“You don’t have to use money, you have plenty of checks.” – Me approximate age 8, to my mother, responding to her concerns about not being able to buy groceries that week.
“Deeper in Debt than Mexico” – The button which hung on the overflowing bill-basket at my childhood home.
“Aaron, you’re a pretty smart guy. You have gotta be able to figure out this ‘stock market’ thing.” – My Father’s advice to 16 year old me on ‘Finance’. The first time I remember him discussing money with me.
Money and me have never gotten along. I like spending it. I like when I have a big pile of it and the excitement of knowing I’m gonna spend it. Sometimes I even like the things I spend it on. But for the largest part of my life, money has been more enemy that friend. The lack of it, the mismanagement of it, the expectation that it’ll be there when it isn’t. I’ve scraped together my first meal in two days out of couch cushions and I’ve floated checks for cigarettes. I’ve been fucked over and over by money, largely because I wasn’t ever taught about it. Not in school, not by my parents. TV pretty much told me what I already knew: having money is rad and spending it lets everyone else know about your personal radness level. Friends let me know that it was really fun when I spent my money on them. My parents shared plenty of lessons about (borderline psychotic) work ethic, integrity, personal responsibility. But as far as somebody who cares about me teaching me what it _means_ to have money, what “savings” is, how to manage income? Hah.
There were times as a kid, that my dad was earning _excellent_ money and we were still having to time our grocery store trips to coincide with paydays. My room was adrift with toys, my parents would clandestinely throw away baskets of toys which I’d never even notice were gone. I wanted for NOTHING, but at the same time, there were last second runs to pay a bill and keep the electricity on. But as long as the fridge was packed with Coca Cola, pork tenderloin, and condiments, the cable TV was going, and we could drive anywhere we wanted to in our (many) cars, it seemed like we were living a lavish, comfortable life style.
Basically, my family took money for granted when it was present and panicked when it was gone. And for years I had no idea there was any other way to live.
I’m going to tangentialize here for a minute – Bear with me, it’s related. When I moved away to college, I had some severe social and personal anxiety. The way I masked my inability to introduce myself to others was by taking up cigarette smoking. I had smoked a little in high school, some cigars, two or three cigarettes a week when I could sneak a pack into the back yard shed. But when I went to college, they became my lifeline, a habit that I could quite literally structure my day around. By the time my second term came around I was at a pack a day pretty steady. By the time I dropped out it was more like two. It took years for me to try to quit the first time, it took years for me to try again when that failed. Five years of smoking later, I decided to quit for good. Six years later (about a year and a half ago) I grabbed a cigarette from somebody while out drinking, and a pack-a-day sized monkey was howling at my brain before I even knew it. This is how I remembered what addiction feels like, how completely it affects you. Here’s a small example of what happens when I’m quitting cigarettes: I wake up at 2am wondering where all the half smoked butts in the yard are. And I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t ever walked out there and taken a few stale drags. It doesn’t even feel like physical need at the time, there’s nothing in your lungs telling you that it needs some smoke, it is simply the all-caps-flashing-neon NEED, a general sense of impending doom, and the desperation to have that need quenched.
It is only fitting that so many of my monetary problems dovetail with smoking problems, because I was raised utterly addicted to money. I spend money to counteract bad moods, to celebrate victories, to impress my friends. I spend money when I know I shouldn’t, I sometimes lie about spending money when asked. I have put off work, friends, and family, in order to spend money. And as I have slowly made my way out of the pitch blackness of monetary despair, I’ve learned a LOT about myself, my relationships, and the responsible management of money. As you may have noticed in the upper right of this blog, there’s a box that has all my financial details in it. It’s not 100% up to date at all times, but it’s a good general picture of what I have going on. There’s no value judgments up there about what my debt was incurred for, there’s no talk about the decisions I make about where my retirement savings goes. It’s not all inclusive and if you believe for a second four lines is enough space to get even a basic picture of financial health, well, heh, you may be as fucked as I was when I started. But it’s an OK start. It helped me get on the wagon. Just like with any addiction, the road to recovery usually starts with the admission that you have a problem.