I’m not Neal Gabler, but I could have been like him.
Gabler’s feature story in The Atlantic describes the financial woes of a successful author, journalist, and critic struggling to maintain an upper-middle-class life while putting two daughters through private schools and top universities, and juggling two mortgages on a freelance writer’s income. As Gabler writes:
“I never wanted to keep up with the Joneses. But, like many Americans, I wanted my children to keep up with the Joneses’ children, because I knew how easily my girls could be marginalized in a society where nearly all the rewards go to a small, well-educated elite. (All right, I wanted them to be winners.)”
I sense Gabler’s story rings true for a lot of people. The article cites research findings that nearly half of middle-class Americans wouldn’t be able to come up with $400 to pay for an emergency. I look around and see friends worrying about money no matter how successful they are and how much they appear to make.
Since the story’s publication, several articles and columns have used Gabler’s plight to make points about the declining savings rate, dependence on credit, and other financial ills. Some have criticized his choices, as well. But I can easily see how Gabler’s story could have happened to me.
Back when I was freelancing, I could only hope to be as successful as Gabler. He’s written five books, sold the film rights to one of them, and written movie scripts. He writes for The Atlantic and Reuters. Some people might remember Gabler and Jeffrey Lyons as the unfortunate duo who replaced Siskel and Ebert on their PBS movie review show after they went into syndication. I never accomplished anything like that.
Flash back to 2001, when I was a freelance writer. It was the year the dot-com bubble burst and sunk my business just as it was starting to become viable. I was dead broke and using credit cards to subsidize nearly all my non-rent expenses. By the end of the year, I was several thousand dollars in debt. The only thing keeping it from being worse was I was closing in on the credit limit on my only card.
I came to Florida with a plan:
Pay off the debt within one year.
That is a hard thing for me to admit. My parents are both accountants. My father’s mantra is always pay off your credit card balance each month.
At the beginning of 2002, I moved to Florida and started my current job. I needed a steady income and health insurance. I needed to get out of debt.
I came to Florida with a plan: Pay off the debt within one year. Then save enough money each year to travel. Save enough over the next few years so I could go one year without working. And do something about retirement.
I succeeded. Paying off the debt wasn’t difficult. My debt was several thousands, but not tens of thousands. Two years freelancing had reminded me how to economize, lessons I learned in grad school and during those low-wage years in my twenties and early thirties.
By the next year, I was traveling again. I’ve been traveling ever since.
Yes, I know it’s easy for me. I’m not married. I don’t have children. I don’t have school expenses, sports teams, birthday parties, a minivan, computers to buy, and family vacations to pay for. I won’t pretend to understand how hard the financial pressures on families can be when you want nothing but the best for your children.
It was about making choices. I’m not as successful as Gabler, but I have a steady job in a profession I’m good at. I live in Florida, not Manhattan. I have a nice little house that I saved the down payment for over nearly a decade. It’s my only debt now, but the payments are about what I was paying for rent before. I’ve gone from having nothing saved for retirement to having a halfway decent chance of retiring someday. And while Gabler laments that he’s driving the same 1997 Toyota, I’m partly where I am today because I’m still driving my 1997 Honda Civic. It only has 160,000 miles on it, even if it does need refinishing and probably a paint job.
Oh, and I’m able to take these trips. Nearly every year. Because if I want something bad enough, I have to be willing to work for it and make the necessary choices.
I chose to sacrifice the new car, big house, Starbucks, annual smartphone upgrade, first class tickets, and everything else I didn’t deem to have sufficient personal value, so I could do the things that make my life meaningful.
“He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough,” the Tao Te Ching advises. The Tao of my father says, “Don’t buy things you can’t pay for.” The Tao of me says I want to travel this year and this is how I’m going to make it happen.