I’m reading a book right now about the history of American English.

Yes, this is going somewhere, bear with me.

Sounds pretty fucking boring right? I mean, if someone told me they were reading a book about that, I’d have to gaze at them in sheer admiration of their ungodly intellectualism, because no mere mortal like me can sit down and read a whole book about such a boring subject without dying from the sheer weight of boredom.

But, its good. It’s written by Bill Bryson. If you’ve never heard of Bill Bryson, he started his career as a journalist and travel writer, and now writes whatever catches his fancy. He probably is, quite simply, the most gifted nonfiction writer on earth. He can take any subject, no matter how boring it sounds or is, and find a way to make it both interesting and informative.

He wrote a book about the history of science, and devoted a good 100 pages to the history and controversies within taxonomy (the science of how other sciences should go about classifing things). I sincerely enjoy reading about science of all types, particularly astronomy and cosmology, but if you told me that I read a book that devoted such a huge amount of space to taxonomy, and that the taxonomy section would be both memorable and entertaining, I’d…well..I’d probably have to bitch slap you for overestimating the degree to which I am a geek by WAY too fucking much. But it is entertaining, not because taxonomy in itself is entertaining (its not, its boring as fuck and I hate it)…but because Bill Bryson is just that fucking good. He wrote another hundred pages about moss.

Anyways, I am reading a book he wrote about the history of the english language in America (I chose this one because it does, at least tangentially, connect to my job). By neccessity, this dictates talking about American history along side it a great deal.

He mentions something that caught my interest: your average citizen at the end of the 1700’s was a farmer, and spent only 10% or so of his income on outside purchases (consumption). Aside from certain things he simply couldn’t make himself, he was entirely self sufficient, and the rest of his income went towards saving for bad times, or really furthuring himself financially.

What would that be like?

What would it be like to have your land and work it? To have next to no outside dependencies or obligations except those which you, in absolute freedom, chose to enter into?

Is it any wonder that our Republic was founded by men who, by and large, didn’t have to get up every morning and call someone else “Sir.”? That didn’t have to keep up good relations with this man, Sir, so that they could pay for their rent, car payments, car insurance, and buy food…who then resented being taxed (however little) by a bunch of people three thousand miles away to whom they felt no obligations?


It is completely and utterly a different perspective on life, because I’ve been living the closest thing to it, without actually doing it, for the past year.

I have nearly half a year’s salary sitting either in a bank account here, a bank account back home, or in my wallet. I live in a furnished apartment, rent free, utilities free. My financial burdens consist of food, my cooking gas, drinking water, and entertainment.

I buy very little of the latter.

Despite this, I am easily paid enough money per month to live convertibly on the outside. I can find an apartment for as little as 400 yuan a month (I’ve asked around). Interenet access for about 100. Food another 500. That’s 1000 yuan….our salary is now 8000/month.

It’s easy on me now, because for China, I make a ton of money. But, we did it in America to, making no where near as much. It just took longer, and involved harder work, and more discipline.

My savings account grows, and with every dollar-convertible yuan I put in it, so does my freedom.

My freedom, because if my bosses here were to suddenly take a First Legal’ish turn, I could say, “Fuck you”, and not be doing anything irresponsible. Because, I could pack my bags, fly home, and have enough money to get settled. Or, I could move out, get an apartment in China, and have enough savings to live for over a year while searching for work.

BTW: No exaggeration, I walk down the street and people introduce themselves to me and offer me jobs. It’s a regular thing, especially during the spring.

As Aaron and Chris move out, here is my advice to them. They can take it, or ignore it if they think it’s stupid…But these are the things I know from living with my wife, on our own (for the most part) in both America and China:

1) Design a budget. Make sure that it includes all your expenses, a reasonable entertainment fund, anything else you feel you need, and a set amount that you save each month. In America, I worked part time as a security gaurd for $6 an hour, and Amber got her unemployment from First Legal, which amounted to about the same thing I was making at my security gaurd job. We saved 30%, and still had money for things like cable internet and TV, an occasional video game, and dinner out at a casual dining restaurant once a week.

2) Consider the savings account untouchable except for absolute emergencies until you have at least three or four months in there. For that matter, consider it untouchable except for emergencies, period.

3) No matter what your long term plans, get out of the category “Unskilled Labour” as fast as possible, by any (legal) means neccessary. I plan on studying physics, and teaching science in high school. I’m teaching English, and I intend to do so for as long as possible while still studying. I also want to be a successful shareware developer. Successful means that I get a little bit of money, maybe a hundred dollars a month, for doing something I would do anyways as a hobby for free.

Unskilled Labour means there are almost 100 million other people out there just as fit to replace you, and willing to work for the same salary or less. Skilled, whether it is as a certified forklift driver or a professor of quantum physics, means you are something of a commodity, and can’t be replaced with just anybody. You have a value somewhat higher than that of common dirt.

