I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Merritt Tierce’s article in Marie Clair about going broke after publishing a critically-acclaimed novel. It popped up on my Facebook feed shortly after it was published on September 16, and I keep revisiting it.
On the one hand, Tierce’s dilemma speaks to the increasing costs of living in America. I can’t wrap my head around a US$786 utility bill. She says she kept her house at a cozy 85 degrees and this was literally the hottest summer in the world. But even with the air conditioners running all the time to keep the temperature just under unbearable, I’m shocked that a utility bill can be so high.
The cost of living in the United States is one of the reasons my husband and I moved to Taiwan in 2013. To date, our biggest electricity bill has been NT$8000, which is about US$255 for two months. Ironically, it wasn’t even our bill: we inherited from a stereotypically irresponsible trio of English teachers when we took over their lease. We can only assume that the three of them air-conditioned their bedrooms and the living room all summer.
In contrast, our combined take-home pay is generous. Not by American standards. Not enough to pay US$800 utility bills. Combined, we aren’t even earning the US$40,000 a year that Tierce is fantasizing about. But we work and we still have time and money to save, to spend, and to travel.
Come to Taiwan, Merritt Tierce! I don’t want you to have to dip into your son’s college fund to pay the rent!
Which brings me to my second line of thought: Shouldn’t Tierce be able to pay her bills if she wrote a very good book? Shouldn’t she be able to live off the earnings from that book, and her husband’s income, long enough to write another one?
At the risk of proving my ignorance or naivete here, has it ever been possible for most writers to live on writing alone? I think writers have about as much chance of getting paid like Stephen King and JK Rowling as kids who want to be astronauts have of stepping foot on the moon. In 2016, real artists have day jobs, don’t they? Tierce doesn’t even want to invest all the time and effort it takes into being a full-time freelancer, which, honey, I understand. There is so much to do besides write when you take that road, that it makes my little ADD-addled head spin.
But has any writer, especially any contemporary writer, made enough money to live by just writing critically-acclaimed novel after critically-acclaimed novel?
To be able to afford a room of one’s own–the space and time to create–most everyone has to sell their present time to the most accommodating bidder or mortgage their future with loans, or second-book deals. Not so many of us can count on an inheritance or even sufficient financial support from a spouse.
Maybe the folks who are self-publishing romance and adventure e-books have the right idea. But the ones I know are still teaching English, too.
I feel like somebody needs to tell Tierce to “write like a motherfucker.” Not me. I only wish I was published. But Cheryl Strayed could.
I bought Tierce’s book. A blurb from Roxane Gay is a good enough endorsement for me. And I’d like to encourage her to keep going. She might never make the list of the country’s best-paid authors, but she definitely won’t if she stops now. The odds are high, the work is hard, and I don’t want to have to wait tables, deliver mail, teach English, or hustle for one-off writing gigs any more than she does, and I’m not even on a path that leads to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
Taiwanese people are really money conscious, and at the Taiwanese schools where many of my friends and I work, this can make for some funny stories. My friends and I came up with a list of times our schools cut corners in really memorable ways.
To be honest, some of this stuff really annoys me, but I’ve learned to throw up my hands and say “this is Taiwan.” What I don’t get is that we all teach at private schools where the parents pay a lot of money for their kids to learn English, just for the school to make it hard on us to teach. Just like teachers at public schools back in the U.S., we end up buying a lot of our own materials for class projects or requesting parents bring in supplies. It happens so often, though, that I am not calling out any school in particular. Some of these examples actually happen or have happened at more than one school.
Very few schools I know provide both toilet paper and hand soap in the bathrooms for teachers and students. It’s kind of a cultural thing, because many places here with public bathrooms still don’t provide toilet paper and soap in 2016. You’d think that with kids being tiny germ factories that the schools would prioritize hygiene, though. Not providing antibacterial soap, or diluting liquid soap until it looks and feels like water, is not in anyone’s best interest.
A cram school owner promised my students we’d have an Easter egg hunt. She really talked it up and we did a lot of Easter activities in the days leading up to it. Then on that day, she hid in the office one plastic egg per student, with one piece of generic candy inside. The kids were so disappointed. They were polite about it, but I hated seeing their sad faces.
