After this summer, Amanda will be a retired professor. At 56, she is young to be leaving teaching, but her colleagues who have preceded her into retirement are unanimous: “Do it! You’ll never regret it.” I believe they are right; I believe we will be glad we have made the decision to become farmers. But I’m scared about having less money to spend.
I will continue my legal practice from Longleaf Breeze. I’m fortunate that I can conduct my practice exclusively by telephone and Internet now, and I believe most (not all, but most) of my revenue will continue. The modest income we receive from advertising on our web sites will continue. And Amanda will begin collecting her pension from Samford when she is no longer working. Put all that together, however, and we’re looking at a roughly 30% pay cut.
We expect that both of us will opt to begin collecting Social Security at age 62. That’s six and seven years away, respectively. At that point, we expect the additional income from Social Security to help us with the income gap and remove some of the financial pressure. So realistically, we expect the greatest financial stress will come during this 6-7 year period during which our incomes will be decreased.
I must say at the outset that it seems a tad self-indulgent for me to be publicly agonizing over a 30% drop in our income when I know others are dealing with much worse. I know we’re going to be okay. Perhaps instead of saying as I did above that “I’m scared” about having less money, I should be saying that we will need to begin looking at money differently. And I believe the challenges we face are not unlike those others will face soon, so I have authorized myself to presume that you care about this.
Amanda and I have a shared narrative of pain dealing with money. When we first moved to the house where we have now lived for 26 years, we agreed to a large mortgage payment, and then Amanda lost her teaching position. Without appointment to do so, I became the money cop of our family, constantly reminding Amanda and our two children of what we could not afford to do, complaining about purchases already made that I thought extravagant, and generally making myself an unpleasant companion for everyone. Reacting to what she perceived as miserly behavior on my part, Amanda carefully worked to keep me in the dark about what she was spending, particularly things she bought for our children. Mercifully, that sordid chapter of our lives ended as our incomes increased, but the memory of that dynamic is still searing for both of us. We don’t want to go back anywhere near that place again.
So our focus is less about “how can we spend less money?” and more about “how can we maintain our love, joy, and affection for each other even while coping with a new financial reality?” This therefore becomes less a financial challenge and more a relationship challenge.
Whenever we talk about managing our money challenge, Amanda and I approach it differently. Her first thought is always about new sources of revenue, and mine is always about things we can do to spend less. We know that; we know that we always have these complementary philosophies, and we choose to view them as a strength of our marriage rather than a challenge to it. So as I think through this, I will think first as if I were Amanda and search for new revenue. I will then think as if I were Lee and search for ways to spend less. I will finish with the most important piece, how we can nurture our love even while coping with the new financial challenges we face.
How can we bring in more money? Amanda is a Qualified Administrator (QA) authorized to conduct the Intercultural Development Inventory. This is a hot area right now, so we know Amanda could market herself to companies and organizations who want to help their employees deal more sensitively and competently with people in and from other cultures. Her income from this work would be modest, at least at first, and it would divert her attention from what both of us believe will be a busy growing schedule at a time when my attention will already be diverted by my legal work. And for Amanda to remain certified as a QA, we expect she would soon be required to attend training events that would require expensive travel and high fees, so she would either need to do this in a big way or (eventually) not do it at all.
We know that we enjoy modest income from our web sites now, primarily from the ads that appear on them. As we build the readership of this site and my divorce site, we hope and expect that revenue would increase somewhat. However, this is the slowest of slow builds. It took my divorce site 7-8 years before it began to produce a reliable revenue stream, so we don’t hold out hope that we will see any instant increase in revenue from this new site. It takes time, naked women, or a lot of advertising, and neither of us is willing to do either of the latter, so in our case, it’s going to take time.
I could ramp up my legal practice. We’ve known for years that I could make more money by broadening my practice beyond its present narrow focus on divorcing couples who are able to be reasonably cooperative. However, that would divert even more of my attention from the work we need to be doing at the farm, and it would also require that I maintain some form of off-farm office. One of the advantages of the approach we are taking to the management of my legal practice at Longleaf Breeze is that the additional expense load of it is so small. To open up the practice to other work would force us to forfeit many of those advantages.
There remains a possibility that I could add some other service that could be conducted without opening an off-farm office. Both of us will remain open to that, but we have not hit on an appealing option yet.
