Thursday, November 12, 2009

In Gratitude We Find Peace

“When I have a toothache, I discover that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing.  That is peace.  I have to have a toothache in order to be enlightened, to know that not having one is wonderful.  My nontoothache is peace, is joy.  But when I do not have a toothache, I do not seem to be happy.  Therefore, I look deeply in that present moment and see that I have a nontoothache, that can make me very happy already.”  From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk.  Reprinted in Money & Happiness: A Guide to Living the Good Life by Laura Rowley.

I learned a rather unsettling thing last week: postdocs don’t make that much money.  Now, among older and wiser postdocs, this revelation is no surprise.  But I’m young and ignorant, and I thought a $10,000+ raise sounded like a LOT of money.  It is, and it would be a great raise, if it didn’t have to cover things like Social Security, Medicare, and a mandatory retirement plan, all of which are removed from my paycheck before I ever set my eyes on it.  The thing is, when I was a graduate student, our paychecks were boosted by certain exemptions.  I didn’t pay for Social Security or Medicare, and if I wanted to save for retirement, that was my business, not my employer’s.  By graduate student standards, I think I did pretty well.  I saved a good chunk of every paycheck.  I lived in an apartment I loved, shopped for organic vegetables at Whole Foods, and ate awesome meals I cooked myself.  I wasn’t making a lot of money, but it felt like enough.  I worried about money sometimes, but I soothed my feelings by promising myself that I wouldn’t be in graduate school forever and someday I would make more money.  It was all an investment in my future.

The future has arrived, and it’s not as pretty as I thought it would be.  Yes, I am making more money.  But I’m also living in a place where my boss thinks I am absolutely nuts not to have a car.  (He’s probably right.)  It now costs more than five hundred dollars for me to go home for Christmas, and I have to spend the better part of two days traveling in order to do it.  What’s irritating me most of all, though, is the feeling that my new apartment needs some serious help in order to really exude that homey quality I crave.  Suddenly, my belongings, the same ones that felt totally adequate during my grad student days, seem worn and tired.  Some of them are more beat-up than others.  I want new, shiny, beautiful things, possessions that will make me feel like I’ve moved up in the world.  I’m a PhD now!  Don’t I deserve nicer things?

The trouble is, getting out of graduate school was expensive.  I’m a diligent saver and a careful budgeter, but my last year of grad school was a doozy.  A year ago, I didn’t think I would be done with graduate school before the end of 2009, so I wasn’t really planning on bankrolling all the items that fell into my lap this year.  But between moving, an expensive medical scare (but I’m fine now—whew!), fancy job interview clothes, new contact lenses for my poor nearsighted eyes, paying for the publication of my thesis, and a few other items, I racked up more than three thousand dollars in unexpected bills.  Three thousand dollars.  That is a lot of money.

I spent most of October freaking out about the final tally on my Get-Out-of-Grad-School tab.  I felt like I’d been ambushed.  I just had no idea how expensive it would be for me to get to the next phase in my career.  I’m so glad I’m here now because I’m totally jazzed about all the possibilities, but my $3000 bill was very upsetting.  I was able to pay for everything upfront with my savings, but I felt completely overwhelmed with how I would “budget” for this bill in hindsight.

So I gave up.

No, that’s not true.  I thought long and hard about what to do, and I decided to forgive myself for the debt and move forward by living simply and well within my means so that I could replenish those savings.  I now call it The Cost of Getting Out of Grad School.  Somehow, giving my debt a name makes me feel better.  The debt fulfilled multiple needs, but ultimately it all funneled down to the cash I needed to get from grad student to postdoc.  If I had to do it, I would spend all that money again in a heartbeat.

In light of my debt forgiveness, I feel that it wouldn’t be quite appropriate for me to go out and spend several hundred or thousand dollars on goodies for my new place.  In time, I probably will do that.  What I need now, though, is a new perspective on things.  A renewed sense of appreciation for what I do have.  A wise man once said, “This too shall pass.”  I believe that with time, my money worries will dissipate, and I am very grateful that I did have savings so I could pay for everything, regardless of my budget plan.  I realize that not everyone has that luxury.  But what I really want to do is get away from obsessing about money altogether because it just depresses me and makes me want to go shopping.

