I just finished my breakfast—three eggs over-medium with pie. Apple pie. For me, this unusual breakfast is fairly common. Susan bakes. Not every day, but often. Apple pie is frequently in the mix, and it works well as a breakfast food. It’s mostly fruit and grain. But because it’s breakfast, you have to include the eggs. Eggs make it valid. Pie alone is dessert. And eating dessert for breakfast is just immature.
For most of my meal, I work to keep the eggs and the pie separate. Yolk and apple don’t mix. But at the end of the meal, when all that remains is a gooey mess and the crust, I chop up the crust and mix it all together. It’s sort of a sticky grand finale for my meal.
Three weeks ago, Susan and I cooked breakfast for a homeless shelter. We do this one Saturday per month. Our kids used to join us in this task, but as teenagers, it’s impossible to get them out of bed on a weekend morning. So now it’s just the two of us. Our menu this time around? Sausage, eggs and apple pie—only no one ate any pie. Our diners haven’t learned the secret of pie for breakfast. They probably thought we were being immature by serving it.
During this morning’s breakfast, I thought about the shirt I’m wearing. It’s the first time I’ve worn it and I’m feeling conflicted and a little snobbish.
My winter-attire tends to resemble a uniform. Until recently, that uniform was jeans and a black turtleneck. A decade ago, I got a black turtleneck from L.L. Bean as a Christmas gift. It became my go-to shirt to keep me warm around the house. I quickly bought a second. And then, for every Christmas over the next six years, I received a black L.L. Bean turtleneck as a gift. Now I’ve got a drawer full of them in various stages of decay. Each day, when I got home from work, I slipped one on and listened to my children, wearing nothing but a t-shirt, complain about how cold we keep our house.
Last year during a Christmas road-trip, we took a break from driving to buy some socks. Gettysburg is a small town. We have few options for clothes shopping—just Walmart and a lame little outlet mall. When we drive by a big, exotic store like Cabela’s, we need to stop and stock up on specialty items. Things like Wigwam socks. At Cabela’s, on a whim, I bought a flannel shirt.
It was a slow start for that shirt. It took a while to mix in with my turtleneck brigade over the span of last winter. I’ll bet I only wore it a half a dozen times. But as the weather started getting chilly last month, my Cabela’s flannel emerged as my new favorite shirt. I’d wear it for two days, wash it and pull it out of the dryer to wear it again. I needed some spares.
It seems that it’s time to change my uniform—jeans and flannel now. Although the nearest Cabela’s is three hours away. I turned to the internet to buy a few more shirts.
I hate online shopping; here’s a perfect example of why. Cabela’s has four or five different styles of flannel shirts for sale. The shirt I have fits perfectly—I want a replica of that shirt. If I wind up with a different style, it won’t feel the same. I’ll still have a favorite flannel shirt and a few that aren’t quite right. I couldn’t figure out which style I owned, so I didn’t buy any at all. I just bitched about it and wondered when I might drive by a Cabela’s again.
Sick of listening to me complain, Susan went to Walmart and bought a couple of flannel shirts—just like that. I’m pretty happy with them. They fit well. They seem to be washing up fine, not shrinking. They look like any other flannel shirt, including my Cabela’s shirt. And they only cost eight dollars.
So here’s the conflicted, snobby part of the story. We’re getting strapped. Broke, or at least breaking. I’ve been partially employed since mid-October, and the ends aren’t fully meeting. My employer-paid health insurance ended a month ago, and the out-of-pocket expenditure for my family’s medical plan is now over two thousand dollars per month. So far, we’ve managed to limp along with our checking account buffer and the money we’re earning week to week. But that’s come to an end. The next time we buy anything, we’re into savings.
As I ate my eggs and pie, I considered the difference between buying a Walmart shirt because it’s convenient and buying one because it’s what I can afford. I think I’m getting into “what I can afford territory” and this is new ground for me. I won’t pretend we’re anywhere close to destitute. We have marketable skills and a savings account, but so far, my “impressive resume” hasn’t converted itself into a full-time job. And our savings weren’t put away so I could take a mid-life break from work. My lack of employment is starting to hit home.
Since I quit my last job, there hasn’t been a lot of hand-wringing about finances. Moving immediately into a five-hour-per-day consulting job* removed much of the fear of unemployment. My hope is that this gig transitions into a full-time position over the next month or so. But in the meantime, we’re increasingly paying attention to the money coming in versus the money going out. We can scrimp all we want on Walmart clothes and generic groceries, we’re not earning enough to cover expenses.
There are some items we need pretty badly. Our 1995 pickup truck is all but dead. We paid for a temporary fix to a steering problem, but the real fix will cost a thousand dollars. And there are a handful of other small repairs we need to make if we want to pass our January inspection—really, we should be buying a new car. Eli has been saying for a few months that he needs a new mattress. I have to agree. The one he’s got is cheap and old—he’s beginning to become adult-sized, it’s time for an upgrade. Our response so far has been “let’s get a job first.”
All those little expenditures we’ve taken for granted over the years are coming into focus. Yesterday, I went to pick up artichokes at the store, but at $4,00 each, we truly can’t afford them. Or going out to dinner. Or Sophie’s horse riding lesson. Or travel. Or Christmas. We’ve never entered the Christmas season with an actual budget before—we’ve always had a vague “let’s not go overboard this year” attitude that we’ve never really heeded. This year, I’m guessing, things will be different.
The experience of financial insecurity is eye-opening. I’ve lived my life in a bubble. I’ve always had a job (a well-paying job), and while I’ve never felt wealthy, I’ve always been reasonably comfortable. Compared to many, I’m still comfortable, but it’s now easy to see a path to serious discomfort. A hiccup in my consulting job would be catastrophic. Without my income, we would gobble up our savings at a pretty astonishing pace.
This weekend, Susan and I are cooking for the shelter again. On Saturday morning, the guests will enter the dining room bleary-eyed after their less than adequate night’s sleep in a communal setting. They will have just stashed their cots in a storage room in a church that generously provides overnight sleeping accommodations, and they’ll pounce on the gritty, over-strong coffee I’ve brewed for them. They’ll eat their breakfast of sausage, eggs and donuts (we won’t try the pie again), and they’ll plan their day. Some will work, some will look for work, and some will find an excuse to spend hours at Walmart keeping warm.
Spending time at the shelter, talking with people living in true poverty helps keep me focused on just how much I have. I know this period of unemployment is simply a setback, a bump in the road after an unfortunate career decision. I’ll keep consulting as long as I’m wanted, and I’ll keep looking for that full-time job—one that offers a fair salary and medical benefits. Being forced to watch our expenditures, stressing about money, buying the cheapest option may not be the most comfortable experience, but it might be the most educational.
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* In truth, working five hours a day is pretty fun. It’s civilized. A relaxing morning: breakfast, writing, some yoga. And after work: ample time before the sun sets to go for a run. There’s never enough time in the office to get bored or anxious for the day to be done. If this is what semi-retirement is like, I’m really looking forward to that stage of my life.