Sunday, September 12

Room at the inn

When I left my full-time job in February, we knew it would take discipline to stay afloat. A police officer's salary isn't what it should be, and it isn't what it used to be: Noah hasn't received a cost-of-living raise in two years. Between gas prices and the grocery store—remember when just about everything was 99 cents, but now it's all $2.99?—there isn't a whole lot of wiggle room. But we're making it work.

About once or twice a month, though, we sit and look at each other and realize it wouldn't take much to sink this ship. It weighs heavily on Noah. And me, well, I just get angry. We don't have any credit cards. We don't have a car payment. We don't even have television. There is no place else to trim the budget, but the cost of each category keeps going up. When we first got married, we budgeted $60 a week for groceries. Now, $100 a week is a stretch. When we first got married, we could fill our gas tank on $20. Now, I'm not even sure how much it would take to fill the tank—probably closer to $50.

It doesn't seem right, or fair, or American that a small family—one full-time worker who puts his life on the line for the community, one part-time-working stay-at-home mother, and a toddler who lives on juice and air—struggles to pay for necessities. Worries that someone might get sick because our small emergency fund wouldn't cover the cost of cotton balls on a hospital bill anymore.

Yesterday, on the anniversary of 9/11, I went to a blogger brunch at our city's recently expanded Ronald McDonald House. Through the generosity of donors—nearly $4 million of generosity—and the volunteer services of architects at Calloway Johnson Moore & West, contractor Frank L. Blum, and designers Linda G. Bettis, Rebecca DeBruhl, Gair Jewell and Sarah Young, the RMH addition doubled the number of families it can accommodate.

living room

One of the living areas.

dining room

The dining room.


One of the 35 bedrooms.

(You can see more photos from the Ronald McDonald house in my Flickr Photostream)

Aside from providing better-than-hotel rooms and living spaces for families with children in the hospital, as well as free dinners and in-hospital family rooms with food and Internet access, the RMH staffs counselors who meet with the families, visit bedside, and connect them with other counselors in their home areas when they leave. For these services, they charge $5 per night. But if a family can't pay, they still won't be turned away. Now more than ever, we were told, families are unable to afford the meager donation.

Non-profits like the Ronald McDonald house signify something important, that a charitable view toward others exists in this country. RMH recognizes the sad truth that on top of the pain and anxiety and worry of having a sick child, most people can't afford to have a sick child. Because regardless of health-care reform or health insurance, there is a financial penalty given to those on leave from work, away from home, facing the most difficult time in life. There shouldn't be, but there is.

I try not to feel bitterness. I have a comfortable if small home, a large yard for my son and dogs to play in, a vehicle to take us where we need to go, and our health. We are educated. We have generous families who live nearby and with whom we spend a lot of time.We have the American Dream. But we are reminded daily how insecure that dream is in this day and age: through the rising price of a mortgage weighted heavier with taxes each year to cover our state's budget deficit; through inflexible and exorbitant student loans and tuition; through the knowledge that an illness, even if it didn't take the worst toll, would take a fatal financial one; through the potential that a car accident could put our freedom of transportation out of commission.

I don't think that's how the dream is supposed to end. I can't remember Walt and June worrying over how to apportion Walt's paycheck so they don't slip into the red, or how to pay for Wally and the Beav's All-American College Experience. But I guess a lot of things have changed since the twin towers went down. I do believe the American Dream is one of them.

I hope the new iteration of the American Dream preserves some of the old sentiments—that good things should come to those who work—but makes room for new realities—that honest work might not be enough anymore. I hope the new American Dream reinterprets wealth, that a modest home and fiscal responsibility are the new model for prosperity. And I hope the new American Dream honors generosity, recognizes that charities like Ronald McDonald House are essential to the fabric of society. Finally, I hope we as a country begin to recognize that need should not be equated with irresponsibility, nor should abundance be equated with virtue.

It's been quite awhile since I've heard the pull-yourself-up-and-out philosophy being touted as the American Way. And I'm glad. Because sometimes you can tug and tug at your own bootstraps, only to discover that the boots don't fit.


Judy Schwartz Haley | CoffeeJitters.Net said...

I hear you. My husband and I are both college students living entirely off student loans (ok, I got a little bit of a Pell grant so it's mostly student loans) - then I got pregnant and had a baby - then I got cancer.

after some cruel things that were said to us regarding our situation, ideas like this give me hope: "Finally, I hope we as a country begin to recognize that need should not be equated with irresponsibility, nor should abundance be equated with virtue."

magnolia said...

preach. it's one of the greatest tragedies of my lifetime that the "american dream" - y'know, being able to own a home and have a modest but comfortable life - seems to be as unreachable as a poor kid becoming a vanderbilt overnight. abundance became a fake virtue so quickly that the rest of us hard-working average people didn't even notice it happening. i don't quite know how we got so far astray. i just hope that the backlash against the way things are can restore the ability to achieve a small measure of real, honest comfort in this life.

