Mr. IM is back! In the last few months, a lot has happened. When last I posted, I was Mr. IM – homeowner, starving artist, graduate student and teaching assistant at a major university in the Midwest, doing everything I could to keep the bills paid on an embarrassingly low TA salary. When I say low, I mean it: there are people who earn a lot more in interest/dividends each month than I brought home as salary. Though we were poor, my wife and I were happy with our surroundings and with one another.
Now, I’m Mr. IM (Dr. IM actually, but whatever) – college professor, hungry artist (but no longer starving), and renter of an apartment in the great state of Texas.
So, since this past July, I’ve packed up all my belongings in the house I own, moved nearly 1,000 miles away, and started a new job and a new life in TX.
The Threat of Lifestyle Inflation
I spent six years living the life of a poor graduate student, barely struggling to make ends meet on an absurdly low stipend. Times were very tough, and I admit that there were days (weeks? months?) of very low morale. My wife and I survived by being necessarily frugal: clipping coupons, evaluating and re-evaluating every purchase, and by walking/biking most everywhere we went.
Those days are rapidly falling behind us. On October 1st, I received my first real paycheck. It’s actually the largest paycheck I’ve ever received, and I admit that there was temptation to go out and celebrate by… spending money. Ironic, huh? At least, it should be ironic, but that’s how we’re programmed – when we receive a raise, a windfall, or some other general increase in income, we tend to also increase our general spending. That’s called lifestyle inflation. Hey honey, I just got a raise at work, let’s buy that king-size bed we’ve wanted… (or) …let’s trade in our car for a new one… (or) …let’s go buy one hundred pet ferrets! Well, you get the point.
We’re not rich by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just that my old salary was so low that I’ve had a 500% increase! In reality, we’ve gone from far below the poverty line to roughly the median income for our new city. Still, we’re living off of a single income (my wife isn’t working at the moment), but that one income is larger than our two previous TA salaries combined.
Last March, after I received the job offer, I hung up the phone with my new employer and ran in circles out of pure jubilation. After the initial excitement wore off, my wife and I shook hands and agreed upon one critical issue – despite the new job and the increase in income, we would do our best to continue living like the poor grad students that we were. In that sense, we defeated lifestyle inflation before it even had a chance to begin.* Okay, I admit: we did go stuff ourselves silly that night at our favorite restaurant (Indian food… yum!), but we didn’t go on any shopping sprees or buy any big-ticket items.
Before landing the new job, I had many sleepless nights worrying about what the near future held for us. I was approaching the end of my doctoral studies and the job market for my field (in the Arts) was rapidly drying up. We were in the midst of The Great Recession, and it was taking its toll. Jobs that had already been announced were closing their searches for budgetary reasons, and many colleges started hiring freezes, forbidding any new faculty positions from being filled at all.
Unnerved doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. The sheer thought of having spent ten years in college/grad school just to watch the job market collapse was enough to make me feel like vomiting. Still, I was ready to accept my Fate, and I was willing to find any job just to pay the bills.
Despite my credentials as a candidate, I feel very lucky to have actually landed a job in the middle of The Great Recession, and my heart goes out to all hardworking people who have either been laid off or are having difficulty finding any job. There is always hope.
I distinctly recall fighting throes of anxiety and doubt last fall. I even recall trying to suppress feelings of anger at how abysmally low my paychecks were compared to how hard I had to work. I remember the bitterness and the resentment, and the feeling that I was somehow trapped.
Then something miraculous happened – I took a walk. My wife and I liked to take daily walks around various neighborhoods in our old town, and this walk was no different than any other. It was a lovely day in the early fall. The leaves were already starting to turn hues of yellow, orange, and brown, and there was just a hint of crispness in the air.
We walked through several neighborhoods, many of which contained beautiful houses. We surveyed the new cars in the driveways, the manicured lawns, and yes, the occasional boat. I remember reflecting on how unfair it was; despite my hard work, these people were likely bringing home more each month than I was in a year. While I wished no ill will upon them, that’s still a hard pill to swallow.
Out of the blue, I had a wonderful and liberating thought, and I wrote about it last year. The thought was this: maybe I’m not the one who is trapped at all. Sure, these people bring home a ton of money, but many of them are likely slaves to their lifestyles. Maybe they’re in debt up to their eyeballs, or perhaps they are slaves to jobs they despise and live life in a routine – get up, go to my dreaded job, come home late, make dinner, vent to my spouse, and go to bed. Rinse and repeat.
That day, I realized that there is a certain kind of freedom that one attains through poverty. Please note that there is a huge difference between being poor and being destitute, and I’m only referring to the former. My mistake was in fostering a mindset that focused on what I did not have and could not have rather than focusing on the things that already made my life rich. I had fallen into the classic, grass-is-greener mindset.
It hit me in an instant that I had a great life. My income sucked, but I enjoyed my work. My wife and I shared a single car, but it’s all we need (and it’s paid off). I was able to pay all my bills (barely), but I had a roof over my head. We’ve lived without a television for so long that I’ve practically forgotten they exist. We were even able to save our pennies and splurge occasionally on the few material items that do bring us joy, such as good chocolate, whole-bean coffee, and good wine.
In other words, I finally understood that, basic survival issues aside, the only ingredients one really needs to attain happiness are: a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou. (Omar Khayyám)
Now that I’ve received my first real paycheck, I don’t ever want to forget those humble feelings.
*(P.S. Okay, I lied. There has been one tiny bit of lifestyle inflation. We now buy organic ketchup instead of the regular kind. We think it’s delicious! Hopefully, it’s not a crack in the dam.)