Tuesday, January 20, 2009

the comfort zone


When I was in college, living low and stringing together a bunch of part-time jobs, as long as I had enough extra money in my pocket for a tank of gas or an all-you-can-eat happy hour, I was content.


When I was working full-time at Paramount, my pay went up, but of course so did my expenses. That was about the time I started socking money away, knowing that the whole kid issue was about to raise its expensive head. As long as I could take part of my paycheck - no matter how small - and put it in a savings account, I was okay.


When I was a stay-at-home mom and going back to the days of stringing together jobs for a little extra money to supplement the FX's freelance income, as long as I could pay most of the bills each month, I was alright. Those were the years of paying bills on alternate months, so that everything was always a month behind, but not far enough that they'd turn you off. Those were the years of buying food with credit cards and making minimum payments on the balance. Those were the years that the only entertainment we could afford was putting the baby in the stroller and walking for eight hours.


Those were the years that formed money personality I am now.


Sometimes it's hard for me to remember that I grew up with money. I lived with my mom and my step-dad and we were pretty darn comfortable. There were lean years for quite a while when we first moved to California, but by the time I was a teenager and had bought a clue as to what was going on, we were looking good. My step-father was a touring musician making an excellent income, and my mom had a very successful business of her own. My father was, to be perfectly blunt about it, a very rich man, handing out hundred dollar bills like candy. (Given the choice of spending time with his children or throwing money their way, he chose the money. A hundred times out of a hundred). I lacked for nothing money-wise when I was a teenager,and in the typical way of teenagers, didn't even realize how good I had it.


But. You knew there was going to be a but in here, didn't you? My mom and my step-father divorced and her financial situation changed drastically. My father, through his own (to be perfectly blunt again) stupidity, was on the verge of bankruptcy. My college fund was piled high on the Vegas craps tables. So halfway through my first year of college, for the very first time, I experienced what it was like to literally not have any money. To say I was ill-prepared is mild. But I was young and adaptable and, lets face it, kind of stupid, so it all turned out okay. I worked my way through an inexpensive state college (all six years of it) and looked at the entire time as the biggest learning experience of my life, in ways that had nothing to do with exams and term papers.


All that penny pinching and denial came back in full force when I was staying home with my kids. It had to. Our survival depended on it. My being able to stay home depended on it. I didn't want to work at that time, so the deal we made was that the FX would make as much money as he possibly could and I would figure out a way for us to spend as little of it as possible. If I had to label that period, it would be as The Years Without A Safety Net. Sure we had parents who didn't want us out on the street and we had credit cards, but we lived very close to the edge. A freelance income is a scary thing. Sometimes it's there and sometimes...it isn't.


This has been something I've been thinking about a lot lately, because my comfort level has changed so much in the past year. For several years pre-divorce, we had achieved a nice life, although there still seemed to be money leaks that made me crazy. The FX not only had his regular job, but a decent freelance income to boot. I was working. We had reasonably good health insurance. We may not have had a ton of extras, but we were safe. If a huge expense came up, he could just go out and pick up another project. And if he couldn't do it right then, we could wing it until he did. That's the magic of freelance. Every phone call, every rattle of the mailbox, is fraught with anticipation. Something lucrative could always be on the other end. And very often was.


That's not a factor in my life anymore. There are no unexpected checks in my mailbox, and the phone calls are mostly people who want to sell me time shares in Pittsburgh. I have my nursing income and my child support, and it's enough to get by comfortably on, but my comfort zone has diminished to almost nothing. I feel like a woman without a safety net, even though that's not the case at all. I've become compulsive again, and although that's a darn smart way to be in this horrendous economy, it's stil freaking me out. If I dip below a certain amount in the bank, even when my bills are all paid, I panic. Ten years ago I would have thrown a party over the same amount. An unexpected expense makes me crazy. I just keep thinking that my child support will be gone in seven years. I have children. They used to be tiny and now they're not. I know how fast seven years goes by.


I have seven years to come up with Plan B. I need a safety net.


Does our financial comfort zone change by our circumstances? By our life experiences? Or is it the age factor, that feeling that time is running out to "prepare for the future"? Perhaps some combination of all of these?


Whatever the reason...why does comfort always seem just one step away?

15 comments:

The Finely Tuned Woman said...

I am on a month to month comfort zone and I start again from scratch at the 20th of each month when my welfare payment comes in. I don't usually have any big unexpected expenses and would not know how to deal with them. I would have to beg and borrow, short of stealing. I have 10 Euros in my savings account. It's just there to keep the account open, although I would like for there to be more. I am not scared. I don't have much to loose and I know I won't loose what little I have. I have a lot of optimism and maybe some day I will have a job.

Mya said...

