middle-aged daughter and son-in-law if they fall on hard times.)  My friends have children, mortgages and job troubles of their own – I’m sure they’d offer me a couch and a hot meal if I needed it, but I’d be very embarrassed to ask.  However, I still have support, notably in the form of my husband.  We are in this together.  We also live in a country with a reasonable social safety net (for the moment…), so if one of us loses his/her job or gets sick, we will not be immediately destitute.
  • I may not be able to buy a bunch of books I’m not sure I want, or to eat out when I  could make myself beans and rice at home, but I have a tenured job, and my husband is also gainfully employed.  For now, at least, the paycheques are coming in and we are able to cover what needs to be covered.  We have a roof over our heads, and if that roof  falls in, someone will likely lend us the money to fix it.  We are in no immediate physical danger, even if we are pretty stressed out a lot of the time.

The strain has been a source of a lot of learning.

I am seeing some of my students’ troubles in a different light.  Every semester, I have a student or two who can’t afford to buy his or her books.  Yes, sometimes they can still afford their cell phones or their cars, but sometimes not.  Sometimes they have no internet at home, or even no computer.  I tell them to come use the computers at school, to borrow the books from classmates or the library, to find a way.  But sometimes they can’t access these facilities, or even my messages telling them to come see me, because they can’t pay their student fees.  I gently remind them that in some cases, we can’t go to  college, at least not right now, because we can’t afford it.  But this is easy for me to say.  There were times I thought I’d have to drop out of school because I had no money, but I knew this was never a real threat – my parents would have found some means to keep me there.  Now I’m thinking more and more about what it’s like when you truly cannot have something that you feel is essential – for example, toilets that work properly all the time – because you don’t have the money.

I’m also learning – or re-learning – how inspiring it can be to see the value in things.  I’m finding myself combing the shelves for books I never got around to reading because they didn’t satisfy some ephemeral impulse.  I’m opening the drawers of the DVD cabinet to see if there’s something I’d like to watch again.  I’m looking in the pantry and thinking, “Hmmm.  Lentils, jackfruit in syrup, and wakame.  Let me see.”  I’m SAVING UP for things.  (When I’ve paid off my credit card balance, I get to buy Season 5 of Inspector Lewis, AND new toilets.)  Everything, including the beat-up plastic flowerpots in the shed and the bottle of hand soap that I wasn’t using because it smells too strongly of geraniums, has value.  Every single day, I say a little thank-you because the cats are not sick.

This was something I knew as a child, when my weekly allowance meant I could buy one book once in a while, and maybe a bag of potato chips every couple of weeks or so.  I couldn’t have a new box of coloured pencils or a new ABBA cassette just because I felt like it.  (In fact, I grew up in a tiny town where my choice of books, cassettes and drawing implements was limited to what the local mall decided to stock, regardless of how much money I had.)  When I grew older and had a bank account full of student loan money and a pocket full of cafeteria meal tickets, and a backup plan in the form of a call home, I started to lose my sense that every item, every service, every pleasure, comes at a cost.  Many of my students are in that stage now – their phones, their nights out clubbing and drinking Grey Goose, their college education, are entitlements.  Money is abstract, and comes from mysterious sources not connected to their own day-to-day choices.

I can’t fault them for this; I’ve been there.  It’s good for me, though, not to be there now.  The knowledge that money is real, and that using it for one thing means we must compromise something else, would ideally be instilled in us very young, and maintained throughout the excesses of adolescence.  I admire those young people around me who seem to understand this, as I did not when I was their age.  I don’t envy them the hard times they have gone through, or are going through, in order to learn it, but I can only hope that they are putting the lessons to good use, as I will try to do.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

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12 responses

  1. Having been at the rockbottom of finance myself I know what you mean. No matter how well off I am I always treasure the lessons learned when I had nothing. The lessons of strength, friendship and gratitude for small mercies.
    I hope you enjoy your new house

  2. I’ve learned a lot about myself as our funds have lessened over the past six years for various reasons. Given the global economy, I’m glad I began the process earlier than 2008. Having disposable income for so many years had imperceptibly changed my attitudes, and not for the better. I think I’ve grown since things got tighter. I had to take a hard look at where I was getting my sense of meaning from. It’s been a bit like a detox living with less, and I like it
    .

