Living Within My Means Part 1
“Once I built a railroad, I made it run.
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it's done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime.
Once I built a tower, now it's done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?”
Don’t worry folks. Old Sawadee is not about to launch into a maudlin Tale of Woe about how it’s “all gone wrong”, or about how sweet life could have been “if only…”. My life has been pretty damned nice, with only a few “flies in the ointment”. So, breathe easy. You won’t hear any complaints today, only a straightforward story of how I got to where I am today. With all the recent discussion about what it takes to live in Thailand, I thought I would talk a little about my situation. My personal story is undoubtedly quite different than many of yours, but if nothing else, it is one hell of a tale.
Before discussing the present though, I need to go back in time to talk my former life in Farangland. Please bear with me. You need to understand how past events shaped my attitudes towards money, and how I arrived at my current personal circumstances.
As a young lad, I learned a lesson or two from Sawadee Senior, chief among them, the necessity to avoid debt like the Bubonic Plague. “Never owe money to anyone, under any circumstances!!!” It made sense to me then, and makes even more sense to me now.
I’m not looking to get another tattoo, (One is enough, thank you very much) but if I was in the market for some additional skin art, I know what I would have emblazoned on some visible part of my anatomy. TANSFL! “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!” Kind of catchy, eh? Don’t expect any rewards that you haven’t earned through hard work. Don’t have your hand out, expecting benevolence from other people if you haven’t put in your best efforts. In the end you need to pay for what you get.
In certain quarters of The Land of Smiles, this might be translated as, “No money, no honey!” Fair enough I say. Please don’t think that I am a heartless bastard. I do believe that people going through hard times deserve a helping hand. Certainly children are blameless for whatever their parents do or don’t do. People who are poor through no lack of hard work on their part, the elderly, who are forced to live on very limited income, the disabled etc., deserve the compassion of society as a whole. On the other hand, people who choose to be unproductive through sheer laziness don’t deserve anything.
I am thankful that I have never needed to collect one dollar of welfare, or unemployment. Some people in these hard economic times have had to turn to public assistance. I am not talking about those who choose to be on the dole rather than put in an honest day’s work. If the only work available to me was cleaning public toilets, I would still rather earn a meager wage than chow down at the welfare trough.
It turned out that my first job, other than helping out with the family business, did involve, among other things, cleaning toilets. At sixteen I had an after school job at a local coat factory doing janitorial work. This place was a quintessential sweat shop, where immigrants from a dozen countries worked their asses off under horrid conditions, for very little pay. I wouldn’t doubt that a number of these folks were in the U.S. illegally, but back in the early 1960’s immigration law was enforced much more loosely than it is today in an age of terrorism.
I was a one man cleaning machine. I swept floors, I shoveled snow, I emptied enormous bins of garbage, moved equipment around the factory…and I cleaned toilets. Women may claim to be more fastidious than men when using the commode, but let me state for the record, that the women’s toilets I had to clean were nauseatingly gross. Still, it was a job, and I kept at it until I went away to college. I saved almost everything I earned. What started out as a small savings account, grew steadily, and came in handy in the years ahead when I needed funds. I bought my first car, a 1963 Volvo 122S, with money from that account. My first savings account predated this one, and went back to the 1950’s when I attended Pomeroy Elementary School. Perhaps some Americans in my bracket can remember bringing a dollar to school every week on “bank day”. It’s never a bad idea to teach children at an early day to save for the future. My two boys from my first marriage, despite my constant advice, never could quite believe that money did not in fact grow on trees.
My father was a confirmed saver. Despite the fact that he (unbeknownst to me) managed to accumulate a rather large fortune over the course of this life, my family lived an extremely modest life. Until I was ten years old we lived in the ground floor of a, clean but otherwise undistinguished, house next door to the family auto parts business. The second floor was rented out to my father’s one employee and his family.
My grandfather started the business in the early years of the 20th century, straight off the boat from Russia. The business stared out as a junk yard. As there were more and more automobiles on the road, my grandfather (and later my father) cannibalized old cars to extract usable parts. Who could have guessed that Sawadee’s family would be at the forefront of recycling? All that cutting and pounding apparently paid off. My grandfather might have arrived as a penniless immigrant, but his son went on to get a degree in business administration from Lehigh University.
