People Think We’re Poor. And I’m Cool With That.
For almost a year now I have been doing the grocery shopping for our family of five. I like routines so I generally go every Monday morning, usually around 10 am or so—you know, after all of the morning rush-hour traffic has burned off. It did not take long for me to notice that I was different than just about everyone else at the supermarket at this time of day. Here in the affluent suburbs of Freedomville, if you’re at the grocery store at 10 am on a work-Monday and not (a) female and (b) in a tennis skirt, you are by definition something of an anomaly. And one other characteristic sets me apart: I’m carrying coupons. I don’t go searching for the things, but they just magically appear in my mailbox and on my driveway and I need something to look at as I walk back to the house. When you stumble on something that is as good as free money, why throw it away? It requires almost no effort on my part, other than remembering to take the stack with me on my Monday trips to the store. But I see almost no one else toting these little gems of faux currency around with them, and very few using them at the checkout. So get the picture: a 42-year-old dude in the grocery store at mid-morning on a Monday wearing a t-shirt (and now shorts) and rifling through a stack of coupons. The disdain being emitted from the tennis moms that are hauling their full baskets back to their Range Rovers in order to speed off to the day’s match is almost palpable.
And wait … there’s more. I do a number of other things that draw blank stares (at best) from my cohorts. I wash our cars with my own hands in our driveway. Not very often mind you—because who really gives two squirts of piss about how shiny your personal transportation vehicle is during your drive to and fro the grocery store with your coupons—but every now and again they get so soiled that Mrs. JF insists. Okay, I’ll get a bucket, some soap, a sponge and a hose and climb all over the damn things for a little bit of exercise. I had to wash my parents’ cars as a kid so it takes me back. But in my mind I imagine the boy next door staring out his window slack-jawed: “Mommy, what is Mr. Freedom doing? Is he okay? I’m scared!” It takes me 20 minutes and when I’m done I have earned for myself a shiny Freedom vehicle, a sense of accomplishment, and a crisp $20 bill that figuratively remains in my pocket (or Vanguard account).
Other poverty-resembling tasks I regularly undertake (or don’t undertake):
–We do all of our own yard work, including cutting the grass (mitigating the monthly Stealth Lifestyle Debt amount)
–We have a high-definition antenna in the window for those rare days when I want to watch something on live television, thereby advertising to the world that (gasp!) we do not have cable (we cut the cord and its $150/month freedom-crushing effect about a year ago)
–Excepting $3 t-shirts that I periodically buy in bulk from Michael’s, I have not bought any new clothes in probably four-plus years (the Quicken data here is inconclusive since the clothing purchases for the four other members of the Freedom household (all, um, female) are recorded to the same expense category). Okay, I may have bought a t-shirt or two during that period at local breweries that cost more than $3.
–We clean our own house. Seriously. And we have a mop and a toilet brush that we know how to use. Here’s another piece of Stealth Lifestyle Debt: for some reason when we bought this house we thought it might come in handy to have six bathrooms, and I have to buy enough toilet-bowl cleaner to service six bathrooms.
The Ultimate Anti-Status Symbol: ACA Coverage
When I left the corporate law gig almost a year ago we moved to healthcare insurance under the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA” or, as it’s known in my neck of the woods “Obamacare”). When I first started asking our various healthcare providers if they were part of the network under our new ACA insurance I got looks and responses that ranged from confusion to sympathy (“Oh you poor thing!”). In 2017 we moved to a new ACA plan that did not include one provider that we use on a semi-regular basis. For the last nine years we have been on a high-deductible health-plan (or “HDHP,” largely for the HSA triple tax benefit), so I’m accustomed to paying full-freight for medical services. My plan was to approach this healthcare practice and request that they give us a “cash” rate equal to the “negotiated” rate that we had been paying under our HDHP. To begin the conversation I told the finance/admin contact that we were now covered by an ACA plan. Here’s how it went from there:
Admin: “Oh, we don’t accept that insurance plan.” (Read: “Oh you poor thing!”)
Me: “I know. I’ll pay cash.”
Admin: “Oh! Okay!” (Read: “Surprise! You do have a little bit of money!”)
Me: “I’m hoping that since I’m paying cash you can give me at least the negotiated insurance contract rate that I’ve paid in the past.”
