When I looked at the weather report for this following week – rain and 17C in Amsterdam; thunderstorms and high 20’s in DC; thunderstorms and 31C in North Carolina – my first thought was “Damn, I shouldn’t have sold my rainboots. My second was, “Maybe I should buy a pair of Crocs”.
For in Bishkek we’ve always had enough money. We do budget, we do save, we don’t spend lavishly, and we certainly stay away from dropping money on overpriced imported goods (I noticed last week that the croc store was having a sale, meaning their prices are now probably on par with those in the states; it’s not like I’m going to spend $80 on a pair of rubber shoes) and cafes with fabulous decor and flat-tasting food (looking at you Social Coffee…), but we’ve never had to worry that something will wipe us out. We can get a new pair of shoes without it being in the budget. We can spend more on dry cleaning my husband’s entire work wardrobe before we leave than half the country earns in a month. This is in great part because, like most expat employees, my husband earns a monthly salary that is several times the country’s annual GDP per capita. We also live in staff housing and thus pay as much for rent as we’ll probably pay for utilities in the states. And we’ve always had the guarantee of income for months to come.
Which is very different than what we’re stepping into.
I have a five year PhD fellowship of $24,000 per annum. That’s $2,000 – enough, for a family of three in the county where we will live, to cover rent, utilities, groceries, and maybe a few other basics. I’m lucky – most doctoral students in my division don’t have a fellowship and live off of a stipend $10k less generous. And they do live off of it. We have savings, and escrow – enough to supplement our budget while my husband decompresses and searches for a job. But, mygod, the US is expensive – for the middle class.
My mother had a lawschool classmate who ended up quite well off. He and his (stay-at-home) wife have a renovated Victorian within walking distance of Mission St. in San Francisco and paid in full for all three of his daughters to attend university. The younger two were both undergraduates at their father’s alma mater when I started my PhD there and, besides paying $60k in tuition out of pocket for each daughter, he also managed to provide them with enough of their own pocket money that they were always dressed in designer. On the other end of the spectrum, I had a college friend who grew up in New York with a single mom, paid not a penny to go to one of the nation’s top private high schools, and attended our LAC on a full ride before going on to get his PhD at Princeton. If I was a single mom on 24k, I’d have access to foodstamps, medicare, and free childcare programs like Headstart and after-school care, or I’d qualify for childcare scholarships.
For everyone else in between – I’m not sure how they make it. How are Starbuck’s’ sales so high? How is there always so much stuff (seasonal, bright-colored plastic, not build to last) flooding the aisles at Target? How do people without 6-figure incomes afford $600,000 houses, and then fill them with non-clearance furniture from Macy’s and the thousand other tokens of the middle class? Because once you start adding, for a family, the US seems inhibitively expensive, unattainable almost.
I made a second budget, for when my husband starts working and we need full-time childcare for our daughter. Rent/Mortgage, Utilities, Childcare, Groceries, Gas, Personal Spending, Travel, Escrow, Health Insurance and Car Insurance – totaled up, we’d need more than $5,000 a month to have a normal budget. Nothing extravagant – it’s not like this would allow us to go out to dinner every night, or even get dinner from the Whole Foods deli every night; it wouldn’t allow us to drop stupid amounts on electronics or buy $80 jeans at the mall; we’re more likely to have a cleaner and sitter come twice a month, unlike twice a week as we do abroad. 5k just covers the unextraordinary everyday expenses for a family of three. Over a year, that’s 60k – 3.5k more than the national average household income of $56,516 . That’s income before taxes, before setting apart some portion for savings or escrow. If a family saves 10% and pays 15% in taxes, then they’re left with $42,387, or $3,532 per month. Where we’re going to live, that’s enough to cover rent ($1200), childcare ($1400), groceries ($600), and have $300 left over for…everything else. Thankfully we both have degrees, and my husband is set to earn quite a bit more than average given his profession. But still – how do people do it? (Part of the answer is, it seems, they don’t – American’s are notoriously bad at savings, with only 17% having a three month emergency fund, and 44% with less than $500 socked away for incidentals and accidents). I’ve read before that the majority of millenials actually have negative $7000 or so in savings (meaning their debt is greater than anything they have in the bank).
A few months ago I was talking with another Bishkek expat mom about prices of childcare and childbirth in the states vs. abroad. She commented on how expensive the local European School of Central Asia seemed when she calculated up how much she would spend for her two preschool-age children to attend through high school. I countered with, ‘I wish preschool in North Carolina was six thousand a year!’. For raising children in the US is truly expensive, with the majority of the expenses borne by the parents, because we have very little state welfare/state institutions in that area. I gave birth in Turkey (where we had insurance), and our total hospital bill for a cesarean followed by a 2 night stay in a private room with 3 meals a day was…$200. For a shared room, even with insurance, we’d likely pay ten times that in the US. Across Europe childcare is standardized and subsidized by the state. In the US quality care can run more than rent. Where we’re moving, the average rate is around $1400 – or on par with a nice two-to-three bedroom apartment, and twice as much as a one bedroom apartment. It’s more than most of my fellow doctoral students are expected to live off of. So how do people afford to have children? How do they afford to have multiple? And how does the US even have a positive birth rate? And why don’t we have more people clamouring for simple state services (healthcare, childcare) that Europeans seem to see as state responsibilities? (maybe we could afford them too if we stopped offering tax breaks to hedge funders and giant corporations, but, you know…)
Prices in the states are also odd things. I’ve explained to my husband a number of times that you can pay $80 or $30 for the same thing (let’s say the exact model of Nike shoes he was looking at last weekend), depending on where and when you buy it (on sale vs. not, Famous Footwear vs. DSW); you can also pay $30 for something of terrible quality (like a pair of sneakers from Payless), or $30 for something really decent (like a pair of Nike from DSW, or on sale at Macy’s). We have plenty of crap in America, overpriced everything: fashionable donut shops, fashionable clothing meant to be worn a season and then tossed in the trash, threads already dangling. I’ve been doing household shopping on Amazon.com and recently realized I can buy 400 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets on clearance from Macy’s for the same price as something polyester.
So, in sum, we’re stepping into a very different economic environment. We can no longer afford everything without thinking twice and yet we have access to so much more. We’ll have to think more before we spend in part because we’ll be surrounded by so many more options. A Target Greatland carries more variety of goods than most people in our current country would ever dream of on their own; stepping into one after a year in Central Asia is like suddenly waking to a materialist dream. It’s easy to spend in America, simply because the availability of variety makes it seems like the unnecessary is also essential.
Our budget will be fine once my husband starts work. We can even make it work if he goes into consulting or doesn’t work full time for a while. But I have no idea how most Americans live, how the consumer society stays afloat, or why anybody would pay $44 for polyester sheets.