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Financial Freedom: Work

This is the third post in a series about aspiring to Bumhood—that is, achieving financial freedom so you can get off the day-job treadmill and gain control over the way you spend your life. Today let’s talk about gainful employment.

One of my editors at Arizona Highways told me about the anguish he felt during a three- or four-month period of unemployment after he’d been laid off a job. His wife earned a good salary, so it wasn’t that they didn’t have enough to live on. But he felt devalued as a human being. The words he used—I remember them to this day—were “If you don’t have a job, you’re nothing.”

Well, no.

Paid work exists for one reason and one reason only: to put food on the table and a roof over your head. You are not your job!

Some of us feel a calling for certain kinds of work. From the time I was about six years old, I wanted to be an academic, for example (having no clue what that really meant); my ex- always wanted to be a lawyer. Many of these callings are none too profitable: teaching, for example, is poorly paid in relation to the actual number of hours a good teacher puts into the job, and I don’t imagine many clergy or social workers earn much. Some of us still have no idea what we want to do when we grow up, and so have to take whatever job comes along.

Truth to tell, unless we fall into a large inheritance or win the lottery, to achieve financial independence most of us will have to pass part of our adult lives in a day job. We need to earn enough to provide for our children and to establish our own permanent financial security. This will likely entail holding a job for at least 15 or 20 years while at the same time practicing some basic money management.

So…what to do to make a living? Whatever brings in some cash.

Do you need to earn a six-figure income to break free from wage slavery? I don’t think so. Certainly SDXB did not: he was a reporter, and although The Arizona Republic paid a decent wage compared to other publications in this right-to-work state, it still wasn’t great. The period in which he made good pay as a freelance PR man was brief, during the bubble that occurred right before the savings and loan crash, which led to a recession almost on a par with the one we’re seeing now. But he did have an income, and by dint of frugal living and steady investment, he managed to step off the treadmill at 47.

Similarly, the Adirondack Chimney Sweep passed most of his adult life in modestly paid work, but because he lived within his means and had built a small sideline, when the city offered him a buyout long before he’d reached retirement age, he was in a position to accept. A friend of mine cleaned carpets for a living. He retired a millionaire, gave the business to his son, built a beautiful house in the woods, and went fishing.

I believe if you live sensibly, stay out of debt, save regularly, and invest your savings, you can build financial freedom no matter what you earn. I know a corporate lawyer who earns a fine income, but because he never put a high priority on managing his money, he’s still trudging to an office every day—and he’ll be 70 next fall. Others who have held lower-paying jobs as teachers, tradesmen, nurses, or, like my father, merchant seamen have been able to quit working altogether or to start new careers that pay less or interest them more.

There are three tricks to converting a job, any job, into financial independence:

1. Live below your means.
2. Develop more than one income stream.
3. Save and invest all funds not needed to cover living expenses.

Living below your means is going “live within your means” one better: the trick here is to stay out of debt and to live sensibly enough that you don’t spend all your income. Then use your unspent income to build savings. If you have a 401(k) or 403(b) to which your employer is contributing, be sure to take advantage of that. But save more, above and beyond pre-tax contributions from your salary.

As part of his strategy to quit his job at the earliest possible moment, my father never went into debt. Any debt. All the time I was growing up, we lived in rentals. He didn’t buy a house until he had the cash to pay for it in full. Now…he had some ugly reasons for this that had nothing to do with personal finance—I’m not giving his bigoted thinking enough credit to describe it here, except to say it was a symptom of the times in which he grew up—but the practical effect was that all the money that might have gone into house maintenance and mortgage insurance went into his savings, which he invested for the long term. The less debt you carry, so-called “good” debt included, the more you can save.

From my own experience, I can see that having a side income stream is crucial, especially if your day job is modestly paid. Teaching on the side allowed me to pay off the second mortgage on my home a year before the Great Desert University canned me. And, when my beloved employer kindly delivered six months’ notice that my office was to be shut down and I and all my staff thrown into the street, I landed a noonlighting job that allowed me to rack up a $10,000 cushion. It will keep the wolf from the door during this difficult 2010, when Social Security rules will bar me from earning more than a subsistence wage.

