Living on one wage

Is it really possible for a minister's family to live on one salary? Our author not only does it but accomplishes this in one of the highest cost-of-living areas in the United States.

Leonie Coffin, a homemaker in Burtonsville, Maryland, says she is trying to achieve the kind of fulfillment by not earning money that many people try to achieve by earning it.

For ten years my husband, Jim, and I have done what a lot of people have told us is totally impossible—we have lived on one wage. Moreover, we are buying our own home, have managed to feed and clothe two children, now ages 4 and 8, and have traveled extensively outside of North America. Looking back, we feel that we have lived quite comfortably overall.

I am not trying to say in this article that everyone should try to live on one wage. Nor am I saying that everyone could do so if he or she only wanted to badly enough. I am merely describing what we have done, in the hope that it might help encourage those who would like to live on one wage but have been unable to do so.

We didn't have any great financial advantages when we started out. Jim, an American, had just graduated from Newbold College in England with a degree in theology. He chose to go to Newbold, partly because he had the wanderlust and partly because there he could earn his degree for less than half what it would cost in the United States—even after paying airfare. (Adventist theology students can still earn quality degrees for a fraction of the price charged in the United States if they are willing to go to Newbold, Helderberg College in South Africa, Antillian Union College in Puerto Rico, or any number of other Adventist schools overseas. In addition to lower costs, the opportunity to live and travel in another culture is a tremendous education in itself.)

Three months after we were married we headed for Australia, where I had grown up and where Jim had arranged to be employed as a minister on the basis of an independent transfer—which essentially meant that we paid our own transportation, worked for the wage paid to Australian pastors, and didn't get the furlough privileges granted to interdivision workers. We arrived in Australia broke.

We were nearly overwhelmed when we discovered the price of furniture. But when we saw a rustic design of living room and dining room furniture that we liked, we decided to invest in a few tools and build it ourselves. It cost us about $800 to buy the tools and materials to build the same design we had seen in the store for $3,300. What it lacked in craftsmanship it made up for in the degree of pleasure it brought us. And after nearly five years' use, we sold it for $1,200.

Since early in our marriage, Jim and I have subscribed to the belief that it costs money to make money. Thus, while the price tag on the rustic furniture might have said $3,300, we in fact would have had to earn considerably more than that to be able to pay that much. For starters, the government would have come in for its cut, and there would have been tithe and offerings. So to actually have had $3,300 in hand, we might have had to earn $5,000.

Of course, minimizing income has its tax advantages, too. Since ministers in the United States can deduct parsonage interest payments twice—once as parsonage allowance, and then again as interest—our living on one income has meant that we have been in the zero tax bracket. We also have opted out of Social Security. But having done so, we have to be more careful about being sure that we are making adequate provision for retirement. (Jim carries sufficient term life insurance and accident insurance to care for the boys and me should something happen to him.)

Shortly after we arrived in Australia, we seriously looked into the possibility of my going to work outside the home. What we found was not encouraging. The added income would have put us into a considerably higher tax bracket, we would have had to buy a second car, and I would have had to invest in a more elaborate wardrobe. By the time tithe and offerings were taken out, we would have had in hand only about 40 cents for every dollar earned. (Had we had to pay for child care, the picture would have looked even more grim.) Even though the additional money would have been nice, it would have cost us dearly in lost privileges and opportunities. I would not have been able to drop everything and go on a trip with Jim. Nor could I have spent a month at summer camp with him each year. And I wouldn't have been able to pursue the things that really interested me.

More in or less out

Essentially, there are two ways to care for a problem of inadequate income— earn more money or diminish the need for money. During our marriage, we have opted for the latter. As a result, we have never owned a new car, never dressed extravagantly or shopped at the most expensive stores, and have not gone out to eat very often, and never at expensive restaurants. But we have always had reliable transportation, been adequately clothed, and had lots of fun!

One thing we have learned to do is provide as many of our own services as possible. For example, Jim is not particularly mechanical, but whenever possible, he cares for maintenance and repairs himself. When a car we owned needed a valve job, he asked a few questions of a mechanic friend, tore the head off, had the valves ground, and then put the engine back together. Two or three times along the way he had to ask questions to make sure he was doing it correctly. But by the time he was done he had learned a lot.

One service we don't need is credit card payments. We do use a credit card occasionally, but always pay off the balance before any interest accrues. On the one occasion when we did make credit card payments, the annual interest was under $50.

