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In 2009 I taught English conversation in Algeria earning $3/hour.
I hadn’t made that little since I babysat my cousin in 1992. This was my day job. I led conversation classes while my husband and I created a theater company that offered workshops and solo performances.
We were always paid in cash.
When we got married my husband had no savings. I had $2500. I also still owed $14,000 in student loans. Mohammed had always lived in his family home in Oran, Algeria. I had been living on my own for 4 years in Minneapolis. I hadn’t really figured out a good savings strategy.
I had opened up a ROTH IRA but no one told me I needed to contribute to it monthly. I thought somehow my $1000 would magically turn into $1,000,000 by the time I was 65 on its own.
OPENING A BANK ACCOUNT IN ALGERIA WAS TRICKY.
Apparently it’s not for everyone. You have to have proof of income and they interview you. Luckily, I had a contract from an early education center where I was to offer three weeks of drama in the classroom workshops for preschool teachers. Every time we were paid we had to take the cash to the bank.
Once, my husband was paid about $500 with a cheque. He had to take it to the bank where the cheque was issued. They didn’t have enough cash on hand so he had to wait two hours until someone came in and made a cash deposit.
Our income came in fits and starts. Sometimes we’d travel around the country. Sometimes we’d work nearby. We didn’t pay money for rent—we lived with my mother-in-law, so I would say we paid rent in dish-washing.
Over the course of a month our income might have looked like this:
- $60 (a week of teaching English conversation)
- $300 (a performance for a cultural center)
- $50 (a commercial for the national electric company)
In my mind I had one thing I was constantly focused on: how do I not get stuck here?
How do I have enough money to travel and take a break from the in-laws? How can I save enough so we can move to the US in two years?
I used to listen to podcasts while I cleaned, did all those dishes and took bus after bus after train around Algeria. The one I liked the best was Marketplace Money. At the time, Tess Vigeland hosted it and she often had David Lazarus answering listeners’ questions. I heard Tess interviewed by Joel Saul-Sehy a few years after she quit, saying that she had gotten tired of answering the same questions every show. But the weekly repetition of the same answers to the same questions was exactly what I needed. Over and over again I heard them say:
Save at least 10% of every paycheck.
This is what getting paid with a bag of cash looks like
THAT BECAME MY MISSION, MY LASER FOCUS, AND MY RAISON D’ÊTRE. TEN PERCENT.
My husband would bring home a bag of cash (I’m not kidding. Sometimes it was a plastic bag of cash wrapped in newspaper) and I would take 10% off the top and put it in my special leather billfold.
Even if it was $20. $2 came off the top and into the billfold.
It didn’t matter.
10% of everything. It became a ritual.
Get paid, come home, hand me the cash and take 10%. When my billfold was hard to zip I took it to the bank. Sometimes even sooner because I worried about being tempted to touch it.
Once, I deposited $5 in the bank. It wasn’t next door either. I had to take a bus from the suburb we lived in to a stop at the edge of Oran called “Les Amandiers.” Then I could take a taxi or a bus and get off three blocks from the bank. This took about 40 minutes if everything was running smoothly.
40 minutes on public transportation to deposit $5 into our savings account.
In 2009 we collectively earned $6000. In 2010 we earned $8000. In 2012 when we did Mohammed’s visa paperwork and bought two Algeria-Minneapolis plane tickets we had saved $3000.
IN 2012, NOW IN MINNEAPOLIS, THE 10% HABIT SUDDENLY WAS GONE.
Our routine was so different. We paid rent in dollars and not in dish-washing. We had some regular income and some random freelance income. Without the framework and the clear laser focused goal of moving to America pushing me along, I floundered. Until one day I looked at our bank account.
Almost year after living in Minnesota I panicked, “Mohammed we don’t have anything extra. What happened? This makes me so anxious. Where is all our money going?”
And he said, “remember when we used to take 10% of everything. That worked really well.”
I no longer had Tess Vigeland and David Lazarus in my ear every week driving the point home. But we started it again. We opened an online savings account with a higher interest rate.
10%. Without a goal it’s harder. So I made some goals and posted them on the fridge.
- $15,000 emergency savings.
- $10,000 to have a baby.
- $30,000 to buy a house.
In 2016 we made close to $50,000 between theater work in Minneapolis and TV work in Algeria. We’re on our way again.
It’s harder somehow with bigger numbers.
I have to construct the same urgency that I felt when I knew I didn’t want to live the rest of my life with in-laws. I had to reform the habit. But now it’s back.
I brush my teeth, I take out the trash, I meditate 10 minutes, and I save 10%. No matter how small the paycheck. $60 for writing this blog post? $6 into savings.
Except this time without a 40-minute bus ride.
Taous Claire Khazem
Taous Claire Khazem is an actress, teaching artist and director based in Minneapolis, MN, USA. She also appears on the Algerian sit-com Sultan Achour 10. She is a recipient of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships.
For more information check out HER WEBSITE.