Saturday, March 25, 2006

Money and Couples, and Earning a Living

This is a big topic. There are lots of opinions, and therefore it is good for conversation. This is my opinion.

Also, there may be some important lessons in life here for younger folks who haven't started down the path yet, so I will reveal some stuff here in the interest of trying to help the folks who really might benefit from a true picture about money and bills and debt.

In my first marriage, we had the sensible idea of NOT pooling our money and instead, we each earned our own money and kept our own accounts. We simply divided up the bills and each paid the bills that they had agreed to pay.

With this plan, there was never the problem of second guessing the other person, and trying to figure out if they are spending money indiscriminately or foolishly. One person is not taken advantage of by the other person, and so there was no cause for arguments on money. As long as each person carries their own weight, then you have all the benefits of sharing the costs without the disadvantages of monitoring a shared bank account.

Then, in my second marriage, it's a different story. Although she worked when we first married, she made about half as much as me because of the types of jobs we did. Then she quit her job altogether and I have supported the family by myself for the last 11 years.

We tried having a common bank account where both have access to it. We had that for 9 years, and it was a failure. I will avoid the temptation to complain here at the injustices of the way she spent our money, because she is not here to defend herself, but let's just say I was unhappy with this arrangement. So I changed it to where there are two accounts. Now I put my paychecks into an account that only I can access,and I pay all the bills from that account. Then every two weeks, I take a certain amount of money and put that in her account so she can draw from that to pay for groceries and gas for her car, and the other things she wants and needs.

With this method the overdrafts are not eliminated, but they are at least somewhat controlled. This is not perfect, but seems to work for us this time around.

Money is usually a problem for most couples - and most people in this society, because we are trained from birth to become professional consumers. Kids are babysat and nurtured by television, and every 5 mintes there is a solid 5 minute stream of commercials telling you what to buy, and selling you on how wonderful it would be to have their product. They are a high-volume, fast-paced collage of sounds and images and special effects that are demanding, even screaming their messages at you using every psychological trick in the book. Masters of misdirection and persuasion spend years learning the art of getting you to buy whatever they are selling. I can't even watch TV anymore because of it. It is a commercial assault that I am really irritated by. As a result, I buy very few things. Just what I need.

On the other hand, this trend encourages massive spending, which stimulates the economy and keeps us all employed and surviving. So I wouldn't necessarily move to stop the relentless TV advertising - I just don't want to participate in the hectic, pointless consumer dance, myself.

The things you own create a tax on your soul. The more 'stuff' you have, the more you have to take care of, maintain, guard, and store, and use, and control, and watch over and the more time you spend doing these things. This taxes your time, and your attention, and your emotions, and your mind. Unless you want to live the life of a stray dog, you will need SOME 'stuff', but beware the trappings of collecting too much.

Another thing I would say, is about age, since that is part of the original question/comment. When you are young and have little worldy belongings, you actually have a lot of freedoms that you don't realize until later.

For example, you can go and do just about anything you want for a living and still be able to support yourself. It is a sad, but simple fact of life that most of the vocations that people do because they have a passion for it - do not pay very well. And most of the vocations that do pay well tend to use up your energy and your life, and give little in return besides money.

For example, you might want a nice car, and a nice house, and nice furniture, and to go on the occasional holiday, and maybe have a nice little guitar collection, or a motorcycle, or a boat, or an RV, or whatever your desires are. And to get these things you have to get a college degree and either get a corporate job and work and claw your way up to the point where you make a middle-class income, or else you put some money together to invest in starting your own business, and run that hard to generate the income to get this lifestyle.

Either way, you will find that you have to work very very hard to get these things and this lifestyle. Young people are almost always shocked to find out how much stuff actually costs once you leave mom and dad's house and have to pay for everything on your own. For most of the people who live in typical homes in suburbia, the actual costs per month are well over $5,000 to carry everything.

Honestly, I hadn't done a budget in a couple of years and I was thinking that my mortgage was about 2300/month so the total bills were probably about $4,000 per month. But once I really sat down and added everything up and worked out a real detailed budget, I was amazed to find that it was well over $6,000 per month!

One fellow I worked with used to have to pay over $20,000 per month to keep the family going - but they were living high, with a very nice house and 4 cars, etc. In their case, they had tennis lessons for the kids, and club fees for the golf course and all the extra stuff.

But in our case, we don't drink or smoke, or go out to dinner that often, and even then not to fancy restaurants, we don't belong to any clubs, we don't participate in any regular activities that cost money, (going to the movies is about the extent of the entertainment budget) and my budget doesn't even include car payments. I paid off the cars over 3 years ago.

