Reader Pat sent me this link to a Wall Street Journal article about — of all things, Underearners Anonymous. Seriously:
Can’t earn enough dough to pay the rent? A tiny but growing fellowship of New Yorkers might suggest that the problem isn’t the economy. The problem is you. You may have a disease—a compulsive addiction to low-paying work. And they have a 12-step program to help you recover: Underearners Anonymous.
At a recent meeting, two-dozen men and women gathered in a windowless, rented room, squeezing themselves into a tight circle around a faded oriental carpet. After saying a prayer and introducing themselves (“Hello, my name is Mary, and I’m an underearner”), they discussed the symptoms of their condition: frittering away time, undercharging for services and neglecting to follow through on new opportunities. Moreover, they say they’re powerless to control these destructive, compulsive behaviors. They need help from a higher power that can restore them to sanity.
“Jean” (I’ve changed names in this column to protect members’ anonymity) has a typical story. She’s attractive, ridiculously articulate and has a master’s degree from Columbia. When she “hit bottom,” the 30-something writer was earning $10,000 a year doing freelance work and falling behind on the rent. Her solution? She applied for a job at Staples.
Sounds crazy, but for Jean, minimum-wage jobs served a purpose that she had yet to admit to herself: They came with few expectations and responsibilities. “I didn’t want to be controlled,” she says. The price, of course, was poverty. Now, she says, she’s earning 10 times her old pay and has launched an acting career, but it’s been an arduous journey. “The underearner doesn’t want to do the work required to make their life better,” she says. “UA gives you the willingness.”
Pat sent the piece with an indignant snort. If we got “cured” in the way UA advocates, she noted, we freedomistas would “… learn how to stop chasing gulches and start enjoying paying taxes.”
Yeah. True. Very true, Pat.
C’mon. Underearning, as disease? Get real. I’d bet that the typical “underearner” in New York City is really more like an “overpayer,” and the cure would be getting the hell out of that overpriced rabbit warren. Get yourself to someplace where you can afford to “fritter time” and learn to love the leisure instead of feeling guilty about it.
Yet ironically, Pat sent the article just as I was grappling with my own earning-a-living issues and coming to the realization that I need about $400 more a month to get by (given the care and feeding my new-old house requires). Four hundred might not sound like a lot to some, but since my income for the last few years has hovered around $650 a month (sometimes more with a little help from my friends, some scary times, less), $400 is not just a significant sum; it requires a whole different philosophy.
Although I initially adopted low-earning as part of a freedom strategy (see Atlas Shrugged if that doesn’t make sense), it really has become a habit — one I can no longer afford. Since selling Cabin Sweet Cabin last year, I’ve had a little extra to get by on, and it’s been a pleasant change. But that can’t last. Now I have a mortgage (albeit a small one, paid directly to the sellers) and a house that needs bottom-to-top fixup, and it’s time to get moving. Ah, but how?
I was never wildly ambitious, and although I can work hard when I have to or when I’m deeply engrossed in something, I’ve never aimed to be a Stakhanovite. After three years in the fast-lane in my 20s, I exited the income freeway and have been happily meandering the backroads ever since.
Now, I have mixed feelings about earning more money. Like “Jean” in the WSJ article, I don’t want to be controlled. I don’t want to paint a big, red target on my back for taxers by earning more than the basics, either. I don’t want to contribute any more than I must to a society whose institutions (especially its political and financial institutions) are corrupt to the core. I’m also lazy. I like to sit by the fire with my dogs. Take long walks. Think my own thoughts.
When I do consider earning more money — this is sort of embarrassing, and again, a lot like “Jean” — I tend to think in terms of a promising career in pizza delivery, rather than boosting my writing, art, or other things that demand skill and brainpower.
So right now, I’m definitely doing some grappling. I don’t regret buying the house; I love it. But it’s forcing changes and prompting me to think about priorities — which hurts my brain.
I can grok what those New Yorkers in Underearners Anonymous are going through. But do I have a disease? Holy cats. The only disease I have when it comes to earning money is IRSophobia. And of course I suffer from the plagues that all Americans (and many others around the world) share — Bureaucritis and the infamous Resource-Eating Bacteria of the Federal Reserve.
Those diseases are becoming so endemic that I know several highly skilled perpetual overachievers who are considering taking up the underearner’s life.
Be that as it may, if you need a reliable writer (who can handle anything from corporate communications to features to ghost-writing of books) — or you’re seeking a reliable deliverer of pizzas — you know where to find me.