The sober statement that “we need to have a family meeting” foreshadowed bad news for several reasons. First, we were not the type of family that had formal sit-down meetings. We were casual, informal, and the very thought that news needed to be communicated around a table suggested that something bad or terrible had occurred. Second, the tone with which the news was delivered was unusually stern and unsettling.
Smiles were the rule in our house, laughter was contagious, and the look on my father’s face as he demanded the meeting was altogether foreign and fraught with trepidation. If my father was worried then there was cause for worry among all of our family members. Finally, as we sat down to the meeting, my father carried with him a pen and a small notebook.
He opened the notebook as we took our places at the table and he clicked the pen to begin writing. I glanced at the notebook and saw that he had written the words “monthly budget.” He set down the pen and said to open the family meeting that Ï have lost my job and until I can find a new job we have to make some changes around here.”
I was absolutely shocked. We had never imagined my father without a job, we had always taken our comfortable standard of living for granted and then we were suddenly faced with the prospect of not having our basic needs met. My mother cried and I waited to find out what would happen.
In retrospect, this was probably the defining moment in my family’s existence. It was a test for all of us, not simply for my father, and we all contributed to preserving the family despite the obstacles caused by an unexpectedly jobless caregiver. At that meeting, for example, we set out a monthly budget for the family and then monthly budgets for the family members.
All of us promised to make sacrifices until my father found a new job and it soon became apparent as we brainstormed how much money we wasted on a monthly basis. We ate things that contributed little to our sustenance. We rented excessive numbers of movies when other means for entertainment were readily available.
What I learned from this intimate family tragedy, and the thesis of this family memoir, is that modern families spend far too much money and fail to properly plan for emergencies. Providing for basic necessities, in short, is a far nobler goal than spending money for the sake of spending when little or no value is secured in return for this type of indiscriminate spending.
The first thing that my father did, after assuring us that he would immediately begin looking for a new job, was to outline in his notebook the purchases that we could not do without. He wrote down such things as rent, food, and electricity. Rather than assuming these as fixed necessities, however, he instead asked how we might cut our expenses with respect to these expense categories.
I admired my father for the way that he solicited or opinions as important members of the family unit, rather than dictating new rules and practices, and gradually we all began to come up with new ideas. Food was an area where out family had effectively overspent for years. In reality, human beings need nothing more than nutritional meals. We promised to eliminate junk food from our diet and to eliminate unnecessary trips to the local fast food restaurants and ice cream parlors.
We needed, to be sure, nothing more than the grains, fruits, and vegetables that we all learned about in the elementary school’s food pyramid lesson. My father calculated some eating practices on the notepad and it soon became apparent that we had been spending more on unnecessary dietary purchases than on necessary purchases. Together, we calculated that we could save a significant amount of money by eating healthier and more simply. The same conclusion could be drawn after examining our monthly electricity and leisure expenses.
We all promised not to use the electricity for unnecessarily long periods of time and to reduce the purchases of movies and magazines when we could secure the same entertainment functions by playing existing board games or playing basketball outside. It was a startling realization to discover that we spent a significant amount of money to entertain ourselves when we could have entertained ourselves without having spent a single penny. It costs nothing, to be sure, to walk to the neighborhood park and shoot a couple of baskets. It costs nothing to walk to the library and read more books than one might ever find in a commercial bookstore.
This new set of experiences and the attendant realizations reminded me of something read as part of a school assignment in which a writer named Henry David Thoreau observed that “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil?” (Thoreau 5).
My family learned through deprivation what Thoreau learned more than a hundred years ago about life in a competitive world. What we learned was that human beings create to a large extant their own financial dependence and that this painful cycle can be broken or tempered by living more basically. That my father would find a new job within the next two months did not cause my family to forget the lessons learned; quite the contrary, these are lessons that are deeply etched in my family’s collective memory and which are applied in our daily lives. Life, in sum, is complicated by false needs and the failure to live simply and modestly.
Thoreau, Henry D. Walden. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971. Questia. Web. 7 June 2010.