Big-picture thinking and the penny-pincher

This morning a fresh experience led me to realize that I spend way too much time on penny-pinching and way too little on focusing on the big picture that is my life—or more to the point, that is my earning potential.

Yesterday one of my former students sent me a LinkedIn invite. This caused me to return to that much-neglected site, where I was reminded that an old friend, a graphic artist with whom I worked at Arizona Highways and later through a talent agency I ran, had made himself one of my “contacts.” When I dropped him an e-mail to ask how things were going and mentioned that I’m now free of the Great Desert University, he invited me to join him for breakfast today with a business networking group he frequents. So, as dawn first colored the sky, I was shooting across the city to a Good Egg restaurant in one of Scottsdale’s toniest strip malls.

I arrived early, and since I didn’t want to be first at the trough, I spent 15 minutes or so window-shopping.

In more halcyon times, a colleague and I used to meet about once a month for lunch at the expensive trattoria that forms one of the small gems in this iridescent commercial strip. She has since moved to a historic whaling village in Massachusetts, and I have since taken to clinging to every penny that comes my way, and so I haven’t been back there in a long time. As I strolled past the elegant interior design stores, clothing boutiques, and gift shops, I thought, “Imagine what it would be like to be able to shop in one of these places whenever you feel like it!”

But when my friend and I were hanging out there, I used to shop in those glittery stores every now and again. And before then, when I was married to the corporate lawyer, I could indeed have shopped there any time I felt like it. Yes, it is true that even when my husband was bringing home a generous six-figure salary, I would never have purchased the luminous bedding set, redolent with satin and hand embroidery (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it…but you can be sure it’s more than my entire month’s discretionary budget). However, on my Great Desert University salary I did buy smaller items, which today I would not buy because I wouldn’t spend that much on, say, bubble bath or bathroom towels.

Can’t say I feel any great loss in the absence of these things, but still…the point is, I’ve taken to denying myself a lovely venue to hang out in and also small, not very expensive luxuries.

The meeting soon got under way: about a dozen small-business owners meet once a week to socialize and trade leads. I enjoyed these guys very much (the group was all-male, though they swore a couple of women belonged). They seemed like pretty nice gents, all of them fully engaged in their businesses and their lives. The group offered a number of ideas for expanding and improving on the enterprises I have in hand just now, and believe it or not, I got a lead to a full-time job. My old Arizona Highways pal has become a successful web design artist, and another member bills himself as “The PC Magician.” These two got me thinking about ways to improve and grow FaM.

At the end of the get-together, the group’s president suggested I apply for membership. Dues are $110 upfront and $50 a month, for which you get the pleasure of their company and breakfast every Thursday.

Gulp! thought I: Where the hell am I gonna come up with fifty bucks a month?

The money would have to come out of the S-corp’s checking account. The corporation actually has enough to cover that. But…it only just recently accrued enough to get me out of teaching one section of freshman comp next fall. And oboyoboy, do I want to get out of teaching one section of freshman comp! If I spend the money on socializing, I’ll be stuck with three sections next fall. And that, in addition to adding to the misery quotient, will put me over Social Security’s penurious earnings limit.

However, I did feel the group delivered more than that much in value received. And it really would take only one assignment to pay for it. Or one full-time job, eh?

Driving home, it dawned on me how ridiculous it is to feel I can’t spend $600 a year to belong to a trade group.

And, like the morning star sitting in that early dawn light, the thought also struck me that I don’t need to draw down money from the S-corp to get out of teaching one section of composition. In fact, I would do a great deal better not to do so! It would be far better to use $2,400 of the $10,000 emergency savings cushion, and to use the pretax money in the S-corp to pay for business expenses.

Duh!

The savings fund has already had the tax gouged out of it. The community college is withholding 15 percent of the $2,400 I earn per class, so that third section is actually worth only $2,040. Using after-tax funds I already have would provide an extra $360 to live on. Meanwhile, The Copyeditor’s Desk can pay for anything that’s even vaguely presentable as a business expense with revenues that are effectively tax-free.

This strategy has two other sterling advantages:

By pushing my earned income below $14,000 in 2010, it would ensure that that I absolutely would not exceed the subsistence wage Social Security allows.

It would cut my taxes significantly, since my total taxable income would drop well below $30,000.

