Readers' Submissions

Hardly the Wealth of Croesus

  • Written by Sawadee2000
  • November 23rd, 2012
  • 13 min read



I’ve written in some detail…perhaps too much detail according to some, about my income and expenditures here in Thailand. I won’t bore you by talking about that again. Suffice it to say that during the course of my life I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a fairly high degree of prosperity. Granted, my divorce settlement cleaned out a good portion of my savings, but when I eventually resettled in Thailand, I still had a substantial chunk of change with which to start a new life.

Luckily I was able to build a lovely home while my coffers were still full, since I would soon wind up making a series of large “donations” to Chiang Mai Ram Hospital over the next few years. Certainly I cannot complain about spending a few million baht, since I’m still alive and able to write this. If anything, I hope no one can describe me as churlish!

Since my monthly bills are relatively few and not terribly high, I have been able to live a modestly comfortable life on what I earn teaching, without sacrificing any essential creature comforts, and without incurring any debt. I’m happy to say that I don’t owe anyone a single baht. To be honest though I haven’t had an enormous surplus of cash to indulge myself with many extra luxuries either.

That situation ended some months ago when I began to receive some supplemental income in the form of Social Security payments. I started paying into the Social Security system when I took my first part time job at the age of 16, sweeping floors and scrubbing toilets at the Berkshire Coat Factory. A small portion of my meager paycheck went to the U.S. Social Security Administration with the hope that someday I would get that money back to help fund my retirement. Throughout my adult life, I along with tens of millions of other Americans kept paying into the system, and hoping that the damned thing would remain solvent when retirement age finally came around. To be honest, I never thought all that much about collecting anything until I began to approach 60. Suddenly the thought of getting some much needed supplementary income every month never sounded better.

During all the years I had been living in Thailand I had not paid any additional money into the system, and in fact would not be doing so in the future, therefore it made no sense to wait until I was 65 and collect “full benefits”. I might as well collect what I was entitled to at age 62 and enjoy it while I was still alive and kicking.

Two months before I turned 62 I filled out and submitted all the requisite paperwork for my application. I say “paperwork”, although I never touched a single piece of physical paper. This being the 21st Century I filled everything out online. Fairly soon I was contacted by someone from the Social Security office…not in America as you might expect, but in the Philippines of all places. My caseworker was a very personable young woman who guided me through everything I needed to do to receive my benefits in Thailand.

The first order of business was to set up a bank account for the direct deposit of my monthly benefits. The only bank that the SSA (Social Security Administration) works with is Bangkok Bank. I suppose that is because Bangkok Bank is the only one in Thailand that has offices in the U.S.

The branch of Bangkok Bank I chose to set up an account with is at my local Big C, mainly because it is conveniently located, and there is always parking available. Being a small branch, I thought the people who work there would soon come to know me personally which might make life easier if any problems ever arose. If nothing else, I wouldn’t have to show an ID every time I walked in the door.

This being Thailand, there was quite a lot of real paperwork to be filled out, not just to open an account, but for authorizing SSA to deposit my money there. All of this was completely new and unfamiliar for the staff there. They had never had to deal with this particular kind of Farang banking situation before. It took a number of long phone calls and e-mails to the main office in Bangkok to guide the staff through the process. They were all extremely patient and eager to learn something new. There are a fair number of Americans in my age bracket living in Lampang, so I’m certain this would not the last time they will be going through this drill. To show my appreciation for all their efforts on my behalf, I later brought them a large box of donuts and other pastries, which may not sound like much, but was very well received. I seriously doubt they receive gifts of any kind in the course of doing their jobs. I’ve added these folks to my Christmas baking list and look forward to bringing them one of my stollen come December. It’s always nice to get a big smile when you walk in the door.

Fast forward a few months. It was with a sense of nervous anticipation that I inserted my bank book into the passbook update machine. Would there actually be anything in my account other than the money I used to open it? The machine whirred and made all the right sort of noises, ejected my bank book and…lo and behold there was indeed the expected sum of money I had been promised. I am so used to things going horribly wrong when dealing with government institutions that I half expected for there to have been some kind of problem, but for once in my life everything went as smoothly as I could have hoped for.

The next thing I needed to do was to fill out a withdrawal slip and take this money out of this account and transfer it into the account where I receive my monthly salary. Why you ask? Well, the type of account that the SSA requires is one for which there is no ATM card. This of course is for security. No one but Old Sawadee can take money out of this account, which is just fine with me.

Some of you might be wondering why I am continuing to teach if I’m now collecting Social Security. While the amount I receive is hardly a fortune, it is in fact significantly more than what I earn teaching. If I chose to I could live comfortably on that amount of money. Why then continue to teach?

To begin with, despite the moments when I bang my head against the wall in frustration with the inanity of the Thai education system…and let me tell you there is plenty of that… I do actually enjoy what I do…most of the time. Teaching keeps me busy. It keeps my mind alert and my cerebellum chugging along. I would be lying if I didn’t say that there are mornings when I wish I could just roll over and go back to sleep, but on the whole I’m happy to walk into the classroom.

There is another more mundane reason to keep working, and that it that it allows me to save my Social Security money for things other than basic living expenses. To start off with, I know that someday I will be unable to work, and I want to have as much money as possible in reserve to supplement my monthly income when I am force to live on Social Security exclusively.