Admin: “Oh, we can give you the Medicare rate. We can’t go any lower than that. (You poor thing.)”
The contract rate we paid under our old HDHP was approximately $150/visit. When I checked out after this discussion my cash-pay rate came to about $30. Um, what? Why didn’t I move to the poor-people plan voluntarily a long time ago?!
This arrangement has now played out the same way for the three or four visits to this provider in 2017—we pay less for our insurance (because of a larger ACA subsidy this year because of reduced income planned for 2017), and we pay less for medical services. A lot less. Awesome. The only additional (non-economic) cost of this arrangement is the occasional comment from the doctor or the PA indicating that this or that option “may be kind of expensive, so, you know, you may need to think about it (you poor thing).” It could be my faulty memory, but I don’t recall receiving any of these advance cost disclosures when we were on the non-ACA plans.
Last week I came across this headline in some of my reading:
It first caught my attention because Anthem is our insurer. But then I focused on the second part of the headline. Wait, we’re receiving funds for healthcare premiums paid to Anthem! We’re part of the poor they’re referring to! I smiled and rhetorically asked myself if I should be offended. I got over it pretty quickly.
I get that we are part of a relatively small sub-set of ACA subsidy recipients that are earned-income “poor” but high net worth. (But when you read all the blogs in the FI space you realize this sub-set is growing … fast.) And so for that reason the title of the article is not per se wrong. But it does highlight a common mistake in our society: confusing income with wealth. The former certainly can fuel the latter, but it doesn’t always work that way. And it’s clear that you can have the latter (wealth) after you have turned off the former (income). So I’m quite comfortable being perceived as “poor”—especially when it dramatically reduces my cost for goods and services. (Now if only there were a government program to subsidize craft beer purchases by the income-statement poor but balance-sheet affluent FI set!)
I do a lot of preaching and some might even say judging here, so in an attempt to be fair and objective I like to own up to my own failures—financial or otherwise—and I have to reiterate that we are not perfectly consistent in maintaining the poverty image. As detailed here before, we have significant Stealth Lifestyle Debt because of our choice of neighborhood and relatively fancy living quarters, and no one driving by our house would presume that we were roughing it. But I do think that when the neighbors see us working in the yard (maybe on a Tuesday afternoon) or washing the cars that are 10 and 14 years old (maybe on a Tuesday afternoon) they presume that we’ve fallen on hard times. (“Oh, Joe must be out of work. Poor thing. Has to cut his own grass. Oh well, I’ll enjoy my 50-minute commute in my Range Rover this morning. Maybe for a treat I’ll even roll down the window for some fresh air! Nah, never mind. That might mess up my hair before the big conference room meeting with the boss this morning! And I sure need that next promotion to pay for college!”).
There are other examples of the limitations on my anti-status-symbol attitude. Exhibit A: reduced-cost school lunches. I never even considered this as an option, but I came across something recently that led me to believe that we could qualify, thereby cutting what is a roughly $75/month expense down to almost nothing. I didn’t have to think about this one too long. We regularly interact with the administration of the school, and because of the tight-knit nature of the parents and staff, this information would effectively be public. Many of these folks know (or should know) that we have substantial resources. While I have no problem appearing to be poor, I can’t stomach playing the role of a rank opportunist or a fraud. (But maybe this is my excuse that allows me to avoid recognizing that even I have very real anti-status-symbol limitations.)
I think that the psychology at play here presents a key element of the FI quest. High levels of concern for outward appearances to third parties will sink your financial ship as a result of excess consumption, high debt levels, Stealth Lifestyle Debt, and lost compound-growth opportunities. You must do these things to keep up appearances—or heaven forbid, someone might think you are poor! If your perception in the eyes of people that you don’t really know and may not even like if you did matters a lot to you, then you’re probably going to be working for a long time. And if you are cool with that then I’m cool with that. But I recoiled at the idea of consuming my life to fund consumption—just so others wouldn’t think I was poor. In full disclosure of another nasty personality disorder—I am actually entertained by the idea that people that are not wealthy (but drive fancy cars, etc.) look at us and smile and experience just a bit of pity, while I smile knowing that most likely we are light years ahead. If the price of our decades of early Freedom is that many of our peers conclude that we are poor, well, I’m cool with that.