Redefining success; redesigning our lives
Here in middle-class America, there’s a formula you’re supposed to follow in order to be considered a successful adult. With only minor variations, you’re expected to:
get a college degree,
find a lucrative career,
buy a house,
fill it with stuff,
and have kids
… all while continuing to work at that same career until (sometime in your mid-sixties) you can afford to retire. Those of us in ‘Generation X’ took our early lessons from the boardgame Life, with its little pink and blue people-pegs in plastic cars that followed exactly that course.
That early programming sits there, largely unexamined, in the back of everyone’s head. Even if you make a conscious choice to route yourself around some part of the preordained path — maybe you skip the church wedding, or resolve not to have kids — the rest of the success script is still influencing every major life decision.
Which is to a large extent how I found myself in my mid-thirties with a de facto husband, two stepkids, a house full of ‘nice’ possessions, and a corporate career. And why, when I had all of those things, I felt like I could finally call myself a success.
But although I felt accomplished, I certainly wasn’t happy. The truth is that the career part has never really worked out for me, or for Jak. Despite repeated attempts, neither of us have ever thrived in a corporate environment. The best I’ve managed is ‘temporarily bearable’, and my condition has more often been ‘full-on miserable’. The day in October 2008 that I was fired from my job? I had spent that morning at my doctor’s office, getting a prescription for anti-anxiety medication so I could make it through the panic attacks I was suffering almost every morning before work.
For his part, Jak has only ever really wanted to do one thing, and that’s write novels. My enthusiasms are broader, and include design, illustration, and non-fiction writing as well … but not in the ways and for the reasons that corporations want to pay for.
In short, we both want to be self-employed artists.
There’s one good way to be a self-employed artist, and that’s to have a working spouse who is happy to fully support you. Clearly that’s not going to happen for us.
We know a lot of writers, and even the fantastically successful ones still have other jobs, by and large. The ones who are making a living writing fiction now didn’t just jump in; they spent fifteen or twenty years cramming writing around their day jobs and family life, until the trickle of royalties from dozens of prior publications finally added up to something substantial.
Jak is more of a dreamer; I’m more of a pragmatist. So every time Jak broaches the subject of quitting his job to write novels, my brain calls up a mental model of the economic realities. For quite a few years now, it’s looked something like this:
In this graph, purple is our approximate annual expenses — given our best efforts at thrift, in our current location — and green is the amount of reliable income from self-directed work.
As you can see, there’s at minimum a $60,000 gap between what we absolutely needed and what we could reasonably count on making from our artistic pursuits. Which is why every time Jak would mention his desire to write for a living, I would respond with — well, a sympathetic shrug at best, and irritated grousing at worst. It just wasn’t even close to realistic, so yearning after it did no one any good.
Last winter, the picture started to change. Once we decided to jettison the house and go back to renting, our future situation looked something like this:
Now the disparity was down to maybe as little as $35,000. Something that a part-time job might bridge, if the idea of a part-time job in either of our careers weren’t completely ludicrous. (Of course the kind of jobs that do come in part-time flavors pay much, much less.)
But that wasn’t the end of it. In the past few years, some economically interesting things have been happening in the world of publishing, what with ebooks and all. My conservative estimate of income from writing and other creative pursuits ticked upward. Also, with a larger pool of savings, we’d have the option of withdrawing perhaps as much as a few thousand dollars per year, even before official retirement age.
So then my mental graph started to look more like this:
Still a gap of at least $15k per year — but now we were out of the realm of ‘laughably absurd’ and into ‘merely impossible’.
And there, about a year ago, is where we made a sharp left turn. We decided to consciously set aside society’s idea of success, and look for a way to succeed on our own terms.
We didn’t quite wake up one day and decide to chuck our entire life plan out the window. But we did change course surprisingly fast, over a span of just a few weeks.
We had already — in part out of necessity, but also out of a pointed ethical reconsideration — become increasingly comfortable with eschewing the possession-centric, consumer-driven lifestyle that’s part of the price of admission to the upper-middle class.
Now, in choosing to abandon both our house and the entire idea of owning property, we had put ourselves firmly and irrevocably off the accepted path. Having gone that far, we started to seriously discuss — to stretch the metaphor just a little bit farther — the possibility of driving right off the game board altogether.
Going back to the graph: expenses are generally easier for us to control than income. But we’d already tightened those belts about as far as they could go. Rent accounts for well over half our total budget. Because of shared custody, we don’t have the option of moving more than a few miles in any direction.
As long as we were both supporting a child and tied to Seattle, that gap wasn’t going to get appreciably smaller. But in just a few years, our final fledgling would be leaving the nest. At that point we could conceivably move … anywhere.
So the question became: is there anyplace we could go — that wouldn’t be intolerable for other reasons — that would allow us to bridge the income-expense gap and do work that didn’t make us miserable?
I set about finding out.
To make a long story … um, slightly less long, I found one place that looked particularly promising: the Lake Chapala area of central Mexico — a series of small towns along the north shore of Mexico’s largest lake, about 45 minutes from Guadalajara.
Based on my best research, if we moved to Chapala, we could realistically expect our graph to look something like this:
Not a guarantee of success, but at least a reasonable probability. This could be our path to a happier way of life.
Of course, I was trying to evaluate the feasibility of living in an area I’d never even visited, in a country with which I had only passing familiarity. Lots of room for error there.
Which is why next week Jak and I will be heading down to Mexico to test-drive the expense side of the plan. We’re going to live in the Chapala area for a full month — not as tourists, but as much like residents as possible. We’ll take the local buses and shop in the local markets and see if the two of us really can live there, happily, on less than $2000 per month.
What this means for Pocketmint is a month of personal finance, Mexican-style. It should be pretty different from anything you’ll be reading anywhere else. I hope you’ll come along for the ride!