On having too little, too much, and just enough

We bought used farm machinery at auctions and kept spare parts for breakdowns. Whenever gas prices became an issue, we’d hitch up our draft horses.

Meegan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun/AP/File
(L. to r.) Duke, Zeus, and Otto clamp onto the same stick in their yard in Poulsbo, Washington.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have lots of money – to spend it willy-nilly, without keeping close track of a checking account or a budget. Enough so that gifts to a host of good causes could flow like warm honey. That was never my fortune, and I’m glad of it. The most precious times I’ve experienced have been priceless.  

I’ve never faced poverty, but I’ve endured lean times, especially during my years on a subsistence-level dairy farm. We kept chickens, too, and had a serve-yourself refrigerator in the barn full of fresh eggs. 

It was a sweet sight when egg money appeared in the crisper drawer. I’d nod my thanks to our clucking benefactors sunning in the hen yard and slip the bills in a pocket, already planning where they’d go. 

The honor system rarely failed. And if someone needed eggs and couldn’t pay a dollar a dozen, at least they’d have an omelet for dinner. Often, so did we.

We bought used farm machinery at auctions and kept spare parts for breakdowns. Whenever gas prices became an issue, we’d hitch up our draft horses. They worked with a will and needed only refills of hay and grain

Now, years later, I draw on Social Security, a family inheritance, and occasional editing work to live in one of the most expensive countries on the planet. When I moved to Switzerland as a dual U.S.-Swiss citizen in 2020, I found a wonderfully affordable room in an old house with a shared kitchen and hosts I quickly warmed to. The house sat on the edge of some beautiful countryside, complete with a dairy farm. From there, I sampled other accommodations I could afford.

Just a year ago, after four moves to new, temporary quarters, I found an apartment of my own within my means that was only a 15-minute tram ride from central Basel. Public transport on a monthly travel pass is cheaper than owning a car, and that has been a boon. 

Restaurant meals are exorbitant and a rare treat; with my own kitchen now, I can eat at home, watching for deals at the local grocery. The financial balancing act goes on, so far successfully.

All this brings me back to the dairy-farm years, and particularly to our adopted dog, Alice. She had a fixation for sticks. 

No sooner was I out the farmhouse door than Alice would run off to find a stick and return to thwap it against my legs, pleading for me to take one end for a proper tug of war. I always complied, often simply to spare my knees. 

But when we’d strike out across the pastures for the backwoods, which Alice loved, she’d eye the sheer abundance of sticks on the forest floor and lose all interest in the game. What’s the fun of finding a good stick when they were everywhere? 

I’ll likely never know if I’d feel the same way about financial fortune. Would I miss the pleasure and challenge of having just enough? I suspect so. And if I were tempted by some economic windfall to engage in a tug of war for even more wealth, I’d think of Alice. 

Because she would not understand why I’d bother. 

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