“I’ll need to move. I’ve been laid off.” Our housemate Scott’s face was unusually sober. He had been happily working as a carpenter here in Portland for a company that did home remodels. “The work has dried up because nobody is signing new contracts. My boss cut me loose yesterday.”
My eyes welled with tears. I must have looked stricken, myself, because Scott said, “It’ll be OK,” and got up to hug me. We had become good friends as we gardened together the past spring and summer, weeding and composting, deciding which fruit trees and vegetables to plant, planning to get three chickens to raise eggs. It was unexpected and felt all wrong, the idea of Scott being laid off and leaving our household.
My former coworker Mike had a similar experience, though with more advance notice. His six-month contract with the state ended in December, and despite his excellence as an employee and my division’s best efforts to secure the funding to keep him on, we had to let Mike go.
Hundreds of thousands of good workers like Scott and Mike have lost their jobs in recent months through no fault of their own. Lots of them, unlike these two young friends of mine, have families to support. That’s the reason president-elect Obama is forming a large economic stimulus package — to create new jobs. I think job creation via a stimulus package is the right thing to do. But there’s more to do besides that, and it’s ours to do, not the government’s.
Picture a family that has been living beneath its means for the past ten years, hence saving enough money to cover six months of living expenses in the event of job loss. Now picture a family that has been living beyond its means for the past ten years, creating $15,000 in consumer debt and no savings. Now picture the heads of both households suddenly being laid off.
Which household is safer? Which is happier? Which laid-off employee is more likely to feel desperate enough to shoplift or commit another crime? Which household needs the emergency help of the government-funded stimulus package and other tax-funded social services, the one that’s been under-consuming or the one that’s been over-consuming in recent years?
More subtle but very important: which household’s newly reduced consumption patterns is more likely to trigger further job loss to other citizens in a ripple effect? Answer: the household that’s been overspending on luxury goods and services. The household that’s been living beneath its means all along has made neither itself nor other workers dependent on luxuries. The household consuming less resources, living modestly and sustainably, has actually been protecting both itself and the larger economy all along, as well as the earth, the oft-forgotten source of all the resources.
You’re probably wanting something a little more practical than that last paragraph. Being a practical person myself, let me offer a money-saving post that’s been popular this winter: How To Slash Your Heating Bill. Let me humbly state that I was once way over my head in credit card debt, myself, and here are my tips on breaking free of credit card debt. If you want advice on living happily and cheaply, here are tips on doing that. Whatever it takes, live beneath your means. We help others besides ourselves when we do that, both in modeling the life-skills to those around us, and in forging an economy that’s sustainable rather than bloated and prone to collapse.
Scott’s and Mike’s stories end more happily than many, because they both have been able to move back in with their families. Mike, in Boise, Idaho, has not yet been able to find a new job, but he will be starting with the Peace Corps in Africa come April. Scott’s father, a contractor in Central Oregon, had work to offer Scott because he’d just landed a new contract to build a home. Neither man has the expensive habits or credit card debt that would make their job loss more of a blow than it needed to be.