Such an uncomfortable topic for me. When you grow up poor, money takes getting used to.
I was told back in the spring that I was probably going to get a raise, but I didn’t hear anything else until recently, when my new contract showed up. The raise was nice, and nicer was that in my next paycheck, I got something extra: back pay—my raise was back-dated nine months, to the beginning of the year.
So I ran right to my checkbook and took care of one of my higher-interest student loans. This is what I’ve done with every influx of cash I’ve had since starting a “real” job five years ago, and yet it was only recently that my student loans got below $100,000. When we married, TrophyHusband and I were in debt for about a third of a million, with no assets to speak of aside from our degrees. His loans are being whittled away by a program for physicians who devote their time to research (research being much less remunerative than clinical work, the government tries to lure folks into it this way). Mine I’m chipping away at—$1300 a month, plus extras. I’m also putting the maximum into the various retirement accounts available to me, as is TH; the Alternative Minimum Tax rakes us over the coals every year; and of course there’s daycare. So our bank account isn’t enormous.
But we don’t have to worry. It is highly unlikely that we will ever have to worry again, at least not the way I worried growing up. After my father died, we had no income; my mother had three kids and no degree. I was placed in Head Start. We lived in a tiny apartment—we owned the house, but rented out two-thirds of it. We had an old car that broke down a lot. I wore a lot of hand-me-downs. I had two Barbies, while my friends had dozens (though I don’t recall wanting Barbies, or any toys really; all I ever wanted was books).
I didn’t really mind any of that. It felt normal to me. And I wasn’t truly deprived; I did have music lessons, and our local Y had an awesome array of classes priced on a sliding scale—I took pottery, trampoline, gymnastics, magic, swimming, even horseback riding. I mostly made friends who didn’t have much more than we did; the richer kids just seemed to live in a different world. But I did hate the worry. My mom was not good with money. Bounced checks were routine, every single month. There were always stores we couldn’t shop in because her name could be found on the handwritten list above the cash register: DO NOT ACCEPT CHECKS FROM THE FOLLOWING … Having people show up to cut off the gas or electric was not uncommon (though I learned that if you tell them you have a sick baby, they rarely actually do it). We lived in the poorer section of town, and when I went to junior high, I had to ride the “bad” bus, where you risked getting assaulted if you tried to sit in one of the tough kids’ seats, and sometimes even if you didn’t. A couple of times I went home after school with friends from one of the fancier suburbs, and I was astonished at how nice their buses were. I did whatever I could to avoid my bus—rode my bike, begged a ride, even walked the three miles.
Finally, when I was about twelve, I said to my mother, “This is ridiculous. We shouldn’t be bouncing checks. We should only spend what we have.” This was when I found out that a) my mother was unsure as to just how much money was coming in and b) didn’t really know how to balance a checkbook. So I sat down and figured those things out, put us on a budget, and took over the finances. I didn’t let my mother go to the grocery store without me, because she was liable to throw all kinds of pricey crap in the cart instead of the perfectly good store brand stuff. And it was a beautiful thing—no more bounced checks, and I finally knew just how much I could spend on new shoes for school. As soon as I could earn a little money babysitting, I did it as much as I could (in fact, I was regularly sitting for a family of three boys under 4 from the time I was twelve—no wonder I didn’t want to have kids too young). In high school, I saved enough money to pay for all of my own stuff, plus get myself to Europe two summers in a row. (My mother eventually married my stepdad, who is a perfect balance for her—he’s so frugal that he has been known to pour cheap wine into expensive bottles for her, and she can’t tell the difference, so everyone is happy.)
Frugality has a hold on me that I’m not sure will ever loosen. Oh, I’ve relaxed some—we go out to eat a lot, we take a vacation here and there, I get my family nice gifts for birthdays and Christmas, and I’ll buy myself fun stuff every now and again. We give a lot of money to charity. GoodCat recently had to have some teeth pulled out, and when they said that they could pull out two extra that looked iffy for about $60 more or wait and see, meaning it could be an extra $500 down the road to redo the sedation, I let him keep his teeth. But I’ve never bought a fancy car (I drive a Scion; TH almost exclusively rides his bike and will probably sell his car soon), we resisted our real estate agent when she suggested we look at the biggest house we could qualify for (three times as much as the house we bought), and the most I’ve spent by far any item of clothing was the $300 I dropped for my wedding dress. We never carry a credit card balance. Our house has one and a half bathrooms and two and a half bedrooms, no garage. I almost never buy my son clothes that are not on sale, and I certainly buy him nothing from any boutiques. His equipment is all of the good-enough brands. I recently learned how to drive my car so that I get more than 31 miles per gallon in the city, and this pleases me enormously.
Right now I tell people that I’m cautious with money because of the student loan debt, but there’s more to it than that. Buying things that cost a lot when you can get something much less expensive that works just as well just seems, well, stupid if you don’t have much money, and immoral if you do. My in-laws redid their kitchen using a special kind of granite that had to be imported from Brazil. It looks no better than the home-grown stuff, but cost something like five times as much. This just seems wrong to me. But then, I guess we don’t really need to live in a 1300 square foot house either. We didn’t have to use real tile when we redid our bathroom (though we did have to redo it; it was crumbling to pieces and flooding the downstairs). And one of these days I am going to have someone out to repair all the holes in the plaster …
Anyway, what I really meant to talk about when I started this is, I have no idea how to raise my son when it comes to the whole money thing. I feel very uncomfortable about the fact that he will be in such a different position than I was. He’ll be going to private schools pretty soon. When he asks for money, I won’t be able to say “we don’t have it” honestly. I’m not sorry that he won’t have to scrub other students’ toilets in college like I did, but I also don’t want him to be like the rich kids I hated. Or did I just hate them because they were rich?
I can already see some of the ways I’ll be mortifying HellBoy when he’s a teenager ...