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Posts Tagged ‘Economic Crisis’

I’m 29.  The island got electricity during my lifetime.  It likes to remind us of this periodically.  We went without internet, phone, and fax for three days.  Luckily (in the middle of a fierce heat wave) we got to keep our electricity (i.e., air conditioning).  So I spent the last three days with no connection to the outside world at all.  That means something entirely different when you live on a small island that is already very cut off from the rest of the world.

Yesterday I spent the whole day (9:30am until 5:00pm) teaching my friend Anna how to make bread.  We made bread out of cornmeal, whole wheat flour & seeds, and white flour.  Then our husbands showed up to eat most of it.  It was a very nice way to spend a day.  I love baking bread, and I’m surprisingly good at it, considering that I did it for the very first time about 18 months ago.

The day before that, we watched the World Cup game in which Greece won over Nigeria.  It was a very exciting game, and I really got into it (yesterday, when the USA was robbed of our victory against Algeria, I kept falling asleep, and in fact slept from the point that it was 0-1 Algeria until I was awakened by the screeching commentators complaining about the final score of 2-2 (when it should have been 3-2 USA).   But I really got excited about the Greece game, because Greece actually cares about soccer/football, whereas the USA does not.  (Example:  I have 500 Facebook friends, the vast majority of whom are Americans, and only 2 of them posted anything related to the World Cup game in which the USA very legitimately should have been pissed off.  If the same thing had happened to the Greek team, they’d STILL be screaming about it.)

The day before the Greece game, we went for a night swim in the sea.  We’re in the midst of the first annual heat wave, and the sea is still hot at night.  The water was so warm, in fact, that even I just ran right in and swam, whereas I normally spend half an hour inching my way into the water.

But our big news, aside from being cut off from the world, winning a Big Game, baking lots of bread (and chocolate chip cookies), and swimming in the sea, is that we are on the strictest budget I have ever seen.  Starting on June 16, when we were hit by yet another round of salary cuts (at this point it’s gotten so entirely ridiculous, we are resigned to the fact that my husband’s salary will keep decreasing over time, despite his increasing experience, service, and so on), and facing the reality of moving (expensive) and a number of other upcoming expenses, I sat down with the facts and figures and wrote up a budget.

It started as a yearly budget:  this is what we make, this is what we most likely will spend over the course of a year.

Then it turned into a monthly budget:  this is what we know we make this month, these are the expenses we expect to have this month.

Now it’s a weekly budget:  this is what we have in the bank right this minute, this is how many bottles of non-poisonous water and how many cucumbers we think we can scrape by on this week.

To put things into perspective, it’s now Day Four of The Budget, and so far, for all things (everything from food to gas to medicine to whatever else people spend their money on), we have spent €18.18, of which €12 was for bottled water, and the rest was for tomatoes, three packets of yeast, and lemons.  And we’re hoping we don’t have to spend anything else this week.  Fingers crossed that we can make it through an entire week on less than €20 for everything, because we have a bill next week for €200.

As long as “nothing happens,” and we eat lightly cooked beans (the bottled water won’t last long enough to cook them more than lightly) and the bread Anna gave us from our baking spree yesterday, we should be able to finish out the week without buying anything else except 1 L of milk.  Fingers crossed, because the one thing we absolutely refuse to do is to borrow money (credit card, bank, parents, etc.).  We are going to get by on €20/week living in one of the most expensive places in the entire world.  Because that’s what a small island that uses the Euro in a country with serious economic problems and high inflation and no subsidies for small islands is.

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Explanation of the title:  “Do new too” is a rough phonetic equivalent of how Greeks refer to the International Monetary Fund, the thing that is threatening our financial security.  Long post, but heart-felt.

When my husband and I got engaged, he was a moderately well-paid tenured teacher and I was a graduate student on a fellowship that, while not providing much money, included free room, board, internet, utilities, and was located adjacent to my research library, so my expenses were nil.  My then-fiance lived in a tiny one-room efficiency costing €240/month plus electricity (free internet) with his only recurring bills being his cell phone, his car payment, and his car insurance.  I had managed to save about half of my fellowship money (the rest was spent on airfare to get to Greece, ferry tickets to go back and forth between his island and Athens, cell phone expenses, and the occasional medical expense).

He was able to buy me an extremely amazing engagement ring and take me on a lovely vacation to celebrate our engagement at the same time.  We traveled around the country and I even jetted off to the US for a week to be in my best friend’s wedding, a commitment I had made more than a year in advance and would have been broken-hearted to skip out on.

Then several things changed.

1)  Getting back to Greece after my friend’s wedding, thanks to astonishing and horrendous treatment from British Airways (refusal to fly me, refund me, or rebook me), and therefore having to spend massive amounts of money on a last-minute ticket, total expenses coming to just over $1600), set us back financially only a week into the new year.

