Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Great Financial Debacle

About two weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night with a stark realization. I had been wondering, deep down inside somewhere, why it seemed like we would not quite have enough money to finish the addition on the house. We had been comfortable with the budget the contractor gave us. We were able to pick and choose along the way which options to go with and we had been careful to stay within the budget. We had even calculated in some breathing room, knowing that projects always go over budget and that there are always extras at the end. We had added in our minds an extra cushion for that and some landscaping and maybe a few new pieces of furniture. And we had been checking along the way to make sure our money was going where we wanted it to go. After a couple of really big bills in January, though, I realized it wasn't working out as planned. Why? What happened?

And that is when the near-subconscious nocturnal thought occurred to me that, just possibly, the contractor's fee was not part of the budget. It is a "cost plus" job, which means he charges us his cost plus his fee which is an additional 18 percent. He doesn't charge us for his labor. The fee is how he gets paid.

He has worked hard, has been conscientious about staying within budget, and has been really great to deal with. We couldn't have done it without him. Bottom line: he has earned and deserves his 18 percent. Only problem is, we didn't figure that into our budget! All the while, when we were staying within budget, we should have been trying to stay 18 percent BELOW budget. Ughh. On that cold and dark February night, our extra cushion, and then some, vaporized in an instant.

So, after beating myself up for my (our, really, as Greg was just as involved in all this as I was, and just as green behind the ears) stupid mistake, the financial mistake of a lifetime, really, I tried not to think about years of austerity measures and a deferred retirement, but instead, to look on the bright side.

And believe it or not, there really is a bright side. I have lots of mixed feelings, but have felt strangely more alive since what has become known in our house as The Great Financial Debacle.

After going from "comfortable" to "pinched" in about 24 hours, I realize I feel more at home with austerity. Austerity (to a point) is familiar and feels more normal to me.

So here it is, The Bright Side:

Being constrained financially inspires me to be more creative. I realize I like the challenge of finding ways to save money. I also like inventing or making cheaper versions of things I would like to have. For example, do we really need curtains or shades on the windows or could we just temporarily glue nice rice paper on the lower portions?

In the same vein, the new austerity plan makes decisions ever so much easier. We were debating which flooring option to use in the entryway. We liked a cheap slate option, but also found a neat limestone with fossils embedded in it. We were debating whether the limestone was really three times better than the slate, when, whallah, decision made. Cheap slate it is!

I no longer have to peruse catalogs of nice, "respectable" furniture and try to decide which is best. I can now feel quite happy and lucky with a find at the local thrift store or in the back alley.

When we were "comfortable," I realize I felt a bit rudderless and burdened. Now I have clear directions and guidance.

From time to time I feel worried, like I don't know where the next meal is going to come from. Then I feel good because I think this is just the kind of stress that we humans are adapted to bear. It feels more "right" somehow.

I appreciate the things I have more. When we had (or thought we had) more leeway, we would take less time to save things or repair them. What was the point? If something was old and shoddy, well, it seemed like no big deal to replace it. In fact, I felt more compelled not to have old stuff around. Since we could (or thought we could) afford it, we were more part of the disposable culture. Now that buying a replacement is not an option, I feel closer to and more protective or our stuff. Instead of buying Rees a new dresser when his garage-sale one is falling apart, I take the time to lovingly glue it back together. I actually enjoy this. It feels grounded.

I appreciate my family more. Greg and I have been thinking about this and working on this without pointing fingers or assigning blame. We are working together to solve the problem and it has brought us closer. I really am the luckiest woman in the world.

I think about the ongoing neighborhood conflagration and can't help but reason that some of the ire comes from the fact that a lot of money is at stake. These are multi-million dollar homes that are involved and sometimes it seems that such homes, instead of contributing to peace and serenity, actually make people more greedy, vengeful, and litigious. Having just enough, but not too much, is a much more harmonious place to be.

Finally, I have been in transition mode for a while now about going back to work. Suddenly, wow! I feel much more motivated. It is not a dreamy option, it is imperative. And somehow that feels freeing too.

The bright side is that I have a great family and a great house and now have very clear goals and direction: to survive month to month and to slowly build back our savings. Seems so good, so normal.


Anonymous said...

Dear Jen,

You are truly an inspiration to us all. What a glass-is-half-full orientation you have! By the way, can you make me a Saab when you're done with those rice paper shades? I'm getting rather sick of my Hyundai.

In all seriousness, I just turned down a job with a salary that was almost double what I currently make that, with all of the benefits, would have left us in a very comfortable situation indeed (including the Saab). The catch was, it was going to involve 60-70 hour weeks and uprooting Jessie and the kids to a rather dim area. I turned it down, because I realized, in a similar late-night panic, that some of the extra comforts were really pulling us away from those things we truly value. I know it sounds cliche, but you cannot put a price-tag on family.



cda said...

Yay, Jen!

You are amazing.

Have I told you this saying that I learned in the past year: A pessimist sees the glass half empty, an optimist sees the glass half full, and Jen (I think the actual saying is "an engineer") sees that it's time to come up with a different glass.

Can't wait to see your house and the Saab you make your friend George.

Also, I've got some curtains looking for a new home--what are you looking for?