Friday, July 01, 2016

Golden Handcuffs

One problem in our society today, is the "golden handcuffs" phenomenon. I'm sure you've heard of it before, assuming that it applied only to the very wealthy. In reality, I feel that the golden handcuffs apply to way more people in modern society than we might think. Essentially, what the term means, is that you've gotten used to living a certain lifestyle, which requires a certain income, and you can't see any way to make significant lifestyle changes so you are therefore "trapped" in your job indefinitely, unable to make career choices as you might otherwise.

Why is this big deal? And why do I slap the label "religion" on this post?

Well, as a Christian, I can see how many "churched" people find no time to volunteer in the causes they care about. I see them unable to donate to the charities they claim to support. I see them stuck in a job where their lifestyle, morals, or family life is at significant risk. Jesus called us to go, but he didn't put qualifiers on it. He didn't say, go when you win the lottery. He didn't say, go when you've paid off the mortgage. Now, I'm not saying that Jesus wants everyone to give away so much money that their family is in danger, but He did call us to live differently. So what does living differently mean?

For me, I've struggled with the past year in our new home with a new income. Not from a having enough money standpoint, but from having too much. It feels weird to me to be able to buy a small $5 or $10 treat for my kids without wondering if there is enough money. Now I do know that there's enough money, but that means that I feel a bigger responsibility to be doing wise things with that money.

I'm not saying that we're wealthy by today's standards. We drive, and have always driven, used cars. We mow our own lawn. We shop sales and coupons at the grocery stores. We rarely buy clothing or shoes. I probably spent upwards of 5 hours comparison shopping for homeschool curriculum online to find the best deal, and determining which books to go without or which ones could be found at the library. Our household income is pretty much spot on to the median household income for our area, so why does it feel like we're suddenly rich?

I think what a lot of families in our situation do, is that they look at the people ahead of them in lifestyle. They want to live as good as their parents do (you know, now that their parents have two solid incomes and no kids at home to feed). It got me thinking about what we should really be comparing our lifestyle to.

So, if you want to break the golden handcuffs, here are some real world situations that you can strive for today.

  1. When I was little, my dad had a retail store job, and we had very little money. We got pencils and shirts for Christmas, with maybe one or two toys and we were happy. What little money my mom did make went to medical bills, and the ridiculous high housing payments caused by high interest rates during that time. We occasionally got bags of used clothes from neighbors and friends, and it didn't matter to me whether they were boy or girl clothes, I had no qualms wearing my brother's hand-me-downs if they made it that long. 
  2. My in-laws grew up in a poor, rural community. One of them grew up in a family of 12 kids, and they mostly shared one or two bedrooms. You had to go to bed early if you wanted to sleep on the mattress, and you certainly would be sharing it (the bed, not just the bedroom) with at least 3-4 others.
  3. My father grew up in a tiny square 2-bedroom house on a farm in South Texas. When he was 12 or 13 he would drive the pick up truck across the border to pick up migrant workers for the day. If you drive to South Texas today, in the same town (now one of the fastest growing towns in Texas), you will drive past thousands and thousands of "McMansions". It's a little disconcerting to see the difference in just a few decades in lifestyle.
  4. I recently read a book called "Half Broke Horses" about a woman born in 1902 and growing up mostly in the Southwest. If you want to read that book, you may feel a bit better about your kids sharing a bedroom, since at least you don't live in a dugout with one wooden wall and rattlesnakes and moles popping out of the dirt surrounding where you sleep and eat.
So, when you think of the "hardships" you are suffering financially, let's take a more realistic look at what is necessary and what is nice to have.