I feel extremely lucky (or maybe smart?) that over the years I’ve developed more than one set of marketable skills: I write, I edit, and I teach. Today the three of those allow me to earn salaried income and self-employed income: blogging, freelance editing, and part-time teaching in the community colleges. These will carry me over the period required for my investments to recover the $180,000 lost in the crash of the Bush economy.

At this point, I’m free of the day job, light part-time work will support me without having to draw down my savings, and I have enough independent income to deal with the other baleful result of the late, great economic mirage, an upside-down mortgage on a house my son and I mistakenly thought had fallen in value as far as it would fall at the time we bought it.

Things could be better: to be fully confident of having enough to carry me through old age, I would have preferred to work, save, and invest for another five or six years. But because I’ve lived below my means, invested everything in sight, and cranked extra money on the side, I’m far better off than most single women my age, and I’m clearly in a position to enjoy life without ever having to take on another full-time job.

Financial Freedom

An Overview
The health insurance hurdle
The roof over your head

Trying to escape from flypaper

Getting quit of Arizona State University and the State of Arizona is like trying to pull yourself free of a giant sheet of heavy-duty, extra-sticky flypaper. Below, notes on this morning’s exchanges with a Fidelity 403(b) rep, a Department of Administration rep, and (god help me) another ASU Human Resources rep:

Called Fidelity to find out where the $500 payment is. Reached L— S—.

She said there are two funds, one with $159,000 and a smaller one. She asked which one I wanted to withdraw from. I said I had no idea, having been through several reps, all of whom said they would make this happen.

She said the smaller one is available for any drawdown from me. The larger one requires paperwork proving that I no longer work for the state university system and approval.

She said they did receive the 8-page form from ASU but it is in process at Fidelity. She will e-mail the person in that department and call me back to report what’s going on.

Meanwhile, I haven’t received a bill from COBRA. Called ADOA. Reached a woman who didn’t identify herself. She said

a) I was supposed to have sent a check to HITS (how appropriate!) and I have not. I looked in my notes and discovered I was supposed to have sent a $199.14 check and, in my endless confusion over this f***ing nightmare, failed to do so. But this would not matter, because…

b) ASU has not entered me in the HRIS system, and so as far as ADOA is concerned, I am still employed by ASU and still covered.

LS said I need to call HR again and do battle with them. I have to tell them to enter me in HRIS and then find out from them what date they show me terminated. Then I have to call ADOA back and tell them what the date is. Then they will figure out what to do about COBRA.

I called C— D— at HR. She said I am entered in HRIS as terminated. I said ADOA said I was not entered.

She was mystified about the COBRA prepayment due in December. I said that was what ADOA told me, and that I had failed to make the payment because I was overwhelmed by the paperwork and hoop-jumping, which has now accrued a two-inch thick binder of paperwork and notes. She said there is no such payment; that she couldn’t speak for ADOA but she knows the system, and they have to send me a bill for any amounts owed. I said what I told her was what they  told me. Twice.

CD said the termination went into the system on January 6, and it usually takes about 24 hours for it to register. She also said that because I wasn’t canned until the 31st, several days in to the first January pay period, I would have been covered by ASU’s regular plan until the 10th. I pointed out that today is January 12, and so presumably I now have no insurance coverage.

She said well, do I have any health issues? I said I need to go to the dentist. She asked if I have an appointment today.

I said, “Look. I have to get in my car and drive from one end of Hell to the other today. If I get in an accident and end up in the hospital without coverage, I will be bankrupted!”

She said COBRA has a six-month period in which you can enroll, so if I get hurt or sick in that period I can retroactively enroll.

She offered to call ADOA and tell them I was “termed” in their system six days ago and to find out what the story is with the COBRA. I said I will be running around the city all day—I’m now over an hour late in getting started and haven’t even had breakfast!—so she said she would find out what she can and leave word on my voicemail.

Will this horror show never stop????


The coop is flown!

I’m free.


I quit. I’m gone. Out the door, never to return. A bird that has flown the coop.

