Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Term has started so I've been busier than during the summer.

I'm settling into the house alright. The excess furniture has been moved around enough that we can live with it. Sharing my home with Sweetie and with Intrepid Anthropologist is a joy. We have our wobbles, and our disagreements, and so far we have managed to negotiate them with warmth, respect and generosity.

My finances are very poor at present. The plan is to get some teaching work locally, which will eventually enable me to abandon my time-hungry commute to the Wilds of North London where I currently teach two evenings per week; once that happens I can get even more teaching locally. At the rates I charge it should be possible to live on relatively few hours of "work" in terms of contact time, but building up a class of students is likely to take a few years. Everything is word-of-mouth in this business.

In the meantime I am trying to keep my spending low. That's hard when my biggest expense is rent and my current income doesn't cover it! I am very thankful that Sweetie is supportive and generous; he has been making up the gaps. That isn't always comfortable but it is a better alternative than trying to do office work (which would destroy my mental health in about two months), assuming I could even get such a job in the current economic climate.

Something I have thought about before and want to explore again in more depth is the idea of creating a sort of artificial stipendiary situation. I would like to live with more security and a higher standard of living than I did as a student, but I'm well aware of lifestyle creep, the ease with which one can spend more and more and more and then end up needing a higher and higher salary to support that spending. I don't want to be on that treadmill. I know I tend to be a bit of a spendthrift, impulsive about buying things for myself or others if I have the money to hand, and so it seems that perhaps the best way to do this would be to limit the portion of my income that I can access easily. The rest could be donated to charity, or perhaps held in an interest-bearing account and the interest donated (I have ethical concerns about usury and need to research this more), or simply spent on others when I see they are in need.

There are some obvious benefits of attempting to live this way, of un-hitching my spending from my work. One would be that as long as I was earning enough to cover my stipend I could do my work without having to worry about whether it would be efficient financially. I could participate in voluntary collaborative projects more freely, without worrying about whether it would impact my paid teaching work. I could take on students who otherwise could not have lessons. I could choose one-off projects based on whether I like them, rather than constantly needing to assess whether they pay enough.

Another major benefit of this type of working pattern would be a certain amount of financial simplicity. I don't mean just the fact that I wouldn't have a lot of spending money and so wouldn't be able to buy too many shiny things... though that is definitely a factor. But as a freelance musician, my actual earned income is always going to be scattered, hit-and-miss. If you've always had a regular salary (at least while you've had regular outgoings) you might not realise how difficult this can be: I can't predict from one month to the next how much money I will have. This is not comfortable. I think it does contribute somewhat to my tendency to spendthriftiness, actually: if there is something I need or want and I do have the cash to get it, I tend to purchase right away because I know I may not have the funds later. Knowing how much I have to spend, even if it's only a little, seems pretty attractive. Even if I were not inclined to give away my spare money, I would need to do some sort of income-leveling exercise anyway.

But I think the real benefit to imposing a structure like this will be that when I find that someone else really needs money I won't be thinking "darn, I could have done without that book I bought last week if I'd known so-and-so didn't have the money for such-and-such" but should be able to be more generous. Maybe that would also be achievable by much more mindful spending on my part, and of course there will still be conflicts (easy example: Person A needs some educational material and Person B needs shoes that fit but I've already spent it all on train tickets for Person C to go visit an ill family member), but the hard thinking about what I actually need vs what I want, and how to balance that against the needs of others, will already have been done.

For now this is all pie in the sky, and it will remain so until I am earning more sustainable amounts on a regular basis. In the meantime I am trying to keep spending low and also to keep track of what I do spend so that I have some sort of guideline as to what is reasonable. I'm also thinking about the logistics, about how much I sensibly need to save before I can just give the rest away, about how much I might try to donate even now. I'm thinking about whether it would make more sense to allocate funds as I usually spend them -- impulsively, based on what comes to my attention -- or whether it would be better to make a commitment to a cause over the long term (something like short-term, interest-free loans for local families having trouble). Perhaps a little of both is the obvious answer there.

If you could choose your own stipend, how would you do it? How would it change your working life if you could be paid enough to live on (but not much more) and be told "Now go do whatever work you think needs doing"? Do you think you'd work more, or less? How would you decide what "enough to live on" actually is? Does this strategy sound at all manageable on an individual level, or does it require big bureaucratic structures? (Remember that I'd have to do most of the paperwork myself anyway!)

If you are already on a stipend, what is the best thing about it? What is the worst? Am I completely bonkers? Oh wait, we all know the answer to that last one.


Kathryn said...

As one who is indeed on a stipend (and having been a largely self employed household til now, this represents wonderous stability) I'd say that the problem I find is that you have never done "enough" to justify this...You could do anything. And nothing. And somewhere between the 2 is a good and healthy place to be, but I've not yet reached it...
In terms of the freedom it might allow to give where it's needed, I fear we are still too much in the grip of life-style creep (which seems to be endemic to families with teenagers)- but your thoughts challenge me, more than a little. I know that this was part of the intention behind the stipdendiary system for the to make it real!

Song in my Heart said...

I have very mixed feelings about a stipendiary system in which the dependents of clergy are expected to embrace the same sort of simplicity as clergy might be. I'm a lot more comfortable judging for myself which things I can do without than deciding for someone else, even if I know them very well.

How to look after my parents may eventually be a big challenge to me. I don't feel like I should save up money for their old age when it could be going to, say, making sure people have clean water or somewhere safe to sleep, or supporting people I know who are far more financially constrained and generous with their time and care than my parents are. I suspect my parents will have different views on this, and will feel quite betrayed if I am unable or unwilling to look after them in the manner that they expect. There's a whole pile of emotional baggage there that I haven't sifted through properly yet (working on it), so it's hard to say what will happen.

In general, not having a label like "monk" or "hermit" or even "clergy" will make it harder to communicate with others about my reasoning. And I simply don't think I'm cut out for extreme asceticism: after a point, physical discomfort makes me less effective as a teacher and musician, and my health issues mean I'm constantly on the edge of that anyway. So there won't be any diet of bread and water and when my mattress needs replacing it will get replaced. I do value simplicity, though, and I do want to use the financial resources I have (or may eventually have) in a faithful and productive manner.

Ernest said...


I can see that your financial situation is not stable, and fortunately, you currently have a safety net, which will hopefully allow you to survive until you can put your stipend system in place.

I having just retired am now about to receive my pension, which is only one third of my previous income.

There has had to be some adjustment of life style and accommodation to a much reduced income. And I still have a mortgage to pay until 2013.

Priority is maintaining a roof over our head, followed by essentials, and somewhere among this, I want to maintain my giving toward my church and other charities.

It is an exercise in cutting out the luxuries and things which are nice to have, but not essential and basically paring your life down to the basics, without actually moving into a cardboard box.

It has been a useful reminder of how much we actually have, that others have not. And what is an essential, and what is not.

Taking stock at a key stage in life is good - it has allowed me to reflect on lots of stuff and to know that I will continue toward the place God is calling me.

Perhaps we should set up an advice line on how to survive on a reduced or fixed income.

Song in my Heart said...


There are many resources available online dealing with how to survive on a low income; I can link to some of them if you like.

I think one of the more overlooked techniques for this is talking to like-minded individuals about how we spend our time and money. I know that when I'm going to have to explain to someone else why I bought something I think a lot more about buying it! So maybe there is scope for small groups to form around finances and theology and how we make our spending line up with our beliefs -- without, as you say, moving into a cardboard box.

Or maybe most people already do this with family and close friends, and I don't realise it because my family is so different.