  •  Food, but not all of it. Food. is critical to life on earth. Healthy foods are great and can lower your health costs in the long run. However, generally speaking, there is absolutely nothing you "need" at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods that you can't get an alternative for at Aldi's, Kroger or Food Lion. Some of the healthiest foods, are also the cheapest. Add some beans to your diet instead of meat one or two nights a week. Buy a huge container of oatmeal at Aldi's for $2 or so, and see what you can do with it. Start making a few of your higher priced convenience foods from scratch. Start a garden with a few seeds (the Dollar Tree has seeds in spring at $0.25 per packet). We've recently increased our food budget (because we have more income) to about $125 per week for a family of 4 (although our two kids are pretty small). 
  • Clothing. Every person in your family likely needs 5-7 basic outfits of each type of clothing that is regularly needed and one or two pairs of each type of shoe needed. Any more than that is going to be considered a lifestyle choice. Now, my husband has a ton of dress clothes (enough to last him a month) but his parents bought most of them for him when he was graduating college, and we've only replaced a few items in the almost 10 years since then. If you were to look at our nice, new to us walk-in closet you would see about a one foot section of my "dress" clothes, and then all his dress clothes, and a few pairs of shoes I bought years ago and rarely wear. Most of the shelves are just storage for us (camping gear, pool gear, luggage, etcetera), because I have no idea who wears that many clothes, 
  • Housing. Again, basic housing is a need, but people's definition of basic seems highly skewed since the 1950s. The average size of a new home in 1950 was 983 square feet (and families were larger back then). So, I think if you're looking for a 1,000 square foot, 2-bedroom house for your growing family, then you're on the right track. If not, then you are likely suffering from a golden handcuff situation. Now, we purchased a house about twice that size when we got an increase in income, and had some equity from our previous much smaller house. But honestly, the space in our current house doesn't always work better than our previous house which was 1100 square feet, and the kids are currently sharing a bedroom of their own volition. So the "necessary" housing is much less than what most of us currently have.
  • Transporation. For most people today, you need some type of transportation to get to work or the grocery store. Especially where we live, there are very few places to access public transportation. However, you do not need a car for every person over 16 in your family, and you probably don't need the giant gas-guzzling SUV. You certainly don't need a late-model car with under 60,000 miles (the way they build them today, if you buy quality, I would start looking for a new car when your current one reaches between 140,000-160,000 miles). Also, really analyze your daily trips. Most weeks I only travel about 30 miles total. That includes the library, park, and usually at least one trip to Aldi's. Some of that is our convenient housing location, and some of it is analyzing whether you really need to visit the special park or museum across town very often. Also, I hate driving more than 10 minutes with kids in my car, lol.
  • Medical care. Unfortunately, in today's world, medical costs are skyrocketing. The easy answer to this, is to take care of your own health. Exercise, eat healthy foods, don't eat fast food or sit around watching TV all day. The harder part is to look at our healthcare system a bit more closely and really analyze what our doctors are recommending. I plan another blog post about my apparent "pre pre hypertension" and how doctors are using prescription medicine to treat side effects of other medicine that is used to treat "illnesses" that were not illnesses ten years ago. So, try lifestyle changes, avoid unneeded medical costs, and try to convince our legislature to actually make a change that would fix the problems of pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies buying whatever they want in our government.
  • Entertainment. Guess what's free and healthy and fun? Nature! Take a hike, walk through your neighborhood, work in the yard, go to a park. Turn off the TV (and cut the cable cord) put your smart phone in the deep freezer, and get some free entertainment. People (including me) have become so addicted to our smart phones, that the average family spends HUNDREDS of dollars on cell phones and I can't imagine how many hours per day. My husband still has a dumb phone, and he's way more productive than I am. We don't really "need" those smart phones (in my case it was simply cheaper, and we don't buy new phones every year or pay anywhere close to hundreds or even fifties of dollars for it a month). Internet may be a necessity for some families, especially those like myself that work from home.
Have something not on my list? Then you probably don't need it! Well, that may not be entirely true. But if we really want to break out of the golden handcuffs, it's important to look at what's really necessary and what we just want to spend our money on. Everyone should have a few dollars a month of "fun money" to spend on whatever makes them happy, but in reality money will not make us happy, and those that spend unwisely will end up least happy in the long run.
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