How Much Money Is Actually Enough?

Michelle Blake on what it took for her to do the math, stop feeling financially strapped and start counting her blessings

by Michelle Blake
balloon tied to money image
Photograph: Dan Saelinger

In my early thirties, I did not marry a wealthy man, but I did marry a talented writer who for a while made good, if sporadic, money on his novels. Our income flow during this time was like one long roller-coaster ride, swoops and dips, year after year. We had two children, and I was in graduate school while they were small, so my own contributions were minimal. When my husband sold a book, we had no money worries; other times we did nothing but worry about money.

Unfortunately, this now-you-see-it-now-you-don't economic plan was a perfect match for my peekaboo relationship with finances. Especially in the lean years, I couldn't look at the bottom-line number in our checkbook. I knew it wasn't enough. I lived in a state of low-grade panic, filled with fear that we would never have enough—at least not until a tidal wave of money crashed over me, at which point I would look around and see nothing but limitless cash. And that might, finally, be enough.

Enough. It's an interesting notion.

People can tee-hee all they want about 12-step programs, but AA and similar groups have saved the lives of many people I love. The only thing I find laughable is that so few Americans are members, given our national confusion about what is enough—rich enough, thin enough, full enough. At some point, one of those loved ones handed me a pamphlet from Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step program for people whose confusions about enough rival my own. I never attended a meeting, but I read the material, and I started to practice some of the suggestions.

First, I began to write down what I spent every day. Even during income dips, I could drop $100 in a period of a few hours: lunch with a friend, $15; a haircut, $40; flip-flops for the family, $32; treats after school, plus gel pens, $13. Bingo.

Once I gained some insight into my thoughtless spending habits, I was able to make a plan. We would take a certain amount of cash each week and sort it into labeled envelopes: groceries; order out/dine out; movies. My husband and I did this for a couple of years, until we actually knew what we were spending.

Meanwhile, once my children got older, I returned to teaching and also made a little money on my own novels. This helped to stabilize our income. My husband is a whiz with a paintbrush and a hammer, so we were able to sell our first house for more than we'd paid. The gains went straight into our second house, and we kept them there and didn't borrow against them.

In other words, slowly, slowly I stopped waiting for the tidal wave of cash. By following the suggestions from Debtors Anonymous and other folks wiser than I was, I discovered that there is some logic to personal finance. For instance, it helps to make as much as you spend. This is called living within your means. Once you have grasped that concept, it's good to begin to spend a little less than you make and put the minuscule remains in a separate account, where over time they start to add up. This is called saving money.

And, most recently, I have been trying to figure out what I mean by enough. In this effort, I've found it helpful to step back and look at the big picture.

According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 the poverty threshold for a family of four, including two children under the age of 18, was $22,113, which averages out to $5,528.25 per person a year.

More than 46 million Americans lived in poverty in 2010, the highest number since measurement began in 1959.

Of those, 16.4 million were children, meaning that 22 percent, or more than one fifth, of all the children in this country lived in poverty in 2010.

These numbers led me to a simple realization: Call it luck, fate, God or the games people play, but on a medium-bad day, my life and the lives of the people I love are safer, wealthier and more padded from despair than the lives of 75 percent of my fellow Americans. As it turned out, I was the one with more dollars than sense.

In the big picture, we didn't have enough. We had more than enough.

Money lunacy is a luxury item I can no longer afford. The facts demand clear-sightedness, gratitude and a willingness to share. I wish I could say I've achieved all these states permanently and now have no fiscal confusion. But that would be a lie.

First Published November 23, 2011

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