I’ve talked about this before, but my school promised we’d get all the materials we needed to make candied apples. We confirmed with them many times because we really didn’t believe they’d come through. And when we got back from our lunch hour, ready to prep for class…they had bought the ingredients to make chocolate-covered cherry tomatoes. For the record, that’s not actually a thing, not even here in Taiwan. They just pulled it out of the air.
At another school, I had to teach a little cooking class, so I was going to make some nice, easy-to-assemble lettuce wraps with some shredded chicken breast meat, assorted veggies, green leaf lettuce, and a vinaigrette dressing. Again, I check in with the admin person a bunch of times to make sure we’d have all the ingredients ready on that day. When I showed up, all we had was iceberg lettuce, a very greasy roast chicken, and Thousand Island dressing. I tried rolling with it, but the first little girl to snatch the bottle and pour some into her wrap accidentally doused it with orange dressing. She didn’t want to eat it, and I wasn’t about to make her eat it because it looked gross, but the Chinese teacher insisted. The girl was bawling. This was all before 9:00 a.m.
One school promised the attendees of their summer camp a morning at an arcade and sports center, but when they got there, each student only got 5 tokens, which they disposed of in about 15 minutes. The rest of the time, their teacher tells me, they went on a sad tour of all the games they couldn’t play.
Another teacher tells me that at her school if you want to request dried beans for an art project, you have to specify how many beans you need per student. And then someone in the office will be tasked with counting out the exact number of beans you get. They are literally bean counters.
I taught at a school where the principal insisted the classrooms had to be decorated, but refused to budget any money for decorating supplies. The whole place was passive-aggressively done up, all year, with orange-and-green stripped candy canes and cut-outs of the the kids scribbles on A4 paper. If art is expressing your emotions in ways other people can see and even touch, this place would have been the Museum of Resentment. The principal had a big, beautiful SUV and lots of unhappy employees.
If you have any more funny or sad stories about your school pinching pennies, share them in the comments.
When I was in the States, I felt like it took forever to make friends. And then there were different levels of friendship, and it was impossible to advance to the level of I’ve-known-you-as-long-as-So-and-so because So-and-so was there for two years before I got there, and she’d only been there four years, and that was already twice as long as I’d been there.
It was exasperating.
And then people would have parties, but only some people were invited, and you were instructed in the invite not to tell other people about the party. But then everyone knew each other (small town, small company), so you’d hear about it and you’d just feel bad/you’d mention it and make someone else feel bad.
“I miss Taiwan! We always invited everyone to our parties!”
Now that we’re in Taiwan, though, I see the other side of the coin: Every fucking weekend, it’s somebody’s birthday, a Western holiday, a Chinese holiday, or a local holiday.
It’s exhausting and expensive. People buy each other gifts here, too, like a bottle of wine or some fancy lotion. I’m of the opinion that because we are in our 30s and because we’re so busy seeing everyone we have to see every weekend that we don’t even spend that much time with any one group of people, that we don’t need to keep showing up to restaurants for dinner and drinks and a present. I’m not going to have a dirty-diaper tantrum because somebody didn’t buy me a bottle of wine they know damn well I can buy for myself.
When we have to buy someone else a gift, I’m like, “I haven’t seen this kid in three months and I don’t even know if he gives a shit about good wine.” So I bought an inexpensive bottle, and a couple more for our upcoming housewarming party because it’ll probably be fruity and easy to drink, if it isn’t flat and doesn’t taste like stems.
…Except that my friends were super generous when they came to my birthday gift. I didn’t say “don’t bring a gift” on the invite because I thought it was tacky and unnecessary. I didn’t know that people were asking J what to bring, and he was telling them all to bring wine, or that some of my lovely friends would bring me handbags and even clothes. I felt ashamed for not wanting to buy gifts, and so overwhelmed by everyone’s thoughtfulness…
Yet, if they hadn’t brought gifts, it still would have been a wonderful birthday.
How much are we supposed to budget for birthdays every weekend? I don’t even want birthday gifts, seriously. Not in a mean kind of way, but if people want to spend money to have dinner and drinks with me, I’m pumped! You don’t need to drop cash on buying me booze or handbags or dresses, too! I don’t want to seem ungrateful, either, and I don’t want to opt out of this nice community, but it gets expensive. Are we too old for this?
