Freedom from want

Revisiting the question of sufficiency, I turned to my wife, who said she sees the answer as freedom. She remembered being unable to pay the rent or mortgage, or visit the doctor, or put groceries on the table – and her desire to be free of those fears. Again, there’s that LIBERTY engraved on our coins! When our income is insufficient to meet basic needs, no amount of attitude readjustment will do the trick. The landlord, the bank, the clinic, the supermarket all demand their coin, and you “render unto Caesar.”

Jesus looked hard at the denarius and observed both what it could and couldn’t do. He wasn’t wearing rose-colored glasses. Dealing successfully with money requires realistic expectations and a recognition of its responsibilities.

I had already been reconsidering my calculations for the nest egg required for financial independence and perceiving how much higher the amount would be if children were involved. Now my wife reminded me of discussions we’d had when we were courting. She had run the same calculations a few years after I did and concluded she’d need a million dollars as the minimum. Interest returns had already fallen to half of the baseline I’d been considering. Health insurance was a must in her case, where I’d thought of going without. (I was younger then, OK?) For her, going without a car was not an option.

“And it would probably be $2 million today,” she added. Times have, after all, changed.

Heatedly, we debated strategies, but they all came down to living within the stream of dividends interest – holding our spending to a figure slightly more than I was earning as we talked. Annual travel would be the one big added category. And we’d have enough to get by, if we remained prudent.

Just as I was getting comfortable in the discussion, she threw in another ringer. Do we sell this old house and build a very energy-efficient new one nearby, reducing our natural gas and electrical bills by a few thousand dollars a year, or do we do extensive renovations here?

Emotionally, I leaped to the fact that she’s the gardener, but I’ve become quite fond of my big asparagus patch and would hate to start over. Were my passions clouding my calculations? Curious, I asked if we’d pay for the construction out of the principal, off the top, or from the income stream. There are pros and cons, either way. I was left wondering if she’d already picked out the site and had begun designing the home. I decided not to ask. I’d rather we finish what we’ve already undertaken, first.

She mentioned there would be no change in our essential lifestyle. Much of the yard-sale furniture would move with us. “I like it,” she said. “But I might have someone build us a large dining table. I really want that.” She added, “And I would go shopping – I really love shopping.” Nothing makes her happier than finding a good bargain, especially when she can share some of it with others.

For me, the biggest benefit in her model would come in its freedom of time – many of the major projects in my life would shift from part-time to full-time attention. I could better budget my schedule. There would also be more hours to be with people other than my coworkers, for pleasure as well as service.

Actually, for me, that day might not be far off – if I could take early retirement. My wife, meanwhile, was coming into the years when she could undertake a new career and see it grow. We calculated the cost of the classes to get her there and how we would stretch to pay for them. We believed it could be done, even if it meant drawing on my Individual Retirement Account. (Creative financing is a gift for those who learn to look carefully at that denarius or dollar.)

When children enter the equation

She then mentioned that all the financial independence advocates she had read were either single or childless couples, something I, too, had noticed. One of my coworkers, observing the lifestyle of a recent retiree, explained, “Oh, he’s a DINK.” Eh? “You know, dual-income, no kids.” Having children really does turn sufficiency considerations upside-down

Even with medical insurance, most Americans have been just one catastrophic illness away from bankruptcy. Having children raises the odds. We think of good friends who watched their two six-figure trust funds turn into a six-figure debt after the birth of their second son. Moral decisions, especially, take precedence over economic decisions. One’s values appear, in this case as an act of faith and love.

On the other hand, listen to a teenage daughter begin her litany, “I need a car,” “I need a cell phone,” “I need a new laptop,” and it’s all you can do to keep from your own crisp litany in reply, “What you really need is a job” or “What you really need is to take better care of what you already have.” (Do I have to start dressing for the role, too?) I do need to be careful that my reply comes as an act of faith and love. In our household, she’ll have to contribute to reaching her goals. I don’t want to crush her dreams; I simply want her to accept the obligations that go with them. It’s tempting, of course, to try to live vicariously through her flights of fancy, but I’m not sure that’s healthy for anyone, either. You’ve probably seen parents who have tried, all the same.

I recall a former clerk of our yearly meeting who once mentioned she could name a number of parents who were practicing good, simple Quaker lifestyles but were nevertheless spoiling their children. The dichotomy, she said, was striking.

In reply, my wife told me of a controversial magazine article about two professionally employed parents who were living quite economically in New York City. They even had rent-controlled housing. But the frugality didn’t apply when it came to their children, and as a result, the couple was sinking irrevocably into deep debt. Private school tuition and summer camp, especially, were way beyond their means but deemed essential. “What values are you teaching your children,” she asked, “if you’re racking up debts you never intend to pay off? What are the moral lessons?” She ponders alternatives. “Why don’t they change jobs and move somewhere that has decent schools?”

When it comes to money issues, do you feel you have enough to meet your needs? Not enough? More than enough?

How much income would be enough to you to feel satisfaction in your life?

How much would be enough to free you to pursue your personal values?

If you have children at home, how do they change your nest-egg calculations? Do grandchildren enter the picture?

What would you want to do differently if you had more money? How much more?


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