“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.