The Thing About Money, Part 6: Reflection, or, So now what?

(This is the sixth and final post in a six-post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money, Part I.)

The last few weeks have been an exploration of my attitudes toward money (Part I), how they were formed (Part 2), the debt issues I am currently facing (Part 3), my fear of being forced to eat cat food in my old age (Part 4), and how tracking my daily spending helped control my money anxiety (Part 5). So what have I learned about myself over the past few weeks?

  • Wanting money makes me feel like a phoney because…
  • I view money as an evil that just makes people emotional/feel bad because…
  • I grew up in a household where money caused people to be upset.
  • I am afraid that my student debt will never be paid off and…
  • I will be poor in retirement because I don’t have enough saved up but…
  • Tracking all of my spending and income kind of makes me feel better, because the situation is not as dire as it seems.

Whew. 

Those are my truths. So where do we go from here? 

Is life really all about the Benjamins???? Image from pexels.com.

I recently stumbled across the FIRE movement, which, if any of you are into personal finance blogs, you will know as standing for Financial Independence, Retire Early. The idea behind the FIRE movement is that you save as much as possible until you have 25 to 40 times your annual salary worth of assets, and then you can RE — retire early — make your grand exit from the world of your nine-to-five, if you so choose. There are several variations of FIRE — fatFIRE, for instance, is for people who want to retire but still live a life of comparable luxury; leanFIRE is for those looking to retire at a lower income; baristaFI is for those who will supplement their income with a part-time job (usually the plan is to “work part-time in a coffee shop,” hence the name) after retiring from a career; etc. 

What particularly interests me is FIOR–Financial Independence, Optional Retirement. This mindset involves saving enough money so that if you wanted to step away from working, you could; but that doesn’t mean you have to. Some people have a weird vision of FIRE–if you do any type of work at all (blogging, building things, selling art, etc.), you haven’t actually ‘retired,’ and you’re somehow lying about your life experience by claiming about being retired (*insert extreme eye roll here*). To me, being ‘retired’ just means that you aren’t chained to a desk/warehouse/counter and unable to make any life-changing decisions because you fear dying in the street of starvation. 

I would like to FIOR, and I can certainly tell you I wouldn’t just put my feet up, sit on some imaginary porch with a glass of lemonade, and watch the world go by*. What I want from FIOR is the freedom to do whatever the hell I want, whenever the hell I want, and it just so happens that what I want to do involves things like volunteering at causes I care about,  enjoying and preserving nature, working on my art and writing, and spending time with people I love. 

What FIRE, FIOR, and all those other acronyms buy is time. Time to not only make the world a better place by serving others, but also by serving ourselves. For instance, I recently went to a volunteer information session about working at a local adoption center for my region’s humane society. I’ve submitted the application and am waiting to hear back on whether or not I’ll get an interview** for a three-hour-a-week shift. In the past, I’ve volunteered at museums and historic cemeteries–all worthy causes that I care about. If I pursue FIOR, I’ll have more time to dedicate to these causes without having to worry about whether or not I can feed myself. 

I would also have time to increase my relationship with nature and move toward a more sustainable lifestyle. I’ve mentioned previously on this blog about how the earth is dying; I’d like to do my part to prevent that. I love hiking, camping, and rock climbing; I love just being in nature and letting its awe and beauty wash over me. I love breathing and drinking without dying. These things–trees, fresh air, the ocean, birds–are worth conserving. FIOR would give me time (and money, depending on how I budget) to help lessen my own impact on the earth (i.e. growing my own food or having time to go to local farmers’ markets, as opposed to going to a grocery store which has had produce shipped in from elsewhere, wasting fossil fuels; stop purchasing/consuming clothes whose only value is to make myself look ‘presentable’ at a job, etc.) and volunteer for causes that help the earth.  