Last night, after I finally finished the latest iteration of the Index from the Black Lagoon, I mailed the damn thing off with an e-mail to our client editor letting him know I’m taking my 350 unused vacation hours, starting TODAY. That will carry me through to the end of the month, all the way to Canning Day.

And what a fine send-off that was! It was the worst episode of overwork I’ve been through since the days of La Morona, a.k.a. My Bartleby. Truly. I’ve been working from 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning deep into the evening, literally until I could not work any more, every day for the past four or five days. Those are eighteen-hour days. Most of that time was spent writing an index—truly a brain-numbing job—and undoing a screw-up of Herculean proportions in (naturally!) an essay that is long enough to stand as a monograph in its own right.

Yes, on top of the screwed-up index that had to be rebuilt almost from scratch, someone took it into his or her mind to set acres of direct quotation in italic. Why? Because it’s in Latin. We italicize foreign languages. Don’t we?

Well, no. Not always. Not in this case.

The flicking article occupies 148 typeset pages.

When our client editor saw the page proofs, he realized something looked odd but didn’t realize the author had it right in the first place: set roman. His response was to ask that we remove all the quotation marks.

After I had gone through 148 pages marking hundreds of deletions, I realized that couldn’t possibly be right: the guy was indicating direct quotes from primary sources. Belatedly, I drag out Chicago and find all that Latin material should have been set in roman type. That’s when, ever so much more belatedly, it occurs to  me to check the original MS, where I found that Author had it right, and someone on our end—probably the new editor in the sponsor’s office—changed it.

So now I had to go back through the 148 brain-boggling pages, STET all the quotes, and mark all the italic roman.

You can imagine how pleased our graphic designer was when I showed up at his door and dumped this mess on his desk. Ours was the third fiasco to enter his life that morning, and I presented myself at around 9:30. He grabbed the great wad of paper, waved it in the air, and demanded to know “Whose idea is it to publish a book as an article???!??”

Not  mine, of that you can be sure.

From there it was on to the index, 33 endless pages of entries and subentries parsing the most arcane subject matter you can imagine.

I really don’t enjoy indexing. This particular annual is difficult to index, because it not only is arcane, it’s dense. Every page has three or four entries, at least. By the time we reach the indexing stage, I’ve read the copy, which can be excruciatingly detailed, several times. And I Do. Not. Want. To. Read. It. Again. So I have to force myself to do this job, which under the best of circumstances takes about five to seven days.

Stupefied with short-termer’s syndrome, I plotted to foist about half the job onto my R.A. The book consists of discrete articles, and so I gave her several that did not overlap (so I thought) with the ones I kept for myself to work on. She wrote her entries; I wrote mine; then I merged the files.

Bad mistake.

First, the two chunks of copy in fact did have some overlapping content. In some cases, we described that content in different terms, so a subject was indexed in two places under two descriptive headings. And second, this young Ph.D. knows next to nothing about Renaissance and medieval history. This makes it difficult to recognize the names of major figures. Or, for that matter, some of the currents of thought and controversy that were BFDs then, but are lost and long forgotten today.

And finally, the aging editor forgets that young people conceive and map out research strategies differently from the way those of us who came up with hard copy do. They think in Boolean terms. A search is something that you do in Google or in a library database, not in an index or a drawer full of index cards. While there are some similarities, there are also some fundamental differences. And those differences are HUGE. The result: an index designed by a younger mind looks different and is different from one built by a survivor of the Cretaceous.

Ultimately, the only help for it was to throw out everything the kid did and start over. Basically, I ended up doing all the work I should’ve done in the first place, and then some. Quite a lot of some.

When I finally hit “Send” about 7:30 last night and realized it was the last thing I’ll ever have to do for GDU, it felt like a loud shrieking squeal had suddenly stopped.

You know how it feels when a migraine ends? Your head doesn’t hurt any more, but there’s a kind of residual echo of the pain? Like that.

My office is empty. Sometime between now and the 31st, I’ll have to go back to campus to return the College’s laptop and turn in the keys. Probably there’ll be one more frustrating runaround with HR. And that is it.

I hope never to have to set foot on the campus of the Great Desert University again.


Toby Hudson, Domestic Rock Pigeons in Flight, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

Why I secretly feel glad my job is ending…

Overjoyed, even.

