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October 06, 2009

Money. Root of All Evil and, yet, Source of All Fun.

By Sarah

As a binge spender and, not coincidentally, author of The Penny Pinchers Club, I was not surprised to read last week that a highly scientific CNN Poll showed that money - or, rather, the lack thereof - was the leading cause of stress. So tell me something I don't know. Been there. Doing that.

It's easy to go broke as an author. For one thing, there are no regular paychecks so when you do get paid for turning in a manuscript or publishing in Romania it feels like a huge deal and, well, let's just say pent up spending unleashes. For another, there are taxes. Quarterly. And, inevitably, annually. Not that I'm complaining - hey, it's preferable to when I earned $25K/year after 20 years in the newspaper business - but it does require discipline and sleepless nights. There are rumors of authors having to negotiate with the IRS and, in Willie Nelson fashion, write entire books to pay their overdue tax bills plus interest and penalties.

But authors are a teeny tiny minority. When I posted on Facebook the other day the hopeful Ben and george (manipulative?) words by Ben Bernanke that the economy was turning around, I was flooded with angry responses from readers revealing horrible stories, tales about being unemployed for months and running out of benefits, of rarely daring to step outside their front doors. I'm referring to one woman who'd lost her job and her health insurance and who, as a result, declined to Rollerblade with her nieces because she feared an injury that could bankrupt her.

I'd like to ask her if she feels money is the root of all evil. Because, when you get down to the nitty gritty, this is what the health insurance debate is about. There are those in the upper class who prefer the medical privileges afforded by their cushy insurance policies. They definitely do not think money is the root of all evil. Then there are those in the lower classes, right above Medicaid, who won't Rollerblade.  In between there is the middle class and if there's anything you learned in college economics it's that the middle class aspires to be the upper class while disassociating itself from the class beneath. In other words, they do believe money is the root of all evil and they worry they don't have enough of it.

Who among us is not in that position? I bet even Bill Gates, the benchmark of wealth, lies awake at night wishing for a few billion more. (Ideally, to help stem the spread of AIDS in Africa.) One can never have enough money, supposedly. That's what 3 a.m. infomercials are for, to convince you that you really need a chair that elevates the seat mechanically or a home gym you'll never use.

Thankfully, I live in an area of Vermont where people are not judged according to their income, where a big SUV is an embarrassment, as is a big house. (All that wasted heat!) I'm sometimes embarrassedVt small farm  about my home though it would be dwarfed in a place like the suburb of Cleveland in which I set Secret Lives. Instead, our community tends to approve of those who live frugally, close to the land in harmony with nature. Live simply so others may simply live and all that. It gets annoying, but it's better than the alternative.

I'm so used to the Vermont ethos, I was a bit taken aback yesterday when I was talking with my agent about the constrictions of modern society and she opined that the hallmark of our society was wealth, that in our world "you're nothing without wealth." Really? Is this some New York thing? Because I know plenty of somethings - teachers, poets, social workers, ministers, forest management experts - who have barely two pennies to rub together and they are pretty damned fulfilled. 

With the dawn of the Recession, I'd thought - hoped! - we'd moved beyond glorifying Goldman Sachs. That was the only thing that made this awful period tolerable. If my readers were unable to Rollerblade because they were without health insurance because they had lost their jobs, then maybe the upper echelons of Manhattan society had also suffered and, in suffering, had grown souls. Maybe those assholes who stole all our money had shamed themselves into introspection.

Man, was I naive.

I guess my question's pretty simple. If money is the leading cause of stress, if even CNN is broadcasting that, then why don't people wise up and forget grasping for the brass ring? Lately, I've lost interest in the almighty dollar and have begun focusing on what makes me happy - writing and my family being at the very top. (I really do like to write. It's not just a job. It really is an adventure.) I've been doodling numbers on the backs of envelopes. Just how much - really - would it take to live, to pay the mortgage and property taxes. It's an interesting exercise, especially when you go through your list of "must haves" and realize that must haves are really not-so-much haves. I did it in the Penny Pinchers and it worked. You can cut out a shitload of bills if you have to. You just don't want to have to.

The final equation is daunting. It takes a lot to live comfortably. Too much. Universal health insurance would ease the crunch, I think, as would a change in financing college educations and the credit business. But it's doable. That's the good news. It really is possible to turn your back on the rat race by reducing spending, living smaller and working hard. Not crazy hard. Just hard enough to get into bed at the end of the day and, wearily, knock off.