In 1961 we moved to a brand new split level home. It was in was a typical upper middle class development, and cost $40,000. As a young boy, it never occurred to me where the money came from to purchase this new home, but I assumed that my father had simply saved the money over the years. He had in fact saved a lot of money, but that is not what he used to pay for our home. It turned out that my father, who was a pretty cool and shrewd businessman, was also an equally cool and shrewd poker player. I still can recall the scene at our kitchen table when it was his turn to host the weekly poker game. Talk about a smoke filled room! My father and half a dozen of his cronies all smoked cigars. I guess that they were quality cigars, or at least I suppose so because they were Cuban. For me, they simply stank, which was probably one of the things that kept me from ever wanting to smoke. Stinky stogies aside, my father made out very well; so well in fact that he paid for our new home in cash. No mortgage for Senior Sawadee! That made a strong impression on me even back then. Pay cash. Don’t owe money!
Despite our new home, I was not living an extravagant existence. We never went on a single vacation. I didn’t have many playthings, although I was allowed to buy as many books as I liked. We never went out to restaurants…or at least I was never taken out to any! My father’s one personal indulgence was a Cadillac, a great big hulking boat of a car. He loved cruising around in his “Cadi.” He thought nothing of him and my mother going out on a four hundred mile jaunt on Sunday to try out a new restaurant he had heard about. I thankfully was left to my own devices. Frankly the idea of being trapped in an enclosed space for hours with a smoldering cigar, “freshening the air” was a horrible one!
Let’s fast forward past my college years and into my first marriage. Despite my BA in Education I found myself not in a classroom, but back in the family auto parts store. Why? It’s simple. My father was willing to pay me more to help him out, than I ever could have made teaching. This is not to say that I didn’t work my butt off! I earned every dollar of my salary…most of which was paid to me in hard, cold cash. My father didn’t believe in giving the government any more in taxes than he absolutely had to, and didn’t want me forking out more than necessary. I deposited my weekly check into a checking account and the cash into a safe deposit box. Hey, I still paid plenty of taxes to Uncle Sam…and when you come down to it, what’s more American than dodging “the revenuers”!
For the first seven years of our marriage, my wife and I rented several apartments. They were nothing fancy, but we fixed them up attractively, and there was plenty of room for the two of us. My wife was working full time, and so between the two of us we were able to save quite a substantial amount of money. When my wife became pregnant with our first child, we thought the time had come to go house hunting. We found a practically new house that suited our taste…and our bank account. It came with a solar hot water system and five acres of land. A fair chunk of that land was marshy, but it afforded privacy, while being close to the center of town. The fellow who designed it was also the builder, and since he was building for himself, he didn’t cut corners. The price was $75,000, which we thought was reasonable. We were able to put down $30,000 in cash. The last thing we needed was a large mortgage. Apparently my father felt the same way. He wound up giving us the balance so that we could buy our home outright, and not owe the bank one dime. This of course was generous of my father. In any case he said he would rather have us enjoy our inheritance while he and my mother were around, and he definitely would rest easier in his grave knowing that his hard earned money hadn’t gone to the government in the form of inheritance taxes!
My father expressed even more generosity a year later. One day he said while over for dinner, “This is a nice little house, but it’s really rather small, why don’t you put on an addition. You put in what you can, and I’ll take care of the rest.” I should mention at this point that I was a “good boy”, who never gave my parents a day of grief, with perhaps the exception of marrying a “schikse”…a non-Jew, in my case a Catholic. In the end, my parents liked my wife, and loved the grandchildren she gave them.
We had money to spend, and we did in fact spend it…lots of it, but never more than we could afford…and we never dipped into our savings account. We had new cars, which we traded in every few years. We had Audis, Saabs, Mitsubishis and Volkswagens. We paid cash every time.
About this time I left the family business to start one of my own. My older brother, who was running our store now, and I did not get along. Actually that would be putting it mildly, but that discussion is not germane to my story today.
My business began after a few lovely vacations to the UK. The two of us, and later three, and later still, four of us, drove all over England, Scotland and Wales. We filled our eyes with the gorgeous scenery. We filled our stomachs with delicious food and drink. (In my experience, the old stereotype of “bad British food” is a myth. Yes, you can find “bad food” just about anywhere!) We filled our suitcases with as much as we could carry home. In short, we had become confirmed Anglophiles.
