Friday, October 30, 2009

Imaginary Personal Finance Cages

Once again I am on a business trip, this time I am visiting Texas. Yesterday I went out to dinner with a colleague in a local restaurant and we got into a conversation with our waitress - who happened to be on her first day on the job. The conversation lasted about 5 minutes, but we learned some very interesting thing about her which I wanted to share with all of you.

Our waitress, a nice woman in her late 20's, whose name I don't remember, is an Illinois native, but she lived in many places around the country, including South Carolina and now, Texas. She has a college degree in "culinary arts" and a passion for wine. Before moving to Texas, she was thinking of moving to California and to work in the wine industry but decided that this was too risky, and instead moved to Texas where she "has some family". Her dream is to go to Italy, travel the country and experience the culture and the people. I don't know this for a fact, but I got the impression that our waitress is not married, and I am pretty sure that she does not have kids.

My colleague and I were perplexed. I asked her why she's not chasing her dream? Why not go to Italy? Her reason: she doesn't have the money. My response to that was "why don't you go to Italy and work there?" After all, if she can be a waitress in Texas, she can be a waitress in Italy as well. She explained that she wants to go to Italy when she has enough money to experience the country and its culture without being worried about every dime she spends. In a different part of the conversation, she mentioned that the restaurant was paying her a salary of $2.25 / hour, not including tips.

I am not going to sit in judgement on a hard working waitress, but both my colleague and I were amused by her attitude. I am in my late thirties and my colleague in his early forties. Both of us traveled the world extensively, on tiny sums of money. Backpacking and hitch hiking our way across continents, when we were more or less the waitress' age. I didn't work during these extended trips, but I met many backpackers who did. And what better way to experience the land and its people than to live among them? We both recall those times as some of the happiest in our lives. For me these were times of adventure. Of freedom. Of peace of mind. Imagine waking up in the morning in a strange part of the world, for months at a time, with the only thing on your mind being the next big surprise that is waiting for you around the corner.

I compare those times to the life I lead today, tightly constrained by the daily necessities of raising a family and nurturing a career, and I marvel at the adventures I had. I am tempted to look at our waitress and wonder at the imaginary personal finance cage that she put herself in. Not pursuing your dream until you have the money!? "Break free", I want to shout at her. From my vantage point it looks like the barriers standing between her and her dream are all in her mind. But then I wonder whether someone with a different vantage point could say the exact same thing about me. Even though those cages exist only in our heads, the barriers we set-up for ourselves govern our lives.

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frugal zeitgeist said...

You just reminded me of a time many years ago when my friend and I got thrown out of the Seoul airport late at night after a stranger bought us hamburgers. We had run out of money and ended up parading around town with all our luggage until the airport reopened at five a.m. This was at the start of the nineties, when riots were breaking out daily (we never saw any) and MPs lined the streets.

That was seriously a great trip.

Rob Bennett said...

I love it where you say "I then wondered if someone else could say the same about me."

There's a line I like from Dylan's "Ballad in Plain D":

My friends from the prison they ask unto me:
"How good, how good it must feel to be free!"
And I answer them most mysteriously --
Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?


Shadox said...

Frugal - it's amazing how the incidents that seem most scary and annoying when you are on the road, later become your most cherished and exciting memories. That's what I am talking about. How awesome is that!

Rob - I am a big believer in self awareness, and though I don't always succeed, I try to be aware of my own thought processes, biases and failures. When it comes right down to it, even though I feel obligated to maintain things as they are right now (and I actually like the way my life is going), I have to admit that this is my choice. There is nothing really preventing me from packing up the bags, picking up the kids and moving to India for several years... it's all about choices...

Middle Way said...

I have a number of such mental barriers so I can relate to your waitress.

I think the longer one works and is integrated into "life", the harder it seems to be able to sell everything and leave it for a while, even knowing it is possible to buy it all back another day.

Having not had the opportunity to travel much after school, I'm aiming to be mortgage free in 3 years whereby I can take that year or so to dust off some ambitions.

Shadox said...

Yes - I think you are probably right. The length of time you spend in the work force and the "real life" is inversely proportional to your perceived freedom to just chuck it all and leave.

Anonymous said...

I think what's been bugging me about this post is that I once knew a nice professor who felt that I was wasting my time working on campus in the summer instead of backpacking around Europe. Bottom line was that my family and financial situation was such that it wasn't an option to spend that kind of time doing whatever I wanted. It wasn't an imaginary thing-- it was reality. The professor just didn't get it. He had some fundamental assumptions about freedom and youth that just weren't true for everyone.

When you say that her reasons are an "imaginary cage," I feel like you're making similar assumptions and minimizing the validity of her choices. She probably didn't tell you everything, any more than I told my professor everything, but that doesn't mean her choices are foolish.

Shadox said...

Anon - it's very possible that the waitress did not tell me everything (in fact, it's very likely). Note that I never called her decisions stupid, and I don't imply that they are.

All I am saying are three things: (i)she told us that her dream was to travel; (ii) she told us that the limitation is financial; (iii) from the outside it appears that the financial limitation is not a real one or that if it is, with some compromises it can be resolved.

People are entitled to make their own decisions. That's what being human is all about, however, too often people fail to see that they are indeed making a decision. They prefer to portray themselves as victims of circumstance and claim that they have no alternatives. Clearly, there are many cases in which people's choices are limited, but those cases exceptions rather than rules.

We are not masters of our own fates, but we have a lot of power over how things turn out.