It’s the Economy, Stupid: Family v. Finances

As I stated when I first put up this site, I was going to be as light on the politics as possible. Going to tread very lightly on the state of the economy but for the sake of discussing financial sentiment, I may touch on it oh-so-slightly. Please bear with me for this post.

Like most other Americans, the economy is on all our collective minds. It doesn’t matter what political beliefs we have. We’re all worried about the future. We’re all worried about how we’re going to make it, and for those of us that want children, we wonder what the world will hold in store for them.

As the relationship between my mother and myself continues to worsen, one thing (independent of this tension if you can believe it) that continually drags both on her mind and mine is my continued perceived de-emphasis on family or family events. In my case, and from my perspective, this was caused by wanting to avoid the same mistakes my parents made, wanting to avoid the drama and the headaches in some cases to be explained later in this post that come with certain family issues.

But increasingly, there’s also another more frighteningly apparent aspect: finances.

Let’s make one thing clear: I have a job and a growing career where I’m fortunate and living just fine. And I realise a solid segment of the population cannot say that. But like other Americans, regardless of how much cutting in spending we are all doing, the dollars we all earn have other places to go even if it’s some sort of savings that we know we will need later on. In my case, the big one coming up is graduate school. While everyone feels different on this, I know undergrad networks are what paid off for me in securing the position I have now. That is priceless to me. And I would have had the support of my company at the last job I worked at to support me for graduate school, except just before I left, they stopped paying and reimbursing employees for tuition. And a lot of companies were following that trend, some even temporarily stopped matching 401k/403b contributions, although a number of them did reinstate.

Now, I’m at a crossroads, whereas the job itself offers a lot of opportunity, whilst there is support for continued professional education (CPE) credits for certifications and professional licenses, graduate school tuition is entirely different. I’m also in a position that no matter what I do, I will need the MBA to progress with my current employer, and increasingly whether we like it or not, whether we think it’s fair or not, other employers will only consider those with graduate degrees. So in other words, the masters’ degree is becoming the new undergrad.

Took a stroll on Locust Walk on UPenn's campus. 20 October 2009.

Even more dire for me, I was a humanities and science major as an undergrad. The second major evening program that I took was a strict accountancy and finance block that prepared me for the CPA exam. The kicker on the finance side was that the finance I took focused on investment management and my career will take me directly alongside or through the corporate management route. I need a better grasp on corporate management, risk management, economics, public finance and other facets of business. It’s a no-brainer that I need this degree if I am to reach or at least aim for the top in my profession; I’m not getting it just because everyone else is doing so.

Next year, I will be starting graduate school, and to say the very least I am undertaking some financial sacrifices (again, sacrifice, not deprivation) to ensure that I can graduate with a minimal debt added (because rates are just stupidly high compared to when I was in undergrad). Unfortunately, this also means I have to summon the Suze Orman in me if I am to make it and have a sound future.

And while I won’t speak for others, unfortunately watching my finances also means that I will subject myself to even more family ridicule. A ticket to Sri Lanka to see extended family is $1500 alone and my mother is screaming at me to go with the rest of the family in April 2011. That’s half my tuition for a semester. If I had all the money in the world I’d still be hesitant due to anticipated drama, but finances still remain the overriding option.

“Don’t you want to see your grandparents? Don’t you care about the family? You don’t care about the family! You never did! This is why you are like this today!”
“If you care that much, are you willing to pay for or subsidize my expenses?” I will inquire.
“No. Your lifestyle is a disgrace to our family.”
“If you want me to attend with you all, could you subsidize one semester’s tuition so that I can put the money aside to fly out?”
“No. I’m not going to support someone who doesn’t give a damn about the family.”
“I would like to go abroad. I would like. I am not able. I am not able to go presently.”
“Change your abnormality and your lifestyle and put your family first!”

Don’t you just love circular reasoning? At least I tried, and that should count for something, right?

Another issue she will bring up is she also cries that other childhood peers have houses of their own at my age and I do not.

“You’re so backwards because you don’t own a house!”

Bloody hell. I know a lot of Americans do associate homeownership with the American Dream and homeownership with a “traditional” adult status as well, so do allow me to elaborate:

1a Not one single of my peers – single or married – travels period. My travel is 20-30% but the last three months due to a flurry of assignments, it has been 80%. Point stands is that I travel, and sometimes on weekends. An apartment is on average less maintenance than a house. How do you maintain a home if you’re not around to do so? Of those colleagues of mine that own, their spouses take care of the vast majority of housework, or the ones that are single live in very small houses further from downtown.

Chelsea Market overpass facing uptown. 30 Sept 2010.

1b This also begs another question. Why should I pay for space I’m not in as much as – due to my travels – as my peers are in theirs on average? Am I the only one who thinks this way?

San Antonio's Riverwalk. 17 Oct 2010.

2 When one buys a house, it’s not just the mortgage payment and interest you deal with. You deal with maintenance, repairs and upkeep as a whole. You deal with property taxes. I won’t speak for other parts of the country, but in Pennsylvania, it’s no joke. The suburbs of Philadelphia – particularly the Main Line (US-30) – are brutal with property taxes, I will tell you that now, although not quite as bad as New Jersey. If all those monthly expenses are less than what you pay in rent, then I think you should buy. Aside from the down payment and closing costs, I’d think that would just be simple math.