I would be able to pursue my own artistic interests, many of which I have had to stifle due to a lack of resources–both time and money. This may seem like a selfish reason; however, I’m a firm believer in self-care, especially when it results in the self having a more positive and kinder outlook. If you haven’t discovered already, I can get pretty, uh, wound up, which results in what I view as some not-as-kind-as-I-could-be behavior. Right now, after work, I feel so drained that when I come home, I just end up cooking dinner and watching netflix or youtube until it’s time to pass out and start the next day afresh, repeating the same cycle until the weekend. I feel that I have projects bubbling away inside me, but I don’t have the emotional energy to do anything with them (oh, the joys of working in a service-centered profession…).

And finally, I would have more time to spend with my family. I have a small family–my partner, and my mom and her husband***. Not working would let me spend more time hanging out with and supporting these people whom I love. I would have the freedom to move across the country to wherever my partner wanted to work without worrying about the geographic constraints of my own career; I could visit my mom when she goes to her doctors’ appointments. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life using work as the reason I can’t visit (I can’t get the time off, I can’t afford it, etc.). I know that time is going to run out before I know it, and I want to spend that time with my family. 

There are still some hard truths to swallow. For instance, I struggle with the issue of wanting more money when I know that it causes so many problems in the world. This is what I like to refer to as ‘crust-punk syndrome’–I claim that I want to live ‘outside the system’ of work/general economics, but if I’m investing in ‘evil corporations,’ I am still just as dependent on the system as before, but in a different way. Doesn’t this just make me a hypocrite? Is it better to be a hypocrite that can support herself than a hypocrite who relies on the support of others? Is the only effective way to change the system to work from within–for example, investing in ethical companies whenever possible and not spending my consumer dollars on fast fashion and gas guzzlers? Does taking the money I make off of them and using it for good cancel out how it was created in the first place? 

What this all boils down to is the existential dread of living an inauthentic life. I work anywhere from eight to ten hours a day in a traditional job that, while providing essential services to those we work with, also perpetuates a highly inefficient work culture. There’s a lack of innovation and challenging of the status quo in ways that could radically alter how we disseminate our services. Additionally, without being too specific, I am working for an institution that doesn’t reflect my personal values. There are ‘values’ that this organization claims to have, but there are a lot of different viewpoints and incidents that have happened in this climate that I don’t feel reflect my own ideas of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’ (although, to be fair, it’s certainly nothing like, say, an oil company or hedge fund). This, combined with the negative health effects of working a job that is heavily cubical-based, makes me desirous of a bit more freedom, including the opportunity to be able to work part-time in this field****. 

I still have a lot of unanswered questions. Perhaps it’s just my family-ingrained Catholic guilt speaking up; perhaps it’s a fear of being exposed as some sort of fraud. I don’t know, and I don’t know if I ever will know. But what I do know is that money would give me the time and resources to work on projects I care about and would give me the option of not working those that I don’t

So I guess the budget’s worth it. 

* But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and if that’s your dream, more power to you. I just know I would go bonkers with restlessness. 

** This particular organization gets a high level of volunteer interest, so the application process is pretty… intense. 

*** I have a brother and grandparents and aunts and uncles and a biological father and an ex-stepdad as well, but with all of those people, things are… complicated, and I haven’t spoken to any of them in years.

**** I actually quite like the job itself and the field I am working in; it’s just the incessant bureaucracy that really grinds my gears. 

——-
Thank you for reading this series, titled The Thing About Money. What’s your deal with money? Are you working towards FIRE? Do you feel that you are trapped in the capitalist machine with no real options about how to lead an authentic life? Are you just trying to free yourself from the grip of THE MAN? Or are you able to emotionally distance yourself from money? Feel free to tell me in the comments.

The Thing About Money, Part 5: Budgets, or, Knowing where every penny goes

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

I have tracked every monetary transaction I have made since January 2018.

