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When Unexpected Expenses Prompt an Existential Crisis

When Unexpected Expenses Prompt an Existential Crisis

By Mir Kamin

I grew up with this notion that the goal of being a productive member of society is affording your own home. Because rent is just throwing away money and a house is an investment.

Yes. Well.

With the full admission that the following is the epitome of a first-world problem, this year I have not exactly been feeling blessed to own a home. More specifically: this spring/summer I have found myself longing for the good ol’ days when I was in school and shortly thereafter, when I rented and the solution to any problem was call someone else to deal with it. Not only could I call someone else, I didn’t have to pay for it! I mean, sure, I maybe had to wait for a fix, but still.

Perhaps we brought this on ourselves. I think I mentioned in the spring how my husband decided we should Make The House Look Good before our oldest graduated from high school, and thus began a flurry of home improvement tasks. That was fine—I mean, it was our choice, and we knew (theoretically) what we were getting into—and so we bought several tons of landscaping rocks and paid someone to clean and stain our deck and fence, and then of course there was The Bathroom Project. (The bathroom is lovely. It also still has a broken drawer in the brand-new cabinet. I don’t want to talk about it.) We shelled out a fair amount of money but were deliberate in our choices. Responsible home ownership! Look at us go!

I was nervous about the money. This is because I am always nervous about money. This is also because I am a ridiculous, neurotic human, because we are comfortable and also careful with our spending. We budgeted, we went ahead with the repairs/improvements, and everything was fine.

Over the summer, the Home Ownership deities had the last laugh. First one air conditioning unit stopped working, then just a few weeks after that was fixed, the other. (Mind you, I am glad for the southern custom of having two HVAC systems in two-story homes, otherwise we would’ve been very uncomfortable during the outages.) Then—for good measure—the AC in one of our cars went out, too. My garden was besieged by squirrels and fungus this summer, so the bounty of free (because gardening is totally free, haaaaaaaaaaaaa) produce we usually enjoy was a bust. One of the outside spigots sprung a leak. A tree fell over in our yard. Our oven freaked out and started beeping non-stop in the middle of the night for no discernible reason, and although it seems to be fine now, I’m pretty sure it’s just… waiting. There was the predictable last-minute flurry of shopping in packing a kid off to her first dorm experience.

I was managing. I mean, it’s been a pretty expensive summer, but okay. Stuff happens.

Yesterday, I walked into the little bathroom off my office and I tripped. Understand, I’m capable of tripping on dust motes, so this was unremarkable… and yet, I felt like I’d tripped on… something. I flipped the light on and examined the floor. I rocked my feet back and forth. While there was no water I could actually feel, the floor felt swollen and soggy. The Pergo—which we just put in last year, after 8 years of my office being the “eh, we’ll get to it eventually” room—was curling at the edges. Something was leaking underneath, obviously. My husband not only came home early to investigate, he went into the crawlspace to do so (hero points, right there), and although he located the issue, we do need a plumber to come fix it. But the plumber can’t come until later this week, so we just shut the water off to the bathroom for now. It’s not clear yet if we will need to replace the floor (or how much of it we’ll need to replace, I guess). And this morning I discovered nibbled edges on the candy stash in my office closet. Because of course we apparently now have mice, too. (I want to say “a mouse.” The damage is small, and there is no evidence of mice in the kitchen or pantry, thank goodness, but I also know that there is never just a single mouse.)

The plumber is coming. Pest control is coming.

We can afford what needs to be done, and in that sense we are very lucky. Also lucky: I have been doing a lot of volunteering lately instead of working, because we can afford it, and because the older and hippy-er I get, the more I want to give back to my community, and because with less than a year left at our local high school, this is my swan song of service before I’m done.

Every unexpected expense throws me into a tailspin of guilt, though. I should be working more, I think, because here’s all these expenses and I’m not earning nearly what I could. What happens when something really big happens and we don’t have the money for it? This is me catastrophizing, not anything based in reality, though of course the reality of catastrophes is that they’re always possible, and overwhelming by definition (you’re welcome). For everyday home-owner annoyances, our finances will be okay whether I work or not. For catastrophic ones, well, maybe more money will help, maybe not. The bigger issue is that I feel like I should be doing more, even during times when I’m already doing too much.

After I groused for a while about this to a very patient listener, she asked me, “So what, exactly, is the amount of money you need to earn in a year to feel like you have a right to exist?” I didn’t have an answer, but then, perhaps that was the point. I feel unworthy when I’m not making “enough” money, but 1) my worth as a human is not tied to my salary and 2) “enough” is not a quantifiable target.

