Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Must Green Parents Be Rich Parents?

Before BabyG was born, MaGreen and I saved a little each month like a good bourgeois couple. Even though we didn’t make huge incomes from our teaching and editing jobs, we were paid decently. We lived in moderation but did not have to count every penny. Right after BabyG was born, the balance of our income and expenses did not change much. I took all of my vacation days and my supervisor allowed me some flexibility. Though it was stressful, MaGreen and I managed to care for BabyG without any substantial extra expense or loss of income. After two months, I had to return to the regular schedule for my full-time, five days per week desk job. And MaGreen had to kick her own studies into highgear. So we started to pay for childcare and we went from saving money to barely breaking even.

According to the 2005 US Census statistics, our income is thoroughly average. We make about 125% of the median family income for a 3-person family in the state of Texas. (In the US, the disparity of wealth is huge. A relatively small number of people make way more money than we do. For this reason, the average income is a lot higher than the median income.) In terms of income, our family is the representative American family. We’re the 21st century Cleavers. So if we are barely breaking even that means families below the median income – half of the families in the US – are probably not barely breaking even. They’re just breaking. Despite the high GDP per capita here, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) ranked the US second to last for child well-being among economically developed nations. The US was at the bottom or near it for nearly every category including income poverty, reading levels, aspirations, and child mortality. Check out the full Unicef report (1.5MB pdf).

Unlike a very large percentage of our fellow Americans, I think we have the minimum “capabilities and functionings” to call our lives dignified. Our incomes, education levels, assets, and status allow us to raise BabyG with enough attention that she won’t have a childhood of deprivation. We don’t deprive ourselves either. But I want more than the minimum. I don’t just want to attain the lowest threshold of dignity. I want to spend less time at my desk and more time with BabyG. I want to have an exercise routine. I’d like to write my novel. I’d like to do more community organizing. So I asked my supervisor to get my workload reduced to 75%. Instead of working 40 hours per week on average, I would work 30. And it looks like my request might go through by August. I am very excited. Even though I haven’t even started the new schedule yet, I feel a tremendous sense of relief. The problem is that if I work a 75% schedule, I will make 75% of my previous salary. We will go from slightly above median family income to below the median and from barely breaking even to going into debt.

So I decided its time to count the pennies. We need to cut our monthly expenses by several hundred dollars! I logged into all of our accounts and compiled all the expenses from checks, cash cards, and credit cards. Then I assigned the individual expenses to one of the following categories: childcare, education (tuition and books for MaGreen and me), professional development, rent, miscellaneous (gifts, clothes, toys, etc.), groceries, eating out, telecommunications, transportation, energy, health, cash, bank fees, and entertainment. Finally, I made a table showing monthly totals under each category so I could get a sense of what stays the same and what varies.

Out of our expenses, childcare, education, and rent account for 65% of the total. Those are fixed costs. We can’t change those arrangements without hurting our quality of life and our future. Groceries are a whopping 8% of our expenses. Buying organic vegetables adds up. We thought eating out would be the obvious “culprit,” but even though we go to restaurants two to three times a week that’s only 4% of our expenses. We spend more on our telecommunications (phone line, cell phones, internet connection, and webhosting) than we do on eating out. Since I bicycle to work and MaGreen drives our old Mazda about ten miles per week, our transportation costs are low. And even though we buy our electricity through a windmill company, our utility bills aren’t that high. So it’s not clear to me what we can cut without sacrificing our emerging green lifestyle.

MaGreen went over the numbers and we talked about them over dinner. We decided to eat out less and cook more with cheaper ingredients without giving up on organics. We’re going to look for cheaper telecommunications deals. And we’re hoping that by tracking our expenses more carefully, we can generally rein them in. I’ll post how we’re doing the next time we do the calculations. Wish us well!


Laura said...

Thanks for this post! I think more people need to talk about money and how they spend it, because a lot of us struggle with similar choices... so thanks for bringing it up!

Michael Pollan says that most of us in the US should actually be spending MORE on food -- he says 25% of our income is not unreasonable -- so we can get the good, healthy, local, organic stuff.

But, when you have to cut corners that seems kind of unreasonable. Yet another instance of good living -- and green living -- seeming unattainable for many.

I'm on a tight grad-student budget, myself, and definitely spend 25% of my income on food (but that's partly because my income is pretty small...)

I don't have any answers for you (except to ask whether y'all could buy a house? sometimes that's cheaper than renting) but I certainly wish you luck.

GreenDaddy said...

Thanks Laura.

Sometimes we buy foods like lotus root or lemongrass. I think we can eat other high quality, organic foods that cost less. And our local co-op is cheaper, but you have to go on a certain day, in the middle of the day.

We actually do own the duplex we live in. But we have to pay our business the equivalent of full rent for a two-bedroom apartment to make the mortgage payment and maintenance, even with the other tenants' rent. If we moved to a cheaper neighborhood, I wouldn't be able to bicycle to work and I'd have to buy a car, which would definitely mess up our green ambitions.