A little light bulb went off in Sawadee’s head. Instead of filling suitcases, why not fill crates? Why not start a shop featuring items exclusives from the UK? That is exactly what we did. We called our shop White Horse Hill, after the chalk carving in Uffington.
It was hardly Harrods transplanted to Lenox Massachusetts, but all these years later, I can still hold my head up with pride and say “I did a damned fine job!” The shop carried a potpourri of things, from Barbour jackets and “Wellie” boots, to clotted cream and toy castles. Lenox is a major tourist destination, which is probably most famous for the Tanglewood Music Festival, which takes place in July and August. When summer is over, there are throngs of visitors passing through to enjoy the spectacular autumn foliage. During winter, the county’s six ski areas attract huge numbers of out of towners. Many of the vacationers were affluent, and didn’t mind paying premium prices. What I offered in our shop was novel, and business was brisk. I wasn’t raking in a fortune, but our savings account flourished, and as a side benefit I got to travel to the UK every year…and write my trip off as a tax deduction!
It was about this time that my wife suggested that we take horse back riding lessons. Why not? The idea of learning to ride had some appeal. If however at that moment I had a crystal ball handy to peer into or a gypsy fortune teller happened to wander by shaking her head in warning, I might have saved myself a hell of a lot of grief, not to mention money. Unfortunately no supernatural phenomenon intervened to keep me from heading down the road I was about to embark on. Please forgive me for going into a bit of detail, but this interlude has relevance in the future course of events.
The riding lessons actually went quite well. I really did learn to walk, trot and canter, and occasionally jump. Of course my form was undoubtedly less than picture perfect, but despite a fair number of falls, I wasn’t a complete disgrace to the equestrian art. My wife suggested that we buy our own horse. Foolishly, oh so very foolishly, I agreed. I once saw a bumper sticker on the back of a pickup truck that read, “Poverty is owning a horse”. Those words were truer than I could have possibly imagined.
I won’t bore you with the details of horse hunting, except to say that if there was an equine equivalent of a “lemon”, we bought one. This Quarter Horse was a useless, lazy, recalcitrant nag that all the training in the world couldn’t improve. Besides the actual cost to purchase this candidate for the glue factory, there was the cost of boarding at a local stable, veterinary fees and blacksmith fees. I shelled out more to shoe this horse over the course of every few months, than I spent on many years worth of shoes for myself! I won’t even go into the price of saddles!
What do you do when you’ve wasted thousands of dollars on a sour horse? Unfortunately the answer is “upgrade” to a more expensive and hopefully better one. If nothing else, the Arabian that was our next horse was anything but lazy, in fact his fault was that he was extremely energetic. He had been trained as an endurance horse, and man did that training show! You had to run him around the ring full out for half an hour until he was calm enough to ride at less than a gallop. He was in the end too much for my wife to handle, and so we moved on to horse # 3, and later to horse # 4. My wife was competing at horse shows by this time. Now we had to buy a horse trailer. The cash register kept ringing.
For me, all this “playing horsey” was a minor part of my life. My wife on the other hand was completely into, not only the riding, but the society of some of the more affluent horse lovers in our area. I have never been entirely comfortable socializing with people of wealth. Perhaps that is because most of the ones I’ve known, when you take away all that money, are not people I would have wanted to spend time around anyway. My wife on the other hand, was entranced by those living a privileged life. I think she fancied herself moving in the “rarified atmosphere” of the rich and famous. It was this desire that led us to packing up and moving to a new home.
I really should say old home, because it was built in the mid 19th century. It is funny that I should wind up living there, because it was a bit of a local landmark in Lenox; one that I had driven past, and admired for many years. It was less than a mile from Tanglewood. If you ever attended a concert there, you may have driven by it. It’s the one with the duck pond. People from as long as I can remember have stopped to enjoy the idyllic scene and feed the ducks. This house, if you would believe it, had a name. A house with a name! Is that ritzy or what? In this case the name was Stonover Farm, and was not a single house, but in fact two houses.
