The Hats I’ve Worn (or Not) and the Income Roller-Coaster of Life

I got my final statement of income history from Social Security a few months back, charting the rise and fall of my professional bread-on-the-table contributions to the household economy.

Someone looking at those peaks and troughs would likely be curious about the latter, those several relative voids which appear irregularly over odd periods of years between 1975 and 2009. The numbers tell a story–and a back story. And it is not just mine but a shared story, as there were others with me in that tiny ship, sometimes sailing under full gale with purpose, and other times, at least from the numbers, not so much.

The trail begins with the small amounts deducted from my summer jobs in the late 60s, withholdings that, if invested even modest rates of return, would today be equal to the sum total I can expect to draw from Social Security for what years I have left. But that’s water under the bridge.

My first income after college amounted to $7000 a year. I was called a research technician at the University of Alabama Medical Center, but basically I was a glorified laboratory animal handler. I told that story during the early days of blogging. That amount certainly doesn’t sound like much, and it wasn’t, but it would take more than $32,000 to buy today what one can buy for $7000 in 1973. Besides, Ann was the main breadwinner then with her pharmacy degree, walking in the door at her first job, starting at a whopping $14,000 a year. We were rich!

I’m bargained for $8500 a year when I started teaching in 1975, and this amount increased steadily though modestly for 12 years until I left teaching in 1987, at which point my income dropped to zero for two years, and once more Ann  was the breadwinner while I was physical therapy student. At least we have had the good fortune that wherever we went, pharmacists were in need and well-paid — even if the profession has at least for her been a soul sucking experience. But that’s another story.

I bested my final teaching salary by 25% with my first physical therapy job in the mountains of Western Carolina in 1989. I entered a profession that was as in demand as pharmacy, so we had the luxury of moving to a location we preferred rather than moving to a job, knowing that both of us could find work wherever we chose to move.

My peak income according to my social security record was in 1994, when I was doing both pain management and nursing home clinical and administrative work. In 1995, income dropped because I abandoned the nursing home work, and began to explore possibilities of working back in Virginia, doing some hourly work for a therapist friend of ours in Wytheville just to be back in the area and explore the possibilities.

In 1997, of all the places we could have chosen to live and work, we chose Floyd. Again, that’s a whole other story which I have told in part on the blog and in both of my books. Salary wise, from HCA I asked for a starting salary that was equal to my last steady salary back in Carolina. And I pretty much stayed at that level — for a whole year — until the Floyd clinic was abruptly closed in 1998. Here, another conspicuous drop in salary when I went from full-time income to contract home health work in 1999 and part time outpatient therapy at Warm Hearth retirement community in Blacksburg in 2000.

In 2001, another peak of equal but not greater magnitude than where I had left off in North Carolina in 1997. I spent one rather miserable year knowing from the beginning it was a bad marriage. Again, this is another story.  In May of 2002, it was obvious that this job was very bad for my mental health, so for the first time in my variegated professional history, I tendered my resignation, packed a cardboard box and brought all my stuff home to Goose Creek. Income dropped to zero, and I became rich–though this is not reflected on my SS statement of income.

The blog began in June of 2002, which led to the first radio essays. Those essays were heard by someone in the biology department at Radford University, whereby they discovering that I had returned to the Commonwealth. I was offered an adjunct teaching position in the fall of 2004, with a little bump above nothing — and I emphasize the word little — in my income.

In 2005, after three semesters of teaching, I realized that, in order to complete Slow Road Home, I would not be able to spend the huge amount of time it took to prepare, teach, grade, and travel to and from Radford. My last semester to teach was winter of 2005, by which time I had started working part-time in the clinic near Radford Hospital. (Much to my surprise, I had resumed both my former professions after thinking those paths had ended forever.)

So for almost 4 years, the salary cruises along with two days a week income, and that fizzles to an end this past summer. Meanwhile, in a separate account, my egg money from writing and photography allows me a self-sustaining hobby, mostly, though I will have some left over to go into an IRA this year, and loads of time to work towards netting the max allowable under SS. The wheels are turning! And Ann continues to keep our ship afloat and our insurance premiums paid, earning so many stars in her crown she’ll need a cervical collar to hold it up.

So there you have it — not that you asked for. I did this for my benefit, to explain my odd history to myself, knowing that for many of my readers and friends, the graph of your professional productivity measured in dollars is a smooth, unbroken curve without all the curious voids that appear on mine.

In part, I am envious of those who have steadily nurtured a career over the decades, have become masters of what you do, still find that work rewarding, and are now sitting on (or were it not for the economic chaos of the last decade be sitting on) a comfortable nest egg to see you through your years of fixed income.

But on the other hand, without being willing (or forced) to suffer those drops in income, we probably would not have found Floyd, we would not have been able to pour ourselves into making this house and place a home to the extent that we were in 1999, and I’m certain I would not be finding the joy in the words and light that come to me each day, that give rise to blog posts, essays, books, and so many new opportunities and friends.

Isn’t life strange?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Funny, I haven’t visited the blog in a couple of weeks and I land on the financial pages. I have always believed to some degree in telepathy, esp, etc… Your entry was calling me. My belief goes on.

    I often reminisce when I get my SS statement. I find the mental journey to be fun, and often reaffirming. I feel a bit like I’m a historian, combing over my personal census of sorts, or an archeologist on a dig site, looking at the fossilized vertibrae of my financial history. Reading the statement, I can remember when I got a big raise. I remember when I struck out on my own. I remember when I struck out. And yes, I look at my earliest years with some pride, remembering how my dad insisted I fill out my own tax return. Funny, that first early act of financial manhood kind of led to my early career. The SS statement is a recording of personal history. A government funded biography.

    It wasn’t always fun to read my SS statement. I recall panicking in my early years, wondering if I was making enough financial progress as the years unfolded. I wondered how mine compared to my peers. To my more successful high school chums. Thankfully, somewhere along the line the SS statement morphed into a historical document.. It was no longer a scorecard. And I was able to decide not to be a slave to it.

    I have had several recorded ups and downs as well. All markings of adventure thank goodness. I feel for those for whom those markings represent hardship; scars if you will. For me they have been tardy’s, or “gone fishing”, or “trying something new”. I will remember my life more for the dynamics in that historical record than for any smooth trend. And that is how I think it should be.

  2. A shared thread of connection, to be sure. But it is odd to be at the terminus of that history, and stand at the shore of unknown waters ahead. Exciting, in that they will be different, disturbing in that they are not at all predictable beyond that small monthly check–as long as it lasts. That, too, is unpredictable.

  3. I firmly believe that we do what we do for a good reason. We are given choices; those choices can all lead to us being able to satisfy our karma, both good and bad, due to the people with whom we surround ourselves and the further choices we make.

  4. Your economic roller coaster seems fairly common these days for someone who does not stay in the “mainstream” of life. One thing for sure the tributaries, those wonderlands less traveled, are less profitable but way, way more interesting.

  5. I really enjoyed you blog on the history recorded in our SS statement. Mine is like yours, lots of career changes: research lab tech in 3 different hospitals, law school hiatus, then 13 years of part time practice with small firms, teaching credential hiatus, then 9 years of middle school science. A good journey, a lot of variety.
    Your unknown future at the this point Fred is no more unknown than it was during your working life, because you gave yourself so much freedom to change direction. You never knew what to expect of yourself!next!