I had just started grad school and, while not struggling, per se, was stretching to pay the bills. My three jobs covered my living expenses, but I was taking out (a lot of) loans to pay for tuition. I started tracking my spending as an exercise in self-control and to get a more accurate view of what my financial situation was. I wanted to see the cold, hard numbers. Money has always made me uncomfortable, and I have been forever anxious that it would eventually run out. 

Tracking where every dang cent goes. Image from pexels.com.

I also wanted to hold myself more accountable–if I knew I had to put my spending on a spreadsheet, to immortalize my shopping numbers on screen forever and stare at it day in and day out, it would make it a lot harder to drop $50 at Uniqlo every time I felt like I “needed” a new pair of pants to fit in with the full time workers at the corporate office at which I was interning. 

What I expected was to feel trapped. Money has always made me nervous, so having to really stare it down on a day to day basis made me feel a bit… well, queasy. And it did take a while to get into the habit–every time I bought something, I reminded myself to write it down. I tried pen and paper at first and wrote all my sums down in a tiny notebook, but eventually just switched to a google sheet. I made the switch because (a) 99% of my spending is with credit or debit cards, so all the transactions automatically show up in my account and (b) I could use formulas to do the math heavy lifting for me. 

Despite my apprehensions, what surprised me most about tracking my spending was the feeling of relief and freedom it gave me. 

Knowledge is power, y’all. 

Knowing exactly how much I had in the bank lifted the ever-present sense of anxiety that would swoop down even more fiercely when I was in a situation that involved spending money. Every time I was invited to dinner with a friend, I didn’t have to skip drinks entirely, order the cheapest thing on the menu while explaining that I wasn’t that hungry anyway, and spend the whole time praying they wouldn’t suggest that we split the check evenly. I’ve been the last person to get the check on more than one occasion–and, as such, the person who somehow pays $20 more than everyone else despite having the least to eat. This was especially bad when I was still living in New York and a lot of my friends made more money than me. I honestly don’t think it ever occurred to them that I couldn’t keep up with their lifestyle on my nonprofit salary.  

I don’t have to worry about that now* (or at least, not as much). With the power of spreadsheets, my entire financial situation is freely available at my fingertips. Honestly, I don’t even need to look any more–at this juncture in my life, I have a pretty good idea of how much money I have at any given time and in which accounts, in addition to knowing my current net worth (in the negative $20,000 range, y’all. Woo student loans!). I know whether or not I can go out to lunch with a friend. I know how much will be leftover at the end of the  month and how much I can afford to throw at my student loans. 

I know how much every bill costs and have accounted for it. I’ve also been able to start accounting for my future–last year I opened my first retirement account (a little late to the party, but better late than never) and this year I started saving to visit my partner in Germany. Having a budget and recording every single transaction empowered me with the knowledge of when to slow down on my spending and when I can feel good about taking a trip to see a loved one. I also like to spend my time making sample budgets–what would my spending look like if I made two student loan payments in one month?, for instance. 

These days, when I get really anxious and wonder how I will ever be able to pay off my student loans, retire, own a home if I so desire, etc., I take a deep breath and open up my spreadsheets. The numbers are there–numbers that tell me I am not spending more than I earn, and that I’m going to be ok. And yes, my car is twelve years old and over 125,000 miles, but in the event it decides to break down, I can manage it. And yes, my stomach hurts all the time and my joints hurt and I’m getting older and everything hurts, but I have the privilege of affording a doctor**, damn it. Which is actually quite a timely statement, as a medical issue the other night required me to make a doctor visit yesterday morning***. In the past, I would have fretted over whether or not I could afford the co-pay, or, in times I didn’t have insurance, if I could afford even a visit to Urgent Care. Because of my budget, I knew I could afford the co-pay–and it was money well spent to be assured that my spleen isn’t in imminent danger of exploding. 

