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The overworked American

This is old, but still true, and Labor Day is a great day to explore the topic of The Overworked American. The trend has not reversed since it was written.

Basically, what Juliet B. Schor says is that productivity has soared since the 1940s, and when productivity soars, you can choose to do one of two things: work more, or work less. Europe by and large has chosen to work less. The United States hasn’t.I know ever since I saw a John Cummuta seminar back in November 2004, I’ve been harping on living cheap and paying off debt as quickly as possible. The goal isn’t so much to pile up tons and tons of money. That’s just a side-effect. That’s not the goal. There’s a different goal, and it’s actually a lot shorter-term: The goal is to buy freedom.

When I was growing up, Dad almost always carried a beeper. And invariably, when we would go out (on those rare occasions when we did get to go out), that beeper would go off, and Dad would have to find a phone, and more often than not, then Dad had to go away.

Then I grew up and I got a beeper of my own. Back in the ’70s, you had to be something really important like a doctor to have a beeper. Today all you have to know is what ctrl-alt-delete means. I guess it was the first time my pager went off in the middle of a date that I knew something was horribly wrong, but I didn’t know what to do about it.

It took seven years, but I finally got the answer.

Cummuta’s tapes are pretty expensive, but you can go to the library and get a book by Dave Ramsey or David Bach and get the same benefit because all of those guys pretty much say the same thing.

What those guys can’t give you is motivation. My wife and I have amassed a library of financial books. In a lot of cases my wife had a conversation with the original owners of the books. They all said the books had good ideas, but it was so hard to do.

Which brings me back to The Overworked American. What Schor doesn’t say in that excerpt is that you do have a choice. When your boss comes to you and says you’re going to work Labor Day, and not only that, you’re also going to work on Saturday and Sunday of that weekend too, and, oh yeah, you’ll probably have to stay late on Friday, you’d better believe you have a choice.

Well, assuming you don’t have to write a check to the bank for $1,000 every month for that roof over your head, and another check for $400 or $500 every month for those four wheels that get you to work, and another one for the four wheels that get your spouse to work.

When $24,000 of your annual income goes strictly towards transportation and shelter, you will return the call when the beeper goes off. You’ll answer the cellular phone (which you pay for) on the first ring if that’s what your boss wants. You’ll work Labor Day weekend and you’ll like it because your boss has you exactly where he wants you.

That’s why I’ve been harping so hard on living within your means. I don’t drive a Honda Civic because it’s what all the cool kids want to drive. I drive a Honda Civic because it’s a reliable car that rarely has to go into the shop, because it gets really good gas mileage, and because I was able to pay it off in two years.

Perhaps more importantly though, I plan to still be driving that Honda Civic on the day I write that final check that pays off the mortgage.

Unless something were to happen to that Honda Civic in the meantime, that is. If that happened, I’d probably go buy a 2000 or a 2001 model and put whatever money was left over towards the house.

You don’t have to get a new car every three years, or even every five years. We’ve been conditioned to trade in our cars every few years, but if we do that, then someone else gets to control our lives. We’re slaves to consumerism! Slaves!

And when you can’t spend any quality time with your spouse because you’re always at work (or working from home), and you don’t have the time or energy to pull your own weight at home, and there’s all the stress that puts on your marriage, could that have anything to do with why divorce rates are as high as they are?

But if you can drive home every night in your car that you own outright to your house that you own outright and can sit down on your couch that you own outright, guess what? When your boss tells you that you have to work Labor Day, you can say no. Why? Because if your only monthly expenses are medicine and food, if your boss says the f-word (the five-letter one), all that matters is whether the White Castle down the street is hiring because that job will more than cover your expenses while you try to find another regular full-time job.

And that, my friends, is why I’m typing these words on an old 700 MHz computer, why I didn’t go out for lunch this afternoon, and why I haven’t traded in my four-year-old Honda Civic. The math tells me I can have this house paid off in two and a half years. I don’t know if that means I’ll find a way to do it in a year and a half, or if it means it’ll take closer to four. But I look at it like high school–something with a beginning and a very definite end. In the meantime, there’ll be some good things that happen and some bad things. But there will come a day when it will be over.

And on that day, I’ll get a taste of the real world.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m really looking forward to that.

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3 thoughts on “The overworked American”

  1. Dave,
    You’re a good old boy with an excellent education. White Castle won’t hire you. Once your penchant for not working from can to can’t is known, you won’t be employable at the can to can’t jobs.
    If you were to be employed at a minimum wage job, at your age, you would hate it worse than your present air conditioned employment.
    Don’t do anything that would drop you into the working class. You wouldn’t like it and your educated friends wouldn’t want to catch your bug.
    Money is freedom but how many of your friends have that same freedom?
    The house will never be paid off because it will need a roof and there’s always taxes. Fifteen minutes after you pay off the car, the engine will throw a rod.
    You have picked a very good survival mechanism as long as you stay on the treadmill. Just hope the Bosses don’t turn it to fast.
    Life is one day at a time and with G_d it’s possible.

    1. Actually, my mother and father in law did it, when my wife was still a pre-teen. They were friends with a couple who’d done it, and that couple challenged them and a few other people to do it. It took them seven years to become completely debt-free, but they did it. In one of the last conversations Jerry and I had before he died, he challenged me to do it.

      I know other people who are in the process of doing the same thing now. Some are people I’d consider friends, others not so much.

      It’s all about leverage. I had leverage once, when I was writing. At the point I had to stop, I was bringing in not quite half what I was making fixing computers. I just happened to get my Social (in)Security statement in the mail today, and it listed what I’ve made each working year–see, those statements are good for something after all–and it’s funny how I got big raises the two years I was writing actively. When I stopped writing, so did the raises. I lost my leverage. And guess what? The overtime started coming in something fierce too. It’s scary how little time elapsed between the time they were begging me to stay and when they kicked me to the curb.

      I’ve got several better options than working a restaurant if the need for, ahem, alternative employment were to arise (as does just about everyone), but my present and future employers don’t need to know what they are. The White Castle metaphor works fine.

      As far as taxes and maintenance, sure, you’ll never get rid of those, but those things happen when you’re in debt too. It’s still a lot cheaper to put a new roof on the house than it is to make mortgage payments. And as far as cars, I took some bad advice when my Dodge Spirit needed a repair that was estimated at around $800. Rather than making the repair, I traded it in and started making payments on a car to the tune of $380 a month and I have nothing to show for it today. If that repair had lasted three months, I’d have been money ahead. But I see a lot of 10-year-old Hondas on the road, so I think my wife and I will be in good shape for a few more years. Honda’s been bugging us to trade our cars in. They have a pretty good idea of the cars’ history and their service records. If Honda wants those cars so badly to clean up and resell, why shouldn’t we want them?

      My mother and father in law didn’t have a perfect life, but comparing that aspect of their lives to the roller-coaster ride I’ve had, especially the last three years, emulating that aspect of their lives will be one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

      1. Here, here Dave!

        My wife and I are doing exactly as you and your wife. It will take time, sure, but don’t all worth while things? Like you said, the leverage of freedom (and that is what you have in much more areas when you are debt free) is wonderful. This type of freedom is what my wife and I hope to taste in a few years (counting the mortgage) and in a couple, if that one debt is left aside. Things always happen to “set us back” as the other correspondent pointed out in other words. These set backs can hopefully, and by the grace of God, be much smaller hurdles if we’ve done our own hard work. And that hard work, in this culture, is one of reasonable resistance to the bombardment of materialistic advertising and other factors that subtly (and not) influence us to live beyond dour means.



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