But Wall Street and Ben Bernanke do not what you to go there. They want you to go to the mall so they can get in their Mercedes.

Pretty sick, if you ask me.



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Hey, isn't "Rollerblade" a trademark for a certain brand of in-line skates? I wonder if you'll get the C&D letter today.

This is one of those things I struggle with. I totally believe that people would be better off living simply, getting back to nature, doing more at home instead of importing all our food and goods from somewhere else. And I do these things to a degree. But I still find myself wanting unimportant "stuff" (and in the case of my iPhone, loving it when I get it).

Do I have enough wherewithal to break myself of this addiction to "stuff"? I'm not sure. Yeah, it's a product of the times we lived in during certain periods of my life. But it's there. I feel like I would be a "better person" if I could give it all up.

And I'm totally with you on the health care and college issues. Each of those are way too hard to get for the average person.

This seems to be another one of the synchronicity in the blogosphere days. I'm a member of the 'pre-STUFF' generation, but I see my kids struggling to accumulate more and more. We've always lived within our means. We gave up having a lot of STUFF to do it, but we don't worry about having a roof over our heads or food on the table. I can live without premium cable channels, or a boat, or a new wardrobe every season.

Good thoughts. And I enjoyed The Pennypinchers Club, by the way!

Sarah, thank you for a thoughtful topic! Doing without "stuff" makes sense. Doing without health care does not.
We already pay the cost of the uninsured when they get sick enough to go to the hospital -- basic health care would probably be cheaper in the long run. Also, assuring basic health care to all would raise the general level of health -- who wants to be surrounded by sick people? Health care tied to employment keeps creative people -- performers, artists, authors -- tied to their "day jobs," at the loss of how many potential wonderful creations.
BTW, many Medicare supplements now pay for exercise classes -- makes so much sense to encourage good health instead of paying for repairs!

Yesterday's birthday takes me one year closer to Medicare -- only 4 more years of paying $500/month for health insurance! (and glad to be part of a group plan at that).
CD should be back in a couple of weeks, and the condo sale closes on 10/23. Tonight, wine and food pairing at Provisions!

On another note of synchronicity, we were discussing exactly this issue at breakfast this morning, our houseguests and me. They have pared down their lives so far that they now stay in their own guest house when they are at home, and have rented out the huge residence they once lived in with a single child. Since January, when they both quit their jobs, they have been traveling around the country towing a trailer, which is parked in our driveway at the moment.

We can change our priorities, but it takes a lot of fortitude, I think, and you simply can't care what "everyone thinks". Honestly, I don't know why that matters. What is merely middle class to us is super classy to our neighbors in rural Kentucky; what is middle class there looks like the worst ghetto to our neighbors in Ohio. I've learned a lot about perception this past year or so, as we observe reactions of Ohio friends to our neighbors in the country. It makes you think.

As for health insurance costs, that is our second biggest expense, after the mortgage, and not by much. That's for a plan that barely covers anything, too. We're just grateful that we can pay it, although it kills me to think of all the traveling I would rather be doing than paying some stupid insurance company to NOT cover what ails me. Oy.

I sold insurance for nine years, back in the 70's and 80's, and even then we needed reform. I can't tell you how many times I had to tell a prospective customer that I couldn't help them because of pre-existing conditions. No wonder the leading cause of bankruptcy is lack of health care coverage, particularly with so many out of work in the last few years. Add to that issue the problem of so many companies cutting benefits altogether, and companies like Walmart, who keeps employees' hours just under full time so they don't have to provide benefits. Grrr.

Anyone who's had a family member get seriously sick HAS to want universal coverage. The amount most insurance doesn't cover is mind-boggling.

I struggle with wanting to decrease my STUFF as well. And any time this topic comes up, I can't help but think about the George Carlin act he does on STUFF. One of my favorites. The shtick is so old, but even more relevant today. I'm sure it's on youtube.

Oh, Sarah, you're singing my song, right down to the Scared To Rollerblade (I do have health insurance, but I also still have pain from my roller skating mishap) . . .

I'm trying to see how long I can go without doing ANY unnecessary spending and I'm finding that it's easier to live without chocolate. Good grief. But I figure that eventually the cravings will pass . . .

But it's hard to walk through Costco with blinders on.

