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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Another Dreaded Topic

My parents taught me two rules about money, one aloud, the other subliminally.
1. Do not discuss money.
2. Have it.

Am I all done here? I mean, that covers the topic. And I am breaking both rules right now. I don't have even a penny on me. In fact, the only loose change I can think of right now is on top of the dryer.

Yes, money makes me that uncomfortable. Why, aside from the taboo (#1)?  Well, I suppose it's because the finer points of #2 were never clear to me, and because I have arrived at a Certain Age in violation of it.

Nevertheless, I have gleaned some tidbits. Since my parents kept mum, most of what I've learned was inadvertent:

  • They had a lot more than most people. 
  • Money doesn't make you happy.
  • Most of my friends, not all, but most, got through higher education with loans.
  • Money is to be accumulated, not spent.
  • Don't be showy. 
  • Put 5-10% of every paycheck in savings.
  • Invest aligned with the S&P 500 and diversify.
  • College will cost approximately $100,000/year by the time the 7th grader gets in.
  • Choose saving for retirement over saving for college if you can't do both.
  • Lack of money makes you miserable.

I used to say (to myself; never aloud -#1) that I would never decide not to do something because of money. Keeping my word was easy when I was single, even though I was working at a low-paying job, because I had a nice financial portfolio in my name, thanks to my father. So, you know, even if I couldn't afford to buy a car, say, on my salary, I had some means. Lucky for me, I also had such an inferiority complex that I was used to denying myself most everything - something to do with my mother buying me second hand clothes - and identifying with Cinderella-- but that's another story-- so those means lasted a long time. All the way through my husband's medical school, residency & fellowship, which included six years in Manhattan mothering two children and working very part time, and trickling out coincident with the recent financial crisis.


The thing is, and this is hard to write, because I imagine my tens of readers' faces wrinkling in disgust as they perceive the hard-core materialist I am, I really identified with that money. It reminded me where I came from, and bolstered the illusion that I was still a part of that echelon. An echelon I took for granted in a way particular to it, that I could only see when I landed, with the family, in a town I didn't really want to live in, dependent on my husband's income, with a certain amount of credit card debt (Bulletin: Manhattan is expensive), on my proverbial butt.

As usual, I exaggerate. My father did eventually tell me a few things about money. Could you tell from my list? When I was casting about in my twenties, he sent me a few books, which I read and digested. They made my palms sweat and my heart palpitate, because I really couldn't follow any of the advice, not even the bit about saving from every paycheck, because I was working part time--preserving those blocks of free time in the afternoon so important to me, so much more important to me than financial planning.  I'm not sure this counts as "telling" me anything about money, but he did transport the means of self-education to me. We never followed-up with any deep discussions. I consigned the info to the section of my brain that understood the Future would be Different and continued writing that novel and napping on my keyboard at Widener Library. When relaxing in front of the TV, I simply put my head between my knees whenever Suze Orman was on, harranguing women to take responsibilty for themselves, changed channels, and took deep breaths.

I never chose a job for money (beyond the basics of rent & food), nor a friend, nor a husband (alas?) I don't know a single person who vowed out loud to make a few million by thirty or thirty-five, although I know a few who have. I never made any decision with a monetary target in mind.

I pretty much lived by my most unspoken rule about money -- and this one I came up with all by myself. Ready?

When you need it, money will fall from the sky.

Well, really. I mean, is that such a bad way to live? You're not thinking about money, you're not caught up in the dirty business of accumulating it. You're worry free. Manna will arrive. Yes, you might spend your last twenty on a small deerskin pouch to remember your time writing that novel on Martha's Vineyard at your father's friend's house; but there will be a surprise check from your great aunt or a grandmother (disbursing funds tax-free in advance of death) waiting in your mailbox when you get home. Thank Sky, you'll be able to pay your rent after all.

I was recently at two college reunions, the husband's and mine. I couldn't help noticing that the money men weren't at our table. (They were sighted outside the Charles Hotel, comparing Rolexes -- by one of the husband's friends, a poet). I also couldn't helping noticing that with few exceptions, all the husband's friends, like most of mine, aren't in the money-making business. There are teachers, professors, writers, even a stay-at-home dad. People who save lakes in California. Museum folk. Librarians. The aforementioned poet. People in the helping professions. As I pummeled them with questions about success, I became uncomfortably aware that my financial expectations were different than theirs. After listening to me and reading my blog, one friend handed me a copy of the Tao Te Ching. By the end of the visit, I reached two conclusions. One, these people are fantastic; and two, I need to earn some money.

Now, nobody's starving in my house. We're managing, but I'm thinking a lot more about money than I've ever had to do. That change on the dryer? There's a budget line for it. This is an uncomfortable state for me. I'll say it freely. Maybe this is adulthood. Maybe you just have to think about money. Maybe all of you have your budgets and spend time thinking about them. Maybe my parents had a budget line for everything. If so, there's no doubt the allocations were larger, and all the lines were filled in.  I don't know. The flow was mysterious.

Where I live there's a lot of sky. Beautiful clouds. College funds? Retirement accounts? I'm looking.


  1. ***** this is the sound of me snapping my fingers. Oh MAN, do I get it.

  2. Money problems make my head hurt and so stressed. It's so difficult for so many of us out there now.

  3. Love this post. I have a budget for everything, including my change jar (no kidding!) and work constantly (single, three kids in or about to go to college, mortgage for a house bought four years ago *just* before the crash - etcetera). I also love having an imagination, because the idea/belief that money will just appear when I need it is essential to my happiness. Dreaming of what I'll do with my lottery winnings makes me very happy, and I'm all for happiness. Hang in there and know that you're so not alone.
    - alison

  4. Yes, Christine, really hard to look head on at financial matters. In fact, I was instructed to leave the room when the husband pays bills....

    And Alison, I do agree that the magical-thinking makes life a little more pleasant.