Here’s the real kicker–I call myself poor. I grew up poor. I identify as poor. I generally believe myself to be poor. But according to the numbers, I’m fine. I’m quite alright. I’m actually doing quite better than a lot of people in the world right now, so what am I bitching about? I am a white, able-bodied, hetero-, cis-gender woman, which means I have a lot more privilege than others. I was born in the United States and have never had anyone question my right to work or even just be here****. I landed a job with insurance, which means I was able to go to the doctor–which means I don’t have to carry the anxiety and mental burden of wondering whether or not I’m going to wake up with organ failure and die alone on the bathroom floor of my apartment. I just need to take a deep breath and trust in the numbers. 

Are you interested in tracking your spending? I encourage you to give it a try–as I said above, confronting my financial situation has made me more prepared to move through life’s monetary obstacles with confidence (or at least knowledge). I’ve made a basic google sheet that provides spaces for expenditures on the left and income on the right. A few simple formulas calculate your totals and subtract your expenses from your income, so you have an up-to-date view of your monthly cash flow. The one I use is very similar, except I also have calculations that show the exact amounts I spend on categories such as groceries, gas, student loans, retirement, and savings (I get a bit extra with my personal spreadsheets, as previously mentioned on this blog).

In theory, you should be able to view this google sheet and make a copy of it. Please feel free to let me know if you have any questions or issues!

Are you already tracking your expenditures? How’s it going for you? Please feel free to leave a comment and share your experience. 

* I actually got a good tip about this the other day. If you can afford it, pay whatever the split is in the moment. Then never go out to dinner with those people again, ha ha. 

** In network, of course. America!

*** Hence why this post is a day late. 

**** There’s a recent debate going around in the FI world about whether or not FI is a “political issue” and whether or not we should be discussing politics when discussing FI. Spoiler alert: IT IS and WE SHOULD BE.

The Thing About Money, Part 4: Retirement, or, I don’t want to be old and poor

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

As mentioned in Part 3 of this series, one of the things that scares me about my current debt load/financial situation in general is not having enough money to retire on. 

This worry isn’t without warrant. According to this 2018 survey, 42% of Americans have “less than $10,000 saved” for retirement. 42%. So, pretty much half of us (assuming this excludes children–Why haven’t you opened an IRA yet, little Timmy?). This is especially true of millennials; 57% of us have less than $10,000 saved (GUESS WHO HAS TWO THUMBS AND IS IN THE CLUB? THIS GIRL!!!!). 14% don’t have any retirement savings at all.

Nothing. Zero. Nada. 

This is a problem.

As per the National Council on Aging, “over 25 million Americans aged 60+ are economically insecure—living at or below 250% of the federal poverty level.” A full third of senior households don’t have any money left over by the end of the month, and some have to go into debt just to meet their basic living expenses. And even if they get social security, on average, women get $4500 less a year because they paid less into the system (and this number is even worse for women of color). Many elderly people are working well into their seventies, but eventually, there comes a time when their bodies just can’t do it anymore. 

There’s a big joke about having to eat cat food into one’s retirement, but it seems like there are people who are actually out there doing it. Frankly, I don’t want to be one of those people. 

You bet your ass I will push Mittens right out of line to get to that Fancy Feast. Photo from pexels.com.

This is a multigenerational issue. In a previously-mentioned episode of Bad with Money with Gaby Dunn, Gaby talks to her parents about their retirement plans. Her mom laughs and says “You’re my retirement plan.” She includes something along the lines of how they’ve invested so much in Gaby and pretty much that they expect her to help support her parents in their retirement. This is an incredible amount of stress to place on one’s child. And some parents live longer than we expect, which means we could be taking care of them after our own retirement*. 

Luckily, I don’t have to worry about my mom. She’s about to retire from the military, so she has a guaranteed paycheck and affordable medical care for the rest of her life. The knowledge that she’ll be taken care of takes a great weight off of me; she’s too proud to ever ask for help, but I would have given it to her, had she needed it. But she doesn’t. And I’m super grateful, because now I have the freedom to only worry about myself.

