Well, assuming all goes as planned (big assumption, I know!), according to my budgeting software this year I should see a combined earned and passive income of about $52,000. That’s only $13,000 short of my late, great full-time editorial salary, and $8,500 more than I earned teaching full-time. And it’s a far cry from what crossed my bank account’s threshold last year, about $28,000.
I learned a lot of things by trying to live on 43 percent of my pre-layoff salary, very valuable things:
• If you’re not in debt, you can live on a lot less than you think you need.
• If you are in debt, you’d better have a good stash of emergency savings to cover payments.
• You can live frugally and still be reasonably comfortable, most of the time.
• No matter what anyone says about the alleged tax advantages of carrying a mortgage, when you’re unemployed a paid-off roof over your head is your second-greatest asset.
• Your third-greatest asset is a paid-off car.
• Your greatest asset is good health, should you be so lucky to have it and keep it.
• Beans, rice, and pasta are splendid things to eat.
• Chard growing in the garden goes a long way toward putting a nice meal on your table.
• A stand of lettuce helps, too.
• With careful planning, it’s possible to stay out of stores for surprisingly long periods.
• Raising the deductible on your homeowner’s insurance comes under the heading of penny-wise and pound-foolish.
• When budgeting for irregular income, it may be good to create longer budgeting periods than a month. At times, two- or three-month budgets may work more effectively.
• When money is tight, that is when every unplanned expense in creation crashes down on your head.
Despite fears to the contrary, I managed to stay in my home and live without too much deprivation by budgeting carefully, stockpiling food, conserving energy, and putting less money in savings.
It’s surprising how little it takes to get by when you’re not working. I would have done OK on even less, had I been inclined to shop in thrift stores and low-end grocery stores. It’s also clear that I could have cut living expenses still further by moving out of my present home, which has relatively high operating costs, and going to Sun City, where taxes and insurance premiums are significantly less.
What kept me in my home was not having a mortgage. Some years ago I decided to defy conventional wisdom by paying off the mortgage I had on my last house. It occurred to me that each monthly mortgage payment I did not have to pay represented a return on investment of exactly that much. I owed about $70,000 on the house and was paying about $860 a month, which, when the alimony ran out, was more than half my monthly take-home pay. Less than $200 of the PITI comprised tax and insurance. My investments earn about 7 percent; 7 percent of 70 grand is $408. So despite the protestations of two investment advisers, it seemed to me that little would be lost by investing a chunk of savings plus an inheritance in residential real estate.
Over a ten-year period, the house’s value more than doubled, allowing me to buy my present house, a somewhat nicer place in a quieter part of the neighborhood, and pay for it in cash.
If I hadn’t owned the house outright, I can’t imagine what I would have done last year. Although the house has dropped $35,000 in value since I bought it, you don’t realize a loss until you sell, and because I didn’t owe anything, I wasn’t forced to sell or default. There’s simply no way I could have paid $10,320 out of a $22,000 net income and survived. It was extremely lucky that I made that choice all those years ago, and that I’d managed to accrue enough savings to pull it off at the time.
So, I learned that a smart decision can pay off a long time after you make it. And I learned that it is not a bad idea to pay off a residential mortgage.
Having a lot of savings rescued me from the potential disaster posed by the mortgage on the downtown house. I used the tax-free portion of a whole life insurance policy to pay my share of the monthly payments in 2010. Because we managed to get a temporary loan modification, a couple thousand dollars of that remain to help defray the 2011 PITI.
There were some difficult moments. The cost entailed in falling and hurting myself was a bit startling. It would have been even more startling had I consented to surgery that would have caused the loss of an entire semester’s pay. Living through the summer with the thermostat turned up so high that my friends wouldn’t come inside the house was uncomfortable, and I’ll be happy not to have to swelter like that come next July.
When I would run out of cash, not spending a dime for a week or ten days at a time was a challenge. And the summer months, during which income did not cover base expenses, were nightmarish. Even though I’d saved enough from teaching income, theoretically, to squeak through May, June, July, and August on Social Security, by the time fall semester started I was running out of money. Classes started sometime after mid-month, we didn’t get paid until the last of the month, and that was only a partial paycheck. The summer stipend didn’t help much, because most of it wasn’t disbursed until long after I needed it. Being paid for only two classes during the first eight weeks of the semester didn’t help things much, either.
By December, the money pile had not recovered from the effort to get through three and a half months with less income than outgo. Fortunately, though, the stock market had recovered. The strategy of delaying a drawdown from savings had worked, and my IRA and brokerage accounts had returned to something close to their pre-Crash levels. At that point, my financial adviser and I decided it was safe to start a 3 percent drawdown, which, until inflation kicks in, will guarantee enough in the checking account to pay the bills, exclusive of earned income.
In retrospect, I learned that I would have been better off if I’d put all my summer survival savings into my regular cash flow account at the end of spring semester, rather than setting the money aside in a savings account and doling it out to myself in monthly “paychecks.”
Instead, I should have treated the summer as one three-month budget cycle. This cycle should have contained three months’ worth of expense budget: three months’ worth utilities, insurance, etc., plus three months’ worth of spending money. On the credit side, it would have included all my spring-semester survival savings plus projected Social Security. Subtracting debits from the summer-long total, not from one month’s worth at a time, would have allowed me to see at a glance how much remained to get by on until salary started again. This would have relieved a great deal of worry engendered by fretting about how to get by from month to month. I still would have been in the red at the end of the summer…but I probably would have stressed about it only once, instead of three or four times.
It really would have helped not to have had a $165 palm tree trimming bill in June, a $30 copay to the Mayo in July, a $105 electrician’s bill in August, and a $120 plumbing bill in September. I suppose that when you foresee a financially tight time coming, you should add about $150 to your regularly budgeted expenses to cover Murphy’s Law.
The economy is improving. Eventually most of us will get jobs again, although probably not at what we used to earn. The Fall of the Bush Economy is not the last recession we’ll see. There’ll be more, and they may be worse. By way of preparing for those, I think, the take-away messages are as follows:
• Live within your means, even in good times.
• Within your means, live frugally, even in the best of times.
• Build savings. Don’t limit savings to your IRA or 401(k).
• Distribute savings wisely between cash and investment accounts.
• Pay off debt. That includes mortgage debt.
• Avoid accruing new debt. Use savings to help pay for big-ticket items in cash.
• Take care of your health.
• Expect the unexpected.