3 The financial crisis should have taught all of us by now that a house is property to live in and should NOT be treated as a primary investment vehicle. Notice I said primary. There are still people and wealthy foreign investors that can swing multiple properties. They are in a different category. Again, I am referring to your primary residence as a primary investment vehicle being a no-no. Look what has happened to a vast lot of Americans on that one. (Disclaimer: Note that I am not implying that others who live in houses see it this way either, but when my mother complains, this is the perspective she takes. I am hammering that perspective and not people who live in houses.)

4 Part of my cutting down on expenses involves me living in the city so I don’t deal with commute times and the burden of owning a car, namely in the form of gas, insurance (still not cheap even in the suburbs), and car payments. Look others feel this way too. Don’t forget depreciation if you really want to get technical. However, public transit does NOT work for everyone – it is up to each person to assess what they can and can’t afford to cut back on. For me, I have determined that it works, and I will take advantage of it. If on the very rare occasion I need to leave the city, I take the bus to NYC or DC and I use car-sharing to hit the suburbs.

5 Most of my childhood peers are married. I’m not. Buying ANYTHING is easier when you have two incomes in most cases. I’m not complaining, this is just sheer reality.

6 Finally, some of my peers are getting support on their down payments to buy.
Some of them have had their graduate degrees also paid for. Me? I had support pulled as an undergrad because I didn’t want to study medicine. I am getting zero support from them for graduate studies, and I sure as hell don’t expect any in buying a home or condo.

Point is, enough of this “keeping up with the Joneses” garbage. I know my lifestyle is different; thank you Dr. Obvious. If she wants to compare me to others, for goodness’ sake, she shouldn’t compare apples to oranges.

Unfortunately part of this is cultural, it is very customary in Sri Lanka to be keeping up with everything else. Status is everything over there and having a good life means that you have your own place to live. Everyone is all about appearances. It’s Hollywood except the gossip infects your life because your family is in the throes of the dissecting others actions and their actions being dissected themselves.

And this includes weddings. South Asians are big on big weddings. When my cousin this past summer opted for something more low-key and casual, most of our family balked. She lives in DC, and the cost of a wedding is insane. She still gets flak for it. I plan on going this route should that day come. I will find an appropriate way to celebrate that is in line with what I can financially afford. Why is this such a bad thing?

Finally the kicker – delaying family life. Independent of finances, what makes me nervous as a parent is that is my anticipated struggle between parenting and maintaining the career I have. Based on what a lot of people have said to me – both sexes – I get the impression that a lot of American/Western men would not tolerate my career lifestyle and from my own cousins, I also get the impression that the mothers has most of the parenting “dumped” on them. This is probably not true in all families. Again, I am exposed to a lot of negativity on this, and it would be nice to run into more egalitarian couples that could make this work and tell me how to do so.

Now, let’s talk about finances. It costs average upwards of $220k to raise a child. Supporting another family member makes us stronger individuals and families. I will not argue that. But having a child is an economic decision as well as personal whether we want to admit it or not. It is of my opinion that like any other major life decision it takes planning, both lifestyle and financial. There are loads of people out there that are opting against a second child due to lack of time and money. Some people I know are deciding not to have children period.

In Sri Lankan culture, having children is non-negotiable. In Western society – until crisis hit – people just “had” them. My mother considers me a waste of resources just for thinking against having a family and especially for economic reasons.

“You’re a selfish little (expletive),” she would say.

It’s frustration on her part because it’s not the way it was when she grew up. While I am upset at her cursing me out, I can understand why she feels the way she does.

Do I want to have a family? Yes, I’d like to raise one of my own. It will be one of my most rewarding challenges in life if I can. I think I can manage my time later in life between husband, career, a child and some me time.

Am I able to have a family? That’s a different question. I’m undecided. Let me get through grad school. Let me find a partner that wants to support my career, ambition, etc and whom I can reasonably support. Let me be financially secure enough to be an effective parent.

Let me not put the cart before the horse.

I don’t do anything half-halfheartedly. Running, studies…that also applies to parenting should I go that route.

I know for a fact my mother wants to move herself back to Sri Lanka when the time comes. I honestly don’t blame her. I know she has hated the fast-pace lifestyle here for years and most of her family is abroad. She hates how parents – and mothers – have to work period. “American families are more and more broken,” she laments. “They are inferior to ours [in terms of values given the] average family…working and career is so family-unfriendly in America,” she will say. And compared to Europe and Asia, she is right about that.

Financially, she will be living like a queen though when she goes home. It makes perfect sense for her.

I will close out with the following:

“You are a selfish rat,” my mother will say to me in Tamil. “When it comes to family, you don’t think. You just do. Thinking about any money involved shows how greedy you are. I should have never wasted MY money raising YOU.”

When you are stuck in war for 26 years (Sri Lanka’s civil war from 1983-2009), I can understand this perspective. I don’t like how she treats me but I can understand her frustration at how the world has changed. However, I am sure in these United States, we all wish making or timing major life decisions were that easy to decide on this side of the Atlantic.

Regardless of political or social beliefs, I respect everyone’s opinions on this issue, but at the end of the day you cannot compare apples to oranges. You just can’t.

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One thought on “It’s the Economy, Stupid: Family v. Finances

  1. I think it’s strong to stick to your opinions and what you want, even with so much pressure from your family. Only you can live your life, so if you make decisions you are happy with, that’s all that matters.

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