Keeping the Jones’ at Bay
Elated to have just been united in holy matrimony, Mr. and Mrs. John Doe delicately feed each other their elaborate chocolate, mocha, and lemon wedding cake. Covered in fondant icing and stacked four layers high, the couple indulges in its decadence. Guests are wined and dined with four course meals, while live music plays. When the celebration finally winds down, guests leave dreamily, with candy, coasters or candles in hand. The appearances of this celebration mask the truth that soon faces our couple, basking in wedded bliss.
Upon returning from tanning on the beaches of the Caribbean, touring across Europe, or cruising through the Greek Isles, said couple will return home to feel the pressure of the Jones. Why live in a one-bedroom apartment when you get a mortgage for a three-bedroom house? Of course every newlywed couple needs the latest coffee maker and a flat screen high definition T.V. How will we stay entertained without a Wii and memberships to the local gym? Sometimes it feels as if the Jones’ are shouting expectations through a loud speaker. If our couple heeds the luring call of consumerism, they may soon find themselves reviewing their latest bank statement wondering why they have more “month” than money.
After a long day of teaching English to tired, Taiwanese children, my knight in shining armor arrived at my school to whisk me off to our castle. Nic and I hopped on our grey scooter and headed to our one bedroom studio on the 23rd floor of our apartment building. It was payday and we had had our prized New Taiwanese dollars stacked neatly in red envelopes; in the Chinese culture red is considered to be associated with luck and wealth. That night I would cook dinner in our over sized toaster oven in our make shift kitchen. Then, it was date night.
The recent world economic situation can only make matters worse for the average American newlyweds. Everyone is aware of the joys and stresses that newlyweds face. Not only are two lives merged, usually two financial situations are combined. In a country where 20% of divorces occur in the first five years of marriage, and the number one topic that sparks a fight between couples is debt, it seems that the Mr. and Mrs. Doe are fighting an uphill battle.[i] Paying for a wedding can set the average couple back $21,000 - $24, 000. [ii] When you consider this expense combined with the $37,600, which is the average debt for graduate students, we realize the possibly hazardous situation that newlyweds can find themselves in. [iii]
Upon returning from our own tour of Europe and paying off student loan debt, Nic and I decided we would not chase after the Jones’; we determined not to become a statistic and to make a change. A McMansion with a two-car garage is an impossibility for us right now, but we are satisfied. A TV isn’t a fixture in our home, but from our perspective via the Internet, it looks like that Jones’ have recently found themselves in a precarious situation.
When newlywed couples lock themselves into a 30-year mortgage in a three-bedroom house, they are often stuck with monthly payments that strip their bank accounts bare. The average principal amount owed on a mortgage is $69,227. [iv] Most personal finance books discourage the purchase of a brand new car. Cars devalue the minute you drive them out of the lot. The average automobile loan in the United States is for five years. Today’s average car owner owes $4,221 more than the vehicle is worth at the time it is sold. [v]
I hurriedly pulled our most recent account balances off the computer and jotted them down in our little green notebook. There were still a few things left for me to do before “date night” began. Running over to our wooden closet, I opened Nic’s underwear drawer and dug through our stacks of red envelopes that sit neatly in an old soap box. I pulled out envelopes labeled “vacation”, “Roth IRA” and “Masters”. I counted the New Taiwanese Dollars in each envelope and scribbled those totals in the notebook, while Nic grabbed his iBook and shoved it into his backpack. We drove off on our scooter to the closest Starbucks. I was the first one to notice the line. It extended across the first floor of the building and back towards the stairs. The frustrated, exhausted visages of impatient customers, juxtaposed against the stressed and frantic looking faces of the baristas, greeted us at the door. Nic and I gave each other that look; the look that asks whether this date night was a good idea, the look that suggests that we should have stayed home instead. After a brief discussion, we decided that our purpose for being there was most important and we would wait out the line.
Nic worked his way past the crowd of Taiwanese men and women and upstairs to wait for a seat at a table. Thirty minutes passed as I stood, waiting, shifting my weight from one foot to another. I finally placed our order, and at about the same time Nic was able to secure us a table. Another thirty minutes later I walked up the stairs, caramel macchiato and decaf skim mocha in hand, to my husband who had his ibook out and ready to go. I pulled out my green notebook and we got straight to the task at hand; setting our financial goals, reviewing our budget and planning our expenses and savings for the next six months.
