Thursday, June 5, 2008

Benchmarking: a Study in What Passes for Discomfort Among the Affluent

I’d never really encountered the word benchmarking until I came to my current job in the financial services industry. I’ve since warmed to it. Because it’s what I do all the time as I wonder just how other people are making it.

Don’t get me wrong: we’re making it. I’ve been told that enough times by enough people who know, and things are definitely more comfortable around here this year. I’m convinced, finally. But if we’re making it, why the pit in the stomach? Why the sense that we’re one room short of a full complement of rooms? Why do the ceilings seem a couple of inches too low and we powerless to change that?

I started writing this entry, then came up against the fact of our making it and had to cast my mind back, had to relocate my principles. Oh, that’s right: we chose it. A manifesto was perhaps written.

Once in a while, that rankles. The principles and justifications seem a little more elusive, a little less apparent. Are the kids just growing faster than we thought? Are the toy piles and innovative storage solutions (nooks, crannies) getting overfilled? Is it just the persistent sugar ants and nonresponsive exterminators that make us feel a hair below the comfort zone of privilege we feel we should inhabit? Hard to say. The people I meet, the bloggers I read, I want to know: how are they making it? It’s not about status per se. It’s more about the practicalities. "Look honey, that’s a one-income household but their ceilings are higher than ours!" It’s not about the high ceilings. It’s about the how. How do they have higher ceilings than ours?

If we’re making it, and we wanted higher ceilings, why do we have these low ones? I go back to our decisions, and realize again: we chose it. [Just squashed an ant.] Tonight, again, writing that first paragraph, I reran the math we ran when we sold the more expensive, larger house to purchase this 1,100 square foot one. I see what we did. I remember why. And I calm down a little.

But here’s the rub, for me: my fiscal conservatism is characterized more by fear of failure and pessimism than it is by frugality and intelligently converting money into more money.

So I benchmark, and it comes out like this: There are people with a near-innate self assurance. It comes across as street smarts, business savvy, negotiating skill. Sometimes there’s physical handiness. It combines tolerance for risk with an apparently willful lack of imagination regarding risk. Some of the least socially adept people I know have it. CEOs have it. It’s in the easy self-assurance of the lawyer, or the contractor, or the banker. It’s not just blind certainty; it’s that coupled with skill at mitigating risk. Many entrepreneurs have it—but it doesn’t seem prevalent in the more distant reaches of the cube farms. Sometimes those who possess this complex of traits actually fail, but I suspect they simply pick up and move on to the next project.

I haven’t got the gene. So what I DO have is a small old house whose purchase was very safe and which left us in pretty good shape for college down the road, PLUS a job in a cube, swoopy floors, little sugar ants, unfinished novels, a floody basement, poor air circulation, bats, and, sometimes, a sense that even this can’t last.

And that, friends, is what passes for making it. How are you making it?


Bill Braine said...

I will add here that I got married, had kids, bought a house, moved away from the comfortable city, eventually quit my job in the city, took a new job in an unfamiliar industry, and purchased cars with loans.

Yes, I know, I'm a regular Evel Knievel.

Anonymous said...

I am grateful to find a familiar attitude.

How are we making it? We live in a small house within a walking distance to the center of town. The commute to work is 20 minutes. I can ride my bike to the grocery store.

I can touch the ceiling in the second floor of our house. We have one bathroom for four people and no closets.

We chose this. We didn't publish a manifesto, but every time we had a choice between big-house/suburb and small-house/almost-city we chose closer, smaller, more manageable, cheaper. One of us doesn't have to work for pay. That is a luxury.

I'm sorry - what was the question?

Anonymous said...

Like Lee, I can touch the ceilings on the 2nd floor of my house (you'd think by now I'd remember that every time I pull on a sweatshirt and bang my hand into the light fixture in my bedroom. But no); my commute to work is less than 20 minutes long; and I too can walk to the center of my town -- in under 10 minutes. Oh and like Lee, my closet space sucks.

As the kids' (ages: 3.5 & 20 months -- today actually) toys expand to fill every available space, there are days when I think "we need a bigger house." But then I step back and take a look around and realize that "need" is the wrong word. Yes, my 70 year old house is substantially smaller than most newer houses, and the closets suck and the lighting isn't very good in some (most) rooms, and yes, I know people who are clearly making less money than my wife and I (we both work FT) who live in bigger, newer houses with electric garage doors (behind which lurk their gas-guzzling SUVs) and California closets and 2-story foyers and ceramic-tiled kitchens and a real live lawn with grass instead of the weeds and sand we have, and sometimes I can't help but think -- how?