Today I started about 8:30 ayem and worked straight through until 6:30 p.m. without a break—well, with one break long enough to bolt down a piece of cheese slapped on some dry bread—typing the last stage of an index.

My RA had compiled about half the book’s index; I took the rest. It was possible for us to do this because the book is a collection of essays. I was careful to give her essays whose subject matter would not much overlap the pieces I kept for myself to work on. Late last night, she e-mailed me her list of subject headings and subheadings (unformatted). I was just finishing the job of plowing through and marking up my  half of the page proofs, so today had to go through the proofs and compile my list, which I entered in the file she’d sent me. Then I had to alphabetize the headings; format each entry with indented subheads; alphabetize the subheads; format the entire 28-page document properly; proofread.

The word-processing alone occupied ten hours. Ten of the most mind-numbing hours you can imagine.

Two things on this earthly plane, and only two things, are more boring than compiling an index: formatting it and proofreading it.

It’s not that writing an index is especially difficult. Really: in principle it’s pretty simple. But I do have to say that reading scholarly copy for a fourth time, after having gone through each article at least three times during the editing process, is less than a thrill a minute. One of these articles is 148 typeset pages long, and it requires the indexer to ponder a minute discussion of homage and castle-guard among provincial aristocrats in 13th-century France, brought to you in English, French, and Latin. Subject matter is arcane, language is demanding, and the indexer has to know what she’s doing and stay awake to do it.

When reading freshman comp papers begins to look good, you know you’re in trouble.

This is not the first time I’ve felt my job is excruciatingly boring. Far from it. Indeed, when I first noticed  the thought that entered my mind as the car rolled onto the freeway, outward-bound, was “I can’t wait to get home,” it occurred to me to wonder why I found myself anxious to leave the office while I was still 22 miles away from the office. Didn’t take long to figure it out: bored.

I’ve been so bored, I could barely stand to drive out to that place. So bored I have seriously wondered if I could make a living stringing beads and selling the jewelry at craft fairs and on So bored I’ve considered buying a run-down cold-water shack on the desert and becoming an anchorite.

Understand, the journal that publishes arcane studies of medieval and Renaissance history is the most interesting and best written of our client publications! Indeed, it’s a very fine journal, featuring top-flight scholarship by highly professional, often senior scholars. This is a claim we cannot make about all our client journals. The math journal is pretty good, except of course that none of us can understand a thing the mathematicians are saying.  And any day, thank you, I’d rather read about medieval cartularies than contemplate the maunderings of radical feminists indulging in cultural studies, especially when they turn their criticism to the white male hegemony of the hard sciences, a subject of which few if any of them have the vaguest comprehension. On the other hand, one has to say the radical feminists do not bore: they annoy. Especially when they’re in prima donna mode, which, given the fact that professionalism is apparently part of the white male hegemony, most of them are, most of the time.

Along about 5:00 I was reduced to tears when, asked to do a replace-all on a selection, my computer reformatted the entire document…and then would not undo!

I’d made it to the Rs. The stuff before the Rs was more or less OK, although it would require close reading and some fixing. But everything after the Rs was scrambled eggs. The choices were to crash out of the file and revert to an older saved version, thereby throwing out about two hours’ worth of dreary, mind-numbing, ditzy, tedious, dry, eyeball-parching work, or to unscramble the eggs. I chose unscrambling.

Finally finished and shot the file back to my RA for her proofreading (lucky she!), just in time to race out the door to choir practice.

This is the last significant job that remains to me to do for the Great Desert University. My beloved employer owes me something in excess of 350 hours of accumulated vacation time, but it will pay for only 176 of those hours. So, the minute this journal goes to the printer—which it should do by Thanksgiving, with any luck at all—I am gone. Out. Exit stage left, never to return.

And never, ever to write another index again.

Beads, anyone?

So this is retirement?

With retirement like this, who needs work?

