"Your Love Don't Pay My Bills" - A Meditation on Money
I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a cheap-ass bitch. For real. Tight-fisted, frugal, not quite miserly, but maybe verging on the edge of stingy. A real hugger-mugger (of the 1860s variety – “one who keeps things hidden or in secret; a hoarder or miser”).
I’ve always been that person scheming for a new way to make a little side cash too. Whether it was selling loose cigarettes behind the 7-Eleven after school, painting a teacher’s home bathroom, taking another part-time job, or learning a new craft “for fun” then immediately trying to sell it to everyone I encounter. [No joke, every “for fun” hobby I’ve ever picked up: making bath salts (the actual bathing kind, not the snort-up-your-nose-kind, though you could theoretically do that, it just won’t garner the results you might be looking for), candles, jewelry, book-binding, painting jewelry boxes, fancy bookmarks. All save for crocheting, mostly because I still suck at it.]
One of my best friends used to call me a Jewexican. Get it? Jewish + Mexican. The propensity to be tight with money plus the working of fifty jobs. I know, super offensive. It’s one of the things I love best about her. (For the record, she’s Jewish. That’s why she could make the joke. I only have half a right to make it. You have none. Unless you’re Jewish; though it’d be better if you were Jewish & Mexican, then it’d be double funny.)
I’ve been thinking about this recently for two reasons:
1.) I keep seeing posts on Facebook of my friends doing fun things like going to clubs, bungee jumping, going out to dinner five times a week and my reaction every time is, “Damn, how much did that cost?” It’s pretty much never, “Oh, I wish I was doing that” or “Wow, that looks fun.” I mean, it does, and I guess I’d maybe like to be doing that, but honestly, a lot of things that are fun, that cost money, I can’t bring myself to do. Like pay a cover charge. I’m going to spend four times the actual production cost of a drink AND they want me to pay for the pleasure of over-charging me? Fuck that, I say. Of course, if there’s a band, that’s different. Artists should be paid for their art. That’s the only way for them to keep making it.
2.) This will be maybe the second summer out of the last fifteen where I have not had a “real” job and/or been doing at least two money-making ventures. In college, it was always one full-time food service job, part-time tutoring, and a part-time food service job. For example, I worked at a bagel house called Uncle Harry’s in this upscale shopping center in Fresno called Fig Garden. I’d open there, work an eight hour shift, change, drive the mile west to the tutoring service that catered to rich parents who wanted their children to “get ahead of the game,” then after about three hours, drive back to Fig Garden, steal a bagel for dinner from Uncle Harry’s and walk across the parking lot to a very nice grocery store that had a Thrifty’s ice cream parlor in it and scoop ice cream for four hours. The more schooling I had, the better the jobs got. Like when I was an upperclassman undergrad, I waitressed full-time at night and had a 25 hour a week tutoring gig for the English dept at Fresno State. Once I graduated, I got a 40-hour a week office job and for a little while sometimes waitressed at night, then just kept the 40-hour job plus making jewelry and crafts and selling them on weekends at craft fairs and on the lawn outside my apartment complex.
Those two facts: seeing fun, money-costing things on Fb & only doing one, money-garnering venture this summer (not by choice, mind you. I had two other real teaching jobs lined up that didn’t pan out because of low enrollment) have made me think more about the way I think about money.
Truth be told, I think about money a lot. I hate it, but I do it. I’ve been thinking about money on a weekly, if not daily basis since I was twelve years old (maybe eleven?). I think that’s a fairly common trait for working-class kids or at least those who are keenly aware of their parents’ financial status. It was especially true for me because not only were my divorced parents often fighting about money, talking about how they didn’t have it, but I went to a school where most people did. In an environment where no one is going out to eat, where no one can afford to buy volleyball uniforms, it’s not so bad. But in an environment where you are the only one digging through the lost and found bin after school for a new used uniform polo shirt or the only one wearing one of the communal volleyball jerseys (which was especially bad since I was a chubby/fat kid and the shirts were either too small or way too big), it becomes a thing.
It took me a shocking number of years to actually pay for dinner myself at a food establishment I didn’t work at and therefore did not receive a 30% discount, or at a place where I didn’t already know I could smile my way into some free grub. I lived around the corner from a Blockbuster for over a year and a half (this was pre Red Box), before paying to rent a DVD, and I only did that because it was “encouraged” to me by the person I was dating. Mind you, part of not paying to rent DVDs was that I didn’t own a DVD player, but even when I did, I would just re-watch the five DVDs I owned; which I only owned because the incredible person I was dating – who happens to be my partner now these many years later – bought me the DVD player and the five DVDs for my birthday. The first birthday that we were dating. I totally freaked out saying it was too much and tried to get him to take them back. I may have also wept and gnashed my teeth like the overdramatic person I can be.
I know part of my weirdness about money is that on one side of my family, money equals love and control. People buy you something you want because they love you, but your gratitude is not their repayment, your servitude is. There is not getting without giving back and there is no end to the emotional repayment. My grandparents did it to my mom, then my mom did it to me and my sister. That’s one of the reasons I paid for all four years of my college tuition, moved out at 19, and never once did laundry at my mom’s house once I moved out. I mean, I paid my own college tuition because I had to, but by the time I was getting ready to graduate, she was doing much better financially (certainly far better than when I was growing up), and if I’d have said I needed groceries or a schoolbook (which I often did), she could have covered it. But then I would have owed her. And you never know what’ll it’ll be. And it was never one-to-one.