I came away from the meeting feeling energized and excited about building Funny about Money and The Copyeditor’s Desk into serious money-making operations that might, in the future, support me in the manner to which I wish to become reaccustomed. And in that flush of ambition, I realized that I spend too much energy and time figuring out how I can live on next to nothing, and way too little time developing assets that I already have and that could do a great deal more for me.

Case in point: sitting here in front of the computer shivering with cold because I’ve calculated, penny by penny, how much I need to save on utilities in the winter to pay the exorbitant air-conditioning and water bills next summer.

Why have I spent all that time counting little pieces of copper? Wouldn’t I be a lot better off to invest some money in living normally and to devote that time to marketing FaM, spinning off a book from it, and hustling some more editorial clients?

And why am I wasting my time teaching time-consuming, exploitively underpaid junior-college courses when I can live on cash I already have and use that time to develop the two far more interesting enterprises that have already shown they can generate income?

Why? Because I’ve been obsessively focused on pinching pennies, at the expense of thinking about the big picture!

What’s the big picture? It’s life. And it’s how I can make life in Bumhood comfortable without having to accept insulting wages and without having to deny myself little luxuries like central heat.

And so, my friends, to work. It’s time to jump-start that old entrepreneurial engine and get it running again!

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Roomfarm February 25, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Sounds like a terrific networking group — sometimes with stuff like this I just pay the year upfront, if I can. Paying 50 bucks a month thing feels like spending more to me for purely delusional reasons — probably because I worry that there will be a month I don’t have it. It is also a form of commitment, cause if you have prepaid, maybe you’ll show up for every meeting to get your money’s worth. IMHO, it sounds like a good investment in human resources and good company. Can you commit to bumhood and FAM development for a year and then re-evaluate?

frugalscholar February 25, 2010 at 12:52 pm

I don’t know…seems like your teaching gig is pretty good. Also, the time you spend grading/prepping goes down with each semester, so you’ve already made your biggest time investment.

Still, I think you should make pots of money from your blog. Truly, it is one of the best.

funny February 25, 2010 at 12:53 pm

@ Roomfarm: Yup. That’s exactly what I’m thinking. Since I have more than enough in savings to support me for the rest of this year, especially if I’m teaching a couple of classes, why not?

As you can see from the amount the community college district pays, it wouldn’t take much to free me completely from teaching. Probably either FaM or CE Desk could, on its own, come close to earning enough. Together, if they were developed a bit, they undoubtedly would do it.

funny February 25, 2010 at 12:59 pm

@ frugalscholar: It is hard to imagine not teaching…I enjoy the students, and schlepping to the campus gets me out of the house and among humans.

But three-&-three is a bit much, for the amount we’re paid. It’s really more than 50% FTE work (assuming a course load of five-&-five, which is more than I was teaching at GDU), and the pay is way, waaaay less than 50% of a f/t faculty member’s salary, with no benefits. I’d rather keep it to two-&-two, at most. Really, I could be very happy with one-&-one, if enough money were coming from some other source.

Next year, SS will allow me to earn as much as I want to. If I can get one or both of the enterprises up to speed, then teaching can become the source of pin money, rather than the other way around.

Brenda February 25, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Because GDU changed your date from December to January doesn’t Social Security allow you to make an unlimited amount this year?

funny February 25, 2010 at 2:32 pm

@ Brenda: ‘Fraid not. The earnings limitation has to do with the year in which you reach what SS deems to be your “full retirement age.” In my case, that age is 66. Because I will turn 65 this May, I’m a year short. In 2011, when I finally reach an age that Uncle Sam feels is decorous for a woman to retire, I will be allowed to earn all I can.

Carol February 25, 2010 at 4:09 pm

As I think about my own retirement – I’m “only” 60 – one of the things I worry about is how to avoid spending too much time spinning the wheels in my own head. I think your networking group would be a fine addition to your social groups, your church involvement, etc.

Dawn February 26, 2010 at 5:28 pm

I think it is wonderful to find a trade group like that, I would pay in an instant to have that type of brain power help me out in a crunch or provide my own 2¢ to help another person out.

Ken February 28, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Great point. Getting ahead in life is building assets. I still think you can build a business in a slow deliberate fashion without getting too overextended. Investments in income creation are well worth it.

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