Unfortunately, the reverse of this situation is the reality for people as well. Many parents of adult children are having to delay or are not adequately saving for retirement because their children still need support, either with general expenses or, often, student loans. It’s completely understandable why someone would want to help their children, especially if they’re struggling; however, this seems like a good time to remind everyone of what they tell you on planes–put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. 

I don’t want this to be my future, for myself or my mother. 

Like my mother, I am also too proud to ask for help if I need it, unless I’m in an incredibly desperate situation. There was one–exactly one–situation when I had to call my step-dad for emergency support, and it still ranks as one of the most shameful moments of my life. After I graduated college, I was trying to support myself on the only job I could get at the time–minimum wage at a local bagel shop. Parking was notoriously hard in my neighborhood, so I often played roulette with spaces in random apartment buildings. One morning I walked to my car to find it booted. The cost to remove the boot? $200. 

I did not have $200.

So I cried. I called the number on the boot and cried on the phone with the company, cried when some random man showed up to take the boot off, cried when he ran my almost-maxed-out credit card, and cried on my way to work, wondering how I was going to pay rent the next week. After work, I did the unthinkable–

I called my step-dad and asked for help. 

And cried some more. And he, sweet man–full of remorse from years of alcoholism and still feeling like he needed to buy my love to make up for it–he transferred some money into my high school savings account so I could write a rent check without it bouncing and get a few groceries for the week. I felt like shit. I felt like the smallest, most pathetic, most useless human on the face of the earth. I felt manipulative for calling him, because I knew he would help me, because I was too embarrassed to talk to my own mother. 

I am still embarrassed when I think of this story. 

However, I tell this story to remind myself of why saving is so important. I don’t ever want to rely on anyone else again for my support. Additionally, I have no children to care for me and currently no intention to have any, nor, if I do, would I expect them to care for me. That’s not their job. As such, I need to make efforts now to ensure that my finances are ok later. 

I currently have a tiny bit of money stashed away for retirement. As in, like, less than $5000. Additionally, I worked overseas for a full three and a half years, so that’s three and a half years I didn’t pay into social security. I’m in my thirties, and even though retirement seems like it’s a long way away, I don’t think I’m going to make it into old age gracefully if I don’t drastically change things now. 

However, there is a part of me that wonders if it’s even worth the effort. Should I worry about “the market” when climate change is going to cause “Human Civilization to crumble” by the time 2050 rolls around (aka when I’m 63)? Should I instead be stockpiling clean water, bullets, and sunscreen? (I talked about this a bit in my first post, so I’m stopping my existential ramble… now.)

Assuming we are still alive in 2050 and not slaves to our computers or in a war against an army of machines, I will need some retirement savings. 

It’s not easy. Since starting my new job, I’ve budgeted a pretty good chunk–about $500/month–to go into an IRA. Even with the rest of my expenses and my student loan payments, I should be able to keep this up at least through June. But then I might get kicked out of my employer-owned housing, and that $500/month might have to be added to my rent just so I can find a place to live (three cheers for the south bay). 

I recently cancelled my cell phone insurance and photoshop monthly plan, in an effort to save some more money. I tell myself that if I keep playing with my spreadsheets and adjusting my numbers by five dollars here, ten dollars there, I will somehow feel like I am not going to end up old and destitute, only to have my body tossed in a pauper’s field with the gravel barely covering my bones, where on windy days the dirt blows away and you can see my skull (Oh Milat—why did you stare at the mayor?)

But this is why I need to start now. As the oft-quoted Einstein supposedly said, compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. I have about thirty years to get this powerful force to work for, and not against, me. So, next week, let’s take a good hard look at my budget. 

* This may be behind a paywall. I’ll work on posting more sources that are open access, but your local library may have a subscription through which you can access this article.

The Thing About Money, Part 3: Student Loans, or, How debt scares the hell out of me

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

I have $43,188.99 in student debt.

