I’m flu-ish and on medicine and I thought of writing this post while I was unable to sleep last night, so let’s hope it manages to stay coherent. If not, enjoy the ride.
(Some fitting musical accompaniment for this post.)
Ever since I’ve been on my own, starting with my freshmen year of college, there has been one consistent theme in my life: a lack of money. Granted, that’s a pretty common theme for most people (like, ninety percent of the world’s population, actually), but we’re focusing on me today.
In college, I dated a girl who went to college in Chicago while I studied in Kansas. Having to be apart so much, we decided to live together during the summers while she did internships with newspapers. First, in Washington D.C. and then, the summer after I graduated, in Charlotte (which is where my 10 Cities Project began).
While I only lived in D.C. for 3 months, in many ways it was the practice run for these yearly moves. I had to find a job within a short period of time while exploring a city I had never been to before. (For the record, D.C. is an amazing city.) While saving up money to make the move, there was a constant fear of not being able to make enough, and then, once I was in D.C., there was the concern that I wasn’t going to be able to find a job and be able to pay my half of the rent. Well, I made it, but just barely.
And then Charlotte: Wash, rinse and repeat. All the same concerns, all the same pressure. In fact, every year since the year I moved to D.C., I have had to deal with the same series of concerns:
Would I have enough money to make my move?
Would I have enough money once I moved to last until I found a job?
Would unexpected expenses sideline the whole endeavor?
Repeat ad nauseum.
It’s that last concern that is particularly stressful, exactly because it’s all about the unknowns. While I can’t control how good the job market is going to be in any city I move to, it’s my responsibility to get out there and apply over and over again until something comes of it.
And saving money is, if I’m allowed to boast, my one special skill. Every year, I must hit my savings goal without being such a tightwad that I miss out on opportunities to enjoy the city I live in, and I’ve been fairly successful.
But there’s no way I can possibly plan for unexpected expenses. Obviously.
It could be an illness that waylays me for a few days (I’m missing a couple shifts of work because of this current bout). Maybe it’s the sudden and unforeseen implosion of my laptop. Maybe it’s the death of someone I know requiring that I fly out for a funeral (thankfully, this hasn’t happened, but it’s conceivable that it could). Any number of events could pop up out of nowhere and throw a wrench in my plans. And they have.
When I was dating the girl in Chicago, I managed to snag a few pricey speeding tickets while visiting her (in fact, the only speeding tickets I ever received in my life were in route to or from seeing her). One particular time, while driving home from Chicago late at night, I began feeling woozy and nauseous. I was zipping down the road, attempting to get home as quickly as possible so I could sleep. Which is when I passed a cop car that was crawling on the highway. He nailed my ass going 90 in a 70 (I was actually going faster, but I had managed to hit the brakes).
After that, I was sick for the next couple of weeks. I assumed it was the flu.
Two weeks later, I was back in Chicago (flying this time) for my girlfriend’s birthday. I bought her tickets to see a concert (Ben Kweller, with The Unicorns if I remember right, though I was pretty sick so there’s no guarantee I do), at which I spent most of the show in the back hallway, barely able to stay on my feet. It wasn’t the flu. It was strep throat.
The next day, having no money and no insurance, the girlfriend and I went to a free clinic in a sketchy part of Chicago (I’m guessing South Chicago, but I can’t honestly remember). There we waited for approximately 2 hours (maybe longer) before I managed to see someone who confirmed what I already knew, strep. They gave me a shot of penicillin. In the ass.
I’m not sure if there is an ideal place to receive a shot of penicillin, but the ass isn’t it. My right leg went completely numb and I hobbled out of there like Frankenstein’s monster in a cast.
For the next two years, I came down with strep throat at the same time of year, like it was a holiday. Unlike Chicago, Charlotte and Philly didn’t have free clinics (at least, that I could find). I had to pay a couple hundred dollars each time for clinic visits and antibiotics.
The point, if I feel like getting to it, is that there are always these kinds of unpredictable costs every year. I haven’t gotten strep in a few years, but every year there is some random expense that, in the moment, seems like it’s going to ruin everything.
Which makes me wonder, what if those unexpected expenses didn’t pop up? In a hypothetical world where I didn’t get strep throat, where my computer never crapped out, where any number of financial surprises didn’t appear like a Cheshire Cat, how would my travels have been different?
Would I be sitting on a larger pool of savings right now, or would I just have more stuff? Assuming I didn’t have to spend that extra couple hundred dollars to have the porcupine removed from my throat, likely I would have bought a few extra CDs, some books and movies, maybe gotten a few extra drinks with friends.
Would I be better off with more money, more things?
I don’t own much right now. Other than a little bit of furniture that I’ll leave behind when I move again, all I own are my clothes, a laptop, some kitchen supplies and a couple boxes of books and DVDs.* I don’t really need any more than that. Want more? Sure, but need…
Make no mistake, I’m not grateful for strep throat. No one who has ever had strep would ever be grateful for that throat holocaust.
But having these extra expenses in my life over the length of my travels has taught me, forcibly, just how minimal a life I can live.
I have a sort of odd fear that someday I’ll achieve enough financial security that I’ll be able to fill my life up with stuff. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to live my whole life stressing over money. I would love to have a steady enough income that I wouldn’t have to worry about paying my rent or buying groceries. But, at the same time, I know how security leads to complacency and laziness.
I’d like to think that if I ever get to a place where I’m financially secure, I won’t completely lose the ability to live minimally. I want to have enough money to take care of myself and my loved ones and to travel and experience the world and art. But once those basic needs are taken care of (and traveling is a basic need for me), I hope I find better things to do with my money then buying a TV with 3D glasses or sheets with a 500-thread count (both perfectly nice things, I’m sure).
It’s too easy to forget the difference between what we want and what we need. Sometimes, an unexpected financial crisis helps bring things into focus.
*I realize that in most of the world, owning what I own would practically make me a king. I have no delusion that I am by any means poor or lacking, not in a global sense.