The Thing About Money, Part 2: Foundations, or, I grew up learning money was bad

(This is the second post in a six post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money Part I.)

When I was very young, my family was poor. Looking through baby pictures one time, I saw that we were in what appeared to be an apartment with two large beds in one room. When I asked my mom where we were living, she said it was a hotel. At one point, my parents were so poor that they couldn’t afford a security deposit on an apartment. But then dad joined the military (or maybe he was already in the military? Things in the early days are vague, and frankly, I’m not interested in discussing them too much). I remember one house that must have been military–it was in a townhouse, and we must have just moved, because I remember a room full of boxes that my brother and I played in.  

But then my mom and dad divorced, and we were poor again. Single mother with two kids living in a trailer in nowhere rural Maryland poor. I didn’t notice–my mom did a lot of things with my brother and I that were free (taking us to the park, the library, etc.) so we were always busy and happy. Every year or so the pajama fairy would visit while we were at the babysitter’s and put a new-to-us pair of pajamas on our beds. When it was just us, it was a non-issue. 

Ye olde change jar. Image from pexels.com.

But then I started school.

Things were better–my stepdad was in the military and mom was working full-time–but money worries were still a theme in my family. When we went back-to-school shopping, my brother and I looked longingly at the trapper keepers and dinosaur-shaped erasers, but always came home with the basics (although if we asked nicely, we got to pick two novelty folders–mine were usually Lisa Frank or Marvin the Martian. My brother opted for Hot Wheels or Taz.). Classmates would bring capri suns and fancy lunchables with build-your-own pizzas to lunch, and I would have my flip-top plastic bag with peanut butter and jelly. New clothes came from the Goodwill. We were clothed, fed, and taken care of–my parents did what they could for us. But I couldn’t help noticing the things the other kids had, and I knew that I couldn’t have them, even if I asked. Eventually, I didn’t want to ask anymore. 

In fifth grade, my school started an orchestra class, and I had to rent a viola to join. My parents bought me the wrong kind of shoulder rest but I was embarrassed to say we had to go back and buy a new one. I thought it would be too much money (which is silly, as renting the viola probably cost a lot more than a shoulder pad, but I was nine, so didn’t think about that). The other shoulder rest was a pad that made it easier to play. It was hard to play with mine, so I didn’t practice. I didn’t practice, so I didn’t want my parents to sign my practice log. I didn’t get my practice log signed, so I was in danger of failing class. Finally, my teacher called my parents, and I got the pad I needed all along. If I had just mentioned it to my parents at the beginning of the year, things would have been fine (and I would have been a lot better at playing the viola). But it cost money, so I didn’t want to ask. 

We had a yard sale one time so mom could raise money to go see a dentist for a problem with her teeth. It was summer, and it was hot. We lived at the end of a cul-de-sac on the edges of town that didn’t get any thru-traffic. If you came to our street, it’s because you had a reason. We put ads in the paper, put up fliers, and got a few visitors, but I remember seeming like we had a whole lot leftover at the end of the day. I took it upon myself to count our earnings, and when I saw mom later, I told her how much we had made that day: about $73 dollars. She immediately burst into tears. I was horrified. 

Over and over again, the lessons I learned were that money was a problem that led to heartbreak and shame. 

This has very much shaped my adult life and my current attitudes about money. Money was something we always needed and never had enough of. Money was the reason we couldn’t get our air conditioner fixed and had to use painter’s plastic to section off the living room to trap what little cold air we could get out of a borrowed window unit. Money was why we snuck cookies into the movie theater instead of getting the brightly colored and highly coveted boxes of candy, and why we saw the movies at the theater across town after they’d been out for a few months. 

Now that I am an adult, I know that I am lucky we had air conditioning at all, or that we could go to the cheap movies–we always had something to eat and somewhere to sleep. But it was hard to go over to the freshly-built McMansions of friends, play with their vast collections of brand-new barbies, and not feel different. Less. Even the food they ate was different. My best friend in elementary and middle school, S, wasn’t rich, but she wasn’t poor either. Her parents always had nutritious, organic groceries. When I stayed over for dinner, I was almost always presented with some sort of mysterious organic vegetable and lentil soup that her mom had made from scratch. Although I am old enough now to know that is a far cry from filet mignon, it was also a very far cry from the hot dogs with store brand mac-and-cheese or dehydrated potatoes and canned corn we ate at my house. 

This continued into my teens and adulthood. My first serious boyfriend, T, was rich. He probably wouldn’t say that–after all, his dad was a transmission mechanic, a thoroughly blue-collar job, but they lived in a house that was bigger than two of mine put together and that had an in-ground swimming pool. And it had stairs (if you grew up in a trailer park or a shitty ranch house like I did, you know what it means to covet stairs). He dressed nice; his mom bought him clothes from places like Abercrombie and Aeropostale–coastal Carolina preppy, and they didn’t have those stores in our town, you had to drive an hour to the big mall in Wilmington to shop there (which, to me, was basically the other side of the world). 

Meanwhile, I would come over with my purple hair and wearing my Goodwill skirts or, when I finally got a minimum wage job slinging popcorn at the movie theater, my highly-clearanced hot topic cargo pants, and I could see the thoughts behind that woman’s face plain as day: trash. My youngest son has brought home trash. 

I still feel like people look at me and see white trash. 

Once again, I am reminded of a quote from 30 Rock:

“You’ve come a long way, haven’t you, Kenneth Ellen, with your cheap loafers and your page jacket? But you’ll always be a pig farmer’s son, boy, cause I smell fried baloney all over you.”

Poor is a stink that I feel I can never wash out. I feel like people smell it when they see the holes in my sweaters and my Payless (RIP) shoes. They smell it when I mispronounce big words I only ever read in books and never heard spoken aloud, or when I talk about not being able to afford to go home for both Christmas and Thanksgiving.

And I smell it, too. Even now, after getting my master’s and landing a new job that I like, after starting an IRA and a savings account and trying to learn about investing, I still smell it. 

This is my background with money. I am obsessed with it and scared of it but want more just the same, but I never seem to trust it, nor do I believe I will ever really have it. Money is a thing that other people have, and the lessons I’ve learned about money is that there’s never enough, and people know and look down on you because of that. 

In one of my favorite podcasts, Bad with Money with Gaby Dunn, Gaby Dunn talks to her parents about their attitudes toward money and spending as she was growing up. For example, Gaby’s mother is a lawyer, but she often takes favors from clients who can’t afford her services. When Gaby questions this practice, her mother explains her actions by saying that she worked a lot for children and felt like those children needed her help. And she also counters with–”Do you feel you were deprived of anything?

I feel like my mom would say the same to me. I was fed, clothed, housed, and safe. So is it fair to blame her for anything, if that’s what I’m even doing? Do I feel deprived? Should I just get over it, whatever it is? 

I’ve been trying to think of a snazzy way to wrap-up this post–you know, some sort of snappy final statement that sums up everything I have to say in a pithy one-liner. Drop the mic, etc. etc. etc. But I don’t think I have anything, so I guess I just hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into my weird anxiety-riddled background with money. What are your weird money thoughts? Feel free to explore in the comments.

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