'What You Do for a Living Doesn’t Define You!'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Reader Lisa elaborates on that quote in bracing detail following her story of financial struggle and triumph:

My wake-up moment? When my husband passed away unexpectedly. I was 41 with an 11-year-old to raise and no family within 450 miles. He had left no life insurance and no will. I was employed, Thank G-D.  

Through my employer, I carried the biggest life insurance policy on him that I could get: $4K. I had to borrow another $5K from my family for his headstone and funeral. We had a little equity in the house ($30K?), but that was our only asset besides a cheap paid-for Subaru.

Dying intestate [“the condition of the estate of a person who dies owning property whose value is greater than the sum of their enforceable debts and funeral expenses without having made a valid will or other binding declaration”] in Louisiana with Napoleonic Code in force meant that half of all of our assets belonged to the bloodline: the two adult stepchildren and our 11-year-old-child—not to me, the wife. The good news, I guess, was that we didn’t have any assets anyway.  

But then I learned even more about what not understanding probate laws can do—I tried to refinance my home to a lower not  but couldn’t do that in Louisiana without getting a “tutor” appointed by the courts to intercede in the decision for the 11-year-old (that cost $2K in legal fees). Louisiana law assumes that the surviving parent doesn’t have the best interests of the child at heart, so you have to assign a tutor. There’s more, but I won’t belabor it!  

I was lucky enough to take the opportunity to begin educating myself and had amazing support from my community. I read personal finance books and blogs, primarily—amazing people who share their knowledge online (earlyretirement.org is one of the best examples).  I took legal classes to understand the law re: probate and property in my state. I worked part-time for Jackson Hewitt for a season so I could understand tax laws better (because that was the biggest expense each month!)     

Social security for my child helped; I saved almost all of it for after-school help, braces and college. My employer—a public television station—was gracious enough to let me get off during the day to take my child to the doctor, or pick her up from school. The other staff members at the station helped me do things at the house, like fix the ceiling fan or the dishwasher. Gifts from my amazing father-in-law were saved for her college.

Getting financially educated and not worrying about keeping up with the Joneses,(e.g., driving a cheap car, selling the house once my child turned 18, downsizing to 1500 square feet of living—then to 700 square feet of living space) … well, it worked.  Sixteen years later I now have a net worth in cash of $400K and two pensions from employers I can tap for about $20K a month someday soon.

I’m still employed at 58 and grateful for every paycheck that comes. My daughter received enough merit scholarships to go to a private college for four years. She still had to borrow money, but not as much as her peers. (I begged her to go to a public college, but she went against my wiser wishes … 18-year-olds can make those mistakes and the parent can’t stop them). I’m still making payments on one of her loans, but she has the rest.  

What’s the lesson I learned, that I noticed the author of the wonderful story still hasn’t figured out? What you “do” for a living doesn’t define you. He assumed that because he is a talented writer that he had to choose that for a career. He assumes because his wife can be a film editor, that she can’t do something else.

I know lots and lots of talented people who still work regular day jobs for the benefits. Then they practice their art/craft/etc on weekends, at night, you name it.

There seems to be a terrible price exacted by the ego thrill of chasing the artistic career in this country. I saw it while working in public television for awhile and with visual artists hoping to make a living with documentary filmmaking. I tried to help them raise money for their projects, with some success, but seldom for a lifetime.  

The artists who “made” it? They viewed their art as a business, in true Shakespearean fashion—if it didn’t please the masses, who would drop in a pence or two for admission?—then they stopped doing it. The idea of following your “passion” and the money will come? How foolish and tragic an idea for those who are not independently wealthy. Joseph Campbell [of “follow your bliss” fame] didn’t intend for this to happen, I’m sure, but the consequences in attitude in our country have fed a lot of debt and liberal arts college graduate despair.  

Thank you to the author for his honesty and contribution, and to The Atlantic for publishing this piece. I have my own small effort to help women understand that they can live frugally and well and be happy! (moneyinreallife.com) We started a book club and I bring a finance book every month (this month is Singletary’s 7 Money Mantras—“If It’s On Your Ass, It’s Not an Asset.” The Millionaire Next Door is another attitude-changer we study). But what I am doing will never match the impact of your story and your publication.  So I have shared it as widely as possible with my social network.