And yet my 2015 taxes reveal that my income was $43,000. How is this possible? Because here in the Rust Belt, we writers—and the middle class—have low overhead.
I live in Shaker Heights, Ohio, about two miles from the Cleveland city limits. I chose this city purposively: It has an excellent and diverse public school system. The taxes can be high, but the housing prices are not. I bought my four-bedroom house for $175,000. Because of the low interest rates of the past decade, I converted to a 15-year mortgage at 2.1 percent interest, and have built up about $70,000 in equity. Although housing values are still not increasing—my house is worth about what I paid for it 10 years ago—that equity will, once my son goes to college, allow me to move and reduce my living expenses even further. I’ve done all this while being a single mother with joint custody (and receiving no child or spousal support) for 14 years.
True, some things have simply worked out in my favor. My son will go to college in 2017, but because his father has the benefit of tuition remission where he works, I will only have to pay for half of room and board. This makes me very lucky and unusual (as does the fact that I could make a down payment on my house) but it also has undergirded many of my financial and personal decisions—namely, after the Affordable Care Act was finally passed, to quit my half-time job in academia and launch a publishing business as well as write.
And there have been crunch times: Twice I took early withdrawals from my retirement account to tide me over as I started my business. Sometimes my credit card balance gets too high. But, all in all, I am doing fine, and the indulgence of hiring a house cleaner seems to pay itself off in spades, because I now never lie around hating myself because I am too lazy to clean the bathroom.
I realize that my “solution” to dealing with this middle-class American problem may not be one many readers of Gabler’s essay would find the least bit appealing; I imagine that many would rather be in debt than live in Northeast Ohio. And I know that there are countless people who don’t have the luxury of moving, who are stuck where they are for financial or professional reasons.
I have also had to work through some more personal reservations about my way of life. My technically downward mobility over the years—my parents are in whatever class lies between upper-middle and the one percent—causes me some shame. I will never be able to move to New York to some impressive-sounding job in publishing or editing, because it would be unaffordable—and thus I will never be able to re-join the cool kids.
But I have made peace with cutting these items my to-do list, because I value and enjoy my low-overhead lifestyle. Many of my friends and colleagues live in East Coast cities and make twice or, with spouses included, quadruple what I do, but they, like Gabler, worry much more about utility bills than I do.