For as long as I can remember money has been one of the most important relationships in my life. I’m pretty sure I’ve paid as much attention to money as I have to any other relationship. I’m not proud of it. But maybe I’m getting better at putting relationships with people and my environment ahead of money.
I kind of had a fairy tale first bonding with money while I was young.
I grew up in a middle class home and heard my parents talk openly about our finances and knew that we got along with money, and at times without it. At 10 I bought my first 4H goat, Valentina for $40. My father loaned me the money and I paid it off over the next year. He also taught me how to keep track of my income from chicken egg sales and allowance as well as my expenditures for chicken and goat food in a small brown spiral tablet. As long as I was a penny in the black it was good. I was hooked. Everything I wanted or needed had a price. It cost money for clothes and a ’50 Chevy I bought when I was 17. I managed to get a job at Newberry’s Department Store so I could buy them. Life in the US was a lot easier in the 50’s and I, like so many others, thought it would always be so.
In the 60’s I was lucky to have a Community College nearby where I could do my first two years inexpensively and then transfer to the University of California for my last two years. And I was even luckier to get a National Defense Student Loan, 50% of which was forgiven if I taught school for 5 years.. After college many would say I got ‘really lucky’ and married a guy in his first year of medical school. We both worked hard – he studied while I taught high school biology to support us. We had something akin to the American Dream which promised financial security, happiness and we just took it for granted that we could have just about anything we wanted. As long as we stayed ahead we were fine and it wasn’t too hard to stay ahead then.
The fairy tale ended in divorce and introduced me to a new, more volatile involvement with money in the 80’s. There seemed to be an explosion of things to buy that were attractively dangled in front of our eyes on billboards and TV . We could have it NOW along with a discount if we just charged it on a new account. As a middle aged single parent I worked hard to provide for my family and myself as well as pay off credit cards ‘generously’ extended by banks, oil companies and department stores. I bought my first computer and started down the electronics path of more things to want. I bought my first and only brand new car. My tenuous grasp of money became a series of ups and downs until the mid-90’s, when the precariousness of my American ‘want it all and still make ends meet’ life careened into bankruptcy after an catastrophic emergency medical debt. I was on a financial decline right along with many other self employed folks walking along the edge of the skillfully obscured quicksand of credit overextension and rising costs of living necessities like medical care, pharmaceuticals, all kinds of insurance, groceries, mortgage and car payments. I slipped into that quicksand when I got very sick.
I managed to rebuild my version of the “American Dream” after my bankruptcy. But my experience shook me. I was waking up.
At the turn of the Millennium most folks were riding high on bubbles of all sorts. It was like we were all dancing on the deck of the Titanic just before 2008 rolled over us. I chose to jump ship and try one more time to get this relationship with money right. This time I had the advantage of plenty of experience and would not be easily seduced by attractive come-ons and dire warnings about how much money or insurance or pharmaceuticals each person needs in order to ‘live’ or ‘retire’. And this time I had nothing more to lose. I moved to Costa Rica and spent the last of my pennies for a simple Tico house in a simple Tico neighborhood.
Last week I had a chance meeting with a fellow Ex-Pat while waiting for an oil change at Gasotica, just a few kilometers from my place. After 9 years here as an Ex-Pat he smiled broadly as he said, “Once I had money but the truth is, I never met anyone with lots of money who was really happy!” His words rang true.
My thoughts flipped back to my spiral tablet at aged 10 and how good I felt when I was just a penny ahead. Amount had nothing to do with it. Maybe the happiness and satisfaction that I’ve searched for in money is just being a penny ahead. Maybe the reward of a good relationship with money is understanding the idea of ‘enough’. And maybe enough doesn’t have to be very much.
What does living with just enough mean? My parrots and dog, Seurat seem to know already.
For me it means peace of mind. Living with just enough is possible here in Costa Rica. I live on my comparatively meager Social Security and get a little more from teaching and art sales. I’ve found that I don’t need much most days and I don’t worry anymore about having insurance or money put aside for emergencies. Now before you break into a litany of accusations about not being prepared for emergencies and not carrying sufficient insurance and not taking the best precautions money can buy – please just hear me. I am learning by example.
My extended Costa Rican family here (my neighbors) are poor by American standards. They have a car which sometimes runs if they can get it fixed or have money for gas. If they can’t they walk. They have food on the table which is meager when they don’t have money and plentiful when they do. They rely on family, friends and neighbors when they are in trouble or need something more. They work when they can find work and always, always they sit out on the front porch in the afternoon and talk and laugh and make plans for the family. The younger kids have hopes and dreams just as I did half a century ago. They live peacefully with the ups and downs and have learned to accept them as part of life. They don’t have insurance. They don’t look too far ahead or entertain many high expectations. They are more interested in family and personal relationships than in acquiring stuff.
Their relatively care free life is possible because of some important safety nets here in this country. The government provides universal health care. For non drivers there is an inexpensive bus service in nearly every community. Electricity is charged by a tiered system. If you use little, you pay at a low rate and if you use a lot you pay at a high rate. The basic diet of rice and beans is healthy and inexpensive. They get by, confident that their basic shelter, health care, electricity, food and transportation needs are secure. If something major happens their friends, family and neighbors will help.
Recently my surrogate daughter, Anita told me that the family’s car radiator needed repair. I asked when it would be fixed. She shrugged her shoulders and said that it would be fixed when they had the money. I understood. How could they possibly know when that would be? The future is unknown and it would happen, poco a poco. (little by little) as it always had. Life would continue without the car until it was fixed. And sure enough, the day came when the car was fixed without the family spending precious time and energy worrying….
Slowly, slowly I am learning this way of being, this way of understanding. I’m a penny ahead today and I have enough. Tomorrow will take care of itself.
Now I have just enough.