A penny saved is a penny earned.

A penny saved is a penny earned.

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I have been thinking about money more than usual lately, largely because I am approaching retirement in another five or six years and I wonder how we will handle the loss of income from my job.  I have earned laughably little income each year of my long working life and so my estimated social security checks will be very modest once I begin drawing them.  Would I have more diligently pursued raises and strived for more lucrative employment had I known earlier that my social security benefit would be based on my two highest of 35 years of earnings?

My situation is the result of conscious choices made over my lifetime of working.  Much of the work of my life — cooking, cleaning house, grocery shopping, yard maintenance, laundry, child care and other traditionally women’s work — does not count toward the social security calculations.  I know in my heart that this work is not worthless, but it is obviously not valued by the bean counters in government.  My natural affinities are for liberal arts — literature, painting, writing, photography — and not the high demand and high paying jobs in engineering, technology, medicine, science. I deemed it important to feel happy in my work.  Because I had my first cancer at a young age (32), I chose to work part-time while my daughter was at home with us so that I could enjoy time with her and being a Mom.  I don’t regret that decision.  And now that I am an empty nester, I still want a more balanced life and have chosen not to return to fulltime work.

Soon it will be time to pay the piper.

I’ve decided not to feel regrets for my earlier decisions and to feel grateful that I know how to live richly on little money.  Library books are free and I am perfectly content to read for pleasure and edification.  My watercolor supplies are relatively cheap and my 10-year-old digital SLR is still able to capture interesting photos.  I live in a city that is walkable and located close to mountains and water.  I don’t drive much, and my old used car has already given me twice the use I projected when I bought it.  I prefer my own cooking from scratch to more expensive restaurant meals. My special treat is a modestly priced Americano coffee drink!  I am educated and curious and enjoy taking advantage of the city’s free cultural offerings. I can wear jeans and tee shirts to work.  I was raised to be thrifty and frugal and have always been able to live on less than what I make without feeling deprived.  How fortunate I am that my modest expectations will fit my modest means!

I was reminded of how wealthy I really am when I read Ben Hewitt’s Saved:  How I Quit Worrying about Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World.  He puzzles over the almost universal and widespread assumption that wealth and security are defined by one’s bank account and monetary investments.  He talks about how corporations and advertising and the media work to create a sense of anxiety and make people feel underprivileged so that they strive to buy more and accumulate more to feel better off.  He says, “Why have I allowed myself to worry so much?  I have never gone hungry, or spent a night unsheltered from the elements.  I have never even been at risk of these things.  Most of my worry, I have come to realize, has emerged from a place of uncertainty and fear.  Not over the present, mind you, or even the medium-term future, but over the belief that I should be accumulating monetary wealth in preparation for an unknown future.  Why?  Because it’s what I’ve been told I must do; it’s what we all have been told we must do.”

I have to remind myself that the advice of retirement gurus, whose magazine columns are supported by advertisers only if the message is somehow tied to selling their products, is based on the assumption that I want a standard of living during my retirement that is much higher than the one I’ve lived my whole life so far.  I don’t drive new cars, eat out daily or weekly, spend lavishly on vacations, etc.  So perhaps those projections which infer the inadequacy of my retirement savings are a false fit for me.  Perhaps I have enough to be comfortable.

Is the goal of accumulating money really a wise way to live?  Hewitt finds his wealth in the things that matter to him:  an abundance of freedom, community, choice, good health, happiness, resourcefulness.

Where are you on the continuum of rags to riches?

Dirt Poor to Filthy Rich

destitute

indigent

pauper

penniless

penurious

spartan

mean

stinting

miserly

tight-fisted

niggardly

stingy

parsimonious

ascetic

frugal

impecunious

thrify

austere

uncharitable

getting by

comfortable

affluent

wealthy

bounteous

generous

munificent

opulent

avaricious

filthy rich

 

 

 

 

Last year, one of my absolute favorite book finds was The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings by Kaylynn Deveney.  This slim volume of photographs captures the ordinary life of an elderly Welsh widow, Albert Hastings.  Hastings wrote the accompanying captions to the photos; his handwritten text graces this book and makes it a true collaboration with Deveney’s intimate photographs.

