I think the two years I lived in Korea were the first (and perhaps only) time in my life when I felt financially secure. In the two years between my father’s death, and my departure for Korea, I needed to help support my family. We lived paycheck to paycheck, and I have never tried to pretend that money was not a part of my decision to apply to EPIK and be an EFL teacher.
The out of money experience
During those two years, money was a constant worry and source of stress. It plagued me during my waking hours and kept me out of sleep at night. I would like awake, going over my expenses and the money in my account again and again, trying to find ways to make it stretch just a day or two more, hoping that nothing unexpected would come up, because we couldn’t afford it.
And things did come up, as they often do. At one stage, we had a problem with badly leaking pipes in the house, but we couldn’t afford to get a plumber out to fix it. So we turned the water off for all but an hour or two each day. During those hours, we’d bathe, flush the toilets and fill up every water receptacle we had, and then turn the water off again because the leaking would make our water bills to run too high.
Electricity was another huge concern. I became that person who went around the house and turned off and unplugged every unnecessary light and appliance. I berated those who didn’t do the same. Despite how cold our house got in winter, we almost never turned on the heaters. At least once, we had out power cut off for not paying, because the amount I had been able to pay had not been high enough for the municipality to keep our lights on.
I became extremely concerned with every single cent I spent on necessities (such as calculating the price of each roll of toilet paper in a bag because I needed to choose whatever option was the cheapest). Grocery shopping became an enormous source of stress, and I’d find myself desperately trying not to make eye contact with the cashier, just in case my maths was bad, and my card was declined. Again.
But all of this was unspeakable – it was embarrassing how badly things were going, and I was deeply ashamed of how difficult things were for us. I always had to keep up the appearance of someone who was doing just fine.
I could want all that I wanted, but need was the only thing that mattered.
“But it’s not as bad as…”
Perhaps the hardest part of battling to make ends meet was waiting for the sky to fall – for an accident, medical emergency or some other disaster (a broken appliance, a flat tire, engine trouble, medical emergency) to strike. Knowing you can make it is one thing, but knowing that an unexpected expense could break you is another thing entirely.
Even so, I kept reminding myself to be grateful. I had a car (it was small and unsafe, but it was reliable and light on petrol), I had a roof over my head (and electricity and running water were both present, if problematically expensive), and I was employed most of the time (though underpaid and without benefits or security) and my stints with unemployment were brief (though soul crushing). These were not things to be sniffed at. I knew too many people doing without these things.
Furthermore, I had a way out – EFL teaching, if I could scrape the money together for a TEFL certificate, held the promise of income to come – when I knew (and know) so many who are trapped.
I explain all of this, not to tell a story of woe (I know all too well how grateful I ought to be) but to explain that I understand what it is to be underpaid and to have trouble making ends meet.
Money makes a difference
I have been fortunate enough to be paid well for my work, and to not have to worry about paying bills, or live in fear of doctors, dentists and unexpected emergencies. After I arrived in Korea, it took me a while to adjust to this – to accept that I no longer needed to count every single cent, and that I could afford to pay more for quality, knowing it would last longer. I developed preferences for certain things – more expensive things. I could want. And I could (within reason) have what I wanted.
There are lists of things that a person should try to accomplish before they turn 30, and it always bothers me how many of those things require money (and often a great deal of it) to accomplish. Items like Go to college, Go to a foreign country, Quit a job you hate, Invest in property or even just Take care of your teeth can seem (or, in fact, are) impossible when you don’t have financial security. Yes, one may regret not doing these things when one is older, but they are unattainable goals when one has trouble affording the essentials.
When I was being paid well, my worries about life – the things that kept me up at night – ceased to be focused on finance and survival. I could save money, and that helped my peace of mind immensely. My worries were less immediate and more long term. I could go to the doctor when I was ill (even then, it was only because I had literally lost the ability to speak), and finally visit the dentist (even then, it was only because I was in a lot of pain). Suddenly, I found myself in the position to consider things I had not been able to consider before – my long term goals, my health, future financial planning, what my CV would look like to prospective employers, and so on. I could worry about who I was becoming, rather than focusing on how I was going to survive.
As soon as I could afford what I needed, I could start to worry about what I wanted.
I can’t even begin to explain how good that realisation felt.
“But money can’t buy happiness!”
When talking about money, and how much one earns, there are people who are quick to remind one that money can’t buy happiness! (always in an infuriatingly cheery tone!) to try to end the conversation.
No. Money can’t buy happiness. But it can buy a little peace of mind. It can buy some health care. It can buy education. It can buy one out of debt. It can buy relief from fear. It can free the mind to actually consider personal happiness rather than personal (and familial) survival.
It can help one to hope.
And dear God, hope is a thing in short supply when you’re working out which brand of baked beans is the cheapest and then still trying to work out if you can afford it, or when praying to all the powers in the universe that your toothache doesn’t get worse, or when you’re waiting for the hour that you have water in the evening before you flush the toilet.
The people who’ve reminded me (cheerfully!) that money can’t buy happiness (!) have never been the people struggling to make ends meet. They’re not the people who’ve dealt with financial uncertainty. They’ve always been the people who have cash in reserve, or have people who are able (and willing) to help them.
But the people who are struggling are quick to agree that money matters, quick to sympathise, quick to share the little ways they’ve found to make their lives just that little bit more affordable.
Having money can’t prevent one from being sad – that’s true – but the relief from the misery caused by a financial burdens is nothing to sniff at. It’s not the money that brings happiness. It’s the things that having money takes off your mind that make it matter.