It's the wrong question. A better question is -- why?

I grew up in a family of four (plus a dog, and later, a cat too)in a 100 year old, 1 floor, 1 Bath house with under 800 square feet and a dirt-floor basement. It worked just fine. At some point, my parents' mortgage was less than the taxes they paid. They didn't seem to stress all that much about money -- they certainly didn't have a lot of it, but then, they didn't have extravagant tastes or desires or feel a need to compete with the neighbors in the cars they drove (Ford Pinto and later, Ford Escorts -- and we made do with one car, even when we had 4 licensed drivers in the house) or show off the decor in their McMansion. They made do with what they had and, I suppose, were pretty happy to live within their means.

My wife and I are 2 working professionals. We make a decent amount of money, and yet we basically live paycheck-to-paycheck and are currently carrying a bit more credit card debt than we'd like (due for the most part to some unforeseen family emergency-related expenses this past winter). But we're almost done paying off our student loans, we're saving for retirement, will start saving for the kids' educations once day care bills subside and, frankly, don't really want for much.

But then, like my parents, I've learned that wants are the part of the equation that we control. What do I really want? Sure, a large flat-screen TV would be nice, but growing up I had a 25" black-and-white TV with 13 channels and that was fine. Plus I don't have time to watch TV anyway, so what's the point? I suppose I'd like some nicer furniture, but then I'd probably be worried about the kids or the dog messing it up. The more you have, the more you feel you need -- and the more you add to your worries and stress. To quote a line from a Sheryl Crow song: "It's not having what you want, it's wanting what you have."

How am I making it? By plugging away at work and being happy with what I have at home -- a healthy family, a roof over my head (though the damn flashing around teh chimney leaks at times) and food on the table. By my definition, I've "made" it -- and frankly, who else's definition matters?

Bill Braine said...

Honest, folks, I've ASKED evenfurtherupstate why he doesn't have a blog...

All comments welcome, of course.

Anonymous said...

"Honest, folks, I've ASKED evenfurtherupstate why he doesn't have a blog. . . ."

I wouldn't know how to work one of these fancy contraptions.

Sorry if I hogged up your blog's allotted bandwidth or gigabytes with my lengthy response. . . .

BarbaraCA said...

We had all the nice benchmarks, and lost 'em. I mean really lost them - the college fund and the 401k were drained to keep the house paid for while we were underemployed. Eventually we had to sell the house and most of our stuff. Now we're in a tiny rental, starting over, with none of the cool hip toys (grown up ones or kid ones), but the jobs are good jobs, the kids are happy and healthy (knock wood) and that low, constant hum of panic? Gone.

I still want things, though. It's that want that I wonder about.

wcs said...

Chucked it all. Bought a house for cash in France. Doing the painting ourselves. Gardening. Not driving much.

Bliss. Well, almost.

Unknown said...

Bill, you're in good company because pretty much no-one feels like they're making it - even our friends who we thought were really making it just told us that they are struggling too - and we've long thought that they had money to burn.

Not having a car has saved us money... but having a child recently will prob. make us want to get one!

We live in an apartment, which keeps maintenance and property taxes low.

Working from home is another good one - each time I don't go into Manhattan, I save money. So now I don't go in for any non-money making work activities. Admin stuff can always wait (I work for myself).

In my estimation, it comes down to the definition of "necessity" - our parents' generation ran things leaner than we do. We're feeling the pinch just like anyone these days, but the cable tv package remains, two cell phones, organic food, GOOD wine/liquor, not using coupons... and so it goes, said the financial planner.

One other thing... inflation is starting to rear its ugly head, after a nice long stretch of laying low - so, for example, I'm seeing significant changes at the grocery store. Might be time to start clipping coupons!

Anonymous said...

The most important piece of advice we gave our daughter is "Always live BELOW your means. Well below, if you can."

We didn't for a while and paid for it. Someone said something about that "constant low hum of panic?" Had that, too.

Back to living leaner and are much happier.

Maybe what we should all aim for are lower benchmarks, not higher ones.

By the way, why DOESN"T evenfurtherupstate have a blog? He can get one for free. I'd read it.