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How can you live on $31,500 a year?  June 14, 2005

Greg — June 14 @ 11:14am

I recently had to think about this because its what my dad kept asking me over and over again when I called him up to sheepishly ask for a small loan. It’s been an expensive month—had to pay an early termination fee on my lease and a security deposit on my spot in the Oasis, and then some college buddies were meeting up in Vegas over Memorial Day where Luck, like my ex-girlfriend, was not being much of a lady. So when my 1993 Ford Taurus started having troubles with the transmission, I didn’t have the extra six hundred bucks to make sure that I could get to work every day. My tax return was long gone—probably somewhere in Vegas, now that I think about it—and not having a car was not an option, so I called home. And, as I expected, got hell.

It’s this game we play, me and my parents. Here’s how it goes:
(1) I tell my dad my car needs repairs and could I borrow $200 for about three weeks;
(2) he says I shouldn’t be wasting time working a dead-end job and why don’t I decide already about graduate school;
(3) my mom, who’s listening in, tells my dad that he should have just bought me a new car when I graduated and not let me drive that eyesore every time I come home;
(4) I think about telling my dad that there’s no way in hell I ever want to be a corporate lawyer, but I decide against it, and I settle on saying that working at a law school is basically the same as being enrolled in it except a lot less debt.
(5) My dad starts saying that he went from rural Pennsylvania to Harvard without a penny of debt and
(6) in the background I hear my mom writing out a check, so I end the conversation quickly and two days later a check for $450 comes in the mail with a note telling me to have someone detail it while it’s in the shop.
But I digress.

The question was originally, how can I live on $31,500 a year in the first place?

Here’s the best answer I can come up with: maybe I should just become Mormon. And here’s my reasoning. I don’t know how to say this politely, so I’ll just say it. My roommates are the cheapest bastards it’s ever been my privilege to live with. All except Abe, who probably has hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debt from maintaining about ten girlfriends simultaneously. I don’t think they’re cheap on purpose. I think it’s just something inborn, some tribal characteristic passed down through blood. Take, for example, my roommate Adam. He’s in law school, and he’s going to be very rich someday. He’ll probably be the corporate lawyer my dad has always wanted for a son. But he rides a bike to school and he brings cans of green beans for lunch. Take Seth, the engaged. He eats every meal at his fiancee’s house. Maybe he buys the groceries, I don’t know, but what I’m saying is that he doesn’t have to eat out every night like me. Take Nephi. Bless his heart, I don’t think he’s ever bought real butter in his life. In fact, I’ve learned that the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” spray can easily work for toast, pasta, and cookie dough (although you have to unscrew the lid for that).

I know you’re thinking that I’m laughing at my roommates; I’m not. I am genuinely impressed by how little they’re able to get by on. Some of their behaviors could just be laziness—I’ve had roommates before who would put anything on pasta, including Hershey’s chocolate syrup, before they would go to the store to get what they needed. But I can’t help but think that there’s some embedded Mormon computer chip in which the default setting is, as Nephi sometimes observes, “I’m going to have 13 children someday; I’d better start saving now.” So I figure, if Mormons can make it with 13 kids and “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,” I can make it with $31,500 and a busted transmission.

Maybe that’s what I’ll tell my dad the next time he calls.


  1. Great post. I worry about money sometimes, esp. since I don’t really have a career and I’m not sure where things are taking me. And yes, Mormons are frugal, but I don’t think we’re all necessarily cheap — I see it as more of an ascetic virtue :)

    Jenn — June 14, 2005 @ 12:57pm
  2. “My roommates are the cheapest bastards”

    Holy cow. People make fun of Jews for being cheap. Jews have nothing on Mormons when it comes to being chisling skinflints. Its cultural. Having to pay tithing and a “generous” fast offering makes for frugal company. Joining the Church just to be turned into a cheapskate won’t work. It will take years of painful indoctrination. And, sorry, there is no subcutaneous implant.

    Kurt — June 14, 2005 @ 1:18pm
  3. “I can’t believe it’s not butter” is a fine margerine that I don’t buy, I guess I too am cheap. I make a little more than 31,500, but have a family and three kids, mortgage payment, and happy with all I got. My boss, who is not mormon, wonders how I do it (I think this plays better for me as raise time comes up) But I remind him about the sports car I don’t have, the high speed internet that is not hooked up, the cruise that I haven’t taken yet, the gambling I don’t participate in, the restaraunts I don’t visit (at least not as often), let alone the brand name diapers I don’t buy that work just as good as my walmart brand. I guess getting down to it, I haven’t had those luxuries in my life, and since they are still considered luxuries, I can do without them (But if I could, I would get the high speed internet as that is becoming more of a need than a want). It seems that if you have not partaken of these items, its easier to stay away from them. Once you get them (I have had high speed internet before) it is hard to let them go. I don’t think it is slated to mormons. I know plenty of mormons who buy everything that I don’t, enjoy their luxury cruises, and drive their fun, fancy cars. But I also know non mormons who scrape to get by. I think it builds character so when you can afford those things, you don’t become stuffy.