Jen said...

This is such a beautiful post. I've been thinking about these kinds of things a lot lately, and it gives me so much hope to know that other people are thinking about them, too. I want this to be put into gigantic neon signs all over the country (or earth, really): "I hope we as a country begin to recognize that need should not be equated with irresponsibility, nor should abundance be equated with virtue."

The Naked Redhead said...

It's gross out there. It's been hard to watch my boyfriend struggle for two years to find steady work because he doesn't have a Bachelor's degree...and we are by no means as bad off as some.

Thanks for sharing this. You've touched on what so many of us are facing every day. Also, this is fantastic: "Finally, I hope we as a country begin to recognize that need should not be equated with irresponsibility, nor should abundance be equated with virtue."

Lish said...

Living in a country where all of the luxuries, such as health care and food, are spread out before you for the taking seems like a dream come true.
And in many ways, it is.
But being unable to comfortably reach and acquire those things, for ourselves or our children, especially considering the hours and effort put in to the daily grind - well, it's ridiculous.
My husband makes a comfortable salary. On paper, that is. We look very happily average on paper - but in order to afford food and shelter continuously until retirement, we have to plan and budget now. Which puts us in the same position as many Americans - living paycheck to paycheck with the knowledge that we will work our entire lives to JUST make it.
Gone are the dreams of retirement homes on lakes, with boats and world vacations. We work hard to ensure that surprise expenses, like ultrasounds and braces, don't push us off of a cliff.

I'm lucky. I'm a spender that married a man that has spent his entire life saving money. When other children spent their birthday money, he socked it away for years - and continues to do so. Because of his thrifty ways, we will be able to retire at a normal age. We'll never be rich, we may never own our own home, we'll balk at higher-than-expected bills with the rest of our neighbors and our children don't have a hope of us putting them through college on our own.

I'm alternatively counting my blessings and hurting on the inside because of these things.
I know I'm one of the lucky ones.
I teeter and wobble right along with you on this rocky path.
A strong wind could change my outlook almost immediately. A harsh diagnosis, another economic disaster, an environmental disaster, a lost job – all monsters in my closet, waiting to come bite me when the worries catch up to me late at night.

My new Dream is simple. When I need to buy milk and bread, when I need to pay a co-pay at the doctor’s office, when I need an oil change or tire rotation or even a new windshield, I want the check I write to be backed by money in my account.
Every single time. I don’t want to have to THINK about doing last-minute calculations at the window.
I want that security when I sign my name. That secure knowledge.
Every time, for the rest of my life.

It shouldn’t be that much to ask.
But for many people it is. And that’s what shakes me.
Honest hard work ISN’T enough anymore.
Contrary to everything I was taught as a child, the effort you put out throughout your life no longer seems to equal the rewards you take back in.
That leaves me – and others, I suppose – with a lot of idealistic concepts that require new definitions.
Success, failure, dreams, wealth, necessity, extravagance.
Our definition of having ENOUGH.

It’s all changing.
Is changing, has changed.

Slamdunk said...

Thanks for your honest post. Times like these make us inventory what is really important--at least it helps keep us sane.

The Mrs. served on the RMH board of directors here for a number of years--it was a very satisfying place to volunteer.

Erin said...

Judy—It saddens me that it has taken a mass economic crisis for more of us to realize that situations like yours can and do happen, through no fault of your own, and can sink a family. You're amazing.

magnolia—absolutely. And the thing is, there will always be those who take advantage because they can; there will always be those who are stingy with their wealth. I'm just hoping that the majority of us will choose to spread our wealth around through things like RMH, because "wealth" is truly relative.

Jen—Thank you so much for your enthusiasm. Maybe we could do t-shirts?

TNR—My hope was to connect with you guys by telling the truth. Additionally, this isn't a topic we should feel embarrassed about. Your honesty about your financial situation was an inspiration, and congratulations on taking your finances by the horns and shaking things up.

Lish—YES. This is our goal, too. We recently reinstated an on-paper cash-flow plan, and even though it didn't increase our income, it certainly put our minds at ease. No more worrying "is there enough to cover this in our account before the next paycheck?"