$40,328 is principal, and $2,860.99 (or 7%) is interest. The only reason the interest is so low is because I made a few payments here and there while still in school. On $20,500 worth of loans, I have an APR of 6.6%. On the other $19,828, I have an APR of 6%. 

This amount of debt makes me sick to my stomach. 

Counting each and every cent. Image from pexels.com.

In my 32 years of life on this earth, I have never personally had a negative net worth past $2,000. That was in consumer credit card debt I accumulated while struggling to find a post-college job that paid a living wage. I paid that amount off soon after I got a new job, and I’ve been in the positive ever since–until I started grad school. My current net worth is in the negative $20,000s. In the words of Elizabeth Bennet, “How is such a sum to be repaid?” 

(Of course, that was about an elopement. And I don’t have a handsome and conveniently rich Mr. Darcy to dispatch thousands of dollars to my aid.)

I’m not alone. Collectively, students in the United States owe a total of over $1.5 trillion in student loans. Per NerdWallet, the “average U.S. household with student debt owes $47,671.” Undergraduates finishing up in 2017 owe an average of $28,650 each. And this number can change depending on the field you go into–I owe over $40,000, and I am in a subset of education that is not known for paying well (as is the field in general). Medical students owe, on average, almost $200,000 a pop. According to this article from 2015, social work graduates can owe upwards of $60,000 in debt and expect starting salaries of only $41,000. These are all essential fields. Unfortunately, not all of these fields pay well. 

And all of us in these essential fields have a story. Here’s mine.: 

My student loan debt was just to pay for my master’s degree. I was very blessed in that I didn’t need to take out loans to fund my undergraduate education. My biological parents split when I was three, and my mom and stepdad divorced when I was sixteen or so. As such, my mom was the only parent on my FAFSA. 

With a combination of grants and scholarships, my mom as the sole income provider for our family, working several jobs through college, and the decision to turn down my NYU acceptance for a more affordable in-state school (a decision which I regret only a little bit, but mostly not at all), I was able to graduate in 2009 with my BA in English, during the Great Recession. I bounced around a few minor jobs after that (including working for minimum wage for the first time since high school) and finally landed in South Korea, where I spent three and a half years teaching English to high school and college students. 

I’m confident that making the decision to move overseas is the only thing that helped me have a stable career trajectory in my twenties. 

After coming back stateside in 2014, I moved to New York City, where I worked at an artisanal nut milk company, a terrible for-profit medical school, and an international exchange nonprofit (that had a heavy endowment but, instead of paying its workers a living wage, threw us two big parties a year with all the free booze we could drink and acted like saints for it). While there, I started volunteering somewhere and discovered a deep passion for a field I hadn’t previously given a real look at. I threw myself into the volunteer work, and I deeply enjoyed it–but to do it professionally, I needed a master’s. 

It was 100% my decision to go back to school. By choosing the program I did (in-person at a private school with no online component), I knew I would be paying a bit more, but I thought it would be worth it. I chose an in-person only program because the curriculum and experiences required made it seem like it had more credibility to it* (although–surprise!–they added an online program in my second year, which had been in the works for multiple years, and which the school didn’t think worth mentioning to us). And while I am one of the lucky ones from my program that was able to find a full time job after graduation (although it took a cross-country move), a number of my fellow graduates are still looking. 

Most of my courses were taught by busy adjuncts who were professionals in the field but not professional educators. Some were taught by adjuncts who weren’t contacted by the university until a week before classes were supposed to start. Some were taught by adjuncts who didn’t hold the degrees for the program for which they were teaching. Some were taught by adjuncts who didn’t bother to show up on the first day of class (which, on a quarter system, is 10% of class time), who cancelled because they were sick and didn’t make up the class (instead touting it as some sort of favor to us), or who let us out after an hour of what was supposed to be a two-and-a-half hour class (two-and-a-half hours that we paid for, regardless of actual time spent). I mention this not to shit on adjuncts–after all, adjuncts make up the backbone of higher education and are often asked to teach under shitty conditions–but to show that, despite the astronomical tuition, I was not receiving the education that was advertised. Frankly, my education was not a priority for most of my instructors (although I can’t blame them–if you lack resources like time and money, you can only do so much). My university did not hold up their end of the bargain. As per the above linked article,