It's a nice suburban house, but nothing spectacular. So this budget is just simply what it costs to get along in a typical suburban middle-class lifestyle for a family of three. It is possible to spend a little less, of course, but this is, I think pretty typical. Others might have a lesser house than me, but they probably have car payments, and might go eat out more, or might go drinking, or out to concerts, or pay for golfing, health club fees, or whatever. I think my costs are pretty typical.

Let's do some quick math - for this typical, not extravagant, suburban lifestyle, you can expect running costs of about $6,000 per month. That is $72,000 per year. In order to pay out $72,000 per year in bills, you will have to earn a gross income of over $100,000 before taxes, correct? Yes, of course. Because federal taxes are about 30%.

And then - this doesn't cover actually saving any money for buying a house, or for retirement, or to try to start your own business, or toward any other dream you might have. Even buying furniture, etc. That is all extra.

So this means that to have the middleclass lifestyle that TV commercials and TV shows and movies all tell us is 'normal', you will need WELL over 100,000 dollars per year in income. Probably closer to $140K or $150K. But certainly the range is going to be $100K to say, $150K. Since most suburban households need this kind of income, and yet most jobs do not provide it, usually that means it takes both partners making decent professional-level incomes to make it.

Debt is what happens when you want to have this average lifestyle from the "American Lifestyle brochure", but DON'T make this kind of money to pay for it.

Forget national statistics that include the entire population because that is skewed by destitute homeless, and indian reservations, and people on welfare and young students living in dorms, or poverty-stricken areas and people, etc. Those are the exceptions - not the norm.

What I am talking about here is the real world for the actual mainstream of the population. The people who go to school when they are kids, and then grow up, get jobs, then leave their parents' homes, and move out on their own, buy their own homes, have their own children and live their lives. They buy the houses, and furnitures, and cars, and clothes, and food, and insurance, and pay medical bills. The people who are actually in the economy. The mainstream.

It costs these kinds of dollars and requires these kinds of salaries to have that mainstream life.

Of course I KNOW that there are people, some on this list, trying to make it on minimum wage, but minimum wage is, by definition, NOT the average income. Take a look around at all the cars on the road. Look at all those SUV's - it seems like 3 out of every 5 vehicles on the road are one of those and they cost an average of over $40,000 and are about $80 per tank of gas every few days. Do you think all those people driving them are earning minimum wage? No. So I'm not talking about those people earning minimum wage. I'm talking about the main body of the population. For lack of a better term - the mainstream.

If your passion is playing music and being a musician, what are the chances of making that much money doing that for a full-time living? I read last year that the average entertainer's income across all forms of actors, and musicians, etc. is $11,000 per year.

What if your passion is acting? Or racing boats? Or training horses? or running a pastry shop? or athletics? or dancing? making crafts? Sewing? Sculpture? Painting? Writing? or...? How much do you suppose these potential vocations earn?

The point I am getting to is that if you do want to try to pursue one of your dream vocations - you should probably do it when you're young - before you get caught up in the machinery of HAVING to earn a lot of money to pay for the lifestyle that you already have. Because once you're in, you're in, and there's no going back. Once you've owned your own home, it's really hard to go back to living in your parent's basement again. The lifestyle you want and eventually achieve, can also be a trap that locks you into a life of paying a never-ending stream of bills, where you may have to do many things you don't enjoy, and don't want, in order to just keep going.

Not that the typical American suburban lifestyle is bad or terrible. It's actually pretty comfortable and nice. That's why most people do it. The 'trap' of having a comfortable bed, a decent roof over your head, and a shirt on your back, and providing the same for your children, is only that you have to find a way to pay for them.

But then on the other other hand, chasing a career that doesn't provide an income that pays enough to provide a retirement, or proper healthcare, or insurance, or a dependable car, or a decent house in a low-crime area, or to provide a safe environment for your children is also a different kind of trap, and after a while may seem selfish, and irresponsible.

Another option is to marry someone who makes the vocational sacrifices to allow you to choose your dream career. You could choose to let THEM carry the bulk of the responsibility to pay the bills and provide the cars, and insurance, and healthcare, and pay all the taxes, and buy the furniture, and buy your clothes, and put food on the table each and every day without fail. And then you can write your book. Or play your instrument. Or write your poetry, run your website, do your crafts, fly your special kites, be a cartoonist, or learn to dance. You can be an actor or try being a stand-up comic. You can chase your dreams.

However, then you have to deal with the issues and realities of an unfair division of responsibilities in the household. With responsibility comes power. The one who takes all the risks and assumes the responsibilities typically is the one in control. That's the way it usually works. But how would you feel being the one who can only survive by the generosity of another? Is that who you want to be? Do you want someone else to have the power of basic survival over you? Even though you may love each other now, is it guaranteed that that will continue unchanged for your whole life? What happens when the shine wears off that apple for the spouse that is burdened with working so hard at something they don't like, in order to support you so you can selfishly chase your dreams and pursue your passion? Does this seem like a fair and equitable situation that will last forever? It it only logical and reasonable to expect that something that connot continue forever, will eventually come to an end. What happens then?

