Freedom Through Poverty?

Mr. IM has a confession. For all intents and purposes, I’m unemployed. No, that’s not quite true. I’m actually a doctoral candidate at my university, and astute readers (both of you!) may remember that in some of my posts from last spring, I made references to being on a job interview. i actually had two interviews at differing universities (for a faculty teaching position). Let’s just say that I did not get either job. Wah.

While I wish someone would have hired me, I was prepared for the worst. You see, I’m currently ABD (All But Dissertation), and it’s difficult now to get hired for faculty positions without the terminal degree in hand. In a sense, I’m pleased that I actually got two interviews without having the degree! Most universities hire faculty only once a year (for fall semesters), so I’ve accepted my fate that I will live in abject poverty until the next hiring season. My dissertation will be completed by then, and the doctoral degree will be firmly in both hands!

I actually DO have a job right now. Though my three-year doctoral teaching contract ended at my university last May, they generously decided to hire me as an adjunct faculty member to teach one class. It’s a miracle! Unbelievable! This happens to no one in my department, and I can count my blessings that I still have a university job.

Except… I only teach one class that meets twice a week. Except… the salary is so unbelievably low that if I told you what it was, you would either laugh or cry. Believe me, I’ve done both, sometimes simultaneously. I’ll put it this way: there are people who WEIGH MORE than what I bring home each paycheck! I get paid twice a month.

Rainy Day

My wife is also a teaching assistant at the university. She pulls in more than I do right now, but times are still very tough for both of us. Our two salaries combined are well below the poverty line of yesteryear. Rising inflation and dropping interest rates are just additional slaps in the face. We certainly quality for welfare, food stamps, or any other type of government assistance, but we won’t take it. Of course, I’d love to run out and get a full-time job right now doing practically anything, but I also need to finish my dissertation as quickly as possible, and that’s practically a full-time job in itself. Plus, the class that I’m teaching requires many hours of preparation each week, and I want to do the most thorough job I can for the students’ sake.

Listen! Can you hear the sound of steel guitars and banjos twanging? While my story may sound like the beginning of a country song right now, not all is dark and dreary.

THIS, my friends, is why it is important to establish an emergency fund for a rainy day. I’m living my rainy day (or maybe year) right now, but my emergency fund is ready. I have enough liquid savings set aside that I can weather the storm (okay, that’s enough rain jokes for now!). If I didn’t have that emergency fund, I’d be sunk. Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.

Recognizing Freedom

And this brings me to the crux of the matter. Living with such a limited income may seem entrapping. After all, I do have mouths to feed, bills to pay, and a mortgage. While I admit that I have lain awake at night in worry about money, it happens only rarely. Very rarely. The issue does weigh on me, but I’m slowly recognizing elements of freedom within my own supposed imprisonment. Consider this:

Most salaried workers bring home more in a month than I will in a year, yet:

  • I own a modest house in a decent neighborhood. Heck, I even throw a few dollars extra to the mortgage every month. Oh yeah, I can walk to the grocery store.
  • I’m not starving. I eat three healthy meals a day, mostly from scratch. Sometimes a meal may just be a banana (or three), but that’s alright.
  • I pay all my credit cards in full each month. Whenever I do use my cards, I adhere to my usage plan for maximum rewards. I have no debt other than the mortgage. My aging car is paid off.
  • I was able (barely) to max out my Roth IRA earlier this year.
  • I live in a great town with excellent public transportation. I haven’t bought gas since early June. I either ride my bike or take the bus (free) to the university.
  • I have a wonderful, loving, supportive, and thrifty wife!

A few days ago, my wife and I went for a long walk. We walked past many beautiful houses, and I couldn’t help but feel jealous. I thought about how much money these people bring home each year, and about the fancy cars in their driveways, the boats, and the plasma televisions. Then a thought occurred to me, and I’ve felt just fine ever since.

Most of these people are likely slaves to their lifestyles, I thought. Most of them probably do bring home decent money, but likely use it to lock themselves into more and more debt. These nice cars, boats, and other luxuries come at a price. As the old Lending Tree commercial puts it, they’re probably in debt up to their eyeballs.

Maybe the majority of them also don’t like their jobs. Perhaps they feel enslaved to their jobs, having to spend all day at work, only to come home and live life in a routine. Make dinner. Clean up. Watch television. Go to bed. Rinse and repeat.

Maybe I’m not trapped at all, I thought. Maybe most of these people are actually enslaved, and I’m the one who is free.

Whether or not it’s true, the thought helped take my mind off my current lack of income, and back to plugging away at my dissertation so that I can graduate and get a real job.

Though I’m having to supplement my pitiful salary with my emergency fund for the time being (and therefore taking a net loss each month), I know that it is temporary. There are important life lessons to learn and remember in not having much money. I have the essentials required to sustain life (food, shelter, clothing). I even have a few amenities that bring joy and comfort to my life (cell phone, DSL, occasional bottle of red wine, whole-bean coffee, and dark chocolate). On the other hand, I don’t have a television or a regular phone line. We own one car. We also rent a room in our house to a tenant. That helps a lot.

Lest anyone misunderstand the point of this post, I am NOT saying that there is necessarily freedom IN poverty. Certainly a life of riches can have its own troubles (look at almost every lottery winner case), but a life of outright destitution is just as fraught.

My point simply goes back to the old adage that money does not buy happiness. I have a great life right now, despite living far below the poverty line. No, I can’t go out to eat whenever I feel like it, nor will my wife and I be able to buy Christmas gifts for one another, but that doesn’t really matter. It just means that we get to cook from scratch most of the time, and will likely spend Christmas morning curled up on the couch together with some cocoa and good books.

We have all the ingredients necessary for survival, and are not slaves to our daily schedules. Sure, increased income may come along for us later, but this is a feeling that I always want to remember.

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