“If you are paying for a college education today, you are paying comparatively more money than previous generations have paid — nearly $70,000 in annual tuition, room and board, and fees at America’s most expensive schools — to be educated by a more poorly-resourced, poorly paid, and potentially poorly-motivated group of educators.”

– Dan Edmonds

So here I am, over $40,000 in debt, with a degree that some in my profession have started arguing only acts as a barrier to entry and shouldn’t even be a requirement for employment (although, for gainful employment, it most certainly still is). And for those of you who say I should have tried to get more scholarships and worked harder, please note that I applied for (and received) multiple scholarships as well as worked two to three jobs at any given time. During my last year, I worked full-time, went to school full-time, and worked a part-time job on top of that. And I still have negative $43,188.99 to show for it. 

The purpose of The Thing About Money series is for me to examine my relationship with money to understand why I have a hard time with it. In this instance, money is a heavy weight that is dragging me down with it. My student loans make me feel buried. That $43,188.99 plus future interest is getting in the way of my retirement (which we’ll talk about next week). It’s making me worry about ever saving up enough to put a downpayment on a house. It’s making me worry about how to pay off the loans and my rent next year (I live in a HCOL area for my job, and while thankfully this year’s rent is slightly subsidized, there’s no guarantee for next year). I have an emergency fund (once again, I feel the need to defend myself–I am a Good Poor!).

Is this debt the result of choices I willingly made? Yes. However, is this debt also emblematic of major problems with my university and the higher education system in general? Also yes. But as I feel powerless to change the system, I guess I just have to figure out a way to work within it. 

So that’s my story. What’s your student loan story? Feel free to include it in the comments. I’m sure it’s a doozy. 

*Please note that I am not claiming that all online degree programs are not reputable nor worth it. However, a recent study found that 53% of survey respondents thought that people learned less or much less in online degree programs as compared with residential ones. I never wanted my education questioned, so I went with a residential program. However, as explored above, perhaps that was a huge mistake on my part.

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.

The Thing About Money, Part 1: Background, or, Wanting money makes me feel like a phony

(This is the first post in a six post series titled The Thing About Money.)

I think a lot about money, and that makes me feel like a big phony. 

I like to think of myself as marginally punk rock, a bit of a hippie, and as someone who tries not to be frivolous–especially with money. I’m not some crust punk panhandling down on Venice Beach or anything like that (more power to you, if you are), but I’ve undergone a dumpster dive or two in my day. I’ve picked up free furniture from Craigslist, walked to work instead of driven, and stopped eating meat because of the damage industrial farming does to the environment and workers. At one point I was living in a shoebox New York bedroom with six roommates (shoebox as in only-fit-a-twin-bed shoebox) working at a small nut milk “factory.” I’ve been able to scratch out a marginal living, and this has been fine. It hasn’t been great, but it’s been fine. The older I get, however, the more I start to think about having nice things. Nice things like organic groceries, or a car with an undercarriage that doesn’t vibrate when I drive it, or the feeling of being completely debt-free and without student loans. And in order to have these nice things, I need money. But wanting it makes me feel dirty.

All hail the almighty… change jar. Image from pexels.com.

Class anxiety is a huge part of this. I’m proud of having been poor and still making something of myself. I’m proud that I was able to buy a car outright–yes, it was a used 2007 Toyota Yaris with over 100,000 miles on it, but it’s mine, damn it, and I drove it off the lot with no debts to my name. I’ve learned that if you’ve worked for something and had to make intense sacrifices for it, you’ve really earned it (side-note: as a white, cis, able-bodied person, I recognize that I have a boatload of privilege). And if you have money, if you have a support system behind you when you achieve your goals, it somehow doesn’t count. If you didn’t starve while you did it, then it doesn’t make it special. 