J and I decided a while ago that we wouldn’t leave Taiwan this year. Part of that was my concerns about how Obamacare might affect expats and our tax status, etc. Basically nobody had any answers by late 2013, so I felt like playing it safe by not going into the US for all of this year was the best policy.
It also costs a lot of money to pare all your stuff down to two suitcases then get set up again in another country, and the trip back home is extremely expensive: about US$2000 for one round-trip plane ticket back to the States, plus the wages you miss by taking time off, plus the cost of hotels, car rentals, meals with friends, shopping to stock up on things we can’t find as easily or as cheaply here, etc. We figured there was plenty to see in Taiwan, and when you’ve got a job, time off is at least as precious as discretionary income, so we wanted to use the time we had to explore the island.
Staying in Taiwan was far cheaper than travelling back home, but J and I did not travel on the cheap at all. We drove scooters, but that was part of the romance and adventure (and discomfort) of it all, and not necessarily because we wanted to save money. The cheapest we spent on lodging was NT$700 (about US$23) for one night in what was essentially somebody’s spare bedroom in Fulong. The most we spent was on a hotel room our last night in the road, when we stayed in Taichung. That stupid room cost us NT$2,500, orUS$way-too-fucking-much, and didn’t even include breakfast. We stayed at a hostel in Dulan for NT$900 a night for a private room with air conditioning, but we did share a bathroom with a few too many other people: we were always waiting for a chance to use the toilet or take a shower. However, we saved a lot by staying there since staying in the Japanese-style rooms in at the hot spring in Ruisui cost us NT$1400 a night, and we were still sharing a bathroom. In Kenting, we paid NT$1500 a night for a nice clean, comfortable room that was at a hotel a short drive from the shore.
If you were on a tighter budget, you could definitely find cheaper digs. For example, our hostel in Dulan, Wagilong, had rates as low as NT$300 a person, but that was for sleeping on a mat in a big community room with no air conditioning. We were basically paying NT$450 a person to stay in a private room with air conditioning (they had some discounts running as the rooms we stayed in usually cost NT$1000 a night), so travelling with a friend or two could help cut down lodging costs.
Our gas costs were incredibly low, as it doesn’t cost much to fill up a scooter in Taiwan. My scooter takes about NT$120 to fill it up when it’s empty, and J’s takes up to NT$150. We got gas every day or two, but we weren’t necessarily filling up empty tanks. The gas meters in our scooters aren’t very sensitive, so we stopped anytime the needle started to fall below “F” to get NT$60-80 worth of gas each.
We spent some money on tickets to national parks and scenic areas, which were usually NT$50-100, so it was really cheap. Rafting down the Xiuguluan River cost us NT$750 each, including transportation there and back to our hotel. We took a surfing lesson in Dulan which cost NT$1500 each: $1000 for an hour with the instructor and $500 to rent the soft boards for the whole day. We also would have liked to hire a guide to do river tracing in Hualien, and for the two of us that would have cost NT$4000 for the day, but the typhoon made that impossible. The ferry to Green Island and back cost NT$900 or so each, and we also paid NT$300 to take over one of our scooters to get around. That was unnecessary, but we had our reasons. We missed out on whale watching and snorkeling basically because we didn’t really plan for them: the days went by so fast that it seemed like all our time was accounted for before we knew it. I’d happily go back to Taidong/Green Island for either of those adventures, though.
Our biggest excessive expense was food and alcohol. We could have saved a ton of money by eating more cheaply, and I’m ambivalent about how we did it. Basically, we could have driven around Taiwan sampling local fare, especially night market and street food, and eaten our fill for NT$100-150 each every night, not including breakfast and lunch. Instead, we had cheap meals at breakfast shops and convenience stores (they have food like Wawa or Sheetz back home) and then we had a pretty extravagant meal for dinner. Almost every night. It was kind of ridiculous. Basically, we do eat Chinese food a lot, we love it, but we took every opportunity to try some really authentic Italian pizza, Mexican food, Indian fusion, South African boerewors, Japanese okonomiyaki, or dessert prepared by a real French person.
