This reader story is from a longtime GRS reader Sumitha, who blogs at afineparent.com. Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income.
Ever miss the good ol' days when life seemed so much simpler? When happiness was a lot easier to access and contentment seemed to come naturally? To me, one of the most poignant and wistful memories is from the days when I was an undergrad student in India.
In the Indian culture, parents support their children through college. There are no “student jobs” for students to support themselves – their sole responsibility is to study well, get good grades, and land a great job. (That's the official parents' version. The students' version is to spend this time having as much fun as possible before getting saddled with the responsibilities of the real world.)
Anyway, I come from a middle-class family. Being the middle child, my college years overlapped with that of my sisters – first with my elder sister and then my younger sister. That meant that the allowance that my parents could afford to give us was rather meager.
But I didn't really think much about this then, because — well, that was the norm. Almost all my friends got pretty meager allowances too. There were two distinct classes of students – the “rich” and the “others.” We were the “others” and, for the most part, we were fine with it.
My allowance was Rs. 800 (approximately US $15) per month during the first couple of years and probably a little higher later. Out of that, about Rs. 600 – Rs. 650 would go to pay for my board (a small room that I shared with two others), electric bills and food bills. That left me roughly with Rs. 150 – Rs. 200 to pay for everything else – from books to birthday presents.
Now, the cost of living in India, especially 15 years back, was quite low. But even then, Rs. 200 (a little under US $4) did not go very far. Ever the resourceful, we had worked out all kinds of arrangements to stretch that Rupee. For expensive text books, we would pool in and buy one copy that all of us shared or took turns to keep it checked out of the library. We waited eagerly at the beginning of the term for lab schedules, to determine who we could share the mandatory lab and engineering supplies with (like everything else in life, sharing with some folks is a lot simpler than others). If someone was lucky enough to receive a motorcycle for her birthday, it was usually shared between several of us, sometimes as many as 10, to amortize the fuel (and repair) costs.
But for a foodie like me, the most cherished arrangement was the one I had with a few other foodie friends, united by our common disdain for what passed as food at the hostel.
Once or twice a month, four of us would each pool Rs. 3 per head, to buy a plate of “gobi manchurian” – a spicy snack made from cauliflower – from a street vendor. Each of us would get 3-4 florets of cauliflower (about 2 tablespoonfuls) in our share.
So, there we sat on the wide stairs leading up to the entrance of our hostel, a dinner plate in our hands with the usual inedible hostel fare. But for once we did not care about how much we loathed it, because our eyes feasted on those prized few pieces of the spicy gobi manchurian and our nostrils rejoiced in their exquisite smell. While the sun set somewhere on the horizon and a cool breeze blew, a hushed silence fell over the group as we relished our meals.
For those few moments, all was well with the world.
I have long forgotten the taste of that gobi manchurian, but to this day, I remember the feeling of pure, unadulterated joy it brought.
Fast forward about 12 years.
I had moved to the US and married by now. With advanced degrees in engineering, both my husband and I had landed above-average jobs and could afford to eat out any time we wanted.
I had sampled more cuisines than I could have named while sitting on the steps of my hostel during those dusk hours. I had discovered more delicacies than I even knew existed back then. I had traveled the world. I had seen a lot. I had tasted a lot. But nothing ever came close to providing the pure joy – the touch-that-spot-in-your-soul feeling – that the Rs. 3 gobi manchurian provided.
In my moments of retrospection, I couldn't help but wonder, how something that cost Rs. 3 – approximately 6 cents, for crying out loud! – could have offered me such deep satisfaction. With our dual income, we had bought a lot of comfort and luxuries that I really appreciated and enjoyed. But none of it was ever quite the same as the simple, deep-down joy brought by those few gobi manchurian florets.
The journey up (or was it down?)
During the course of those 12 years when I had gone from a broke student in a developing country to a DINK in one of the most flourishing economies, a lot more had changed. I had gone from a starry-eyed optimist to a seasoned cynic.
While I used to cuss a lot as an undergrad student because I thought it was cool, I did so now with real angst and frustration. While I measured how successful any given year of my undergrad was in terms of how much fun I had, I now measured my success solely in terms of how much more money I made. While I was thrilled earlier to finally own an old hand-me-down motorcycle that spent as much time in the repair shop as it did with me, I now didn't even bat an eyelid as I discussed the purchase of my new state-of-the-art gas-guzzling SUV.
Search as I might, it was hard to find even a few handful of moments of sheer happiness and pure joy. My life now was a continuous rerun of – wake up, go to work, stress out, get back, eat dinner, work some more or watch TV, stress out some more and repeat it all over again the next day – with a lot of complaining/cursing and a few expensive trinkets/vacations sprinkled in.
And then, one day, we got a wake-up call.
With my husband in the emergency room, and me waiting outside with our 2-year-old daughter, feeling numb and incredulous, I was forced to face just how fragile our little world was — and how absurdly lacking in substance it had become. It was time to take a deep, hard look at what life had come to, and to do something about it.
The next two years were a slow progression from a murky muddle of confusion to slowly finding clarity and rediscovering what matters in life. I decided to break out of the rat race. Bit by bit, I worked out the financial and emotional path to freedom.
Fast forward to today
After two years of saving and planning, I finally quit my job in April. The plan going forward is simple:
- Prioritize the simple joys of life over making money
- Become a better person, and a better parent
- Inspire other parents to become better people and better parents
- Eventually, figure out a way to earn a modest living from it
I have no idea if I've just flushed my life down the toilet or if I am starting on an epic adventure. I don't know whether this is mid-life crisis or a reawakening. I still haven't decided if this is just a long-ish break, or if I'm done for good.
What I do know is that if I don't try this now, I'll regret it forever.
Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
So, here I am. On a quest to find true happiness. On a journey to rediscover what matters with nothing more than faith and some savings on my side. It's been a long time since I've felt so anxious and calm at the same time.
No doubt, chasing money was a fantastic adventure. But now, it's time for an adventure of a different kind.
What about you? What are you chasing?