Lowering our wireless bill was hands down the easiest part of my quest to trim our bills. Our contract runs out in September, so I’d been toying with the idea of unlocking our phones and taking them to a budget carrier. I priced out the various options, and then it occurred to me to check back with Verizon and see what their plans looked like today, as opposed to almost two years ago when we signed up with them.I know a lot of people hate Verizon, but then, a lot of people hate AT&T, and a lot of people hate Sprint, and so on. We’ve been pretty happy with Verizon, though, primarily because we live in a tiny town surrounded by mountains, so there’s a lot of the local area that gets pretty terrible cell coverage. You’re more likely to get a Verizon signal up in the mountains around here than you are to get an AT&T signal. If you have Sprint, you’re phone’s pretty much useless as soon as you leave town.
So I wanted to stay on the Verizon network, I just wanted to pay less for our cell phones, which were currently costing us $130 a month for talk, text and a shared 3GB of data. 3 GB is actually quite a bit more than we need, unless we’re on vacation. Our house has wifi, the colleges we work at have wifi, and we’ve only had smartphones for two or three years, so we never got in the habit of overdoing it with data on the go.
It took me about three minutes on the Verizon website to discover that their Verizon Plan would let us share 3GB of data for $45, plus $20 for each of our phone lines. That’s way less than $130 a month, and when the fall rolled around and we were through with summer travel, we could step the data back to 1GB, saving another $15 a month. Not only could I change our plan online, but I could retroactively apply the new plan to the previous month, resulting in a refund. The whole thing took about 20 minutes.
You’ve heard the “experiences over stuff” mantra a million times, right? The idea is that you should spend your cash on memorable experiences—vacations, weddings, concerts, whatever—instead of acquiring more material goods that will clutter up your house and way down your soul on the path to enlightenment.
There are so many things wrong with this attitude that I can’t even start—I’ll never stop. For one thing, it’s super gendered. For another, it’s super-privileged: you can only stop accumulating stuff when you’re confident you’ll always be able to buy something when you really need it. And—and this is my biggest issue—it devalues the beauty, utility, meaning and emotional heft of objects. I wouldn’t trade my family china, handmade quilts and thoughtfully chosen chotchke gifts for the vacation of a lifetime.
So we’ve established that I think experiences over stuff is dumb. I love stuff, though I try to keep a handle on that love for the sake of clutter and my budget. But I’ve accumulated my share of stuff over time, something I am sorely regretting as we prepare to move house.
Recently, though, I’ve pretty much gone off stuff. And it’s not because I’ve been converted to the gospel of experiences. It’s because I’ve stopped thinking about money in terms of stuff or experiences. I’ve started measuring my dollars in years of freedom. And there’s not much I want today as much as I want freedom.
Literary jokes and Hamilton quotes all in one place. How’s that for your one-stop nerd shop?
Today’s literary finance lesson comes from the still-unparalleled queen of high society and New York money: Edit Wharton. Nobody—not even my best pal Henry James—has ever had such a keen eye and razor-edged wit for the ins and outs of the upper class or the not-always-direct relationship between buckets of money and social mobility.
Edith Wharton, social commentator and shoulder-dog aficionado
Each of Wharton’s novels is a masterclass in finance all by itself, but my favorite is notable both for the aptness of its financial lessons and the awfulness of its protagonist: Undine Spragg. If you looked “social climber” up in the dictionary, you would find a picture of Undine Spragg.
The Internet is full of financial and life advice, most of which comes packaged in lists of no more than 15 easily digestible wisdom blurbs. Why lists? Based on their popularity (and my own browsing habits), I can only assume it’s because no one can resist the temptation to read a list. Call an article “How to Get Your Life Together, Guaranteed,” and you’ll be lucky to get a few hits. But title your piece “7 Sure-Fire Ways to Get Your Life in Order” and people won’t be able to click over fast enough.
What’s more compact and efficient than a list of ways to fix your life? I’ll tell you what: A list of lists of ways to fix your life. So in the service of streamlining your list-reading, self-flagellation and potential self-improvement, I present
This summer I made it my mission to take a long, hard look at all of our bills and see how many I could cut down to size. So far, I’ve trimmed about $380 from our monthly bills, and I’m not done yet.
Last year, I had cable for the first time in my life. And not just cable, HBO. I got up to date on every prestige drama I could. I binge-watched Silicon Valley, streamed Girls whenever I took a bath, and caught up on my mumblecore-boyfriend Mark Duplass’s show Togetherness. It was kind of great, but also totally unnecessary and not something I even really wanted. So how did it happen?
When we moved to town three years ago, we got an introductory rate from Comcast for our Internet. I think it was about $40 a month. Two years later, the rate went up, but it was still less than the standard rate, so I put off an unpleasant call to Comcast customer service with the rationalization that we were still saving money. But then last summer our rate was about to go up to $80 a month for Internet alone. And not even fast internet. We were surfing the Web at a crawl and Netflix was constantly buffering in the middle of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
American literature is all about money. For one thing, it’s all about making money: in the nineteenth century, writing was one of the few respectable ways for women to earn a living. Fortunately for American ladies, books about romance and strong morals and domestic life–things ladies were supposedly way better at than dudes–were very popular in the nineteenth century. So popular, in fact, that Nathaniel Hawthorne famously complained to his publisher in 1855, “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash-and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.”
Portrait of a man who can’t pay his bills and then blames the ladies for it
Maybe because authors were so hung up on making money (Hawthorne sure was, mostly because he was really bad at it), American novels are also pretty obsessed with money. American literature is full of financial advice and cautionary tales. Why listen to what so-called “experts” in the so-called “twenty-first century” have to say about how to stay solvent when the authors of the past offer so much free financial wisdom about the direct relationship between greed and a gruesome, embarrassing death or about the virtues of genteel poverty?
If your main complaint about your high school English class was that there wasn’t enough personal finance, then you’re in the right place. Let the classics of American literature teach you everything you need to know about the do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts) of managing your money.
“Provident” is aspirational–I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I’d like to be. It means careful and thoughtful in planning and providing for the future. Synonyms include frugal, but also prudent and judicious, qualities that are just as important as frugality.
While frugality is important, it’s not my endgame in itself. I don’t just want to be frugal, I want to be thoughtful and careful. Being provident is especially hard in an era of information overload. How do you make judicious choices when you can’t possibly absorb all the facts and opinions that are out there?
You could, I suppose, ignore the Internet and live your life as if it’s still 1910 and the word “provident” is still in common circulation (these days, it’s a popular name for financial services, but less commonly used to describe individuals). But that would be 1. weird and 2. not much fun.
So instead, I’m going to try to be provident in an improvident time, judicious with my time and information in a moment that’s profligate with both. We’ll see how it goes.
Welcome to the Provident Professor. I’m Prof. Provident, an early-30s English professor who dreams of becoming an ex-English professor some time before I’m 80. This makes me something of an anomaly among professors, most of whom keep trudging into the classroom well into their dotage until they finally keel over in their office, a stale cup of coffee on one side and a 3-year-old stack of unread journal articles on the other.
Not me. Don’t get me wrong, I like my job (well enough), but I work too many hours for too little pay. I have just enough autonomy and control of my time to know that I want more, and to begin to see what I might do with it. This blog is one step toward that freedom. Being provident is hard work, particularly since all the rewards are in the future. You need encouragement, and you need accountability. That’s what I hope this blog will provide, along with information that might be useful to someone, somewhere, and a whole lot of useless literary knowledge and bad jokes about good books.