If We Break It, Then What?
I started saving up to buy my first house in 2003. I wasn’t married, wasn’t dating, and was in the middle of recovering from a months-long illness. I got a summer tutoring job; I sat at a private school kid’s kitchen table once a week and read his poems. I put those checks into a savings account. By the end of the summer, I had $640 in all my own, unspent dollars.
When I started my first full-time teaching job, into the bank went all of the money that didn’t get used each month on rent, food, the occasional second-hand-store spree, or luxurious sushi takeout. When I spent a summer teaching English courses to urban youth who stood to be the first in their family to go to college, I put that money into my account. When the school where I teach offered to pay me extra to teach summer courses, I did it, and banked the pay.
I put birthday money from my 96-year-old grandmother into savings; she called it “mad money,” and said I should buy something with it that I wanted (rather than just needed). What I wanted was a reliable future place to live, so into the bank those checks with her ancient handwriting went. She was a newlywed during the Depression, so she never had “mad money” when she was my age; I hope she’ll forgive my frugality here.
When I got married, family and friends made checks out to us and pushed them through the tiny bars of the birdcage we’d used for the occasion; the checks were tucked inside cards wishing us happiness and good luck. When my husband and I decided to divorce after almost five years of marriage, we took that nest egg and split it in half; my half now sits in my own savings account, where it joins money I earned, and maybe gives the money itself a more loving nature, the spirit and essence of my friends and family who were so generous, even though the life they thought they were contributing to didn’t come to be.
Alone, I’ve started to squirrel away money I make from singing gigs, from clothing I’ve consigned, from winning a photography contest. Whenever I have an extra dollar, before I put it into the proverbial gumball machine, I tuck it away instead. Save, save, save, for more than seven years, from my early twenties until now, through a marriage, nine apartments, saying no to the full-priced, or even non-second-hand thing. I haven’t been a model of thrift; there have been vacations, plenty of trips to Whole Foods, and unavoidable, expensive car repairs and vet bills, but I’ve never lived beyond my means, never given in to expensive trends. I don’t remember the last time I bought anything at the Gap; new Old Navy clothes are a spendy splurge. I prefer thrift stores for clothing; I’ve decided that there’s a dignity to shopping second-hand, as if to say, I’m flexible, I can adapt to my surroundings, I can make the best of anything.
Since June, I’ve been actively looking for a house of my own. When we were together, my husband and I looked for a house together, and couldn’t find one that worked for us. I figured that finding a house on my own would be easier; sure, I had less money, but I also needed less space, and I also didn’t need to consider anyone else’s needs other than my own. This would be a great, heartwarming story about an early-thirtysomething starting over on her own who walks into a little, solid house on a quiet street that she can afford, stands in the living room, and knows she’s found the right place.
Ha. Ha ha ha ha.
Yeah, that’s pretty funny. There aren’t any solid little houses on quiet streets that I can afford. There are only double-wides in senior citizen trailer parks, or houses that don’t have septic systems, or have them but need new roofs, or the services of a structural engineer to bring them up to legal livability. There are houses with rocks for foundations, or houses smaller than my dorm room with middle aged men watching you unabashed from over the too-low fence (just a head, and fingers on the fence rails). There are houses that say “enter at own risk” on the door, or ones you don’t want to enter at all because of the smell.
Do I want pity because my seven-plus years of saving seem inadequate, that all of those hours I spend doing extra so that I could ensure my future were only maybe halfway enough? No, I sure don’t; those people selling those godforsaken houses have it a lot worse than I do, since most of them were forced out in forclosure, and would have — probably did — given all they had to stay. At least I have a warm, safe place to live, even if it is a guest room in a friend’s home, and not anything of my own.
The economy is broken; the rich have too much, and the rest of us don’t have anything. The rest of us are grateful for scraps, and nothing makes me want to throw a good ol’ proletarian revolution than an afternoon of house-hunting. One house I visited, a 600-square foot cottage with a loose-rock foundation, housed a young couple with a three-month-old infant. It was spotless, despite the obvious lack of space for, well, anything; 600 square feet is exactly as small as it sounds, and the whole house only has one closet, and no basement. You’d think, awwww, they’re a growing family, ready to move on to a bigger place now that they have a baby, and you’d think that because that’s the natural order of things. Hermit crabs find a new shell when they outgrow the old one. But no: this house was a short sale; this young family was trying to prevent foreclosure because they’d paid maybe 75K more than the house was worth three years before. This family can’t even keep a tiny house that has a third of the space they need. Here is a cause-effect relationship plain as day; if the wealthy get wealthier, the lower-middle class pays for it in deprivation and tears.
We’ve allowed comforts that we deserve, like a place of our own, to be taken from us, and we’ve only whimpered the whimper of the powerless; I’m whimpering it right now, because there’s nothing else I can do. I can’t get more power, and I can’t get more money. My real estate agent, who has been working with me (and for a while, my husband) for years, only keeps me on as a pity case, especially now that I’m alone; her agency usually handles the sale of million-dollar homes, and I think she just feels badly for me.
If I could find passive-aggressive (or even not so passive) ways to keep what little money I have away from people who are already wealthy, I’d do it. Meanwhile, the house-hunt goes on; I’m a flea, an urchin, and you’d be amazed what little, modest thing I’d be grateful for. Is there dignity in that? If there is, then that may be more valuable than my (somehow still too meager) savings.