Okay, so if we're all agreed about health insurance, how come decent bills are getting killed? I'm really confused.

I will admit that the majority of my stuff over the past few years has mostly been books. Lots of books. I am stock-piling for that day when I might not be able to afford books, I think.

But this whole thing struck home for me as I wait to hear if I will even have a job in a couple of weeks, while the ceo will earn about $75MM for selling us out. *sigh*

As for the insurance issue, hmmmm, I did have a beloved family member deal with a long-term illness, and thank goodness for his insurance. If he had lived to receive the lung-transplant (either cadaver or from me), his insurance would have covered.

So right, Sarah. I spend close to $5K/yr. on health insurance that I can't afford to use--the up-front payments and deductibles are usually beyond my reach (and lots also on malpractice insurance, office/home liability insurance, auto and renter's insurance)--and I just can't let my mind go to what a difference it would make in my daily quality of life and comfort if I could save even half of that money. The new mattress I've needed for about five years? Would have been here then, instead of whenever it does arrive. There's this wierd dichotomy between feeling badly that I charge my patients 'so much' and then turning around and wondering if, when they consider how much they pay me, they have even a clue of how fiercely simple my life is compared to their new car, new home, lovely vacations, etc. (No, I'm not an MD, and not a provider for any insurers, so my independent practice of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine is not a million-dollar-a-year cash cow.)
One of my colleagues became the sole provider for her family a couple of years ago when her husband was laid off and unemployed for 18 months. They nearly lost their home to deceptive mortgages, and credit card fraud that they weren't able to resolve (a relative claims 'permission' to have maxed their cards on speculation) has been draining them dry. Her husband has a job at considerably less than his previous salary, so her income is still essential, but she has finally 'burned out' under all the pressure and is in serious condition with symptoms of acquired neurological diseas that may be MS or myasthenia gravis. Can they afford 1) the loss of her income, 2)the cost of health insurance, 3)the massive medical expenses from here on into the distant future? (Not to mention feeding, clothing and schooling their two children.) Count me as in favor of voting out the assholes who give lip service to 'public service' and oppose health care reform. (To put it mildly.)

I finally saw Sicko the other night and found it jaw-dropping shocking at times.
I live in British Columbia, my basic medical coverage is $54 a month, yes that is 648 a YEAR. And I don't pay it, my employer does. My employer also pays for my dental coverage and my extended health, so going to a Naturopath, Chiropractor, Physio, Massage etc is covered to a certain amount per year ($600 each). My prescriptions are 100% covered under extended, as are orthotics.
Is our 'socialized' medical coverage perfect. No. Because of budgeting if you have a non-emergency surgical need, yes, you can wait 3-10 months to get it. When my mom needed to get her gall-bladder removed she waited 6 months, had to go to emergency 4 times for pain relief while waiting. Cost to her for everything, nothing.
Does everyone have good coverage through their jobs. No. Most union jobs, like mine do provide excellent coverage.
Cost of medical coverage per month for a family of 3 or more, $108.
If you and your family have a combined income less than $20,000 per year cost of medical coverage is zero.
I am still a thrifty person. I don't buy anything that can't be paid for in the month I buy it. I pre-pay all vacations so when I do get to go on one, I don't have to worry about money.
Do I understand how lucky I am, Yes.
Do I want to go Rollerblading, No.
If you want to check out medical coverage in BC, google MSP in BC. In Ontario, I believe it is called OHIP.

Oh, Sarah! I struggle so much with the STUFF issue. My husband is great at it - me, not so much. But I'm working hard at getting better, and have been making some good progress. My biggest problem is travel. I live in an area that I really hate, and find that I must have some quality time out west to keep my soul from shriveling up and dying. Keeping travel expenses down is hard for me, especially when I'm traveling alone and bearing the expenses myself.

As for health insurance, the fact that my husband and I both have jobs with decent coverage is one thing that keeps us where we are. The other is my daughter, who had the good sense to marry into the Navy and so can take advantage of great coverage. I dread anything going wrong with the marriage - and more because of loss of coverage than anything else!

I, too, fail to understand how something supported by a pretty hefty majority of Americans is facing so much struggle in Congress. I really do.

Sarah, I think your agent's comment ("You're nothing without wealth") says more about her values than anyone else's. Although maybe she was offering a nuanced comment? Did she mean "You're nothing without money"?

