Love notes from the Man
I socked it all away today.
On December 1, 2011, I will re-enter that American minority that, firstly, has access to a retirement plan and, secondly, contributes to it. I will certainly be among a very tiny percentage that contributes all his or her income to savings.
You read it correctly: I am putting all my take home pay into my 401k. Because:
- I will have only been eligible for one month this year.
- I could use the tax dodge.
- It’s only about a fifth of the annual maximum allowed contribution.
- I will publicly admit that, in some way out of childhood, the kind of privation involved with saving has always been pleasurable.
Some will find this extreme. I never have, but I was also the kind of person who opened his first IRA at nineteen. I had made enough money as an ‘independent contractor’ that I was horrified at having to pay tax. My parents’ accountant suggested the IRA would give me money back, and my course was set.
I had always tended toward saving in childhood. Birthday and Christmas money came so infrequently it might as well have been random, or at least seemed so from a child’s glacial flow of time. I remember a Saturday morning my dad gave me ten dollars and a deep unease when it was mostly gone before noon.
The turning point was some anonymous summer morning, eighth grade or so: I remember dark halls and the unrelenting dorkiness of bad clothes and cheap Sears sneakers. I was aiming to be an A/V assistant the next year and was caught up in a friend’s preoccupation with wow and flutter, three-letter projector bulb codes, and perfectly white reel-to-reel tape boxes. I collected Radio Shack catalogs and had the kind of familiarity with them better spent on diaries or Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The full-color spreads were attractive and interesting and somehow unreal, pointing to a world of interesting objects that could be controlled with magic. More mundane was the hi-fi accessories, which I could use to enhance my four-in-one Montgomery Wards stereo.
On this summer day, overdressed and uptight and superior as usual, I had gone with my mother into town–not Fort Worth, which I considered a false city but as close to the real thing as could be had, but little Burleson, caught half-metamorphosed from rural farm town to suburban nowhere. One shopping strip concentrated Wal-Mart, Eckerd’s Drug, and Winn-Dixie within walking distance. Radio Shack was between them all, right next to Mama’s Pizza. I spent twenty bucks in the air-conditioned, electric-cardboard ozone smell of Enercell batteries, RC trucks and TRS-80 computers. It was hardly more than a retrieval operation, having settled on the desired items from the catalog and weekly newspaper circular. I never thought much of why there was always a different manager to take my money, but this one was pleasant. I remember him encouraging my interest in computers, very different from the chilled enthusiasm of others. I walked out into that blazing sun with that plastic Radio Shack bag and was one smart cookie.
In my room I dumped the loot out of the bag. Among the items I can only really remember a foam turntable mat. It went on top of the rubber turntable surface and provided “sonic isolation”.
My head rose out of itself and sound was distant. I can still remember physically being hot, the air conditioning blowing, and that heat and cool being off to the side, not where I was. In that moment things were very clear, and I realized I had exchanged twenty bucks for plastic garbage.
$20 in 1984 is equivalent to $41.42 today. I installed the turntable mat, stowed the other items, and wandered through the afternoon haze clear and
Why did you buy junk? Why is the whole store junk? What about the stores to either side–is it all junk too? What isn’t junk?
I overcompensated. Like a friend who described going to the store when newly on his own and always picking the cheapest thing, I did one better by picking nothing. There was always something to eat at home, all clothes provided, gas for the car so long as I only went to school. I earned a hundred bucks a month mowing the lawn of the meticulous retired Bell engineer up the street from me. The check his wife mailed from whatever Western campground their RV had stopped in that month was immediately re-mailed with a deposit slip to Navy Federal Credit Union. Better than wasting it on cheap plastic crap, ugly clothes, or some girl.
It’s a fair tradeoff, all in all. I have money in the bank and have steered clear of any financial hardship, just as I engendered incandescent fights early in my marriage with my refusal to buy name-brand anything. You worked hard for that money and should squeeze every bit of value from it you can, I said. You’re saying I’m not worth spending money on myself, she said. It took her years to make any progress. I’m grateful to her.
Now is the time to save. Mint soda, soy nog, red and green glittering things of the annual consumer carnival are out of reach for too many, staying up late as I write, going over the arithmetic and rolling their last nickels across kitchen tables. Friends are far richer, the autumn leaves more golden, than anything that can be bought. Nobody needs soda.