I want to think about my nontoothache and how happy it makes me.  Everyday life is so beautiful, but it can be so hard to see through the cloudy myopia of stress and anxiety.  In this season of thanksgiving, I want to open my heart to beauty and goodness.  I want to summon love to sit by my side while we drink hot tea and eat cookies and feel very blessed indeed.

For the next four weeks, each Thursday I’m going to wax poetic about all the wonderful things for which I am grateful.  A gratitude list is one of my favorite things to share because it has such a profound effect on others.  I love that moment before the Thanksgiving meal, the one where everybody at the table has to name something for which they are grateful.  This month, let’s have a few of those moments here on this site.  If you feel like sharing your own gratitude list, know that I am listening.  I am grateful to share this site with you, my lovely and quiet readers.

Peace be with you, friends.  I’ll see you back here on Sunday.


Dr. Alice said...

Allow me to make a suggestion: Amy Dacyczyn. She is the author ot "The Tightwad Gazette" and you can probably find her books at the nearest library. She ran a newsletter for years back in the nineties but has since retired. The reason I suggest her is that, among other things, she graduated from art school and worked professionally in design for several years. She has some interesting hints on framing and art. Also, you might try thrift stores and garage sales to pick up furniture.

Hope this helps.

Rosiecat said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Dr. Alice! I'm no stranger to the old thrift store/garage sale circuit, but what I'm really seeking now is ideas, tips, and advice on how to make my apartment into a beautiful space. Amy Dacyczyn (what a name!) might be a perfect addition to my sources of inspiration.

Anyone else have decorating resources they'd like to share? :-)

Shannon said...

isn't it ironic? try living in boston on a post-doc salary... not my smartest move ;) i get too excited by the grocery store, everywhere else i am ok... i had to buy a few new things that i never realized the cost when i moved here... rugs?? why so expensive? i'd rather look at my hardwood floors, anyways! ah well, glad you are ok, and all will be well... there's always christmas to ask for some things to adorn your new abode!

Rosiecat said...

Shannon, Boston is such a beautiful, fun, vibrant city! I think I've got a crush on it. But I hear it is terribly expensive. I imagine the quality of life is good because Boston is a nice city, but seriously, if I'd moved from Chicago to Boston, income-wise, it would have been a lateral move because the cost of living (and having fun!) in Boston would have eaten up every extra penny that I made.

And the grocery store! Tell me about it, lady. Food-shopping is my greatest splurge. It makes me happy.

Take good care of Boston for me ;-)

Anonymous said...

RA - I have skimmed the Tightwad newsletters as well (my mom owns a book that contains all the newsletters), and they are AWESOME. In addition to offering great ideas, they teach random interesting facts and make you feel like being a cheapskate is like belonging to a huge secret society.

Rosiecat said...

Hilarious, AMPD! Does this secret society have a secret sign they flash to each other or a secret handshake?

ammie said...

I've always felt like this about money: as long as I have enough to get by, I don't let it stress me out too much. Doing things that are worthwhile, even if they cost a lot, are worth it if they are what you need or want to do, if they make you happy. I mean, i fly to Alaska every summer, I buy friends expensive-but-needed presents, I give money away sometimes... But it improves my life more than having money would. Which is why I'll probably always be poor :) Good luck with the redecorating! Maybe I'll contribute something shiny, in a few more paychecks...

Rosiecat said...

Ammie, I've always admired your adventurous spirit. You put your money where your heart is, and that is a great thing. I'm a little like you when it comes to travel. Sometimes I just crave it! Right now, I'm already looking forward to my Chicago trip next spring.

Somehow, when it comes to Matt, I'm able to transcend my frugality. I surprise myself with the amount of money, time, and effort I'm willing to put out. (Har har! I couldn't resist!) But there are few things that improve my life more than being generous with the people I love.