The main house was quite unusual for my area, in that it was built of stone. Impressive as it was, it was only a farmhouse for the real Big House, which was a certified mansion. Berkshire County has about 75 “cottages” built by the likes of William Vanderbilt during the Guilded Age. Cottages my ass! These were palatial mansions, which served as summer residences for some of the most elite families of the time.
In addition to the main house at Stoneover Farm, there was a second smaller guest house perched on a hill… and a sizeable horse barn. Can you get the drift of where this is leading, folks? The property was owned by horsey friend of my wife. This lady lived in a beautifully restored “cottage”. She was also the only person I can refer to accurately as a certified heiress. The words rich, or filthy rich, don’t come close to describing the huge fortune her family was worth. We are talking hundreds of millions of dollars here. Despite her wealth she was actually a pretty nice person. It turned out that she and my wife owned the same exotic breed of horse, a Norwegian Fjord. One day this woman casually mentioned that she wanted to sell Stonover Farm…and would my wife know of anyone who was interested? It was a steal for mere $500,000. It came with 12 acres of prime agricultural land…just perfect for horse pastures and even a riding ring!
I was not the least interested in taking on anything remotely like this place. A) $500,000 may be pocket change for The Heiress, but it was a huge amount of money for us to be thinking about. B) The house, despite the price, was a “fixer-upper”…and that was being charitable. The basic structure may have been sound, but no one had lived in the place for ages, and it was frankly a dump. Oh, undoubtedly it could be turned into a gem, if you were willing to put a hell of a lot of work into it, and invest a hell of a lot of money. This was money which I pointed out to my wife, we did not have, and I was certainly not going to borrow!
Never underestimate the lengths an obsessed woman will go, to get what she wants. Women are women, whether they hail from Thailand or Farangland. My eventually to become ex-wife did an end run around yours truly and went straight to the bank. No, I don’t mean our local savings and loan. This gal went to where she knew she would find plenty of available cash. I’m talking about Sawadee Senior. My father had been talking for some time about giving my brother and me a large amount of money. Call it an early inheritance. His health was beginning to deteriorate, and he wanted to avoid giving it to the government. My sneaky wife pitched the idea of buying this farm, and to my utter astonishment, the man bought it, hook, line and sinker!
I was perfectly content with where we were living. If my father had offered me the amount of money he casually handed over to my wife, I would have sunk the whole lot into CDs, which at that time were paying about 17% in dividends. (No stock market for me!) Now that my father was sold on my wife’s project, he wouldn’t dream of denying her. This was the same guy who made me buy my bicycle from money I earned from shoveling snow! My wife knew how to butter him up but good. She had recently finished graduate school…all paid for by my father. Me, when I went to college I had to work summers and fork it over to help pay tuition! Oh well, and so it goes.
Fixing up Stonover was a major construction project. I may not be a skilled carpenter or mason, but I could, and did wield a mean sledge hammer and reciprocating saw! When the dust settled, our new home was simply gorgeous. It was a good thing my business was still doing well, because the property taxes were over $8,000 a year! My mother eventually moved into the little guest house on the hill when my father passed away. At least the old man got to see the place finished. For a guy who started out with almost nothing, it must have been gratifying to see me living in a manner he could never have even dreamed of as a boy.
My wife got her horse riding ring organized into a teaching facility. She had Masters Degree in Occupational Therapy, and was using it for a therapy program for disabled children. Occasionally other people came by for riding lessons, including the two children of Yo Yo Ma. (If you don’t know who he is, do a quick Google search!) Our two families had dinner together a few times. In addition to being the world’s premier cellist, Yo Yo is one hell of a nice guy!
Despite the pleasant surroundings, our 20+ year marriage was by this time a highly toxic one. There is no need to go into the details. All you need to know is that I wound up in a small apartment, and while waiting for divorce negotiations to begin, it was during this time that I decided that a trip to the jasmine scented shores of Thailand was just thing I needed. Yes, I am getting closer to talking about life in Thailand, and how the title of this piece applies to it, but first I need to talk the economic upheaval surrounding my divorce.
I have gone into great detail in previous submissions about how I met the lovely Thai woman who would eventually become my wife. There is no reason to go into that story again. The only thing I want to bring up today is the monetary shellacking I took in order to become a single man. My ex-wife knew that I wanted to remarry. She also knew that she could prevent this from happening by holding out for an outrageous financial settlement, that under other circumstances, I would have fought tooth and nail.