I was taught that hard work and money are moral issues. You can be a good poor, like my family, and buy vegetables and milk with your food stamps and try and stash money away for a rainy day. Or you can be a “bad” poor, like people who buy pizza rolls and soda and blow their whole paycheck as soon as they get it.

Now THAT’S a fucked up way of thinking.

(Besides, pizza rolls taste good, and when you’re that poor, can’t you at least have just one fucking thing that you actually like?)

These feelings are exacerbated by living in the South Bay area. I am lucky that I get paid a living wage for what I do (but only speaking as a non-parent–if I had any dependents to support, this job would not work for me), but sometimes it seems hard to count my blessings when I overhear twenty-four year olds talk about how they just bought a new house with their Facebook money while gazing at the vast sea of Teslas parked in my gym’s lot. But I also know this is a compromise on my part–I frankly couldn’t sleep at night if I worked for a company like Facebook. I interned one summer for a company that I found out made construction materials used in underwater oil drilling, and the thought of being part of a machine that kills the environment made me sick. I don’t want to work for a corporation like that. When I look at my student debt, though, I sometimes have to wonder if my compromises are worth it. I know they are, I know they are, I know they are…

I also feel like money should be the last thing on my mind. After all, the world is dying. Instead of providing aid to millions of struggling people and places across the world, Jeff Bezos thinks the best way to spend his money is to shoot himself into space. Meanwhile, the Brazilian Amazon is on fire (and wants to stay that way?), the Bolivian Amazon is on fire (although at least they’re trying?), and Trump is shitting all over the endangered species act (oh, and also still keeping children in cages). Is it even right to worry about whether or not I can get a better car when the earth is literally going to shit and it seems like everything you could possibly do just makes things worse? Is civilization even going to exist by the time I retire? And shouldn’t I be donating all my money to help other people; isn’t that what “good” people do?

Options seem limited, when you don’t want to be an asshole to others/the planet. 

A lot of “lifestyle coaches” would say that I need to change my “money mindset.” That I am coming from a mindset of lack, and as such, I send the message of lack out into the universe and receive lack in return. If I would just think from a place of abundance, then I would attract abundance from the universe. Sudden windfalls would come my way–past loans I had given but forgotten about would be paid back by friends, I’d get a surprise bonus at work, etc. etc. I’ve tried to think from a place of abundance, but it’s hard to feel abundant when you’re documenting every purchase at the grocery store to make sure there’s enough left over for student fees, or car problems, or whatever bills come up when your research assistantship is offered at half the hours than your professor originally implied (lesson learned: get it in writing, always). The money mindset is bullshit. Money mindsets put further blame on individuals–why aren’t you working hard enough at thinking positively?–when greater societal forces are at work. YOU SHOULD BE MANIFESTING, DAMN IT!

“Manifesting” more money isn’t going to do shit, in my opinion. However, maybe educating myself about how to best use money as a tool will empower me to feel less helpless. After all, knowledge is power.  In the words of Liz Lemon, “I have gotta make money and save it. And I have to do that thing that rich people do where they turn money into more money.”

So that’s what I’m setting out to do. Step one: I need to examine my own relationship with money. What’s my history with money? How was money treated when I was growing up? How do I feel about debt, what am I afraid of, and what’s really the worst thing that could happen if I lose my job? I guess this could be considered as part of some bullshit mindset, but it feels to me like more of a psychological archaeological excavation. Let’s get to some deep history in order to provide a better foundation for the future. (And of course, step two = ? and step 3 = profit). 

How do you feel about money? Do you have moral hang-ups about it, or do you view it merely as a tool to be used to one’s advantage? Feel free to post in the comments.