I don’t know if this is a female thing, or a mom thing, or just a me thing. I know all the recent expenses have exacerbated my natural tendency to fret about this stuff, but I also know the amount of time I spent self-flagellating over whether or not my income is “okay” is… not normal. I have one year left before both kids are out of the house and I don’t want to spend it worrying about money (especially because it’s not necessary).

So: Now all I have to do is figure out how I calm the heck down. I’m open to suggestions.

Photo source: Depositphotos/auntspray


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Mir Kamin
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Melanie

    I know the feeling. I’m currently on maternity leave with baby #2, and my husband recently applied for a job overseas. At this particular location, it will be difficult to get a job in my career field, not to mention clearing the hurdle of working at all in a foreign country. With two kids under 3 and quality daycare scarce in that area, it would make complete sense for me to transition to being a stay-at-home mom. And yet, I feel like my worth in our family would somehow go down by “only” staying at home. Lots of moms do it, and I know from experience that taking care of the kids all day is way more difficult than going to work (for my current job, at least)! But I also know that this would be an amazing experience for our family, and looking back I’ll be glad that I took this time “off” to spend with my kids when they’re little. But I definitely understand the feeling of self worth being tied to income/job status, even if it’s mostly self-imposed…

    • Elizabeth

      I work 2 days out of the home, and I can tell you– those 2 days feel like my weekend! There are lots of moms in my circles who stay home full time, and I get comments like “too bad your husband isn’t on board for you to stay home… I understand you’re caring for a parent, as well; that must be expensive….” The truth is that we chose for me to work for two reasons: my mental health and in order to avoid having to reenter the workforce at a lower salary after a gap. My part-time income (net) covers childcare but not a lot more. That said, I think future employers would be more understanding of “I was out of the country for my husband’s work” than “I stayed home to care for a child.” (Not saying that’s right, just that it is.) Child raising is relentless! I hope there is a way for you to have a break each week, even if you are full-time at home.

    • Felicity

      We did exactly this when our first was a baby, for a year…and it was far more lucrative than me going back to work because of the housing, car, and living allowances. Do the math, put a value on it and then
      enjoy the experience!

  • Susie

    Ugh, you have sung the song of my people. We have hit marginally survivable fiscal crisis after crisis this summer, I say from our new house with my two week old, kindergartener, and sick husband. I keep wishing I had income to alleviate the mini crisis landslide, but it would cost too much to have me out of the house. Argh argh argh. “How much to feel like you have the right to exist” indeed.

  • cla517

    I am constantly terrified about money. Both hubby and I work FT, we can pay our bills, but due to some really stupid decisions earlier in our marriage (F— credit cards), we don’t save much. If you figure out how to calm down, please let me know!

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  • Selena Luna

    I have to say, I rent and waiting for someone to come and fix stuff is way, way worse than just calling someone from a service, from my perspective. I live in housing owned by the school where I work, and when something that I can’t fix goes wrong, I’m meant to contact the housing department via a work request. This meant that three Decembers ago, I waited for a week for someone to help me light my pilot light before trial and erroring my way through it. Trial and error in lighting a pilot light. I’m lucky I didn’t explode. The next year, the furnace started making a horrible screeching noise, so I contacted housing again and waited for two weeks this time (I was told that it wasn’t a priority because the heat still worked). I eventually replaced the broken belt myself, and called the department supervisor when this still didn’t work. Finally, something was done about it, and it works, but it was a VERY cold 3 weeks in January.

    I have annual plumbing problems because they won’t replace the pipes causing the problems… every single spring… for the last 15 years. My sink hasn’t had a drain (It’s draining into a bucket that I empty right now) for 6 months because 6 months ago, they “fixed” the problem, and I can’t get them to come back. They claim this is because of my dog, but they won’t give me enough notice to put him somewhere where he won’t bother them.

  • Lori O

    I can’t help you. For the first time in my life, I am making what I would call “enough” money. (By enough I mean enough that we can afford what we need to afford, and we still can sock a little away. Not a LOT, by any stretch. But enough! The angels sing.) I never thought it would happen. EVER. But it has happened. And now? All I do, 24-7, is worry about how it’s going to be taken away from me: I’ll get laid off (every time my boss speaks with less than the softest of voices to me, that one goes into overdrive), they’ll reduce my salary (it could happen), I’ll want or NEED to leave where I am and will have to take a drastic pay cut…and THEN where will we be? In other words, even when there’s “enough”? You worry about it going away. At least I do.

    In short: Neuroses. Embrace them. We don’t really have a choice. We certainly can’t get rid of them.