Monday, June 6, 2011

Stuff Envy

This spring we got involved in a book discussion small group that met most Thursday evenings.  This past week the small group had its end of season meal together.  We first drove four miles to the house of the people who hosted the small group, and rode with them to the house of the people hosting the meal, about 25 miles east and a bit north, in a remote area of Clinton County.  On the drive, I saw a fawn nursing, a couple other does and fawns, and a pair of sandhill cranes with a pair of chicks.  We rode in a $50,000 Suburban.  The couple is in their early 60s.  Dan is a dentist, and does a lot of dental mission work.  Chris was a school teacher.  They go on vacations to Costa Rica, Cancun, and just got back from an eleven day cruise along the north coast of the Mediterranean from Barcelona to Yugoslavia.  Dan has 40 acres up north that he maintains and grooms for deer hunting.  He goes out west regularly to hunt.  On the two-story wall of their living room above the fireplace is a big elk head and antlers.  In his garage are numerous mule deer racks and other mounts.  I'd estimate the value of their primary home and property at $700,000 or more.  On the way to the meal, we picked up the widow from our group, also in her early 60s.  She lives in a large home with a three stall garage.  Given her house, lot, and neighborhood, I'd value her property above $250,000. The house we went to for the meal is another large and elegant house, on twenty acres.  The value of that is well above $500,000.  He is an engineer, about retired, and she has taught public school for twenty some years.  They have gone on numerous cruises too, and just got back from a weekend at Gatlinburg to a gospel music festival.  Another couple in our group both have full-time jobs, one as an engineer the other has worked secretarial work at one place for almost 40 years.  They have one of those $40,000 pick-up trucks and a large fifth wheel, and take long vacations around the country.  They too have gone on cruises around the Mediterranean.  The final couple are recent retirees.  I am guessing he is 62, she is late 50s.  He worked electrical engineering in relation to methane gas from landfills.  She was a paraprofessional at the local schools.  They have 20 acres and a cabin on Drummond Island where they go often.  All the couples had gone to the local schools years ago, and have lived in the same area for 40 years or more, actually 60 years (since they were born). It was a bit of a depressing evening.  My wife Beth and I both got depressed or envious or jealous or something.

Four years ago I was lured to what looked like a very good job move.  In hindsight, it was a financial disaster, although it was good in other respects.  The housing market began its nose-dive as we moved.  The house we moved out of lost over 25% in equity, about $50,000.  The house we bought in the higher cost housing market we moved to cost $100,000 more than we sold our previous home for.  Two and a half years into the new job, the company announced that they were cutting my position, sending me packing after begging me to come.  We depleted our savings after finding another job and having to pay our own moving expenses, plus all the expenses that go with buying another house.  For eleven months we had been paying two mortgages and utilities on two homes, putting out 70% of my monthly take-home income in housing.  When that house from our most previous location sold, we lost just over 20% in equity, another $55,000.  The home we currently live in we purchased for $40,000 less than we sold our most previous home.  So where as four years ago we owed 20% of the value of our home (and had 80%, about $150,000, in equity), now we owe just under 80% of the value of our home (and have only 20%, about $30,000, in equity).  In other words, we have lost about $120,000 of equity in four years.  Beth has a 2009 Honda Civic, a great car, with about 38,000 miles.  I usually ride a bicycle to work.  But when I have to drive I have a 1995 Dodge Grand Caravan.  It has only about 150,000 miles.  The dashboard gauges don’t work, so I don’t get readouts on speed, engine temperature, oil pressure, or fuel.  It would cost about $1000 to repair.  I keep a sheet of paper and write down my estimate of how many miles I drive, and how many gallons of gas I put in it.  I estimate fuel usage, and so far have kept from running out of gas.  Beth has a GPS (purchased at a pawn shop), and if I need to take a trip more than ten miles or on the highway, I use the GPS to give me my speed and set the cruise control when I get up to speed.  We rarely go out to eat or buy take-out, maybe once or twice a month.  We do not buy prepared foods, but cook from scratch.  We are trying to live as frugally as we can, given our income and expenses.  We don’t have vacation plans, except to take time off from work and do things that cost only gas money (free parks, lakes, rivers, window shopping, and so on).  We don't buy books or rent DVDs, but use the public library collection.  Three months ago I got a slightly beat up canoe for free.  When I go fishing, I don’t practice “catch and release.”  A couple hours fishing can be a meal or two for us.  When we ride our bicycles, we pick up cans and bottles for the ten cent deposits.  Beth is a very frugal grocery shopper, looking for sales, using coupons, and organizing her shopping route for efficiency of fuel costs.

The other members of our book discussion small group have lots of money and stuff.  Lots of things and lots of places visited.  On the drive back from the meal, we saw dozens of deer in the fields while the one couple was telling us all about their Mediterranean cruise.  Then they asked us “and so where are you going this summer?  What are your vacation plans?”  I felt like saying “sitting in our back yard watching our grass and garden grow.  Maybe too we will take the old bent canoe I got for free out for cruises on Muskrat Lake, maybe a few trips down the Looking Glass River.  Oh, and we will take a trip to Minnesota to visit our children and help them move out of our house that is finally selling, for which we will still owe $7000 at closing.”  They don’t mean to make us envious, and they are genuine and plain folk, not snooty about their wealth, and are generous with numerous charities.  I have known folks who are not at all humble about all their great possessions and how, all by their own efforts, they have come to possess them.  The folks in the book discussion group are not like that at all.  In fact, before seeing their properties I had no expectation that they were the Gotbucks.  I was quite surprised when I saw their properties.  But the feelings of envy arise anyway.

I get over it quickly.  I have so much to be grateful for.  My 26 and 24 year old children, Kevin and Jayne got through college without great expense, and with almost no loans to pay off.  They both got a very good high school and college education, which can take them far.  They both are mature, positive, and responsible.  I am grateful for Beth, for all she has done for me and meant to me.  I am grateful for a good job, one that pays me enough and the work is meaningful.  I am grateful that I make enough that Beth doesn’t have to work, that we can be well-content without double incomes, and that my job is only 40 hours a week so I can spend time with Beth and doing things I enjoy.  I am grateful for our house, the nicest house we have lived in.  I like our location, living the closest to our parents and siblings since 1980.  Every morning when I head out on my bicycle to work, almost the first prayer in my head as I ride off is gratitude to God for the nice bikes I have, for the health and fitness and skills to ride my bike to work.  I am thankful for the church community we found here.  I am thankful for our book discussion small group.  I am thankful for the banged up canoe I got so I can cruise Muskrat Lake and float the Looking Glass River.  I know that, in terms of quality of water, food, healthcare, disposable income, opportunities for leisure and recreation, education, safety, and all sorts of other measures, I have it better than 99% of the people in the world.  It sounds like I am trying to convince myself.

A proverb (30.7-9) asks:
Two things I ask of you, LORD;
   do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
   give me neither poverty nor riches,
   but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
   and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
   and so dishonor the name of my God.

I heard someone read the line "give me only my daily bread" in a translation that said "give me only enough."  I liked that.  I have enough.  Sometimes, however, that doesn't keep me from stuff envy.

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