Could we sell products from the farm? That’s certainly what our friends think we could do. One of our farming friends has recommended we grow a high-value vegetable like artichokes or asparagus. We’re not close-minded about it (remember, one of our three simple principles is that we don’t make allness statements), but our tentative assumption right now is that the poor soil at Longleaf Breeze is more suited to the subsistence farming we have planned to pursue (small crops, low-cost inputs, small yields, lots of personal attention) than to a volume commercial crop.
Knowing as we do the way muscadines and blueberries grow in our area, several of our city friends have suggested that we bottle wine commercially. Again, no allness statements, but we know the wine business is exceedingly tricky, so we would have to begin very slowly and feel our way, and we also know there are regulatory challenges that may make a small-scale winery almost impossible to operate successfully. So there you have it on the revenue side. Many options, each with some advantages and disadvantages, and none that you would say is sure to be a success.
How can we spend less money? First, let’s state the obvious: this is our long-term strategy, so we would be focusing on this even if money were not a challenge. Another of our three simple principles is that we are approaching but will never reach subsistence. And we have agreed that this will take the form of our working to spend less each year off the farm. To the extent we focus additional time and attention on reducing our spending, we would simply be speeding up the timetable for a process to which we’re already committed.
As I’ve already noted above, my business expenses will be dramatically lower. My revenue will be lower too, but our hope is that we will save more than we lose in revenue. I will not have the expense of an office, nor will I have the expenses that go with it like additional telephones, furniture, or Internet access. We will spend less money keeping up a 600 sq. ft. apartment than we spend now maintaining a 2300 sq. ft. house. We don’t yet know exactly how much less, but we know it will be less. We hope to spend dramatically less on electricity, for example, because we hope not to use the little window air conditioner in our apartment and because we will use our wood stove for heat.
We will save most of the crushing travel expense we have had recently shuttling between our home in Vestavia Hills and Longleaf Breeze, on average one round trip per week of 240 miles or so. And we will spend less money traveling to California to see our children and our grandchild, not because we want to curtail that travel but because we must.
Over time, we will pay less for food, of course, because we hope to raise more and more of it ourselves. But at the beginning of our learning curve, we will still be dependent of food we buy. It would be unrealistic to expect our food budget to decline dramatically anytime soon. What we can do, of course, is to concentrate on buying large volumes when prices are low and quality is high, and freezing, drying or canning for use later.
Neither of us will need to spend as much as we have in the past on clothing. Amanda will spend about as much as she ever has on grooming; I’m not going to try and take that one on, and if you do, please give me advance notice so I can be well out of firing range when you do. I cut my own hair and have no grooming expense, so there will no savings there.
As I have already told you near the end of this post, getting robust Internet service on the farm is a challenge. We can get satellite service, but we would be paying about what we’ve paid in the city for distinctly slower and stingier service. We’re going to try to get by on our cellular Internet service at first. If we can make that work, that will represent a small cost savings. Satellite TV service will cost a tad less, because we have agreed to forego HBO and Showtime, but we will probably spend most of the savings on beefing up our Netflix subscription.
We will also save some money on taxes and tithing, just because our income will be less.
How can our love survive and thrive? Okay, now we’re getting to what matters. Neither of us is a huge spender. Having two professional incomes has freed us up so both of us can spend pretty much whatever we want without worrying about money. It’s been nice, but we think it’s about to end. Fortunately or unfortunately, whether we like it or not, we will need to make more financial decisions together.
When I grew up, my father kept my mother in the dark about finances. He had money stuck here and there that she didn’t know about, and quietly built up savings while telling her they had nothing. I don’t have any desire to do that because it just wouldn’t feel right, and Amanda wouldn’t let me get by with it even if I wanted to. So we will need to find some way for us both to know how much each of us is bringing in and how much each of us is is spending. Yet at the same time we want to avoid having every conversation turn to money. What could be more dreary than that?
We will have to live with less spontaneity about money. For years, Amanda has had her checking account and I have had mine; I haven’t paid much attention to her spending, and she hasn’t worried much about mine. Now that will need to change. We may continue to maintain separate accounts, but neither of us will have the freedom to spend from them the way we did before. And credit cards will present all kinds of issues as well. We will need to have a good clear understanding about who can incur what charges on credit cards so nobody gets a big surprise.
I think we can make this work. I think it’s going to be harder than we now realize, but we will figure it out together.
Because of her teaching load, Amanda is having to forego posting on Longleaf Breeze until her classes adjourn. I hope that when she begins posting she will share with you her take on these financial issues. It will certainly be different from mine, and she will have insights about things I don’t understand. Her classes end in mid-May.