When we came back to the United States from Australia five years ago, we found the cost of buying a house in the Washington, D.C., area to be prohibitive. We had spent almost all our savings on transportation, and houses simply did not exist in the price range we could afford. We talked to real estate agents, explaining that the only way we could purchase a home was if it were owner-financed and so in need of repair that the price was greatly reduced. We ended up buying a large detached garage in a good neighborhood—and three years and many hours of hard work later, we had converted it into a roomy and comfort able two-bedroom house on half an acre of land. The final product is worth considerably more than what we invested in it.

While building the house and making the furniture took time—and certainly created some inconvenience for us—it also provided a nice time of family togetherness, and it let us work on a common project. When we worked on the house, the boys were small and the jobs they did were menial. But they had a great sense of accomplishment for having carried their share of the load. They like living in the house that "we" built.

For heat we burn wood, which we usually get for free by going to where new houses are being built and trees are being bulldozed out. It takes time to cut and split our fuel, but that too provides an opportunity for family togetherness and exercise.

Many of us today are being robbed of the sense of satisfaction that can be derived from doing things for ourselves. Instead of going out with the family and planting wheat, cultivating it, harvesting it, grinding it into flour, baking it into bread, then sitting down to relish it, we say Goodbye to the family, go off and work at jobs that may or may not bring us satisfaction, then rush home with a mass-produced loaf bought with the money we have earned. True, bread is bread. But there is a certain spiritual element that no longer is there. This is not a call to return to subsistence living, but I do feel that it would be better if more people could spend a greater amount of time with the basic elements of living—instead of feeling pressured to pursue a career and earn a living.

Saying No to yourself

Lest I make living on one wage seem too idyllic, let me say that it requires careful use of money. We have to be frugal. We often have to say No to ourselves. There are some things that we would like to do but cannot do. There are times when the children would like things that we cannot afford. But we have noted that no matter how much money a family takes in, there is never enough to fulfill all their desires. Thus, our financial tensions are probably not much greater than we would experience if both of us were working—they are simply at a different level.

For me, one of the biggest frustrations about not working outside the home is the lack of value that others place on my time. I have chosen not to seek remunerated employment because there are other aspects of life, other uses of time, that I feel are more important—and I pay for that decision in our standard of living. So why must it be assumed that merely because 1 stay at home every day, I am fair game to be called upon for any and every good cause that is promoted by the church, school, or community? Why do people feel free to ask me to take on projects that they would never think of asking of a woman who works?

The pressure to "keep up with the Joneses" is also a problem. The Adventist Church is becoming more affluent. There is subtle but very real pressure— particularly on a pastor's wife—to dress well. Congregations expect their pastor to live in a "representative" home, furnished in a way that meets their standards. Unfortunately, the expectations rise every year. With the almost universal assumption that both husband and wife will be employed for remuneration, it is becoming increasingly difficult to live the simple life, and we must steel ourselves against the temptation to give in to the pressure.

The pressure comes even in the amount of money that people seem to be expected to give to the church. For example, if you peruse the tithe envelopes at most churches, you discover that the plan is for members to give between 18 percent and 25 percent of their income to the church, depending on whether they opt for the high or the low suggested figures. Our policy has been to reassess our giving patterns each year and see what percentage we feel we can give, based on our current financial situation. Currently we are giving 5 percent in addition to tithe (although Jim also gives all the honorariums he gets for his extracurricular writing, which comes to another $ 1,000 or so each year).

How long we will be able to continue living on one wage remains to be seen. Admittedly, we are still young, and our children are not facing the high educational costs that they may face in a few years. But the educational subsidies that denominational employees receive are not insignificant, particularly as the student moves up to college level. We may find ourselves unable to live on one wage at some point. But the fact that we have been able to survive thus far— when so many people have said that even that is impossible—gives us hope that we will be able to continue.

Already Jim is searching for some type of business for the boys. One possibility is making wooden toys, such as rocking horses and little wagons. At first we will be doing much of the work. But as time passes, the boys can take over more and more. And while it is true that it will take quite a lot of our spare time, we will still be together, working as a family.


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Leonie Coffin, a homemaker in Burtonsville, Maryland, says she is trying to achieve the kind of fulfillment by not earning money that many people try to achieve by earning it.

May 1986

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