According to a recent study, 70% of couples talk about finances on a weekly basis. [vi] This may lead the reader to wonder why all the problems centered on money? Research suggests that it’s how couples are talking that is the problem. Conversations based around money can too quickly become emotional, reactive and therefore quickly heated.
Some might find it ironic that we chose Starbucks as the venue for our financial date night. After all, isn’t the infamous “latte factor” an expense that we would avoid like the plague? Restaurants and coffee shops are, for us, special occasions. In our opinion, the cost of a coffee is well worth a stable financial future. To our elation and surprise, after thirty minutes of waiting in a long line of Mandarin speakers, we were let in on the secret of the masses, it was buy one get one free night.
Discussing the details of our envelope-budget, we matter-of-factly discussed any possible areas where we might be able to slash our spending. Money is not an explosive issue in our relationship. We discuss our finances often, whether on dates or on an afternoon run. Student loans are no longer an option for us; we are committed to saving $10,000 to pay for my Masters’ classes as I take them. Months ago we carefully crafted a rigid budget that allows us to pay this expense. Before we receive our red envelopes each month we know exactly where that money will go. When the envelopes are empty, our spending for the month is done. Everything that is left is poured into the envelope labeled “Masters.” Working in Taiwan, teaching English to the masses allows us to work part time and still save enough to pay this seemingly colossal expense.
Examining the day to day finances of the average American household really opens ones eyes to the reality that the Jones aren’t as happy as they appear to be. About 43% of Americans spend more than they earn each year. [vii] Specifically, the average American spends $1.22 for every dollar that they earn. [viii] Credit cards have encouraged spending beyond our means with the mantra of “buy now, pay later.” The psychological effect of using plastic, rather than seeing the cash move out of your hands, affects spending habits. Even for the disciplined user that pays off the balance every month, the average credit card purchase is usually 112% more than if cash were used. [ix] If Mr. and Mrs. Jones have at least one credit card, they are likely to have $10,700 in credit card debt. [x] On top of that, they also pay $1,200 in credit card interest annually. [xi]
Dreams of exploring Beijing, isolating ourselves from the crowds of tourists and scaling the Great Wall, have lingered in our minds for months. Consistently stashing some cash away each month has made this trip do-able for us. Hashing out the financial details of this trip, airfare, hotel, visa costs and daily spending, concluded our date night. Three hours after parking our scooter and battling the lines of locals, we had broken down our budget, planned for an adventure vacation, shared our dreams for the future, and set up a plan for the next six months.
The Jones’ continue to shout their expectations, however, we turn a debt-free ear. We may not have the same surface level luxuries of the Jones,’ but in our opinion, our lives are rich. Has it been worth it, all the budgeting, scrimping and planning, you might ask? How about you ask the Jones.
[i] Lawler, Mary K. “Transitioning Through Divorce: The Six Types of Divorce,” Oklahoma State University. 14 Apr. 2009.
[ii] “They’ll Never Know: Eight Hidden Ways to Cut Wedding Costs,” Smart Money June 11, 2008. 14 Apr. 2009
[iii] Wines, Leslie. “Should Schools Warn Students About Debt,” Boston. October 24, 2007. 14 April. 2009
[iv] Khan, Kim. The Basics: How Does Your Debt Compare? 14 Apr. 2009
[v] Bensinger, Ken. “New Cars That Are Fully Loaded – With Debt – Americans are Rolling Over Loans, Often Ending Up Owing More For the Vehicle Than It’s Worth,” L.A. Times. December 30, 2007. 14 Apr. 2009
[vi] Todorova, Aleksandra. “The Six Financial Mistakes Couples Make,” Smart Money. June 11, 2008. 14 Apr. 2009
[vii] Khan, Kim. “The Basics”
[viii] Khan, Kim. “The Basics”
[ix] Bannister, Paul. “25 Fascinating Facts About Personal Debt,” Bankrate. September 20, 2004. 14 Apr. 2009
[x] Money 101: Lesson 9: Controlling Debt.
[xi] Bannister, Paul.
(This is a piece that I recently wrote for Master's writing class... it's an experiment with the Creative Non-Fiction Genre. Enjoy :)