A question of common sense
I've been asking the wrong question all my life. From the moment you embark on a professional career, you ask: "How high is my salary going to be?". My starting salary upon graduating was a mere pittance -- a couple of thousand baht for a bachelor's degree entrance level job in government service. That was more than a few years ago, mind you.
I moved around to various organisations, and always, the first question would be: "How much am I going to get?". Apart from when you're in charge of your own company, which I was at one point.
I remember during that time, when I had to organise a press event for a client, I'd be quite stressed out. If the event went well, I'd feel this huge sense of relief and celebrated by going shopping. I'd feel good buying things for people; a blouse for my mother, or toys for my kids. I felt that I'd earned the money and earned the right to spend it.
Last week, I saw things from another perspective and realised that I'd been asking the wrong question all my life.
I visited farmers in Udon Thani who had joined a project under the Royal Initiative Discovery Foundation. The wife was badly in debt, while the husband drank the days away and slept the rest of the time. Her two children went to work in Bangkok to send money to their parents, earning up to 16,000 baht a month, which sounds quite substantial. But at the end of the day, after deducting expenses for food, accommodation, transportation and other incidentals, there was nothing left.
My income as a journalist might be extremely high when compared to that family, yet at the end of the month, I'm also struggling to ensure that I have enough to last me until my next pay cheque. So in a sense, I'm not that much different.
But back to our village. The farmer -- more often than not, the farmer refers to the wife who makes the decisions, while the husband takes orders and provides the labour -- joined this development project which started with installing a grid of water pipes to draw water from the nearby reservoir into several hundred rai of paddy fields that had previously been dry for much of the year.
She dug a fish pond on her land, according to His Majesty's "New Theory" on management of agricultural land, built a pig sty and received on loan four good-looking breeder pigs. In addition to rice, she started growing various fruits and vegetables -- chilli, lettuce, guava, beans. She bought some plump breeder frogs too, who live in an enclosed pond.
She no longer has to buy any food from the market; to make lunch, she just has to walk out into the garden and pick a few bits and pieces to throw into her frying pan.
After three years, she has cleared all her debts and bought herself a little tractor, plough and cart -- with cash. Her children are back on the farm, working with her, joined by their respective spouses.
I asked how much she makes a year. Wrong question. I was told that the children now have a surplus of about 3,000 baht a month, which is 3,000 more than they had on a 16,000 baht salary.
So the question is not what you earn, but what you save, that makes all the difference.
We in Bangkok have a tendency to live beyond our means. Everything is so tempting and everything is relatively cheap, when compared to Western countries. Each time I go to the Wednesday lunch market, I end up buying items of clothing, simply because it's cheap. Yesterday I bought a pair of sweat pants for 100 baht. Do I really need a pair of sweat pants? No, but they were cheap!
Even sitting in front of the computer, there are shopping websites that entice you to buy. I've ordered a few things through the internet, which is great fun, because it saves you a trip to the shops and it's delivered right to your home.
My closet is full of things that I hardly ever wear. When I moved house a year ago, I realised that I'm only using about 10% of all my belongings. The rest is therefore junk, even though I argue that I'll probably find use for it one day.
It's taken me all this time to begin asking the correct question. But I'm sure it's never too late.
Usnisa Sukhsvasti is the features editor of the Bangkok Post.
M.R. Usnisa Sukhsvasti is Bangkok Post’s features editor, a teacher at Chulalongkorn University and a social worker.