For those of you who are not American, I need to explain something about U.S. divorce laws. In the current court system, men are presumed to be guilty of just about anything a woman chooses to charge you with. Just fill in the blank. Even if not actually charged with abuse, men usually get the short end of the stick in terms of finances, and rarely if ever are granted custody of their children. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is even tougher on men than just about any other state. A friend of mine once referred to Massachusetts’ harsh divorce statutes with a most fitting acronym: BOHICA… “Bend over. Here it comes again!” I might add no soothing balm is supplied to ease one’s buggering.
To make my personal situation even more uncomfortable, my ex-wife hired herself a real feminazi of a lawyer. Upon hearing of my intention to marry a young Thai woman, this lawyer insinuated that my tee-rak was probably just a “common prostitute”. If we wound up in court, she made it clear that she would bring up my dubious moral character. No mention was ever made of the fact that my hopefully soon to be ex-wife was having an affair before I packed my bags and exited my home. Her infidelity was considered “irrelevant”. If I on the other hand had been demonstrably unfaithful, I would have been branded with The Scarlett A.
Mercifully; my father was no longer around to witness my ordeal. Sadly my mother was still alive to see all this happen. His years of generosity were repaid with contempt. It is one thing to divide assets based on the contribution both parties have made in the course of a marriage. I heartily include years of motherhood and housekeeping as being just as essential, and just as equal to “work” in the business sense of the word. What I found galling is my ex’s claim for assets that were not based on anything the two earned over the years, but those that were solely gifts from my parents. In the end, if I were looking for “reasoned” justice, I was living in a fantasy land.
I could have contested everything in court, futile as that might have been, but that could have taken years. In the meantime I would be unable to marry again. The only way my tee-rak could come to the U.S. was on a fiancé visa, which obviously required proof that I was legally divorced. My ex made it clear that she was quite content to sit on her ass until hell froze over…unless I gave her everything that she wanted. Against the advice of my lawyer, that’s what I eventually did. I had found a truly lovely person to make a new life with. If I had to get raped to do so, that was the price I was willing to pay.
In addition to paying what I considered “blood money”, I paid a generous amount to help take care of my children. Hey, why should they suffer for something which was not their fault? My wife insisted that child support be paid in one lump sum, just in case I decided to abscond to parts unknown…such as Thailand. I also paid in full for my children’s education. Let’s see; Four years at a good college or university will set you back at least $100,000. Throw in miscellaneous expenses. Multiply this sum by two and you have a significant amount of cash. Stonover would go on the market, and eventually sell for over $1,000,000. I would end up with much less than half of that amount . And just to kick Sawadee in the gut for jollies, I had to pay an astonishing amount of money to settle my ex’s credit card debt…and it was a major debt. Me, I only used my credit card to pay for gas, and occasionally for shopping when I wasn’t carrying much cash. I only used Amex, which required me to settle my monthly bill in full, which is just the way I liked it.
What I received in return for giving away much of my material wealth was priceless…my freedom, in the form of a final divorce decree, all properly stamped by a notary and embossed with a shiny gold seal. It was time to start writing the next, and hopefully happier, chapter of my life’s story.
You read a lot of tales here about avaricious Thai women, many from Isaan, who have no idea how to budget money. They live in the “here and now”, with little thought of tomorrow. If they suddenly come into money, they spend it with abandon, and at the end of the month they are without two baht to rub together. My new wife was the exact opposite. Having grown up with virtually no money, she was always concerned that we had “enough to live on”…not only for today or next week, but for every day, every week. I’ve talked in previous submissions about her frugality. Even when we lived in America, and had plenty of money for luxuries, she was always concerned with what might happen down the road. My father would have loved this gal!
It’s all well and good to be frugal, but it needs to be in proportion to one’s economic situation. When we got married I was working as a manager at my area’s Barnes & Noble. I wasn’t earning a fortune, but my salary was more than we needed to pay the bills. I also had a little something in the bank beyond what I received from my divorce settlement. Actually I had more than just “a little something”. It seems I never got around to ever telling my ex-wife about the safety deposit box full of crisp one hundred dollar bills I kept at a local bank. Before we ever got started with negotiations, I quietly went to the bank one day and emptied the contents into a briefcase. This I transferred to a very private secure location. It was nice to score at least one victory! I also had a modest amount of money from my mother’s estate when she passed away. It’s a shame she never got to meet my darling. They would have gotten on splendidly.