Ronny knows this. Ronny will never, for the rest of his life, need a job. We could have WWIII, and society could collapse in upon itself, and Ronny will have a job. The economy of the US could fall to shreds, like some third world countries where 80% of the populace are unemployed. While the rest of us beg for work, Ronny will have a job.

I couldn’t do Ronny’s job, but I’m happy for him in this sense. A major worry in just about every modern person’s life no longer really applies to Ronny…and the further he goes in his career, the less it will.

4) A neat trick to save money, convert every unneccessary purchase into working hours. A trip to the movies costs you about $15 bucks by the time you’ve bought popcorn and everything. Would you work 1.5 - 2.5 hours longer so you can see that 1.5 hour movie in the theatre?

Don’t convert your rent into working hours…that will just make you depressed.

5) Shit happens. Save money, and never spend all that you have saved. Keep some as a shit shield, for when the car tire explodes or your boss decides during lean times that you are expendable. If you have $3000 saved, and that alienware laptop you want so bad costs $2999, save another grand before you buy it. That way you don’t feel so stupid if a week later your car needs a new transmission.

6) Take ten extra minutes during a shopping trip, and put serious, hard thought into whether the things you buy are worth what you pay for them. Snack foods, video games, and soft drinks are good places to start. I don’t mean, “Hmm, I never realized how much these really cost…oh well .” I mean, take a few minutes and stand there, and think about just how much you are spending, and what other things you could buy.

If you can still do it without feeling guilty or foolish, go for it. It’s worth it (Vanilla Coke was for us).

7) Never, never, never buy a new, full priced video game, unless you already know it is the greatest fucking thing since Tron. Fifty dollars at nine dollars an hour is nearly six hours of work. It’s your supply of soda for two or three months. It’s four or five days rent. It’s a waste….stick to the bargain bin.

8) Have a plan with reasonable goals. Where will you stand, financially, professionally, etc, in one month? Six months? A year? Two years? Don’t spend any amount of money above fifty dollars unless it is: A) a planned expense (like rent) B) An emergency (your car’s brake system stopped working) or C) you’ve planned on spending that money for at least a month in advance. Have a plan, stick to the plan. Have reasonable goals (save 15% of my salary this month), and try to meet them, and you will. Have pathetic goals (save $5 this month) or unreasonable goals (spend absolutely nothing on my entertainment this month), and you will not meet them. Have no goals, and you should be rightfully shocked if you actually get anywhere at all.

9) Any skills you can learn that will prevent you from spending money…learn them! A good example is car mechanics. I still don’t know how to fix my own car, but whenever something needs to be done to it, I’ve resolved to do my best to do it, and learn. Another example is cooking, which I am learning now. I absolutely love eating out…I consider it part of my entertainment budget, and I will always eat out regularly. In America, eating out was considered, from before I even got on the plane home, the second most important thing to do on my vacation. But, it is very expensive compared to what it costs to cook, in any country. So, my wife is teaching me to cook. Another example is gardening…I’m going to start planting vegetable seeds in some of the plant pots that the last teacher to use this apartment left behind. I can’t grow enough for it to truely matter…but I can learn the skill of producing food from something that would otherwise be trash (seeds) or wasted (dirt, water, sunlight).

10) There was a time when debt was for emergencies and serious investments, not lifestyles. Don’t get a credit card so you don’t have to be bothered with actually having money when you buy something. Get a credit card so that, when shit happens, you are ready for it. Never go into debt if you can possibly avoid it! That’s worth repeating…

Never go into debt if you can possibly avoid it!

One more time:

Never, never, never go into debt if you can possibly, humanly, concievably, avoid it!

11) It is an accepted truth of microeconomics and psychology that needs always expend to fill income. This only became true on a massive scale about a hundred and ten years ago.

Make it false again. In Fort Worth, with a roommate, you can live on a $7/hour full time job. You can live on that job, and have a reasonable amount of money for entertainment and a reasonable amount of money to save. No matter how much you make, you will always think you are doing so-so. You will always think you just barely made ends meet. That’s not truth! That is the principle stated above at work!

For years, while my dad made 50-60 grand a year, and my mom worked outside for 14 grand a year…my parents told me we were “poor”. That’s bullshit, but it didn’t seem like it to them.

A single person with a roommate can live in Fort Worth for $7/hour fulltime. They can live, and have some money to entertain themselves, and they can even save.

A married couple bringing in a double income, can each afford to make less…more like $5.31/hour each, fulltime, if they have no outstanding debts to pay. And have a little money to save (like, 30% of both their salaries). And have money for entertainment like cable internet, an occasional video game, and eating out once a week.

No, they can’t have a kickass stereo system in their car. No, they can’t have a new car.

Do not let your needs expand to fill your income. As a single person with roommate, living in an apartment in the suburbs of Fort Worth, you NEED about $7/hour.

The rest is luxury spending.

These sounds like the stupid and banal things a success book says, but they are true. I didn’t read them in any book, I just started doing them when things for Amber and I were at their worst, and have tried and intend to always try to keep them up.

For the rest of my life.

blog comments powered by Disqus


10 September 2004