  3. Thank you for discussing the way that having money and lacking it shape our thinking–and how our thinking changes as our pocketbooks do. It’s a really good reminder of a couple things for me:

    1) gratitude for what I have (even though it never seems to be enough)

    2) gratitude for the ability to choose what to spend the money on and what to leave off because there is not enough money to do both–this is truly a privilege. It is a distinct privilege to be aware of our choices and to be aware of the choices we are making in what we are placing value on. Those who do not have to make those choices are often unaware of the value that they are placing on worthless things and also of the value of the things that they have.

    3) the fact that it’s ok to be lacking something sometimes. This is an especially timely reminder as the American presidential race is about this very topic of whether it’s ok to be in a position where there is not enough money. It has begun to feel in America as though having to make choices such as these–choices about what we will buy now and what we will go without and save up for–is the worst evil that could befall a person.

    You illustrated very well how this mentality looks when you said, “Many of my students are in that stage now – their phones, their nights out clubbing and drinking Grey Goose, their college education, are entitlements. Money is abstract, and comes from mysterious sources not connected to their own day-to-day choices.” It’s understandable for young people to think this way, but it’s important for us to grow up in our thinking. It’s especially important that a country not think that way!

    It’s not easy nor is it pleasant to go through the times that teach us that, but I am thankful that you pointed out the fact that it is actually good for us to scrape by sometimes. And it would be good for us to keep that lesson in mind when the pocketbook isn’t so thin, too. (good for us, but definitely not easy, either)

    =)

  4. I have reached that stage where money is no longer an intangible. It was a hard lesson for me to learn. When you are in college, credit cards and student loan money can make it seem as though “adulthood” is easy, that is of course until you realize you haven’t really been an adult yet at all. I am struggling, like you, and I know my struggle is not one that is temporary. It will be a long time before I can spend money because I “feel” like it. But I am aware of what I need to do and I am not running away from my finances. It is funny because I just posted about this topic about an hour before reading this post. You and I have been on the same wavelength lately. Great minds! =)

  5. PS, but…I am no longer buying DVD’s at Target like I used to. I no longer can drive to places I once enjoyed because I don’t have gas money. I look forward to the day when I will be gainfully employed (either as a teacher or in another field). THIS TOO SHALL PASS. :)

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed your forthright assessment of, what I consider, normal episodes with finances. I’ve faced financial struggles throughout my lifetime and it’s all a learning experience. I love how you’ve described these experiences in such colourful and honest terms.
    Many couples in Canada today have built colossal houses, have two vehicles, trips every year, a motorhome, all the grown-up toys, the latest furnishings, renovations on a regular basis and 1.2 children, but I cannot imagine where the money is coming from or how they are keeping it all going. They are either MUCH better money managers than me or very deeply in debt. We were married 30 years before our first holiday was achieved based on a vacation for just the two of us in an exotic location. Hang in there – all good things come to those who wait or pay their bills.

  7. It is nice to see you are an optimist, knowing that this too shall pass and things will get better (and they will, for most of us). When my wife and I discuss finances I remind her that we are far better off than most of the world. We may be cash poor this week because clients have not paid us yet, but we do have resources, and we do count our blessings. Plus we have each other and that is no minor matter.

  8. Thank you all so much for your comments! It is Thanksgiving here in Canada, and one of my meditations today is on gratitude for my house. No matter how challenging it may be, I am continuously thankful that I have everything that I have.

  9. This is really inspiring..I don’t really have the words to describe how tantalizing your article is being the first one I read from you, I have a lot of respect for someone who has such a sage view of the world and really provokes me to think about my own family’s financial situation and my future schooling. A wise school counselor told me – Experience is what you get, when you don’t get what you want! (: Thankyou so much !

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