    N Miller — June 14, 2005 @ 1:19pm
  4. For the first 8 years of my marriage, my wife and I lived off of far less than $31,500. We became expert thriftmongers. Strangely, though, despite the fact that I now make quite a comfortable living, it still often seems that we have to scrimp and save to make ends meet. Will we ever be able to do fun things?

    Although it is nice that if the car breaks down it doesn’t set us back for months like it used to…

    Jordan — June 14, 2005 @ 1:26pm
  5. Fellow tightwads! I also have to say that my roommates, several of them, are also the most generous people I know. Adam lets me eat anything of his and Seth is always offering the stuff his fiancee sends home with him. And Abe–credit card debt, 10 girlfriends–is also remarkably generous. He’s been driving me to work and picking me up for the past week. I offered to take over one of his girlfriends as a gesture of thanks but he hasn’t taken me up on that yet. Anyway, I don’t know many married Mormons, but it seems like one of the reasons your culture values frugality is because a lot of you marry early before you’re settled in a house, a career, etc.
    Now for a little fun. N Miller, you gave us a great list of things you don’t buy. Here’s where I weigh in on them. Take this as a little exercise in cross cultural comparison or something.
    sports car– check. no sports car for me either, although my mom keeps trying to get my dad to get one for me. I think they’re overrated. No, I just don’t want to be beholden to my parents.
    high speed internet–guilty. But all the roommates chip in. Being single might lead to a higher lifestyle, N. Sorry yo. I bet you wouldn’t trade though.
    cruise–guilty. But my parents did pay for this one. I’ve actually been on four or five, a couple of them with my dad’s partner’s family. Cruises really aren’t a big deal. I got really sick on one of them. I would probably trade all of my cruises for a sibling or something.
    gambling–guilty. Evil associates dragging me down, I’m afraid. How many of you have frat brother reunions you have to go to? But I only gamble in Vegas. Too damn poor otherwise.
    restaurants–guilty. Like I said, that’s another reason to become Mormon and get a fiancee. Coworkers are always going out to eat; it’s just a part of my lifestyle.
    expensive baby dipers–check check and check. No baby dipers, expensive or otherwise, being bought by me.
    So yes, it looks like I haven’t reached the high levels of Mormon Frugality yet. Give me another few months. Thanks for reading guys.

    Greg Fox — June 14, 2005 @ 2:19pm
  6. My sister supports a husband and three kids on $31,000 per year, and they’ve got a mortgage payment. Her husband attracts good deals, so I think that’s a secret to their success (besides tithing of course). It is not unusual for her husband to go to a store, and have a random salesguy walk up to him and say, “hey, we just got this shipment in, do you want half of it for free?” I kid you not, it’s almost weird how consistently he gets stuff for 75% off.

    Janey — June 14, 2005 @ 3:57pm
  7. Maybe cheapness is a sense.

    On the other hand, maybe Janey’s brother-in-law is just a scam artist.

    NFlanders — June 14, 2005 @ 4:48pm
  8. Since my salary was raised above $30k about a year ago, I’ve felt like I’ve hit the big time. My wife and I have plenty to satisfy our needs. It is a strange concept to me to consider $30-40k a paltry salary, but I was raised in a lower income Mormon family. Let me see if I can think of some behaviors we have that allow us to make it…

    Sports car? I have one of those, but it’s 15 years old and paid off. We also own my wife’s car.
    High speed internet? We have that too, but no TV, cable, satellite, or otherwise.
    Eating out? Maybe 3-4 times per month. Meals are planned usually 2-3 weeks in advance.
    Vacations? Yes, but we are very frugal about them.
    Monthly Budget? Yes, every dollar is planned.
    Student Loans? Yep.
    Consumer Debt? Nope.
    Tithing? Yes.
    Diapers? No kids. No diapers.
    Mortgage? No, not quite yet. Not sure where we want to stay permanently.

    Brother Joseph — June 15, 2005 @ 9:23am
  9. Janey, my roommate Adam wants to go shopping with yoru brother-in-law.
    Brother Joseph, what kind of sports car?

