Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (1b/18) — Chapter 1, Thrift (Part 2)

By RAHN ADAMS

MORGANTON, N.C. (Aug. 16, 2019) – When the preacher prompted me to promise, “For richer or poorer,” almost 37 years ago, he wasn’t kidding.

Ever since we retired three years ago, we’ve been cutting back on just about everything, learning to do without many of the things we had taken for granted during our working lives when regular paychecks were coming in.

It used to be that I didn’t even bother balancing our checkbook; I just glanced at the account balance whenever I hit the ATM for cash. If that balance was within a few hundred dollars of what I thought it should be, I wasn’t worried.

Right now, some of you are horrified. How could I have been so blasé about our personal finances? Others of you are asking, “What’s a checkbook? And how do you balance it?”

Well, now I balance our checkbook (a rectangular, pocket-sized, plastic- or leather-covered pad of printed bank forms that are filled out by an authorized account holder and traded for goods or services in lieu of cash). When the monthly bank statement arrives in the mail—yes, the old-fashioned way, not on a smartphone app—I go over it in detail to make sure everything agrees, at least to the dollar.

DESPITE THE ADDED EXPENSE, we’ve decided to replace these popular brands of coffee on our shelves with fair-trade brands.

I never wanted to be a money-grubber, but the poverty of retirement and all that has accompanied our lives of, uh, leisure have forced me to become one. For each of the past two years, over 40 percent of our income went to pay medical bills—and we have “good” insurance. But thanks to changes in the tax laws, we still had to send big checks both years to the N.C. Department of Revenue and the IRS.

I now understand why tax collectors were despised in Bible times and why they occupy an inner circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno. Before we retired, I was ambivalent toward them, in general, and even knew one who claimed that I was his best friend. No longer. Tax men do the devil’s work.

And then there are all those big checks that we write on a yearly or semi-annual basis to pay property tax assessments and insurance premiums for every possible calamity that ultimately won’t be covered. The part-time jobs that we work now basically pay those bills and put gas in our old van. I haven’t had to dip into savings lately to feed ourselves and our two cats.

That isn’t an exaggeration. Scout and Jem like to eat, and they demand—well, Scout does, anyway—the good stuff. No kidding. We spend more now on wet and dry cat food than we did for our lunches of single frozen burritos each and every day back when we worked. You laugh, but just ask any of the gals who ate lunch every day with Timberley on the Career and Technical Education hall. In my classroom upstairs, I worked through lunch and ate my burrito alone. Or sometimes with Cholula Hot Sauce (no, that wasn’t the saucy Spanish teacher across the hall).

A couple of years ago when we started having money troubles—well, not troubles exactly, but maybe serious financial considerations—we decided to cash in, literally, some of the financial assets we had been holding onto for decades. I’m referring, of course, to all the coffee cans full of loose change we’d accumulated and had begun using to hold up a wall of homemade shelves for CDs (compact discs, not certificates of deposit), cassettes, DVDs and even VHS tapes. The girls at our bank got tired of seeing us walk in every day or two with those Maxwell House, Folgers and Café Caribe cans in hand.

We’ve also tried to be more deliberate in our consumption of all things. My doctor says I’m a borderline diabetic, so I’m trying to lose weight and keep my blood sugar under control by observing a low-sugar, low-carbohydrate, low-salt diet. I’ve lost about 30 pounds so far this calendar year, but for the past few months I’ve been stranded on the same plateau of plumpness. I still look fat, just not as fat as before.

We haven’t had cable TV since the digital transition in 2009. That was when we stopped paying cable companies for crappy service and started my quest for the holy grail of over-the-air TV antennas. I’ve spent so much money on new and different antennas that we could have kept watching ESPN and The Hallmark Channel until at least the start of President Obama’s second term. That digital TV transition, by the way, is one of the few things I still hold against him. Why? I guess I’m an analog kind of guy.

So even though we can’t watch cable channels (without paying to stream them over the Internet, which we’ve done before), we receive anywhere from about 20 over-the-air TV channels in Boone to almost 60 free channels in Morganton, depending on the season of the year and on current weather conditions. Despite our neighborhood’s elevation above sea level—over 3,000 feet—TV reception in our hollow in the Rutherwood community outside Boone is understandably more iffy than at our other house, which is on relatively high ground, but much closer to sea level, in one of Morganton’s historic districts.

In Rutherwood, having leaves on all the deciduous trees from April to October means we can’t watch WXII Channel 12 out of Winston-Salem, but we can pull in the more distant High Point, Greensboro and Burlington stations. Go figure. We aren’t complaining, though, because back in November 1998 when we moved into that house and before we sprang for cable TV, we could barely pick up one snowy analog channel (CBS 2). In Morganton, we now receive all the stations in the Charlotte and Asheville broadcast markets year round, along with the Hickory station’s six streams and Linville’s four channels.

Also, we’re currently trying to sort out our telephone and home Internet needs. When we were working, we paid monthly bills for two landlines (one with all the frills after a crazy student and his friends spent an entire weekend making prank calls at a time when we couldn’t set the phone off the hook), two DSL home Internet accounts with WiFi, and at least two cellphones. Without going into all the details, we’re thinking we don’t need either landline and that we can live without the DSL service. But the cellphones, or at least one smartphone for Timberley to use and an empty coffee can on a string for me, are absolute necessities in this day and age. Right?

Well, we’ll see. There’s a fine line between being thrifty and just being cheap.

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