I read student papers till 11:30 last night (the result of having loafed half the day before, if reading page proofs can be called loafing); leapt up at 6:00 a.m.; shot across the city with La Maya to an estate sale (nice stuff: too expensive); shot home, delivering edited page proofs to a publisher on the way; worked till class met; collected another mound of papers to add to the mound from the other class (yet to be read); shot back out to Scottsdale to a business reception; flew back; fed the dog; took the dog for a walk, wherein we witnessed the immediate aftermath of a three-fatality wreck (teenagers from the tenements across 19th Avenue); trudged home; sat down to write a few lines of copy I’d said I’d do on a volunteer basis for the choir director; listened to the clock tick while trying to figure out what to say (it ain’t easy to praise God when you’ve just seen the end of three kids); heard the Mac boing at the arrival of a new e-mail message bearing not one, not two, not three, but twelve new documents from a client…

Oh, God. At this rate, I’m not going to live through retirement!

w00t! Budget success!!!

The American Express bill  arrived today. Hot dang! Just a little over $1,000!!

That’s within easy shooting distance of the $1,000/month post-Canning Day figure I’ve set for total discretionary spending (i.e., all costs that are not recurring monthly bills), and it’s well below my current $1,200/month budget.

And that’s without even trying very hard!

Last month’s success included a $97 bill for pool repair, a $50 trip to Home Depot, and a $25 junket to Lowe’s. Plus the $30 flu shot that GDU’s cockamamie insurance wouldn’t cover. Criminey, I even went to Whole Foods in this billing cycle!

So pretty clearly, even at the $1,000 target, there’s room for some play.

This month I’ve been consciously aiming for the $1,000 budget—last month, I had in mind $1,200 as the spending limit. So far, I’m in the black overall…but we’re only a week into the budget cycle, and I’ve spent about $60 more than planned for that first week. But catching up should be fairly easy: I’ve got all the food in the house I need, probably won’t have to buy gas for another week…uh oh.

Nooo… I take that back: the plumber’s coming over this morning. Day-umn! Bathtub drain is clogged. That’ll be a hundred bucks.

Okay…so I’m about to be about $160 over budget for the first week of this month’s budget cycle. That just means I’ll have to stay out of grocery stores next week. Not a very tall order, since the freezer is so full I can barely close the lid.

So, what’s the explanation for this little flicker of budgetary joy? A couple of things:

1. Mindset. I just made up my mind that I was going to spend less. Somehow, like making up your mind that you’re going to eat less and eat better to lose weight, that seems to set you on the right track.

2. Keeping track of every expense, to the penny. I keep an Excel spreadsheet in which I subtract expenditures from the amount budgeted for each billing cycle.

3. Strategizing shopping trips. I made three Costco runs and three trips to Safeway, each time with lists in hand. All were scheduled shopping trips, not serendipitous drop-ins on the way home from work. During the month, then, I had three shopping days, and on those days I went to Costco, Safeway, AJ’s, Trader Joe’s (once), and Whole Paycheck (once). Because I bought only what I’d planned to buy, costs at each of these emporia were kept under control.

4. Staying out of stores! Other than the grocers’ (if Costco can exactly be called a “grocery”), the only other stores I went into last month were Lowe’s and Home Depot, and the only reason I went to the Depot was that Lowe’s didn’t have everything I needed.

5. Not getting discouraged. Several times in the past few months, I’ve thought there’s no way in He** I can possibly get monthly expenditures down to $1,200. Then when I realized even that was too high, I thought I was doomed! But lo! Here we are closing in on Canning Day, and spending is getting right down to where it needs to be.

Don’t give up! You can meet your goal if you keep at it.

With my share of the Downtown House mortgage coming out of a tax-free draw from a whole life policy, if “non-regular” spending stays at $1,000, my bare-minimum costs next year will come to $27,672. They’re that high because the cost of Medicare will be many times what I’m paying now for health insurance. Though I think my projection is accurate, I may be overestimating the total Medicare cost by as much as $100 a month. If that’s true, then I might get by on $26,472. My projected net from teaching and Social Security alone will be $26,453. Not quite enough to cover costs, but it doesn’t count the $2,000 I can pull down as a dividend from the S-corporation or the $3,960 in projected net vacation pay. In 2010, total net income should outpace total costs by at least $2,600.

The year 2011 will have to take care of itself. And it probably will.