One of my first questions upon arriving to Monterrey was, “How do people survive here?” Salaries are so embarrassingly low for the majority of the population, and the cost of living is sky high. So how do families have enough money to pay rent, buy a car, eat, pay for private school, and provide designer shirts for their kids? I still haven’t entirely figured out the answer or I would be starting a family and buying myself some decent clothes. The truth is I barely squeak by every month. I have, however, seen a number of factors that seem to come into play in Mexican family economics. Here they go:
1) I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a large number of people in Monterrey own their own homes. In fact, people may live shacks, but homelessness is rare. Why is this? Well, selling one’s house and moving to a bigger and better one doesn’t seem to happen that often, so people are not perpetually paying a high mortgage. Acquiring land is expensive, at least in Monterrey, but labor and materials are still relatively cheap, so custom building a house is not unthinkable. Furthermore, houses often are passed down through families as inheritances. Young married couples in Monterrey, however, are increasingly going into debt to buy houses. The trend here is towards living in neighborhoods where all the houses look basically the same. And the lack of land in the city center has young couples living far far far away from their jobs and their parents.
2) Young people live with their parents until they are married, and sometimes even after. This helps them to be able to build or buy their own houses and not borrow heavily. In my family, room and board was free until I graduated from college. My mom still receives me in her house as a guest, but once I graduated, if I had planned to live there, I would have been expected to help with expenses by paying a small rent. Here, I have friends who are in their 30s and still live with their parents for free. They are not married, do not have kids, and have no bills to pay whatsoever. If they work, their entire income goes towards buying clothes, a nice car, or whatever else is the latest status symbol. Some people, I suppose, actually save for the future, but many also max out various credit cards since no one has taught them what it’s like to pay bills.
3) It’s hard to get started out in Mexico. I had the advantage of living with my in-laws for a year and a half. I would have liked to have moved out and established my independence, but once I moved in, my boyfriend told me that it would be rude for me to move out. His family might have been offended. I found it offensive to be mooching off them and not be paying for food or rent (They would never accept my money for anything.), but I decided to heed the advice of my boyfriend so as not to cause any rifts or problems with my future family.
Yet even despite the help of having lived with my in-laws, things have been a struggle. We managed to save enough for a down-payment on a house, but our salaries were hardly high enough to pay for the house, our cars, food, and utilities after moving in. We wanted to sell one of the cars, but Monterrey is a very difficult city to move in without a car, and my husband and I work at completely opposite ends of the city. We struggle to get by and we both work an extra job on Saturday mornings to make ends meet.
4) Salaries are generally abysmally low. Part of the reason that it’s so hard to survive in Mexico is the low salaries. I made a decent amount as a teacher because I was part of an international program. If they had hired me to teach on the same terms as a Mexican, I would have made about half of what I made as an American. Plus, I had health insurance and gas money. My husband has a fairly well-paying job for the work experience he has, we have not been able to save any money whatsoever. I refuse to live with his family any longer (Otherwise, why did I get married?), I don’t have a house to inherit in Mexico, and I´m not willing to rob or resort to corruption to make a decent buck! I was brought up to be thrifty, but here, it doesn’t seem to help much. We still can’t save money. We would like to have a family, but that’s on hold until at least we can afford the monthly doctor’s appointments. Paying for the birth is a whole other story.
5) Some families hardly ever see each other. My husband and I are not the only ones struggling to get by and working two jobs. In fact, we are very lucky because we still see each other at night and on Sundays. I have a very good friend who is a secretary. Her husband is a doctor. They have two small children. He works two jobs in two different hospitals, and she works from 7:30-4:30 sometimes 5:00. They almost never see each other because of their schedules. But they do it because they have to in order to survive and provide for their two children. One day I happened to find out how much this wonderful secretary made: I almost died of shock, disgust, and embarrassment at how much I made in comparison for the same schedule but as an international teacher. She made roughly $3 an hour or $240 over 15 days. How she can provide for her children on that salary, I have no idea.
6) If you work for the government and have no morals, you can become rich quickly. Getting directly to the point, I know a young man that was assigned an important position in the government. Somehow he managed to steal more than a million dollars from the government and put it in his pocket. Then he quit the job and kept the money. The last time I saw him he was driving a pretty darn nice Jaguar.
7) Saving for retirement seems to be an idea that has not yet become popular in Mexico. I have seen a some families that have nothing saved for the future. They spend their income as fast as it comes in and live paycheck to paycheck. This is probably not a good strategy even if you are 30 years old, but when you are pushing 60, I imagine it is a damn good thing to have something saved for the future, especially since a good number of people here do not have good medical insurance. I think these people that have nothing saved are relying on their children to save them. I can understand this to a certain extent-children should give something back after everything you give them when they are growing up-but it seems unfair to me to slam one’s children with such a heavy responsibility. Perhaps they will be starting a family of their own when the parents or in-laws need financial help. Perhaps they will not have enough to help. I don’t know, but I don’t understand this mentality as a parent of not planning ahead for retirement. I’m not saying it’s always the case, but I’ve seen it enough that it worries me.
I simply do not understand Mexican economics. I wish I did because I would probably succeed in comprehending Mexican culture to a greater depth. In the meantime, I’m still trying (rather unsuccessfully) to save money for the future. I think Mexicans have the same “American” dream as we do: they want to buy a nice house, have kids, and be successful as much as any American does. But now that I’ve seen how hard it is to achieve that dream here, I appreciate the opportunities available to the middle class in the United States all the more. I hope that some day Mexico will be a more hospitable place for those hoping to achieve their “Mexican” dream.