2)  I was suddenly diagnosed with severe gall bladder disease necessitating an emergency cholecystectomy, but my expensive American travel insurance flaked out on me and I was stuck with a bill for $12,000 from the hospital in Athens, along with the associated hotel stay, travel expenses for my then-fiance, food, and drugs, came to around $13,500, in March.

3)  We got married.  At this point, it was obvious that we had a serious financial imbalance (thanks to #1 and #2), so we pulled the whole thing off for under €200, of which about €130 was the required bureaucratic paperwork that nobody can get out of.  My dress cost €35, my shoes were €25, my bouquet was about €15, and my husband wore clothes he already had.  Our friends took photos and made us dinner/cake, we had no invitations, and there were only 6 people (including us) in attendance.  So this doesn’t really count but it shows how quickly our mindset changed from December (when I flitted off to the US for nothing more pressing than someone else’s wedding), and April, when I spent about 1/10 as much money on my own wedding as I did on theirs.

4)  The big one:  Greece got slammed with an IMF / Eurozone “austerity plan” designed to reduce our budget deficit so that we don’t default on bonds coming due.  Since my husband is a state employee (as are all teachers in Greece), this one hit us very hard.  He suddenly went from being moderately well paid (by Greek standards) to being severely underpaid (by anybody’s standards).  All of a sudden he lost a third of his yearly income, at the exact same time that my fellowship ended and I was out of free food and a free place to live and all that.

Other factors making our financial life difficult:

1)  I was paid in dollars, so my money has less buying power than it would have if I were paid in an equivalent amount of euros.  A coffee that costs $4 in a US Starbucks and €4 in a Greek Starbucks is costing me $5 when I use money I took out of an American account to pay for it.

2)  Our little island, being a little island, is expensive to live on because everything (including drinkable water) must be brought by ship.  This means everything from tomatoes to pasta to … well, you can’t buy too much beyond tomatoes and pasta anyway.

3)  The traditional Greek way to save money on food is to shop at the amazing and ubiquitous farmers’ markets, which sell not only fruits and vegetables, but eggs, cheese, meat, fish, clothing, kitchen supplies, herbs and spics, pastas, beans, sewing supplies, baby items, dishes, you get the idea.  But our island doesn’t have one of these, because it’s just too small, so we have to shop at the small supermarkets (they are really minimarkets, but if I called them that, you would think of a 7-11, whereas in fact they sell things like fruits and vegetables, pasta, rice, meat, etc., but they are very small and have inflated prices and no variety).

4)  Because of the expensive goods and the lack of frequent ferries to the island, most of the produce is going bad by the time we buy it.  (The grocers buy marked-down produce to avoid super-inflated prices, and if you don’t buy and eat it the day it arrives, it’s well on its way to going off.)

5)  The tap water on the island is not potable, not even when boiled, because of problems with the pipes and heavy metal contamination.  This means that we must use bottled water for everything except washing.  So when I boil dried beans, I can easily go through 2 or even 3 large bottles of water.  On the island, the cheapest available bottled water is €2.20 for a 6-pack of 1.5 L bottles.  We go through at least one 6-pack per day.

Good things:

1)  We got to live together, because we’re all married now and stuff.  So our combined monthly €240 rent is still €240, even though I don’t have a free room in Athens anymore.

2)  I carry zero debt.  I don’t have a credit card, mortgage, student loans, or any other kind of loan.  I use cash only (which I get from ATMs connected to American accounts – I’ll come to this again in a minute).

3)  My husband carries minimal debt.  He doesn’t use credit cards, doesn’t have a mortgage or student loans either.  He does have a car payment, however, but it’s a modest €200/month on a very fuel efficient 2008 Mazda that he bought brand-new from a relative who owns a Mazda dealership – so he got a great deal and lots of free options.  The car payments are interest free and spread out over a long time, bringing the total cost of the car down when you take into consideration inflation, which we have here.

4)  I stopped using my cell phone.  I have a pay-as-you-go phone, and when the money on it ran out sometime in early May, I never bothered to get another card for it.  I use Skype, and my husband has two, so if I need one he gives me one of his.

5)  The island we live on, despite having gas that costs €1.65 per liter (for you Americans, that’s roughly $7.92 per gallon), has only 6 kilometers or so of actual paved road.  And our car is very fuel efficient.  Result:  we only have to fill the gas tank every few months.

6)  The island also doesn’t have anywhere to spend money, aside from the overpriced markets.  Until a few weeks ago, almost all the restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops were closed.  Now they’re open, but we’re not interested in going to them because our idea of living on the island doesn’t include those things: we got so used to life without them that we don’t miss them at all.

7)  The US dollar has been gaining against the euro.  It’s still FAR from parity but if you consider that in the summer of 2008, when I was in Greece, I was paying $1.69 to withdraw €1 from the ATM, and now I pay $1.19 for the same €1, you can see why I am happy about it.  The price has come down from about $1.35 when I paid $12,000 to the hospital to about $1.19 now, meaning that if I had been able to delay my surgery, I would have saved a lot of money.  Oh well, money under the bridge…

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