    Greg Fox — June 15, 2005 @ 12:53pm
  10. Heh. It’s a Firebird. Calling it a sports car is sort of like calling a Sumo wrestler an athlete… technically you can use the term…

    Brother Joseph — June 15, 2005 @ 2:49pm
  11. an athlete.

    GOSH! Ruined my own joke….

    Brother Joseph — June 15, 2005 @ 2:49pm
  12. I think it’s a big mistake to buy a car for your kid. Having done it three times, I can say that. What I do when my kids call me like that is say, “oh, man, that’s rough, what are you going to do?” And if they should be so stupid as to ask for money, I say, “I don’t have any extra money, I haven’t even paid the light bill yet this month.” And they figure it out.

    I don’t know how old you are, but your parents bought you a car. Count your blessings. You have an MA and a job, you had a good time in Vegas, if I was your dad (or your foolish mom, who will probably be sending checks to her baby boy forever), I’d tell you to walk, take the bus, or borrow a bicycle. You’re too old to be borrowing money to fix your car from your parents. That much I know.

    annegb — June 16, 2005 @ 12:09pm
  13. Bro Joe–Sweet. Better than my Ford Taurus.
    annegb–I think you should have a conversation with my mom. Just to let you know, I bought my own car (that was important to me) but my mom wanted my dad to buy me a nicer one. My dad was raised in Pennsylvania by down-to-earth, economical parents, so he is of the “work for yourself” camp. My mom was raised pretty rich, though, and thinks that having a broken down Ford Taurus will make me an embarrassment to myself and her neighbors. Nah, I’m probably being too mean on my mom–she really wants me to be happy, she just thinks that money and nice things is what I need for that. For what it’s worth, she’s probably not like a lot of Mormon women. At least, she’s not like my roommates moms. And for what else its worth, I agree with you on how kids should be financially independent from their parents. But my dad has the Holy Fear of God about credit, so he told me that I should get a loan from him first if I have an expense that I would otherwise have to put on a credit card. Then he charges me 4% interest on it until I can pay him back. I sent back $150 from my mom’s check and just used what I needed for the repairs, and then I returned it with the interest when I got my next paycheck. Oh gosh, now I sound like I’m 10 and I’m explaining why I didn’t do my homework to my 4th grade teacher. Sorry, annegb. I must care about not losing your respect or something. I really am a good kid, even if I’m a non-Mormon spoiled only child!

    Greg Fox — June 16, 2005 @ 12:49pm
  14. Sorry, Greg, my bad. I’m in a bad mood and lashing out here. I’m going to log off for everybody’s sake.

    annegb — June 16, 2005 @ 12:53pm
  15. Sorry your in a bad mood, annegb. That sucks. Here’s a list of things that make me happy, even on $31,500 a year:
    1) wasting all day blogging but still getting my work done
    2) playing X-box with Abe (sorry Miranda. But I’m not married so it doesn’t matter, right?)
    3) going to the beach. Do you live anywhere close to a beach, annegb? it makes everything better.
    4) getting a frappacino blended coffee with a shot of vanilla. Sorry dudes, it’s just damn good.
    5) playing trivial pursuit with Nephi. I always win.
    6) listening to the Mormon tabernacle choir. I can’t explain it. This is one of the dorkiest things I do, but Nephi gave me a couple of his old CDs and I’ve been listening to them every day since then. That “Elijah rock” song makes me think of my grandma somehow.
    7) going to political rallies. I volunteered for Kerry’s campaign; hope I haven’t made any enemies now.
    8) making lists
    9) thinking of questions to ask Sep about Mormons
    10) bidding on things on e-bay.
    Feel free to use any of these ideas, annegb. I hope your day is going better.

    Greg Fox — June 16, 2005 @ 2:08pm
  16. Myself, at the moment, I’m enjoying bugging those guys on the Passionate Kiss thread.

    I hate myself when I get like this. Good book and valium usually does the trick.

    annegb — June 16, 2005 @ 2:55pm
  17. A valium? Are you trying to re-inforce the stereotype of the bedraggled Mormon women who has to use prescriptions to cope?

    Miranda PJ — June 16, 2005 @ 3:51pm
  18. No, I’m trying to hold up my reputation as an addictive slut.

    Just kidding, don’t get mad.

    However, I think valium was invented by God just for me.

    annegb — June 16, 2005 @ 3:59pm
  19. annegb, you an addictive slut? That completely changes my mental image. Between you and Languatron and Rosalynde, I’m pleased to say that this blog seems to be bringing out the more lively side its participants.

    Miranda PJ — June 16, 2005 @ 5:48pm

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