I can imagine that most fulltime musicians are probably supported by a spouse, unless they also have other jobs besides that to support themselves. There is an old joke - what do you call a musician whose girlfriend leaves him? Homeless.

All I'm really saying here is that life is all about trade-offs. Learn what they really are before you make your choices. Sorry if this sounds paternal or pedantic, but perhaps this is useful to some young folks thinking through such things. I will bear the burden of a hundred rolled eyes and impatient sighs if this little speech helps even one person.


At 3/28/2006 6:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Serrie,

As you've invited comments to your statements, I'm going to take you up on the invitation.

I'm a spouse who supports an artist while he/she "selfishly" (your words) chases his/her dream however, I do not consider my spouse's pursuit to be selfish in any way. I have a career in a very lucrative field but I did not choose said career for the money.
Had I done so, I can assure you that I would be miserably unhappy indeed, as are many of my colleagues.

Our children benefit greatly from the balance in our household. They're exposed to science, history, music, art, etc., and are encouraged to pursue their dreams whatever they may be - money aside.

My "artistic" spouse would agree that an individual who's heart is in the arts but chooses to pursue the dream in their "spare time" in favor of the pursuit of a more lucrative career is going to be unhappy and the fruits of their artistic labors are going to be mediocre at best. Even the most talented artist will tell you that the pursuit of any art form requires sacrifice and dedication in the form of practice, practice and more practice.

I truly don't mean to sound antagonistic but the LAST thing I wish for myself or any member of my family is that they find themselves dog paddling in your definition of the "mainstream".


At 3/29/2006 12:00 AM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

Thanks for that perspective.
You are of course, correct. I didn't mean to imply that every person who is supporting an artistic spouse resents them for it. I was thinking of it more from the artist's perspective, and thinking about how they might feel being supported by another person.

As for whether you are happy doing what you're doing, the father of a friend of mine often used to say, "Would you keep doing it if they stopped paying you? If so, then you're in the right line of work."

And I guess that makes sense. You may not hate your job, but if they stopped paying you, would you still keep showing up?
That's what artists do. Often times, nobody pays them, but they do it out of love.

I do disagree with one of your points. I disagree that people who pursue their art part-time only ever achieve mediocre results.
In fact, there are certain advantages to pursuing art with no commercial intent whatever. If you are not worried about producing commercially saleable art, then you don't necessarily have to cater to the whims and appetites of the masses, or those who sell to the masses. But when you pursue art truly just for the sake of the art, then you have the freedom to create anything you like and obey your muse unhindered.

In my own case, I used to be a full-time professional musician, and I found it a bit of a drudgery, actually. Playing music I did not like or enjoy, and foregoing writing my own music in favor of playing top-40 music to entertain people. The music industry is as much a business as anything else, and forces artists to conform to the commercial model to survive.
However, later, once I started working at something else which paid the bills better, that allowed me the freedom to write the kinds of music I really wanted, and the quality of my art was improved dramatically.

Now in your particular case (I hope you don't mind a small observation) I believe you live in a small town named Leeton, Missouri, about 80 miles southeast of Kansas City, correct? This town has a population of about 600 people and the average price of a house there is about $50,800, and the average income is about $29,000. (At least that's what it was in 2000.)
So from that, I would have to say that it's a lot less expensive to live there than in most major cities around the country, in which case, you may have some options most other people don't. For instance, if you were living in a similar house in Chicago, you might be paying many times more for it, since the average price there is 5 times that. If you were in San Francisco or New York, it would be much higher again.
In these cases, you might find it necessary for both spouses to work at jobs that bring considerable income in order to make ends meet.
You seem to have the luxury of being able to get by on a single income, and have the other spouse enjoy their artistic calling. That's wonderful! But doesn't fit most places, I'm afraid.

I applaud you for supporting your spouse to allow them to pursue their art with a free hand. It's a wonderful thing for an artist to have someone that believes in them and gives them this freedom.

It doesn't stop them from feeling a twinge of guilt now and then, though. I remember this from my own experience.

At 3/31/2006 5:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello again,

Forgive me if I sounded a bit defensive when I left my last comment. Perhaps to write that one who pursues their art part-time can only hope to achieve mediocre results was incorrect and even a little condescending and that was not my intent. I do think however, that even the most talented artists have to work very hard to hone their craft and that takes time, practice and dedication. It only makes sense that working a full or part-time job doing something else for needed income will take away precious time, not to mention energy, that could otherwise be devoted to the development of the art. Your point that focusing on "saleable" art hinders the process reinforces what I am suggesting. That's just another form of a job doing something else.(sure, you might get a little more practice in than you would working at Wal-Mart but bad practice can be worse than no practice at all.)