Not sure that money is the root of evil, although I tend to see the truth in the variation that the love of money is the root of all evil. I've alwsys thought that the grasping and greedy desire for money was a raw grab for power, not the famed brass ring.

Sarah-- Great topic, and an important one. I'll tell you why decent bills are getting killed. It's corporations and their lobbyists who have long controlled legislation in our Congress. It's also us. Many people in this country bought into capitalism and the idea that anything run by the government is "bad". Remember this famous quote?

"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" ~Ronald Reagan

Beginning in the 80's we bought into an entire way of thinking that pulled us away from financial prudence, appreciating the simple things in life, and bought into everything (and perhaps bought everything) that corporations were selling. If you have ever heard of "corporate personhood", a doctrine which dates all the way back to 1886, then you know how much power they can wield as a result. The Reader's DIgest version is that corporations claim the same constitutional rights that we do, the difference would be that they have billions of dollars to protect their 'rights'.

So why do you see this waffling in government when the democrats hold the majority, and the majority of Americans want the public option? Why do you see our President redefining the importance of the public option, even though he campaigned about how vital it was to any kind of real reform? Corporations, lobbyists and the power they have over our representatives in Congress.

I also think that people in this country have forgotten how to lobby their government in mass, to protest, and to demand their basic rights. I often see people like John Mackey,CEO of Whole Foods whose recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal drew fire from their largely affluent and very liberal customers, make the argument that we have no intrinsic right to health care. In fact he said in his editorial:

"A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That's because there isn't any. This "right" has never existed in America"

To which I will simply point to the preamble of the constitution which states:

"...promote the general welfare..."

What promotes the general welfare more than taking care of the health of Americans? If Mr. Mackey needs it spelled out any more clearly than that, then perhaps it's time for a new amendment.

But will we stand up and demand it? This is the thing I find so frustrating. People just aren't pissed off enough. I'm not a person who thinks Europeans do everything better (reference to comments on Harley's post yesterday), but I guarantee that if this was happening in France right now, for example, those people would be rioting in the streets.

Here is a thoughtful blurb on the topic of corporate personhood http://campaign.constantcontact.com/render?v=001OFBPGdByd7eP1rC9VDxnw6HeVAgO8EJD2ov0eIvoHYCJ0v0kloG--EuJUMjTvBZYoptgICcj5ZoaAfluMB-khVpCiQZdZPkfWjSodCez9MfQeAhjaLKx7Q%3D%3D

Sarah, my medical billing paperwork from a series of 2007 strokes fills two banker's boxes -- and we have TWO insurance companies. I'm still getting bills from that time.
I've called my Senator and Reps and sent emails about our health care. If we want change, we have to fight for it, not wait for someone to do it for us. TLC readers, make your calls now.

I second that, Elaine. Go here to find your representative in congress http://www.house.gov/. I also recommend visiting http://firedoglake.com/ and signing up for their alerts. They always contact me when something important is happening in the house or senate in regard to healthcare. My representative, Anna Eschoo, was someone I was surprised to find out was not actively supporting the public option. I've contacted her several times to voice my support of the public option, but until more people do the same, lobbyists will have more influence than we do. Find out if your representative supports the public option (universal healthcare would be better, but unfortunately this is what we have to work with at the moment), and contact them (repeatedly!) until they do! It also doesn't hurt to write the President and remind him why we voted him into office http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/.

My husband always says, follow the money. That seems to be at the heart of so much of crime, greed, etc.

As I've gotten older, my need for "stuff" has greatly diminished. I have diamonds and gems I never wear. I've unloaded expensive clothing to thrift stores. I still have a small problem with shoes and purses!

since neither my hubs or me work fulltime, we have insurance through his retirement. We pay $950/month and that's after his retirement plan picks up A LOT of the premium. The salaries of upper management of insurance companies is shocking. We need a national healthcare plan. We're already paying for these uninsured folks in ER's and sicker patients.

I (for one) am not seeing an improvement in our economy.

It all depends on how a person will use it.

As planet Earth generates more data from more sensors and as this data comes together for better prediction … there will be plenty of winners and losers.

The losers will be those organizations still coping with information overload, unable to make heads or tails of what they know (Enterprise Amnesia). They will miss the obvious. Their costs will soar, their customer satisfaction will drop and confidence in their brand will erode. You will get duplicate mailings from them. They will try to sell you something you already bought from them weeks ago.

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