It’s taken two years to get here. I’ve skirted the edges of this reckoning so long I know every stitch in its hem. Now I sit in front of a screen, a calculator, and a pile of paperwork to ask the question straight out.
Can we make it on my salary?
I asked the same question back in 2012 when the house hunt began. The answer was a definitive “no.” Buying this home was a hard push into a choppy sea. I did the full assessment then and knew that my income would fall short. To cover our expenses over the long haul, I’d need to earn more.
I also knew that it was the right time and place to make that push. This condo is in my son’s school district, near his dad and my parents, close to the metro, and tucked into a neighborhood where we can walk and play safely. We had been living with my folks for three years and had saved just enough cash to launch.
Even understanding the danger of the optimism bias, I decided to trust in our capacity to create new opportunities. A couple of other factors nudged this trust into action. One was that the window was closing fast — interest rates and home costs were rising while inventories were shrinking, and this place was a great fit at an almost-manageable price. Another was that I had to admit out loud that I am the lucky owner of education, skills, a supportive family, proximity to a strong job market, and a well of determination whose depth I was only just beginning to grasp. My cozy little port of self-doubt and hopelessness still felt safe but it was beginning to rot.
So I headed out of the shallows.
When I hit land again, the sail that had carried us there freed itself from the rigging and floated down around me. It covered the terrain with its ripped and unraveling seams, its ragged opacity. Since then, I’ve only peeked through those holes at what crawls around underneath. I’ve been too shaken by the place I found myself — and honestly, too consumed with making hard strides through it — to pull back that fabric.
Because I can.
The 100 Things I Can exercise has taught me this: every task, every challenge, every desire I consider beyond my capacity is actually within reach. Some may demand too much investment — Iet’s be honest: the work required to become a cardiac surgeon at this point is more than I’m willing to take on — but at least I see a way.
These 100 Things have also given me pause to notice how quickly I say “no” when something big swells up on the horizon. Each is an opportunity to turn to towards it and ask straight on, “What would it take?” I may accept the challenge or I may steer clear. In either case, I’m learning oh-so-slowly how to make that choice a considered one rather than one that comes from the deadly comfort of habit’s padded cell.
Over the past year, I’ve taken on two teaching gigs, a writing project, an executive search, and two additional graduate programs. All of this is on top of the full time responsibilities of my job. Every new pursuit has felt like crossing the Atlantic on a raft. But oh, how strong these arms are now!
The raise that’s accompanied this growth is meager. Nonetheless, it is enough that I have to circle back around to that limp sail still hiding the ground under our feet.
Can we make it on my salary?
What I find there will probably be hard to face. Honestly, the question scares the pants off of me, which is why I’ve avoided it for so long. My pay now is about as good as it gets with my education in my industry. If it turns out we are living beyond our means, then I have to make some serious and difficult (and yay exciting I remind myself) changes. We are just us, Bug and me. I am the one at the helm of this family. My career, his education, my retirement, his best shot in this life. For the future as far as we can see, my choices are THE choices that determine our fate.
Again, this: I can. I can write a new map for us. I can learn new skills to get us going. I can handle so much more than I ever knew. I can certainly handle the answer to this question.
So I ask.
And now I sit.
Before this calculator, this screen, this heap of financial documents, I sit and pull back the sheet. I assess the rough terrain of this place we find ourselves.
What is under there is indeed hard to face.
After all the essentials — food, shelter, health care, child care, car expenses, utilities, all the stuff that keeps us clicking along — we have $120 left.
That’s $120 per month to cover all the rest.
Here is what “all the rest” includes:
Clothes, shoes, gifts, eating out, games, toys, furniture, art & craft supplies, outdoor gear, birthdays and Christmas and every other holiday, snacks, plants for the garden, travel, postage, home improvement, festivals, subscriptions of any kind, eyeglasses, accessories, fitness classes, donations, electronics, books, and entertainment of any sort.
$120 per month.
That number is a choke collar. My head throbs. My hands clench. I try to pull the cover back over but that only tightens the grip.
Until I pause and notice something. See where that wretched little number stands? To the left of the asset line.
I feel for the knot at my throat and tug it loose. I open my chest for breath.
For the first time since this whole single-parent-working-mama journey began, my assets are greater than my debts.
I let the number sit still there for a moment, then I take it in my hands. It is a size I can bear. It is a gift after all, and I repeat this truth to myself: We can make it on my salary.
We can. For now, for as long as we need to, we can make it. As I sort myself out for the next project, we can make it.
It is going to kick our asses to do it. The kiddo will learn to live with hand-me-down jackets and weekends at the park. I will grow my hair wild and invite friends over for coffee. I will keep the lines firm in my grip. Through these unmapped waters, I will hold the boat steady.
While I’m here at the helm, I can start looking up.
The horizon there may be a shore, after all.
And there is always the sky.
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