My other thing about money is that I was (and am) always saving for something. When I waitressed, I kept four envelopes hidden in a box, hidden in a cabinet, behind a pile of clothes. One was marked “Tattoo/Piercing,” the other “Utilities,” one “Gifts/Holidays,” and the last “Cape.” Yes, I was saving up for a cape. It was so beautiful! Burgundy crushed velvet, floor-length with a large hood. I found it at a place called the Brass Unicorn which is an indie Wiccan shop that was just a few blocks north of my apartment. My friends and I would go there to get incense and look at the black magic books (The Craft was one of young me’s favorite movies). The store also carried hippie clothes, which I always wished I was thin enough to wear. A lot of long flowing skirts, back-less satin tank tops. But one day – not terribly long after watching Tim Burton’s version of Sleepy Hollow for the fifth time – I found this cape. I wanted it SO bad. I petted the fabric, tied it around my shoulders and turned quick circles in front of the narrow full-length mirror to watch the base swing wide. The price tag was white with $90 handwritten in purple ink. That’s a lot of money to me now (in reference to spending it on one item of clothing), but it was a ton of money then. But I kept dreaming about it. I wanted to be like Christina Ricci traveling so elegantly through the spooky sepia forests of Sleepy Hollow, the glow of the soft fabric, the bright splash of the red roses against the muted colors of the film (the kissing of Johnny Depp).
Of course, Fresno, CA is terrible for cape-wearing. It’s hot and dry and urban. Who knows where I thought I was going to wear it, but that didn’t matter. I could have just worn it, naked underneath, in the air-conditioning of my bedroom and it would have been worth it.
Two weeks later, I went back and it was still there. It was a sign. That day I went home, wrote “Cape” in block letters on a 4.5 x 9.5” legal envelope. That night, after work, I slipped in a five dollar bill. For weeks, I would come in, check to see if the cape was still there, and put anywhere between $7-$15 a week in the envelope. By the third or fourth week, I told the owner that I was saving up to buy it and would she mind putting it on hold for me. I was about half-way there. It’d only be another three or four weeks. She said sure, but wouldn’t take a deposit for it.
It finally happened. I had $95 saved (the extra $5 for taxes). I grabbed my envelope and my roommate and walked (practically skipped) over to the store. I went straight to the back rack where it had been the previous two months, to find it was not there. My heart beating double-time in my chest, I tried not to look frantic as I searched through all the racks in the small store, before going to the front and asking the owner if she was holding it for me behind the counter. “Oh, I think it got sold a few days ago,” she said. I reminded her that she said she’d hold it for me, and she said since she hadn’t seen me in a while, she figured I didn’t want it anymore. It was true, I hadn’t been in for two weeks or so; I was picking up extra shifts and thought it was on hold. I didn’t want to be creepy. She pointed out a few other capes. They paled in comparison. One was black cotton and short with a hood. Another a hoodless, garish purple that had a satin lining, like what old-school vampires might’ve worn. I walked home with the envelope still full. I never went back to Brass Unicorn again.
Never did I save up for (or ever actually purchase) something so frivolous again either. I the cape's sale as a sign meaning that I wasn’t meant to have lovely things, even if I worked hard for them. Who needs a cape anyway, I told myself. It would have been a waste of a lot of money. It’s good it wasn’t there. I divided seventy-five of the dollars between my three other envelopes and spent the remaining $20 on dinner and a six-pack for me and my roommate, cuz why not treat ourselves. And I felt like I owed her for going with me, and then dealing with how grumpy and sad I was after.
Despite how many relatively financially-stable jobs I’ve had, I still always feel weirdly uncomfortable about money. Even dumb things like eating out or ordering pizza on a weekday. Once the difficult decision of eating out has been made, it’s then a careful weighing of should I get a medium or large? What is the best deal? Is there a happy hour special? If not, how much of a six-pack could I get for the cost of one draft pint? I’m also hyper aware of how unconcerned others seem to be with the price of a draft or how easily they come to the decision to get an appetizer. Sometimes when I feel extra anxious about looking like a penny-pincher, I’ll force myself not to think about it, spend whatever on the thing I want (or that everyone else is getting) and then later, sometimes, lay awake in the middle of the night mildly queasy over how wasteful I was, what else could have been purchased, how much more of something else?
I am fully cognizant that there should be a happy medium between smart financial choices and understanding that spending four dollars more than I think I should have will not in the larger scheme of my life make much of a difference, other than to stress me out. In fact, one of the things I’m trying to train my brain to come to terms with is the difference between cheapness in the moment, and long-term benefit. It is for this reason that I’ve tasked myself to using some of this unexpected summer time with learning to make things at home with natural ingredients. Just the other day I spent more than I care to recall on buying all the supplies for all-natural, homemade body lotion, face moisturizer, and shampoo. When I handed over my debit card to the cashier at the health food store, I kept repeating in my mind the figures I researched regarding how much money I was spending every few months on those kinds of commercial items that weren’t tested on animals and didn’t use chemicals whose names had seventeen consonants. The costs were at worst, comparable, at best, definitely a long-run savings. A week or so later, I feel pretty confident that I’ve made a sound financial investment.
And just for the record, I don’t hesitate for a second to spend $4 on a soy latte. Somethings have always been worth it.