I’m inspired by Deveney’s thoughtful photographic approach to this project: “I often seek in my photographs the banal moments of the day — the experiences not usually considered significant enough to warrant a snapshot — the quiet clean up after the birthday party ends or the hour before we go to bed.  I look, too, for domestic patterns and arrangements, practiced daily routines that make us feel at home … I believe photographs of our possessions and domestic patterns can be portraits, just like photographs of our faces … the images of Bert’s folded pajamas, nightcap, space heater atop a biscuit tin, and the simple apparatus he engineered to hold a broken daffodil up straight in a shallow teacup, all speak to me of him.”

What follows is my attempt to present a portrait of my Dad inspired by Deveney’s photographic project.  My Dad is a 90-year-old retired farmer, recently widowed, who still lives in the old farmhouse of his childhood.  This is my tribute to him on Father’s Day.

Dad cooking breakfast of sausage and eggs

Dad cooking breakfast of sausage and eggs

Every morning of my recent visit, Dad made breakfast for us — either homemade sausage and eggs, bacon and eggs, or his specialty, pancakes.  He always adds oatmeal to his scrambled eggs and pancake batter.  The bandanna (always red or blue) hanging from his pocket is his handkerchief.  No disposable tissues for him.

Instant coffee

Instant coffee

Dad's favorite, stained coffee cup

Dad's favorite, stained coffee cup

Dad makes himself a cup of instant coffee three times a day, with every meal.  He heats the water for exactly 140 seconds in the microwave.  Although the cupboard is full of coffee cups, he uses the same stained and cracked cup for every meal.

Dad's kitchen countertop

Dad's kitchen counter top

A small, black radio sits atop the microwave, tuned to the local radio station.  Dad listens to the obituaries every day.

Pegging the laundry up to dry outside

Pegging the laundry up to dry outside

Dad hanging his laundry

Dad hanging his laundry

One man's laundry

One man's laundry

Monday is Dad’s laundry day.  He still uses the old wringer Maytag machine in the basement.  And although he owns a dryer, he never uses it.  In winter, he hangs his clothes on a wooden rack and clothes lines in the basement, and they slowly drip dry over several days.  Other seasons, he hangs the clothes on lines outside.

What a change from laundry days of my childhood, when Mom did laundry twice a week to keep up with the demands of our family of eleven.  Then multiple clothes lines could hardly hold all the laundry.  Now, Dad’s few wet clothes fill only half of one of the outdoor lines.

Halving a chicken with a vintage saw

Halving a chicken with a vintage saw

Getting the grill out of winter storage in the smoke house

Getting the grill out of winter storage in the smoke house

Basting the chicken

Basting the chicken

The mid-day meal is called dinner, and it’s eaten at 11:30 a.m.  (We call the evening meal supper, and it’s at 5:30 p.m.) When one of his children visits, it’s not unusual for Dad to prepare a special dinner of chicken on the grill.  He has several chickens in the freezer that my brother raised and butchered.  A whole chicken is too much for Dad to eat on his own, so he doesn’t cook them unless he has company.

Living room window

Living room window

Dad reading the local paper

Dad reading the local paper

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The mail comes around noon, Monday through Saturday, delivered to the old mailbox at the end of our long driveway.  The local paper is a weekly, and it comes every Thursday.  Dad looks forward to the mail, even though so much of it is solicitations.

Dad working a crossword puzzle

Dad working a crossword puzzle

Dad with ubiquitous toothpick

Dad with ubiquitous toothpick

Crossword puzzles

Crossword puzzles

Dad takes time most days to work his crossword puzzles.  Other daily rituals include an afternoon nap, attending five o’clock mass, a bottle of beer before supper, watching the six o’clock news, and then watching Wheel of Fortune.

Cracked paint on the east side of the house

Cracked paint on the east side of the house

Window and iron bed frame in upstairs bedroom

Window and iron bed frame in upstairs bedroom

Upstairs storage closet with extra bedding for company

Upstairs storage closet with extra bedding for company

Someday the old white farm house will be torn down.  My youngest brother now owns the half of the farm with the house, barn, and other buildings.  He plans to build his family’s retirement home there.  My oldest brother owns the other half of the farm, and his family already has a house there.  For now, I’m thankful that my old childhood home still stands, and that Dad is able to live out his old age there.

Dad's worn blue jeans hanging in his closet at the end of the day

Dad's worn blue jeans hanging in his closet at the end of the day