I do a lot of things to save money: I cook our meals from scratch, garden and can food for the winter, avoid using my dryer as much as possible, keep the house at 60 degrees, drive a 1992 Saturn that gets close to 40 MPG which we own outright, shop thrift stores and yard sales, forage freecycle, handmake gifts for most occasions. I don't even have cable, which, these days, sounds like an ultimate sacrifice - I know. In our kitchen, the words "Use it up..." written in indelible chalk, dominate the space above our heads to remind us of the old WWII adage: Use it up, wear it our, make due or do without. These are our words to live by.
Having grown up with my father, who worked in the logging industry making close to $15,000 a year as the sole breadwinner in the eighties, I will never complain about my straits. I acclimated long ago to the challenge of parcelling small amounts of money into their designated areas. I find a certain satisfaction in rising to a challenge and making both sides of the incoming-outgoing equation add up. I live well, and happily, and am aware of how hard it is for many families to sidestep economic crisis, even as they work their tails off. I myself am wrestling with a debt built from bad teeth and leaky roofs. In light of recent conversations on NPR and elsewhere about what it means to be middle class, and because I was asked by a colleague to write about what it is like to live on a teacher's salary, I thought I would tackle the topics of wealth, frugality, and work.
To defy the taboos about talking real numbers, and give you a thumbnail sketch of our finances, my husband and I gross about $70,000 a year, combined. After paying insurance, taxes, and putting away a meager $75 for my retirement every pay period, I bring home about $1400 evey two weeks - roughly $2800 a month. I confront my financial obligations with the help of my husband, who brings home about the same amount of money I do. After we pay for our childcare, mortgage, property tax, condo fees, car, life, and homeowners' insurance, gas, groceries, heat, electricity, and phone we have shelled out an amount exceeding my monthly take home pay by about $500. On top of this, I have a $400 student loan payment each month, without which I would not even have the job I have now. (Given the home I grew up in, loans were the only way for me to attend college and then graduate school). After we handle our "known" expenses each month we are left with less than $1200 to handle all of the unknowns that add up: from school pictures and soccer cleats to car maintence, holidays, and travel. My son still needs pants and shoes that fit - there is no way to keep him from growing. And then, I have to mention the elusive creature: savings. In the back of my mind, I know that even though we have managed to put away about $7000 for our son's college fund, we have only put away half of what we really ought to have saved for him at this stage in the game.
So, we don't have much of a cushion. There are a lot of things we can't realistically do. I haven't seen my mother who lives in New Mexico or my brother in Seattle in about four years. We don't go out to eat or to the theater together because any evening out requires an extra $40 - $50 for childcare. We can't get a family gym membership. We can't pay for TV. We have to decline invitations to weddings, birthdays, weekends away, and spontaneous get togethers. We don't have pets. We have abandoned expensive hobbies like horseback riding and skiing. Instead we amuse ourselves with board games from the church yardsale, gardening, and cooking. We have had to scale back our charitable contributions too, much to our shagrin.
This is a portrait of the middle. I am here in the middle with so many other people in public service, and I am among the lucky. I am grateful for good healthcare and for opportunities to continue my education. I have a great partner who is as frugal and resourceful as I try to be. I have a relatively short commute. I have relationships with people that help me with things like household repairs. I have a lot to be grateful for. I chose my profession because teachers saved my life, not because I would ever get rich being one. It is startling to think that I made more money working as an uneducated "data technician" - anonymously plugging addresses into a database in 1998 so that a company like Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts would know which street corner might be the next site for their new coffee shop - than I do now, introducing my 95 students to new skills and experiences, planning lessons, teaching for 6 hours a day, assessing work, administering school and district policies, participating in professional development, writing grants, and collaborating with colleagues.
To me this comparison says something about our priorities as a community of people. I am not the only teacher I know who creatively addresses the challenge of living on a teacher's salary; for many of us it would take just one unforseen event: a car breaking down, pipes bursting, a trip to the vet for Fido that could drive any of us into debt. If living in the middle class means that we feel a sense of security, then most teachers are among those in the middle class, but tentatively. It is worth it to pay teachers a fair and viable wage - one that is indicative of their value to the community and one that affords them the space in their personal lives to really be good teachers. It is true, I have a huge vested interest in making this claim. The truth is though, the one leveling mechanism we have is education - it is the single most important factor in any person's ability to choose their direction and to enhance the opportunities of their children. Our society does not function without access to education - at least in its non-feudal ideal form. I wouldn't be working in this field if I did not believe in it. I think it is important that I and others who feel the same way I do can afford to choose this profession.