by Bethany Ball
Since I took my first New York City job nearly fifteen years ago, I have always been on the wrong side of financial history. My first job was in publishing house twenty-five years old, making twenty two thousand dollars a year. This was at the time when an enterprising college grad could make one hundred and fifty thousand at a nebulous place called Anderson Consulting. Still it was a lot of money to me at the time. I’d just arrived to New York from Santa Fe where I’d been living off about half that. Plus, in New York, I got health insurance. It wasn’t that it was such a small salary; it was just that my income wasn’t subsidized. No fiancé, no wealthy boyfriend slipping me thousand dollar checks, no parents helping me out. I was on my own. After I’d moved to another company for the princely sum of twenty six thousand, I was once again on the wrong side of things: a majority of the other companies agreed to pay their employees no lower than thirty thousand. All the other companies, that is, except mine.
Even once I found my way to the dot-com world, which bumped my salary up considerably (my managing editor laughed when I told her how much I stood to make once I left her company, “You’ll make that in ten years, here.”) I found out that one of my co-workers, younger than me and with less experience had negotiated a much larger salary then I had. She clearly knew what was what. What had seemed like so much money to me was nothing compared to what my co-workers brought home. Money was flush in those dot-com years. It was the Sex and the City years of ten-dollar Cosmos and four hundred dollar Manolo Blahniks. But I didn’t know that. I couldn’t afford cable.
And then I got married. “It’s just as easy to love a rich man as a poor man,” my mother had told me, as everyone’s mother does. And my husband was rich. At least, he was rich to me. When we went out to dinner, he picked up the check. For the first time in my adult life I discovered the appetizer menu. We’d married right away so that he could stay in the States and now there was always money in my bank account. No more scrounging around in the floor of my closets for subway money. Things were going well. After a move to Miami and back, we got a sweet deal on the top floor of a friend’s townhouse in the West Village. Our friend rented it to us for almost half its market value. This was after my son was born and I spent every good weather day avoiding the Sex and the City tour bus lines and peering into Marc Jacobs’ window on Bleecker as I made my way to Magnolia Bakery before crossing the street to the park. I loved my sun-filled apartment, and pushing my son in his MacLaren all around the city.
It wasn’t dot-coms that everyone was getting rich off now, it was real estate and everyone was snapping it up. But given my history, I shouldn’t have been surprised when my husband announced that we were broke. Though our friends were making a mint buying Manhattan and Brooklyn apartments, or watching their Miami real estate double, we were in danger of serious debt. Our credit cards were high and there wasn’t enough income to pay our rent. Our friend offered to lower our rent from $2000 a month to $1500 but it was the six dollar boxes of cereal that were killing us. It was the diamond industry where my husband worked slowly losing steam. In a drastic move, we packed our things, stored them and off we were to the Israeli kibbutz where my husband grew up and his parents still lived. In Ayelet Hashahar we could rent a small apartment in an idyllic setting for $400 a month. Plus, my beloved mother-in-law provided free babysitting and a lot of meals. My husband traveled back and forth to the US where he worked as a diamond salesman while he looked for a better job.
Due to a green card glitch, we were back stateside. We decided on Bergen County, New Jersey, based on a lunch with friends at the Israeli-owned Café Angelique. It was the Hebrew music and borekas that made me feel like home, wherever that was. Rent was expensive, so a friend moved into our two bedroom flat in the rundown house in the middle of million dollar manses. We hardly noticed the houses around us. We were too busy working to pay off our debts. Our friend lived in the dining room. One day, shortly after we’d moved in we walked out to the street to our car. The next door neighbor who had two small kids my son’s age came out to greet us. She suggested a play date for the following week. Out walked my husband on one side of me, and out walked our roommate on the other. I never heard from or saw the woman again. It was too conservative a neighborhood for whatever she was imagining.
We bought almost nothing and ate most of our meals at home. I eschewed the expensive preschool and opted for a more affordable daycare close to home, which took loving care of my son while I went back to work. For a long time we had only one car. It took us two years to climb out of debt and for my husband to establish his new business. Eventually we rented a big house, big enough for everyone. We listened, nodding our heads, while everyone told us we must buy a house right away. Anyone could buy a house, our friends told us. We would hardly need to put any money down at all. But we’d already watched all our friends get rich in real estate over the years. We could wait a little longer until we knew where we really wanted to settle down.
Slowly, our income climbed. We had another baby finally and recently bought our first home on the side of Hook Mountain in Nyack. We have views of the Hudson River and my son attends private school. I have a babysitter to help with the little one.
It’s nice to be comfortable but I know it won’t last forever. As soon as the recession ends we’ll probably wind up homeless.
Bethany Ball lives between a convent, a mountain and the Hudson River with her family.
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