This post struck a huge chord with me. I'm not sure I've ever felt 'comfortable.' My husband is a freelancer and we have the same ups and downs (seem to be on an extended down at the moment!)But it's funny how even when you do have money, the thrifty habit is a difficult one to break. I'm in agreement with finely tuned woman -a lot of how you deal with financial crises depends on your mental attitude and the importance you attach to certain things.I am quite relieved to be skint in the current financial climate - I really have nothing to lose! Why not come to France? It's a good place to be poor -nobody is interested in your income - it's quite liberating.Round these parts a lot of swapping and bartering goes on - you never see any money changing hands at all.
I personally feel comfortable as long as there is enough to feed us, fix the car if it breaks down, keep us warm and pay for the house. And there usually isn't. Which is why I am often highly stressed!That said, I am constantly reminding myself of my good fortune - things could be so much worse.
Mya x

Maggie May said...

Every age has it's problems & worries, financially or otherwise.
Pensions let you down if the Government pilfer them or the Stockmarket isn't doing well. Banks squander your money and give little interest & sometimes *lose* your money.
As you get older, just hope & pray you have the energy to work! And that some one will want to employ you when you are old. I am living from day to day. I thought I would be comfortable in old age...... how wrong I was!

Flowerpot said...

I've never had a pension RC neither has my husband and I'm a freelancer, (currently chasing 3 unpaid invoices) so I know just what it's like. But then those with savings are having a bad time now because of the interest rates - you cna't win.

WT said...

"Does our financial comfort zone change by our circumstances?...Or is it the age factor...? Well, you are kind of old.

Potty Mummy said...

So true RC. We've been going through since Husband left the bank last summer, and it's not a great place to be. Not sure what the answer is, but until we find it, essentials only. Dammit.

Rose said...

I also have an interesting relationship with money. Poor as a kid but didn't know it. Had debt issues with first marriage and when I was on my own it was VERY important to be debt free. I remember calculating to the penny how much I could spend on food when I was single, making sure to have enough on the weeks I had my daughter. Would wake up in the middle of the night reviewing the monthly bills and income, making sure it would work out. Now it's better, but I still have issues with money, at odd times, and unfortunately have passed some of the angst onto my youngest, who was around for it. But it's empowering to know you can make it on very little, isn't it? I know I can handle most things, although an unexpected expense does make me pretty nervous still.

laurie said...

you don't need a plan b, and you don't need another safety net. when the kids go in seven yaers, so do their expenses. your grocery bill will drop to nearly zero. your gas bill will drop because you won't be ferrying them around.

you won't have to buy them clothes and Wiiis and replace their broken ipods. etc.

Rc, none of us feel safe in this economy. look at me over at my blog, blathering away about fears of losing my job when the truth is irght now i have a good job and a fine income.

it's the economy. it has all of us freaked out. i bought a winter hat yesteday, 50 percent off, i needed one, it's not a luxury, it doesn't even look that good on my head. but i came close to almost not buying it, because i am worired that i am going to be destitute when i'm 80.

it's this fucking economy sorry about cursing but that's waht it is.

things will get better starting at, oh, NOON TODAY!!!!

Rudee said...

It's hard to feel comfortable with our economy in shambles, even if we're gainfully employed and have a little something in the bank. The global picture may be driving your anxiety. Hopefully, this will improve soon.

aims said...

*whispering* write the book....

Akelamalu said...

We never had much when the boys were young. We're probably better off now than we've ever been but that will change at the end of the year when I retire no doubt with pensions being so poor. :(

Devon said...

I think it is the lack of a safety net. I take a lot of risk, selling antiques, starting a publishing company, etc... (my mom has a list). But my hubby has a good, steady income. If that were gone, I would find the most secure nursing job and be paranoid if there were less that 5,000 in my savings acct!

sharon said...

With regard to losing your child support I agree with Laurie. Although you will always buy stuff for your kids and help them out when they have hard times the constant expenses will go away. In 7 years the world economy will be in a different place so all you can do for now is the best you can, ie pretty much what you are doing already ;-). Keep stretching those pennies as far as they will go, tuck away a little for the future as and when you can and keep paying the mortgage. I think most of us are in more or less the same boat regardless of our working status unfortunately. Oh, and as Mya says, bartering skills etc is a brilliant way of making the budget do that little bit more!

lv4921391 said...

wow...I've heard of the concept of a "comfort zone" ....actually I was in it til the RE bust of 93...lost my rental units and home...haven't recovered...don't see a way out...(had the root canal)...push is coming to shove later this spring...

Rositta said...

Our life has changed dramatically in the last year. The incredible meltdown of the financial sector caused by the stupidity and greed of Americans who mortgaged themselves to the hilt to buy another dam TV or trip has caused all bank stocks worldwide to crash. That took my small nest egg with it. On top of that my husband who is a carpenter, tore a tendon in his arm and with our pathetically miserable social health care system, has been waiting 4 months for surgery and were not even close to seeing a date yet. That of course means he can't work and I'm definitely pinching pennies. Our comfort zone is getting smaller daily. Of course there is the issue of my impending blindness in one eye and life has become downright miserable right now. Thank goodness for my early training in poverty and an immigrant to this country. I learned my lessons well and we will survive this. When I hear figures such as 150 MILLLION spent on yesterdays inauguration though, I get downright ill...ciao and good post.