Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hey, didn't you wear that yesterday?

The experiment of wearing only six items of clothing for a month -- and no one noticing! -- doesn't really surprise me.

See, I think you can live a 'middle class' life-style, at least to all outward appearance, on a minimum wage level.

Pegasus Book had a good stretch of business between 1987 and 1996, in fact the highest sales totals in our history. (We peaked at 4 stores.) Our profits were also higher, though that included payments on loan principle as profit, so our take-home pay was probably less than today.

Anyway, when we went to Consumer Credit Counseling in 1997, (for the next 6 years), I realized that we had pissed away a whole lot of money on meaningless crap. I'd grab a 20.00 out of the register every day, and buy myself lunch, or chips, or soda, or candy and donuts, or beer and wine, or fast food dinner, or whatever. I know that very little of that 20.00 made it back to the register.

I figure Linda was probably doing about the same thing.

But just consider taking about 15.00 per day, just for me. That turned out to be about 5000.00 per year, for ten years. 50,000.00. Which is actually more money than we owed on our credit cards.

I made a rule. I never took money out of the register for personal spending. If I did, it was earmarked for a specific purpose. I started brown-bagging my lunch, and I stopped dropping by the 7-11.

It's also amazing how driving an older Toyota, (great gas mileage), and not trying to be a clothes horse saved money. Our entertainment was movies and cable; we had all the reading material we could ever need through our stores; our vacations consisted of camping and/or staying with friends and family. By doing this, we could pay for our essentials -- rent, overhead, food, clothing, etc.

To most outward appearances, we were living a solid middle-class lifestyle.

I maintain that no one notices what shoes you're wearing. And frankly, if they did and they judged me on them, I don't care to know those people anyway.

One of the shocking things, was reading "whoa is me" stories in the paper about "poor" families, and realizing that they were making more money than us!

It's been hard, actually, now that our profits are up to actually spend money. We eat out more, we stay at motels, we buy more clothing and snacks, we have better cars. But...frankly, it wasn't that hard to stick to austerity. The debt load hanging over our head was stressful, for sure. For most of those six years of C.C.C. we were paying about 40% of the gross profits from Pegasus Books on debt alone -- and it didn't leave anything for anything.

I'm also realizing that there was a whole lot of deferred maintenance going on; you can't drive those older cars forever, your clothes really do start to fray and become noticeable out of style, you put off dental bills for years but eventually something breaks, and never buying anything nice can get dispiriting. I still never buy anything nice. I still feel guilty. It took my five years to finally spring for my big screen T.V. That's been about it, for me. I don't need or want much.

Because of the bubble, we actually bought our house with a minimum wage budget -- which is pretty amazing, when you think about it. But we have always earmarked a bigger percentage of our income toward our housing, so even at minimum wage it wouldn't have been a problem. Mostly because we've avoided debt since 1996. We still live relatively frugally.

The one thing I wish I could have accomplished earlier, that would have saved years of stress, is to get a cash-flow savings fund for the store -- so that there never was any danger of having to pay overdrafts. I paid for a lot of overdrafts during those CCC years, which is admitttedly crazy, but when you're just scraping by, it hard to hold onto a cushion.

Anyway, I think maybe the whole country is learning that they can get by on less, that it doesn't make you less happy to drive an older car, to go out to dinner a little less often, and to brown bag our lunches. At least, it didn't make me any less happy. It was fine.

1 comment:

H. Bruce Miller said...

It's a lot easier to get by with only six items of clothing in Bend than in NYC. In fact I think a lot of people in this town don't own anything but a pair of jeans and a couple of T-shirts.