Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Megan writes about Edmund Andrews' financial difficulties:

Middle class people in Washington DC do not expect to support a wife, several children, and the visits of several more, on $3500 a month--which they didn't get, because her ex-husband repeatedly failed to pay up. That is not money that lets you live at any income level at all in an acceptable school district. The tiny, run down two bedroom in Silver Spring that my sister and I shared when I first moved to DC was $1500 a month. I don't think you could cram four or five people of varying ages and sexes into that living space--not and maintain what the middle class anywhere in the country thinks of as a decent minimum.

My first job out of college, in the middle of the 1991 recession, paid about $20K per year. After taxes, this came to $1500 per month. After the rent on a one-bedroom apartment, the monthly payment on a sports car, and insurance on said sports car, I had $585 left. Food, clothing, utilities, and entertainment all came out of that $585 per month. This was a just-breaking-even budget . . . until I took up flying. By the time I earned a pilot's license, I had $4K in credit card debt.

Fortunately, I didn't lose my job. My income increased, and I eventually put away the flying until my cash flow could support it.

In hindsight, though, it is pretty obvious that I could not have afforded to get married at age 25 as I had planned, even had the opportunity presented itself. My hypothetical wife would have certainly had to work, which would have undermined my whole claim to beta-providerhood. (I certainly could not have indulged the spending habits of the woman I actually married.) Our situation would have left no margin for error -- and no margin for children, either. In hindsight, I would have to admit that I got married at the earliest (age 29) I could actually afford something close to a middle class family life.

But hindsight does little to soothe the lingering sting from having my marriage ambitions frustrated. At the time, I was doing relatively well compared to most of my friends. I was professionally employed, after all, which in the early '90s was saying something. And, in fact, some of my peers scored wives anyway; obviously, it wasn't just, or even, about money.

9 comments:

trumwill said...

I guess it depends on expectations. That your wife working would be an affront is a pretty big part of the equation. Absent that, there's not much reason you couldn't have married at 25 and waited until whatever age you were to have children and actually been a little better off financially.

"Sports car"? Weren't you living a little high on the hog :)

Φ said...

It was a '91 Mustang GT. I didn't think it was unreasonable given my career prospects, but on a 4-year note at 9+%, it was a big chunk of my income.

It's amazingly easy for a young college graduate to get up to his eyeballs in consumer debt. My measly $4k was nothing compared to what some of my peers were doing.

That your wife working would be an affront . . .Well I didn't quite say that. My point was that, to the extent I presented myself to women as "breadwinner" material, I was likely overselling at age 23 - 25. That's not the same as objecting to a married woman without kids having a job.

In all candor, though, I can imagine how a wife presenting her decision to pursue a career as "we need the money", when her husband's perception is that she only wants the money, would bite a little.

trumwill said...

Sorry, didn't mean to misconstrue what you said.

If you were selling that you'd be able to support a family right after marriage... yeah, that would be overselling. I figure that you're in favor of the man being the breadwinner and the woman staying at home with a family, but do you hold the same position before children? I can't imagine supporting a stay-at-home wife prior to having children and would be intensely suspicious of any woman that was looking for that. I guess if she was in school or had some special reason for it... but it'd require a pretty good reason.

Spending yourself to the brink for a Mustang is a bit of a head-scratcher for me, prospects or no. But then again I'm not a car guy. Though I was socking away a bit more, I was still spending not-insignificant amounts of money on computers, music shows, and beer. Hardly the paragon of fiscal responsibility, I.

To me a Mustang is almost inherently a frivolous purchase... but that's because I'm not a car guy and can't appreciate the value in it (I have a post about this coming up next week or not). My $400 phone, on the other hand, is absolutely essential. So to each their own.

Φ said...

I am broadly non-judgmental about the ways families order their domestic arrangements (at least within the range we are discussing here). The "traditional" model has worked best for us, but that won't be true for everybody: it makes more sense for men, like my brother-in-law, who married physicians to play the stay-at-home role.

I would offer two pieces of advice to couples:

1. Live on one income. That doesn't mean that both can't work, only that their lifestyle shouldn't depend on both working if they can help it.

2. Think carefully before putting a young child in daycare. The research shows that the outcomes are not very good.

Mustangs . . . yeah, I got excited about cars in my young adulthood. Driving a Mustang created opportunities that someone with better skillz might have leveraged more successfully. But it's not determinative: when I eventually did get married, I was driving a Civic.

Trumwill said...

I agree with your first point. Do you have a cite for the second that controls for SES? I was under the impression that SES accounted for most of the bad outcome, but I haven't looked into it like I should (considering that this is a choice that we're going to have).

I've found that fast cars are like "cool" clothes and a hundred other things... they seem to only affect situations for guys like you and me in the negative, if at all.

Φ said...

Regarding daycare: the best work on the subject has been produced by Jay Belsky at Penn State. Think of him as the Steve Sailer of daycare -- a bearer of unpopular news -- so it's important to read what he actually writes rather than what's written about him.

Regarding cars and clothes: the benefit is that they can be used to help us project a positive image. The risk is that if that image is manifestly unsustainable, then the attention they attract can rapidly turn negative.

It may be that, while I drove a Mustang, I had the personality of a Camry.

Kirt33 said...

it makes more sense for men... to play the stay-at-home roleReally, Phi? I had the impression that you were quite a conservative Christian in most respects.

It's a whole separate discussion not really appropriate for this post, but I agree with pastor Mark Driscoll that the idea of a stay-at-home dad, while the mom works, is so wrong as to arguably be a reason for church discipline.

Kirt33 said...

Again - and I have a huge exam next week and don't even have time to go into this if I wanted to - but I'm really surprised that you actually homeschool your children (something completely foreign to me; I never even heard of the idea until I was in my twenties) and yet you're okay with a reversal of the traditional marital sex roles.

Φ said...

Kirt33: Seeing as how it's a new thing for me to take the liberal side of an argument, I'll probably do it badly.

The first thing I would say about Mark Driscoll's commentary is that his criticism is addressed at people who shirk their responsibilities to their families: women who wish to avoid the company of their children, men who's idea of "staying home" is to play all day, and couples who's consumerism requires two incomes. That's very different from a family dividing responsibilities according to their comparative advantages.

I would also emphasize something that Mark Driscoll hinted at: the traditional model is, in general, likely to be a more stable arrangement. God requires that men exercise authority in their families, and our own natures (at least as expressed in our present culture) make this easier when the man is recognized as the primary breadwinner. Both men and women prefer relationships in which the man's earning power exceeds the woman's. This preference isn't universal, obviously, but it does appear to be the norm.

But to the extent that Driscoll is quoting I Tim 5:8 in support of "traditional sex roles", he is taking the verse out of context.