I’ve had a complicated emotional relationship with money since I became aware of its awesome power. As a kid I believed my family was on the brink of destitution. I thought this because I had limited perspective and because I wore hand-me-down clothes and my parents said no every time I whined for them to buy me things when we were out shopping. We were austere, eating endless leftovers, owning the same single car from the time I was five until I left home for college, rarely eating out, our vacations road trips.
My dad would sit at the dining room table elbow deep in papers doing our bills and finances. It was a soothing ritual for him, but I sensed tension. I lay awake at night worried about whether we were poor and what we would do. My perception was that we didn’t have the things our neighbors had, or my friends’ families had–new cars, new clothes, mountains of toys–and I reasoned it must have been because we were living on the edge of poverty.
We had indeed left our home in Vermont, where my dad taught at Middlebury College because we were going broke, rent and heating bills pinching us to the point my mom and I collected bottles on the roadside for the deposit money to buy food. I was five years old and my parents told me we were moving to Seattle because Middlebury was too cold. They stuck a new My Little Pony into my hands as we got into the moving truck and I never looked back, dazzled by the appearance of a rare brand new toy in its original box.
I coveted possessions from a young age, a vein of jealousy running through my soul, erupting into (internal) primal screams of “it’s not fair!” in bad times. I hated watching people open gifts at birthday parties, so envious was I of every shiny, brightly packaged new thing. My next door neighbor’s mom presented her with the Barbie Ice Cream Shoppe, a whole structure with gobs of accessories (in my eyes a major, Christmas-worthy gift) on a random weeknight when I was at her house. I became so enraged with envy I had to go home, losing my mind on my parents as to why they never made similar gestures. My mom made noises about “guilt gifts”, a concept I was far too young to understand.
Another neighbor’s parents literally bought her any and every object she requested. She had two American Girl dolls and a cache of related accessories. She had trays of makeup sets, a closet full of Barbies and Barbie clothes. Each item on her Christmas list was checked off and placed under the tree each year, while my parents used my list as loose suggestions, choosing to fulfill according to their budget. It got worse as I got older and friends Barbies became hundred dollar gift certificates to Nordstrom and J Crew, cars, trips abroad. I burned with the unfairness of it all, and resented my parents for our obvious poverty, for which I could determine no reason.
When I would ask for a shopping spree, new clothes, new toys, CDs, fancy shoes, a car, my parents would refuse. When I would ask for handouts of cash my dad would say no, while other dads handed over stacks of twenties, a credit card. I asked my parents why we lived the way we did, why they wouldn’t buy me more things. The answers were unchanging: we’ve chosen not to work all the time so we can have a family life, we’re saving for your education, we’re saving so you won’t have to take care of us when we’re old, what did you do to earn the money, we have work you can do around the house for pay if you’re so desperate. Their answers were terrible, and I hated them for not giving in. I wanted stuff and money, an endless supply. And anyone who had what I did not I resented and hated. Even my so-called friends. It wasn’t fair. Having fewer possessions burned my ass.
It’s embarrassing to reveal this, but it’s true, and it’s shaped my life a certain way. The career path I started out on, the amount of effort I put into making money, the horrible credit card debt I amassed, my lack of enterprise or ambition all suggest that money isn’t the most important facet of my life. I have come to accept the financial circumstances I’ve created for myself, and how they indicate I’m not driven to build a fortune. I’m still not sure what I expected when I was younger, how I would acquire all the riches I desired. Well, I was voted “most likely to marry for money” among other things in the senior poll in high school. But instead I married a government attorney. I like his forty hour work week. I need his time and attention more than any items billable hours could provide. But I digress. I’ve still felt that old jealousy fire up somewhere deep within when I’ve seen people acquire things and experiences I consider to be out of my reach. It’s an ancient impulse and it makes me feel immature and gross.
Not long after I moved to Phoenix I was struggling with maintaining financial stability and yet another twist on my career path. I was sweating money hard core, and it was like old times. I found myself becoming enraged at what others had, not necessarily because I wanted the specific objects, but because I craved the buying power they signified. It was the old pattern, and my money anxiety was chewing me up all over again, making me feel panicked and vulnerable. One night I was out with a new group of friends at a Daft Punk cover show. The house was packed and people were dancing their asses off, the vibe frenzied and friendly. Being inside a crowd of energized. ecstatic people dancing with abandon was getting me high. The sweat was rolling down my face and I was leaping in the air, laughing and throwing my body around. I felt absolutely amazing, intoxicated with endorphins, the freedom of my new life, new friends, outstanding, pulsing music. As I felt my mood rapidly elevate into the stratosphere in boundless, total happiness, I heard the words, “the greatest joys will never be material” ring in my head with utter clarity, louder than the show, the crowd. I knew then for sure, forever, that I was free from this particular struggle.