Monday, November 14, 2011

Money is yucky: Nov. 2, 2003

My husband and I have always been pretty nearly broke. We will probably always be pretty nearly broke, largely because neither of us is especially interested in money. We both like to work. Sometimes, depending on the nature of the task at hand, we even love to work. But nothing we're good at is especially lucrative.

What do you get when you cross a math-challenged English major with a gentle-souled kayaker and carpenter? You get this column:

There’s no such thing as extra money

    I was driving home in the old truck, paying bills in my head.

    OK, I get paid tomorrow, so that covers the water bill and a few groceries. Jim gets paid Friday, so we can use that for the mortgage, which makes the mortgage only slightly late.

    Then there’s no more money, but we’ll get through the month if nothing goes wrong ...

    I approached a stop sign and shifted into neutral.

    The truck began shuddering violently, slamming the gearshift into my arm. My seatbelt locked as the cab of the truck rattled. I jammed the truck back into gear, which brought the shimmying down to a shake, and lurched home.

    "You know why this happened, don’t you?" I said to my husband later that night. "This happened because of my freelance job."

    I had been positively giddy over the freelance job. I was paid a whopping $350 to write an article for a communications company about (of all things) warehouse management systems. The topic was not exciting, but the check was absolutely inspiring. It was a big pile of extra money.

    We never have extra money, not ever — not since I traded full-time work and half our family income for a (very) part-time job and the chance to stay home with our son.

    I put the freelance check into our savings account, which we’ve all but depleted in the last few years buying extravagances like haircuts and car insurance. I should have known it wouldn’t take.

    "You know how much it’s going to cost to fix the truck," I told Jim. "Just watch. It’s going to cost $350."

    The next morning, Jim drove the shuddering truck to the neighborhood auto shop and then walked to work. That afternoon he called with the news.

    "Honey, it’s not going to cost $350 to fix the truck," he said.

    I waited.

    "It’s going to cost $351."


    "Yes. And I’m pretty sure you’re psychic."

    "What’s wrong with it?"

    "They said it desperately needs a tune-up."

    "Of course it desperately needs a tune-up. It’s 10 years old and it’s never had one. But for $351?"

    "That’s what I thought, too," he said.

    We decided not to get a $351 tune-up. The next morning found us in the auto shop parking lot, waiting for the truck while a mechanic "put it back together."

    Then we had to give him $60 because he apparently spent an hour of $1-a-minute time figuring out that it needed a tune-up. (Note to self: No more visits to the neighborhood auto shop.)     

    Then Jim drove out of the parking lot and discovered the truck was running fine. This was good — way too good to be believed.

    So Jim went to the auto parts store and bought about $60 worth of things apparently used to tune up a truck. Spark plugs, I think, and wires of some sort. Something called a distributor cap and something else called a rotor.

    Jim spent an entire Sunday afternoon doing stuff to the truck that involved those parts. He then drove the truck uneventfully all week and pronounced it fixed.

    "So we got out of this for, what, about $120 instead of $351?" he said. "That’s pretty good."

    I agree. It is pretty darn good, and it leaves us $230 of that celebrated extra money, which probably does a lot more for my sense of well-being than it really does for our bottom line.

    I’m proud of Jim for fixing the truck. I’m proud of us for scraping through yet another month on an amount of money I would never have believed could sustain three people. And despite the nearly comical level of struggle involved in making it on one full-time income, I’m really happy I get to wake up every morning and have breakfast with my 3-year-old while we decide whether we feel like going to go to the park or the fire station.

    My friend Susan, also a mom with no extra money, says I should just be happy the freelance check came along when it did.

    "Breaking even is a huge victory," she told me. "Just be glad you didn’t have to put that stuff on a credit card."

    She’s right, of course. We even did a little better than break even on this one.

    Which means there’s a $230 crisis out there with our names on it.

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