Those kinds of meals are definitely more costly, so we easily spent as much on our food every day as we did on the lodgings, so between NT$700-1500 per dinner for two. As we were coming home, I started to feel some regret for not searching out the local “famous foods” in every city as Taiwanese travelers will do, but then I remembered the equally fantastic food we’d had instead, so I am not going to beat myself up about it. However, if you’re travelling on a budget, you can get so much really good food here for really cheap, so don’t let me scare you. We just eat cheap, delicious Chinese food all the time in Chungli, so we opted to try foods we can’t get here while on vacation. Also, I had some kickass margaritas, mojitos, and caipirinhas that cost between NT$180 and NT$220 each, but fuck it. You go get beer at 7-11 if you want to.
And yes, I love to be self-deprecating:
All in all, we spent about NT$60,000 on three weeks travelling around the island, which like I said is about the cost of one round-trip plane ticket from Taiwan to Virginia. We could have saved a lot by staying in hostels the whole time or intentionally eating cheaper local food, but without even trying to budget, we had a pretty epic vacation for US$333 per person per week, including food, transportation, and lodging. Depending on your destination and budget, that might sound like a good deal or an unfeasible dream, I don’t know. I know that you can definitely do it cheaper here,but we had fun, good food, and made memories, so life will go on.
Now, how can I reconcile spending so frivolously on vacation when we are trying to get out of debt, as in 100% debt-free, and trying to save and invest big money? I can’t. We did not budget and that is always our downfall. But we didn’t use our credit cards or deplete or savings to take this trip, and we’re still on track to pay off one and maybe two of our remaining student loans before the end of this year, so I am not totally disgusted with us.
Here’s the post about what it was like to ride scooters around the island for three weeks.
Only three days until this Master Cleanse is over and I. can’t. wait. I didn’t understand how important food is to me emotionally, how often I see food commercials, or how often my husband needs to eat until I started doing this. I’ve lost a couple of pounds, but all I’ve done since Day 5 is make mental lists of things I want to eat…
And here’s another list: Things I am not going to pay for anymore. Little bit hesitant about putting this out there, I’m not gonna lie. But I am also sick to death of buying things for other people that I don’t want to buy for myself–and wouldn’t want anyone else to give me.
I sound like Scrooge, don’t I? Like straight out of A Christmas Carol. But then again, I wouldn’t be able to say no if Tiny Tim needed something. I am only saying no to the people in my life who are getting themselves mired in bad debt so they can have new things and matching things and shiny things instead of being resourceful. If I try to talk to you about your retirement plan and your eyes glaze over and you start to swallow your own lips, then do NOT tell me that the expensive luxury purchase you are contemplating is an “investment“. I’m about to write some people out of the will.
When money is causing you a headache, the last thing you should do, according to everyone, is outfit yourself with a new line of spring running gear. My compromise is to indulge my inner prodigal demon at the grocery store or the thrift store.
Running up an $80 grocery bill isn’t exactly thrifty, but spending $80 on food, including a number of nonperishable condiments and the like, is bound to be better for you than buying something you don’t need just for the rush of a new acquisition. And then you can come home and cook everything you find on Pinterest—which means three more days to focus on easily completed tasks to bolster a weary and anxious mind. The end result is a pantry, a fridge, and a freezer full of food that can be prepared or just reheated at a moment’s notice, deterring you from the expense and hidden calories of eating out. When I’m budgeting everywhere else, I can get excited about splurging on Herbamare or a variety of beans I’ve never tried before without the guilt of having bought something with sequins that I’ll only wear once.
The thrift store is another good alternative for me, as long as I keep my thrift store shopping tips in mind and only buy items that are in good condition and have an immediate and obvious use. You have to kill a couple of hours in a good thrift store to make sure that you’ve found all the treasures. And spending the afternoon sorting through clothes, books, and kitchen goodies, you might only spend $20 for the satisfaction of not contributing the manufacture of excess trash.
Ideally, I’d be more composed and less inclined to mindless spending to soothe the savage beast. However, ten years ago, I was racking up thousands of dollars in credit card debt in an effort to buy myself into the person I wanted to be, so if I’ve cultivated a taste for even muted indulgences, I’ll count it as progress. What do you do when your inner brat wants a quick fix?