Fiddler said...

Thought provoking, we talk about these things in general terms in our household, but keep putting off taking a big stand to cut spending... Thanks for the inspiration to visit this again!

MC Milker said...

Good discussion - one hope is that as organics go more and more mainstream, the cost to produce them will go down - allowing us to eat healthy, cheaply. Here in California, it's not groceries so much as housing that is the culprit- driving young families further and further from urban centers to avoid a house.

Kate said...

Childcare seems like such a huge cost for many. What about trading childcare? Looking after a friend's child when you can and asking them to return the favor when possible.

Also, if your comment was about Central City, the shares are kept until 6:30 pm on Wednesday. I volunteer every Wednesday until close, so I could always hang on to it for you if you were running late. Let me know! ouicestca @

BookGirl said...

Figuring out how to finance a lifestyle that is meaningful is incredibly difficult, and something my husband and I evaluate often. We choose to live in the city so we don't have to own a car, can walk almost anywhere we need to go, etc., but we end up paying much more in rent. Owning a condo is not even something we can consider at this point. Part of the reason for that is the career choices we've made -- we both experienced the soul sucking void that is corportate America and have opted to do more meaningful things with our lives. Unfortunately those things don't pay well.

And purchasing organic foods (mostly at Whole Foods and at farmers markets when they are open) is indeed costly, but something important to us.

So our choices result in us doing without a lot of the things some of our other friends and colleauges choose to pay for -- big TVs, fancy cars, cable. But those things just aren't as important to us and in general we're very comfortable with the choices we've made.

But it isn't easy to strike that balance. I wish you well in re-creating your budget, and hope you can maintain all of the things that are most important to you.

Henitsirk said...

We're in the same place you are, except I'm at home with the kids and squeeze a little freelance work in where I can. We also have very low transportation costs, our rent is subsidized by my husband's employer to be much lower than the market rate, and we buy far less organic food than we would like. Sometimes I'm frustrated that we have to buy so many conventional foods, but would it be worth it for me to get a full-time job just for that? So hard to decide these things.

cake said...

i too appreciate such a frank discussion on finances.

i have a couple of suggestions: drop the land line, and just use cell phones. the company we use (not that i am recommending it, i know very little about this) allows us to have two numbers/phones for a pretty reasonable rate. then we use cable for our internet, and got a discount by going through earthlink. i bet you already know that randalls is carrying more and more organic food, and i have found that whole foods has the lowest prices in town on a few select items. but i think you guys are already really good at scouting out bargins on groceries, using coupons etc. the co-op is worth the effort, maybe saturdays would work better than wednesdays?

i do wish you luck, and i thank you for inspiring me to take a closer look at our budget.

jaime said...

if you live in even somewhat of a suburban or urban area, skip paying for internet and go to places that have free wifi.

as well as the two cell phones, explore the option of having a land line and one shared cell phone to see which is cheaper.

when you stock up on ingredients, making stuff is cheap. especially bread. you can make ahead things like marinara sauce and vegetable stock and can or freeze them. you can buy veggies in bulk, chop, blanche and freeze them so they are ready to use-- cheaper than the ready frozen bagged kind.

if you don't have land on the property you're renting, you can grow things as potted plants indoors. i just learned that you can grow avocados this way!

also to note: i'm not a parent, but i hope to become one someday and have made a profession in childcare. i would LOVE to start a green childcare but can't imagine anyone else on board. i'm envisioning reusable diapers, dishes, cloths, line-drying, eco-energy, natural lighting. i don't know anybody else who has thought of this or is interested, but i'd also be down for being a green nanny.

GreenDaddy said...

Thanks everyone for the encouragement and suggestions! We've started trying some out, but I'm not going to report on them until I've had a chance to run the monthly numbers again.

Jaime, I hope you do try out your green childcare plan out. Depending on the area you are in and your business model, I think it could be very successful. Keep us posted.

Mike said...

I'm with you on these costs!

Check out VoIP solutions for your landline - my Vonage costs less than $15 per month and is indistinguishable from a typical landline (except it has a lot more cool features). If you're calling overseas a lot, there are plenty of VoIP options that provide free international calls at a slightly higher monthly fee. If the people on the other side of your call have internet access, consider using something like Google Talk for voice calls from IM client to IM client - call quality is stellar and its free.

Do you have other blogs that require hosting? You could host your content on blogspot, instead of your own server, no? Even if you wanted to keep your domain name, you could redirect to blogspot and kick your hosting down to the lowest level.

I haven't figured out a cheap cell-phone solution and am paying $80 a month for two lines!! That's crazy.

I don't know what your traffic is like to this blog but I don't know that anyone would fault you for putting advertising up and possibly making a small amount of money on the side - contextual text ads might even provide good links to natural food and product sites!

Good luck with it all,