I'm not quite sure how you determined that I live in a small town in Missouri? At those prices, I wish!(not really) Actually, I live in a large metropolitan city in the East. Recently, figures indicated that to live a moderately affluent lifestyle in my city requires an income in excess of 160,000 per year but we're doing just fine on my income and I know many others who stay at home for various reasons while one spouse works.

I acknowlege that you personally felt a twinge of guilt now and then when you were making music full-time but I do everything possible to assure my spouse that I am completely supportive of our chosen lifestyle. I watched an interview with Carly Simon and she discussed her former marriage to James Taylor. Referring to his music, she stated fondly, "Imagine having James Taylor hanging around the house." I don't know but I'll bet he felt the same way about her.

I do understand that not everyone can live the life that we do -- I feel very fortunate but we've made a deliberate effort and worked very hard to get to this place and I believe we're setting a good example for our children.

I noticed in a later entry that you've recently had a book published. I sincerely wish you the best.

CMW -- Kansas City????

At 3/31/2006 8:13 AM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

Thank you about the book.
Sorry if I made a mistake on your location.
I have a sitemeter set up for this blog that shows statistics on how many people visit and when, etc. It shows IP addresses and locations and the time and date they visited, and a few other things. It shows my own accesses pretty accurately, so I assumed it was accurate for the others, but perhaps not.
I looked at the timestamp on your comment and tried to match it to the closest visit entry and that was one from Leeton, MO, and a 2 minute Google lookup on Leeton told me the other info.
Looks like you're using a satellite service, DirectWay, which is owned by Hughes, and I guess they have a base station in Leeton, MO, so that's the location that the IP registers. I've never tried that before, and it was kind of fun sleuthing around, but ah well, I guess it's not totally reliable.

Anyway, like you, I live in a large city with similar income requirements, and I also am still able to support a family including a spouse that doesn't earn an income. She is not an artist, however. But I am, so I must work hard enough to support a family AND my art (and to support my writing a book as well). I don't have time for watching a lot of TV...

About your other comment, James Taylor is pretty cool, and I've always liked his music, but I guess it also wouldn't be so terrible having Carly Simon around the house either...
Too bad they split up back then. I wonder if it was money troubles? If one is going to be a musician, SOMEBODY'S got to go work at Walmart to bring in the cash! (Laughing)

On the point of full-time art-based work itself, I was suggesting that when an artist is trying to support themselves, they have to earn a living, and to earn a living in the music industry for example, usually that means playing clubs and parties, etc. where people expect to hear the music they hear on the radio.
So it's been my experience that most full-time musicians don't get to play their own original music, unfortunately. When I was doing it fulltime, I felt rather like a human jukebox. The other people in the bands I was in felt similarly, but they just wanted to play. However, none of them were passionately into playing bars - after a while it was just a job, really.

It didn't feel much like art, it felt more like I was just helping to sell beer, and it didn't further my own artistic goals at all. Which agrees with your recent point, I think.
It's just another job taking you away from your actual art.
In that case, I was always on the road travelling on tour, so I wasn't in my home city working with producers, etc. to do recording, or at my own home writing music. I was unavailable to the part of the music industry that dealt with original music recording, publishing and development, because I was out playing bars 1,000 miles away, one week after another for months, which became years.

That was a long time ago. Nowadays it's even harder for musicians to make it. Even the famous ones are not making ends meet. Many big name musicians still have to have a spouse support them because the combination of rigid recording contracts that favor the label and hurt the artist, combined with dramatically lower album sales in the post-napster era, mean that residuals and royalties aren't what they used to be.
That is why so many big names are constantly touring these days, even though they might be getting older now. I read a review last year of Johnny Winter saying he was too sick to even stand on stage anymore. He looked like death warmed over sitting on his chair on stage barely awake, barely breathing. His playing was similarly lacking.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to read through the books of a band based in the northeast who had a hit CD. They earned over 3.5 million dollars in sales, but after the label got it's share($915,000), and all the other costs were covered, the band themselves ended up OWING $14,000. Their tour just netted enough to cover that net loss, and give them ALMOST as much as a minimum wage job working at Walmart. And THEY were considered SUCCESSFUL!
Think of all the bands who put in the money and time and talent and effort and dedication and DON'T sell 3.5 million dollars worth of albums!
Yes, I'm afraid the money side of being an artist is not pretty. But our culture needs it's art in order to stay vibrant and alive. I hate to think we, as a culture, might just devolve into nothing more than an economic machine only capable of manufacturing and distributing goods with no color, or point, to our lives at all.

Art is vital. Art is life. It is one of the high points of any civilization. Support your local artist! Thank you, CMW for supporting yours!


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