"My ex-wife calls me an asshole. She's probably right about that. Of course, she wasn't right about a lot of other things. It was those other things that led to our divorce," I said while admiring the golden beverage in my beer glass.
It had been a long time since I had a beer and I intended to enjoy every ounce of it. It was even better knowing that it was on the house.
"What other things?" my drinking buddy for the evening asked.
I was pretty sure that he was wondering if my ex-wife or I had been caught cheating on the other. There were a lot of rumors about what had caused our marriage to break up. Just about everyone believed that I had cheated on her. It was the expression on his face that gave away his thoughts on the matter. He believed that I had cheated on her.
"The economy, for one," I answered.
Looking around the bar, it was pretty obvious to me that she wasn't the only one who had gotten things about the economy wrong. Everyone looked a little worn down by the economy. Upon observing the grimace of my companion, I thought I would clarify my answer a little.
"That's not quite accurate ... everyone knew the economy was going to go belly up. She was wrong in what it was going to take in order to get through the bad times."
"No one knew what to do."
I shook my head in disagreement while remembering back to that fateful day when I became an asshole. It was early spring and the grass was growing madly as a result of unusually heavy rains that year. I was watching a cable news program in which a guest was warning about the upcoming housing bubble when my wife informed me that it was time for me to mow the lawn for the first time of the season. I had just picked up the remote to turn off the television when one of the guests being interviewed made the first comment that changed my life. In short, the guest said, "You won't survive the economic times ahead unless you change the way you live today."
The effects of that comment weren't immediate. It just registered in my mind and was dismissed for the moment while I headed out to mow the lawn. I should probably mention that I hate mowing the lawn. I know that there are some folks that love it -- all the power to them. Personally, I'd rather be fishing.
After having stored the lawnmower in the garage for the winter, I knew that the lawnmower wasn't going to start on the first pull. Still, I had performed all of the appropriate maintenance on the blasted machine so it should have started on the third or fourth pull. After the tenth pull, I started getting a little frustrated. I began yanking on the starter cord with a tad bit more energy than was advisable. Much to my horror and dismay, the recoil starter pulley broke. With a sick feeling in my stomach, I stood there, in the middle of the garage, holding the rope with a small piece of aluminum dangling off the end of it.
I was not good company by the time I sat down at the dinner table that evening. I had discovered, not for the first time, that retailers in a suburban area do not carry repair parts for the products they sell. They don't expect you to repair things; they expect you to buy replacements for them.
My wife, seeing that I was in a rather foul mood, thought she would solve the problem by making what she thought was a good suggestion. She made the second comment that changed my life and turned me into an asshole. It was just four magic words -- "Buy a new lawnmower." I wasn't going to spend two hundred dollars because a ten dollar part broke. I made my feelings on the matter quite clear.
I don't remember what we ate for dinner that night, but I do remember that I didn't enjoy it. I wasn't the only one who didn't enjoy dinner. My wife cried through the meal and the kids looked like they would rather be anywhere except there.
After dinner, I retreated to the living room while the wife closeted herself in the kitchen and the kids hid in their bedrooms. I sat in my chair thinking about our family budget, purchasing a new lawnmower, and the idea that we had to change the way we lived in order to survive the upcoming economic upheaval when the housing market turned to mud. I could only imagine how bad the economy could get, but I did know that our personal finances were in dire shape.
Don't get me wrong -- my wife and I made good money. I was bringing in a little over 80K and she was bringing in almost 60K. One would think that we would be able to afford a new lawnmower without much difficulty. The fact is that we would have had to put it on a credit card.
I had followed my Dad's advice and bought the biggest house that we could afford. He had convinced me that what had once been a third of our income would over the course of time be a tenth of our income. It wasn't working out that way. While our mortgage payment was relatively low, the property taxes had increased eightfold over the lifetime of our mortgage. What had been a horrible $1200 per year tax bill had turned into a $9600 per year extortion racket. After paying the mortgage and home repairs for fifteen years, it was still the biggest house we could afford. Replacing the roof had nearly killed us.
The house wasn't our only expense. Gasoline had jumped up to $4 a gallon. My wife was driving a gas guzzling SUV that ate up $90 dollars every week in gasoline in addition to the $300 a month lease. My car loan was only $250 a month and the car ate $60 every week in gasoline. Our teenage son had a car that we had purchased for very little money, but it was breaking down every other month and was costing us about as much as the wife's SUV in repair bills. It was amazing how much a new water pump, brakes, and an alternator cost. We were not only paying for the repairs, but we were also paying for his gasoline and insurance. Keeping an unemployed teenage boy behind the wheel of a car is not cheap.
We had a handful of other debts from past vacations, braces for the daughter, and the new furniture that my ex-wife had insisted was absolutely necessary. Our credit cards had gone from 6% interest to 28% over a three month period because of one late payment which my wife assured me could not have been late. Someone was lying about that and I didn't think it was my ex-wife.
The electric bill was nearly $400 a month. There were other monthly bills including four cell phones, cable television with the HD package, and broadband internet connectivity. Incidental purchases seemed to eat up nearly six hundred a month.
We were contributing 6% of our gross income into the 401K plan so that we could have some kind of retirement. Federal withholding, FICA, and state taxes ate up a significant portion of the paycheck. The company that I worked for had transfered some of the health insurance costs to the employees with the net result that my paycheck went down even though I got a raise.