When, and I do mean when, and not if, I need additional care for my heart, there is no one out there who is going to hand me a pile of cash to pay for it. It will be up to me to pay for it. As it stands now, as a taxpayer, I do receive free medical care and medicine from the Thai medical system, for which I am truly grateful, but expensive heart surgery, is obviously not available to the likes of me. Perhaps one day I will return to my home in the U.S. now that Affordable Health Care (Obama Care) is now the law of the land, but for now I plan to stay here in Thailand, so it is up to me to pay for any future visits to Chiang Mai Ram. There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!

Aside from planning for illness, there are quite a few more pleasant things I can do with a little extra cash on hand, starting with indulging myself with a few minor luxuries. Most of you might laugh at Old Sawadee’s quaint idea of “luxuries”. For me, being able to buy a large bag of almonds or crystallized ginger at Rim Ping Market in Chiang Mai, or dare I even a bottle of Ocean Spray Cranberry juice, without feeling a pinch is for me a luxury. What can I say? It doesn’t take much to make me happy!

If the idea of me being ecstatic over a few extra grocery items has you chortling, you’ll be falling off your chairs when I tell you that underwear and socks from the USA were on a list of things I had my good friend Bob bring back for me recently. Say what you will, I’ll take Fruit of the Loom over anything made here in Thailand. I’m willing to bet that more than a few of you prefer Western brand undergarments as well.

Another thing I hope to do now that I have more money is see a whole lot more of Thailand…and NOT by bus! Lord, how many times have I made the 16 hour round trip to Bangkok by bus? Way too many! In the future I plan to fly there. I think I will also “saddle” up my Toyota and do whatever road trips time allows me to make. I actually enjoy driving, so I don’t mind spending a lot of time on the road. There are plenty of places worth visiting just here in the north of Thailand, and I have never seen anything in the South. The idea of strolling along a beach just about anywhere sounds just fine to me.

There is also plenty of other places to visit here in Asia. I’ve never been to Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam or Singapore. I would love to travel to Nepal and Tibet. Now that I can allocate some money, I intend to see as much as I can. Someday I may even make it down to Stick’s stomping grounds in Kiwi-Land.

One trip I will definitely be making is with my good American friend Ed. We plan on driving through the South Western part of the U.S: Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. There are a number of national parks there that I’ve been waiting my whole life to see. Hmmm…perhaps now that the state of Colorado has legalized the “recreational use of marijuana”, a short excursion to the Rockies might be in order as well!

“Flush with cash”, I have allowed myself a just few electronic “toys”. I finally broke down and bought an iPod, specifically a 32 GB iPod touch. There’s enough room on here for thousands of songs, plus audio books, movies etc. Why not an Iphone or an iPad? Well to be honest, I hardly use the 900 baht phone I bought when I first moved here. I simply don’t talk much on the phone. As for a tablet, although they are certainly cool, I can’t really justify buying one. I have a perfectly usable desk top computer at home. I don’t really travel that much, so the convenience of having a tablet is really wasted on me. I don’t rule out the possibility of buying one someday, but for now I had other things to spend the money on…such as a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones.

This was my BIG purchase. They cost quite a bit more than the iPod, but as far as I’m concerned, they were worth every penny. If you ever have a chance to try out a pair, you simply must! Aside from the superb fidelity you would expect from Bose, the truly amazing thing is that annoying background noise virtually disappears. Listening to music with them on is like having a concert hall inside of your head…even in the middle of a noisy city. I absolutely love these things! I intend to make good use of these while relaxing at the end of the day and when I’m traveling. It’s a long, long flight to the U.S. These will certainly make the journey much more enjoyable.

My last gadget I allowed myself wasn’t at all expensive, but already I don’t know I’ve lived without it. I’ve mentioned from time to time that I am a bibliophile…a book lover. I simply don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have a supply of good books on hand. Although I enjoy browsing the used book stores in Chiang Mai, I’m always looking for something to good to read. Well, with my brand new Kindle from Amazon, I doubt that I will ever be short of reading material again.

In case you don’t know what I’m referring to, a Kindle is an electronic reading device. The one I bought is a basic model. It isn’t a tablet. It doesn’t have a color screen. It is strictly for reading. What I love about it is that it is small, lightweight and easy to read. I had heard of these before, but wasn’t interested because I thought that it would be like reading printed material from a computer monitor, which I find strains my eyes after a short time. Once I had a chance to actually hold one in my hands, I completely changed my opinion. This devise uses what they call “e-ink” technology, which makes what is displayed virtually identical to what you would read on a printed page. I can also select the font style I prefer and the font size. Old Sawadee’s eyesight isn’t what it used to be, so that’s a big plus!

Another plus is that there are thousands and thousands of free books available for download. My friend Bob has in fact given me a huge number of books, which should keep me busy for a while, but if I want to buy something recently published, I can purchase an e-format version for a fraction of the price of a printed book.

That will probably be it as far as gadgets or indeed any other high end purchases are concerned for the foreseeable future. I am perfectly content with what I already have. I think I’ll just continue to build up my bank account for whatever the future has in store for me. Hopefully I can put off any trips to the hospital for some years. In the meantime I intend to continue to enjoy a modestly comfortable life in Thailand. My newly acquired funds are hardly the wealth of Croesus, but for Old Sawadee they will serve me well in the years ahead.



Stickman's thoughts:

Old Sawadee sounds like a kid in a candy store! Good to hear that the money has started to come through and I hope you get to enjoy it for a long time to come!