Problem is, a lot of us – tens of millions of us – have memories like this:
When we first started out, I had a college degree, but I was making $2.50 an hour. That works out to $100 for a 40-hour week. But I was the happiest guy in town because I had my foot in the door to the only career I ever wanted.
While most folks say “thank God it’s Friday,” I liked my first job so much that I said, “thank God it’s Monday.”
The boss had “a drawer full of resumes” from guys wanting my job, and the message was that I shouldn’t get too big for my britches. (I later figured out that getting too big for your britches meant asking for raises.) But I always thought fondly of the old guy who gave me my first chance to make it in the business I would stick with for, well, going on 48 years. He gave me my chance.
I was lucky enough to catch on with a graduate student in anthropology, who would go on to become the mother of my children, but whose main attractions at the time included $287 a month pay for her work as a graduate assistant at the university in town.
Smart as the dickens, quick as a hummingbird hopped up on caffeine, she knew how to keep a rented roof over our heads and food on the table for $687 a month, minus taxes, social security, and the rest.
At the time, you could buy a frozen Totino’s pizza for 79 cents. She would jazz it up with chopped onions and what she called “sprinkle cheese” (still does), and feed the two of us for under $1.
You could get free cow hearts at the university agriculture department, and she cooked them up in the Crock Pot a couple times, but it didn’t catch on. (Kind of chewy.)
I’ve joked that the budget was so tight that we got each other library books for Christmas. But I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. There’s nothing like putting stuff back on the shelves at the grocery store, because the check you would write at the checkout counter might bounce, to make you appreciate the better times that would ultimately come.
Later, after the kids arrived, we always looked for the worst house on a nice block, and figured out how to fix it up. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you’re not afraid to ask for advice, maybe get a “how-to” book at the library, and be willing to make some mistakes along the way. At one point, we were fixing up an old house in Illinois while making payments on houses we couldn’t sell in Colorado and Wyoming. And we never missed a payment.
I wouldn’t trade those years for the world, either.
I’ve got a cabin in the mountains, but that wooded acre was dirt cheap in 1981, and the cabin is built out of logs we cut right there on the land. (Forty years later, I’m still putting the finishing touches on that little cabin).
Through living close to the bone, both working, faithfully investing in our retirement accounts, and fixing up houses, we ultimately arrived at a comfortable retirement.
And that’s my point.
We’re not special. Millions of us have the same story to tell – hard work, frugality, and common sense adding up to a successful life in a great country.
Folks like us, however, are shaking our heads at a federal government that, while we were pinching our pennies, was spending about $1.36 for every dollar they collected in taxes, amassing a $27 trillion debt along the way. A government that is about to add another $2 trillion in debt for “infrastructure,” with more grand trillion-dollar plans after that.
Even Larry Summers, fiscal guru under President Obama, is questioning the wisdom of this massive spending explosion.
This kind of profligacy has no relation to the lives most of us have lived. And it’s hard to escape the logic of economist Herbert Stein: “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.”
Maybe this orgy of debt doesn’t frighten you.
But, it scares this penny-pincher to death.
Dave Simpson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org