After getting married, my wife suddenly found herself having more than a few hundred baht at her disposal. She was unprepared to deal with it. I actually had to coax her to spend money on things she needed. To this day, and I know it’s hard to believe, she is possibly the only woman in the world who doesn’t want her husband to buy her gifts. Well, if truth be told, she would happily accept farmland. During the five years we lived in the U.S., her only indulgence was shopping for shoes. Once she discovered the mega shoe stores at the mall, I practically had to taser her to get her out. It wasn’t the actual buying of shoes that sent me over the edge, but the endless (and I do mean endless) trying on of shoes that she had no intention of buying.
Not long after we were married, I took her on a ten day vacation to Orlando. We did it all: Disney World, Sea World, Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, and the Kennedy Space Center. She thoroughly enjoyed the attractions, but could never get over how much money I was spending for a vacation. The word vacation has no cultural context for a girl who grew up so poor, that she never had a Coke until she was in University. Now here was her Farang husband spending more for a single night’s lodging at a fancy hotel than her family earned in an entire month. Eating out for her meant a 25 baht bowl of noodles at the market. It was hard for her to accept the idea that it was perfectly normal to spend the equivalent of 1500 baht for the two of us. I had to carefully explain that it was okay to indulge ourselves for a few days a year, as long as we were not spending money that we needed for our living expenses.
Eventually she stopped panicking every time I took out my wallet. By the time I took her car shopping, she barely blinked as I wrote out a large check for her new Plymouth PT Cruiser, and my new Toyota Rav 4. She even grinned from ear to ear when she realized that her lovely leather seats were heated! (She was chilly even in the middle of summer!)
For the first two years we lived in a very nice little apartment. At this time we were not contemplating a move to Thailand. We were getting along happily. We had made it through a transition period without more than a few minor squabbles. It seemed reasonable to go house hunting. We lucked out almost immediately. A new housing development was going up in a lovely forested area on the shores of a small lake. We took a tour of the development and liked what we saw. It has a really nice heated swimming pool, which was a big plus! I also was good friends with several of the people who were living there. It wasn’t long before we decided to build there.
This was not some outlandish house like Stonover. It was simply a well designed middle class home. We decorated it tastefully with a decidedly Thai/Asian motif that never failed to gets oohs and ahs when friends came over to visit. We had enough land for my darling to revert to her childhood roots and put in a sizable vegetable garden. Life was good!
We were both working, although my wife never was able to find a job that utilized her computer skills. (She had a BA in computer science). We took yearly visits to Thailand, mostly spent visiting her family in Buriram. Before we were married, my wife let me know that she felt responsible to help take care of her parents. I had absolutely no problem with that. She could give them as much as she wanted…from what she earned. I did get wrangled into helping to finance converting the front of her parents’ house into a convenience store, but did so in the spirit of that old maxim, “Feed a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life”. A Siamese twist on this might translate as, “Teach a Thai to fish, and he’ll demand a cabin cruiser, and a case of beer to drink it on, while pointedly not fishing very much!” I knew the back-breaking toll farming took on her mother. Those of you have read my stories about my wife’s family know all the details of their soap-operaesque life! Even my overly generous wife has now made it clear that the “Farang ATM” has been shut down permanently. That’s getting ahead of ourselves though in this narration.
For a few years we had been joking around about moving to Thailand, but over time our casual fantasying starting becoming more and more of an actually plan. I’ve discussed the whys and hows of our move to Lampang in previous submissions, so there’s no need to retell that story. The only relevant details I need to discuss are those related to our financial situation. We were extraordinarily fortunate in our timing to sell our home. The local hosing market was still booming. We not only had no difficulty finding a buyer, but turned a very nice profit in the bargain. It was time to send a container of our household goods on a long sea voyage. Not long after, suitcases in hand, we boarded a plane and set out for The Land of Smiles.
To be continued…
I *very* much agree with you that borrowing money and debts is generally not a good thing. That and living beyond your means causes a lot of people a lot of grief.