We were hemorrhaging money as fast as we could make it. Like a lot of American couples, we were a few paychecks away from being poor. I wasn't sure if the guy on television knew what he was talking about concerning the potential crash of the real estate market. However, I knew that we weren't going to survive much longer financially without changing how we lived.
So there I was -- sitting in the living room in a rotten mood after spending most of the day trying to get parts to fix the lawnmower. Fixing the lawnmower wasn't going to be a problem. All I had to do was to find the part online and get it shipped to me. I would have to spend the next weekend replacing the broken part. Of course, that wouldn't get the lawn mowed that weekend.
The problem that I wrestled with that evening was coming up with some way to improve our financial situation. The one thing I knew that wouldn't work was to continue to do what we had been doing all along. I had one of those 'Eureka' moments and that was when I became an asshole.
Breaking out of my memories of that night, I turned to my drinking buddy and said, "Everyone knew what they had to do. It's just that no one wanted to do it."
"You're going to have to explain that one to me because I still don't what I should have done or what I can do now."
"I'll tell you what I planned to do," I said.
I said, "My plan was to get rid of everything that we could."
"Everything that was costing us money ... the house, cars, phones, entertainment ... I was going to get rid of everything. I was planning on downsizing in a major way," I answered.
"My wife would kill me if I suggested doing that."
My wife had been furious when I had laid out my plan to her. Everything that I said we needed to cut, she said was a necessity. Everyone absolutely had to have a cell phone because in the modern world a cell phone was a necessity. Life without cable television wouldn't be worth living. She didn't like the idea of having to drive a compact car when the lease on her SUV expired. She refused to sell the house because the children needed the educational benefits provided by the schools in our neighborhood.
My wife wasn't too thrilled about my suggestion that we sell off our son's car. She felt that he would be severely damaged emotionally if he had to ride his old bicycle to high school when all of his friends were driving cars. I didn't care about her feelings in the matter or my son's embarrassment. The boy was seventeen. I felt that he should have a part time job to cover the expenses of owning a car and to pay for his own dates.
The upshot of it all was that a month after I had announced my plan, I filed for a divorce when it became obvious that she wasn't going to support me in fixing our financial situation. When the divorce came through six months later, the house got sold off. Fortunately, it sold at the height of the house market. We had a ton of equity in it. As a result, the credit cards and loans got paid off with some money left over.
I said, "That's why my wife and I got divorced."
"You divorced your wife because she didn't want to go along with your plan?"
My drinking buddy looked at me like I was pond scum. He couldn't believe that I would divorce my wife because she wasn't willing to go along with my plan. I'm sure that he believed that I could have compromised a little, but I wasn't willing to back off an inch on my plan.
"That's right," I answered.
"Didn't you love her?"
"Yes. I still love her, but that didn't stop me from divorcing her," I answered.
"You are a bastard."
"According to my ex-wife, I'm an asshole. There's a difference," I said correcting him.
"Didn't the divorce cost a fortune?"
"I came out ahead. We sold the house for a very good price. I moved into a much cheaper place. I dropped the cable television, the broadband internet, and the fancy cell phones. I stopped going out occasionally for dinner and started taking my lunches to work. I paid off the credit cards and all of the outstanding loans. I sold my mid size car and bought a used compact car. I reduced my insurance coverage on the cars," I answered.
Until the divorce was final and the house was sold, my wife, our kids, and I lived in the house together. It was not a fun period of my life. My wife called me every name in the book, but the one that stuck was 'Asshole.' My son gave me the middle finger every time he saw me. My daughter spent all of her time in her bedroom. I ignored all of the little jabs and went on with my business.
The day the house was sold, I moved into a low-end efficiency apartment. It wasn't located in the best neighborhood in town, but it actually wasn't that bad of place either. At least the rent was cheap, and no one vandalized my car or stole anything out of my apartment.
I started saving every dime that I could. I watched broadcast television rather than cable television. I went to the library to use their internet instead of paying for my own. My rent was lower than the taxes on the old house had been. By playing some games with the thermostat, my electric bill was under $40 a month. Sure the apartment was a little chilly when it was cold and a little warm when it was hot, but I dressed appropriately. I ended up keeping the cell phone with a pay for use plan, but I never got a land line. There was only one month when my cell phone bill reached ten dollars. I wasn't very popular and it seemed no one wanted to call me.
I got rid of my credit cards and debit cards. Bills got paid by check and everything else was cash. I was amazed to discover how little items contributed to our monthly expenses. It was little things like six dollars a day for lunch and three dollars a day for coffee. It was ten dollars for one thing and twenty dollars for another. Those little things added up over the course of a month. I stopped spending those little amounts of money. All of a sudden three hundred dollars a month were staying in my bank account that used to just disappear.
My wife didn't fare nearly as well as I did. Initially she tried to maintain the same standard of living, but her salary along with my child support barely covered the bills. She figured out very quickly that some aspects of her lifestyle had to be cut back. All of a sudden, she started being a lot more discerning when it came to deciding what was essential. She started eating into the money that was left over from the sale of the house, but so far she hadn't used all that much of it.
In a way, I felt that my kids were learning the most as a result of the divorce. The money tit had dried up. My son started working part time to pay for his gasoline, car repairs, and insurance. My daughter got a part time job to earn some money towards getting her own car when she got old enough to drive. I would have loved to have seen the looks on their faces when they saw the taxes that had been taken out of their paychecks. Of course, I was persona non gratis with regard to them.
My drinking buddy asked, "How could you have come out ahead on the deal?"