Slam—I've been thinking about volunteering for quite some time, and RMH seems like a wonderful place to do so.

stephanie said...

erin - i don't know how you do it. and i have so much respect for you & noah.

your post touched on a number of things i've been thinking about. since i got married a month & a half ago, i've been thinking a lot about how we are going to afford having a family. i would love to have kids someday, but i can't honestly see how we are going to live off of one salary (i would stay at home) and afford to buy food/gas and pay for student loans, bill, savings, & retirement. it feels wrong to me that i don't feel we can have a child at this point, now that we feel emotionally ready, due to money.

i think about all of these extremely wealthy people who make more in one year than i will make in my lifetime & get so irritated that they squander it away. i imagine what i would do with that kind of money - pay off our debt & the debt of our families, put a ton into savings & retirement, make college funds for our future kids, help out our friends & donate to some charities.

i keep hearing how money doesn't buy happiness, but having enough to take off some of the stress & worry would be nice.

Erin said...

Stephanie—I'm sure you've heard this before, but if you wait until you can "afford" to have kids, you never will. And although we live on one salary, I do bring in a little bit through blogging (about enough for a pizza every month from Fierce Beagle, and a couple of weeks worth of groceries from I also babysit for another police couple a few evenings a month, when their work schedules overlap.

I said to Noah, not long ago, "it feels wrong that I have to second guess my choice to stay home and raise our son, just because of money."

You're not alone, as you can see. And maybe talking about this kind of stuff more often will help us all come up with some solutions.

Lish said...

Erin - that last comment from you and Stephanie - YES!
I understand exactly.

I could hug you two - I understand it THAT much. And I’m a bit hormonal, so deal with the hugs.

I'm pregnant now, a complete surprise. (a bit of prologue for anyone who cares - I'm 30, mother of a 13 year old... okay, so that WAS only a bit)
We were planning on having another child... eventually.
My thrifty husband could never figure out when money and time would combine to form the Perfect Arrangement.
Nature jumped in and we're making it work via the Sink or Swim Method.

And though we’re going to try this bit with me staying at home in the beginning, only time will tell if it will work. Money will be tight and so much that we’ve chosen to work toward the past few years that we’ve been together will be rearranged as we reevaluate our priorities.
I’m grateful to even have the chance and ability to try.

But I’ll admit that there is a tiny troll living inside of me that wishes it were going to be easier. That wants to bark at the people who take it for granted.

Basically, this is my long way of hijacking the comments to say “Amen, sister!” or ditto on the “You’re not alone!” Which probably would have been more polite, but... none of you are alone in this.
Sometimes, but not all of the time, just sometimes... being an adult sucks donkey toes.

stephanie said...

erin, thanks for your input & for bringing to light that these issues & struggles are more prevalent than they seem. its comforting to know that others share in similar challenges.

Laura said...

Erin- Thank you for your heartfelt post and for spreading the word about the Ronald McDonald House. It was a pleasure to meet you and we hope you will stay in touch. Thank you again for coming on our blogger tour!

-Laura (& Watson) from RMH

Lisa@Pickles and Cheese said...

This is such a thought provoking post. Even though I am much farther down life's road I do understand and know that it is much harder today to financially start and navigate a comfortable life. Our worries are very different but very much the same. I worry about how my kids are going to establish themselves in a career in a world where career choices are disappearing at an alarming rate. I worry about helping my kids get through college without a huge debt hanging over their heads. And I worry about how my husband and I are going to ever afford to retire. These are very uncertain times. I have been thinking about all of these things and the ones you mentioned a lot lately. So many things need to change.

LT said...

I understand your situation all too well- if we are not in the same boat, then it's the same class of vessel on the same river. And at the same time, I have to think we still have it better than 98% of the rest of the world. I wonder, sometimes, if the American dream came at someone else's expense all along.

Erin said...

Laura—Well, thank you for inviting me! I won't be a stranger.

Lisa—My parents are in the same boat, worrying about my college-aged brother. Plus, my dad was out of work for a year after being laid off from a company he worked for for 20. So much seems uncertain these days.

LT—YOU'RE BACK! Woo hoo! I should have guessed it was you, when after reading your comment I said, "Whoa."

Anonymous said...

Hey Babygirl,
I just want everyone to know that I am so proud of how you and Noah are working through all of this. The sacrifices you have made are a wonderful example to me of your commitment to each other and your family. I am proud of you for you pursuing your dream of writing, for going back to school to get there and for deciding to stay home a raise such an amazing little guy. Hopefully you both know that Mom and I are always there for you guys and will do whatever we can, whenever we can to help!
We love you guys very much.

P.S. Howz about coming over for dinner tonight?


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