I have always spent like I drank. In fits and spurts. In moments I wouldn't remember later, following logic I could never justify once the magic cleared. It was on things, mostly. Things. Fancy things and cheap things, things both useful and useless. Things wrapped in brilliant packaging I'd hide in the trunk of my car or the floor of the closet. Tags I'd rip off and keep in a drawer. Those little, dark spots became shame graveyards, littered with so many crumpled, torn and disregarded packages. I never respected the things once I had them. How could I? I didn't respect myself.
I am starting to look into why I thought that with enough things I could patch the hole my insecurities had ripped wide open, and while I haven't found an answer yet, I'm sure it lives somewhere near the reasons I drank. To forget. Because it (falsely) promised something infinitely more glamorous and exciting than I felt I deserved. Because it created a picture of someone who knew what they liked and felt at home in their life instead of like a hostage. Growing up I associated money with popularity and popularity with happiness. It was this tangible marker of what I thought success was.
I got my first job at age 12. I worked Saturdays at a local barn, mucking stalls, feeding, and caring for the horses for $60 a day (obviously off the books because well, I was 12). I was privileged enough to not need to hand that money over to my household, and instead, I saved it. Sure, I spent a little on lunch and movie tickets (Warning: This is the part where I sternly push my glasses up my nose and tell you how cheap movie tickets were when I was a kid.), but mainly I didn’t have many needs or wants, spent most afternoons covered in some level of hay, dirt, and horse hair. Being around those animals saved my life in the days I was the most scared. They were steady and complicated in ways that I understood so much better than I understood humans. The physical labor was freeing too, it took me out of my head and into my hands. It was all I ever wanted to do. And so I saved my money and when I made a choice to buy something, I actually thought it through.
As I got older, I saw my peers start to wear expensive clothing. Abercrombie, Juicy Couture (I lived on Long Island, in the 2000s) and the like. It was always weird to me that people would spend that much money to look the same. My mother always said that people with great style and sense of self could walk into any store and find something. In 30 years, I've never seen her wear anything with a logo on it. It would take awhile for that lesson to resurface, but she has proven through her decades long commitment to white t-shirts and jeans that great style, means looking like you want to look and doesn't need to come with a high price tag. I stomped through high school in boots, mini skirts, jeans, thermals I stole from my dad, and band t-shirts. I shopped in thrift stores a whole lot, but I wasn't an unaffected rebel, my rebellion was self-conscious and deliberate. A thoughtful curation of carefully-constructed teen angst.
My frugality continued through most of high school, during which time I worked at another barn, giving pony rides to kids and unsuccessfully trying to keep the miniature donkey from biting visiting children. My senior year I started working at a drugstore with my two best friends. This was when my drinking picked up and I started spending all of my meager paycheck on gas for my car, shitty beer, and cigarettes. It never occurred to me to save for college.
I grew up in Levittown, NY, the original suburb. It was a nice middle class neighborhood where all the houses were exactly the same. Because we renovated our home when I was in middle school, and had a basement, my classmates considered me well off (Seriously, for some reason the basement was a big deal). And I guess we really were. We had a home in Vermont, went on vacations, and I spent many summers pouting through camp. College however, held a different level of rich kid. At a small school, I knew multiple people with family planes, one who was heir to a prominent hotel chain, diplomat's kids, and those who could spend $1,000 on booze in a night on their parent's credit card with no consequences. I was at school on scholarship, and I found that I couldn't keep up from a pure monetary standpoint. It was the first time I really noticed that people came from vastly different financial situations. So I used a different currency. I made myself look expensive, so I looked like I belonged. I hung out with men who paid for everything, without realizing that that much pretending comes with too high a price.
When I dropped out of college, I got a job in retail. I was back home on Long Island, where I had been the star student destined for big things and instead I worked at the mall and saw people from high school in the bars every night. I had no personal sense of identity, I was mostly the glued-together pieces of other people, and I just couldn't find the place in which I fit, so I lied by omission. I opened three store credit cards, with notoriously high interest rates, but I didn't know that then. It felt like free money at the time. I dressed expensively, spoke vaguely about my job, and let people assume I was doing well. At home, the bill collector calls started. I stopped paying for my student loans. I couldn't afford anything I was supposed to be paying, not rent, not car insurance, certainly not health insurance. And still, I continued to buy things I didn't need.
In those years, I learned that a phone ring can make your blood run cold. Starting to deal with any of it seemed like it would lead to having to deal with ALL of it. My drinking was at one of it's worst points then and I could barely make it through a day, so dealing with my finances seemed totally out of the question. I ignored it and I called in sick to work. On the weekends, I'd take what money I had left and buy a bottle of Patron.
You know that analogy of the swan who looks so calm above the water but is paddling like a motherfucker to stay afloat? That was me through my early twenties in so many ways. I thought that if I had the trappings of outwardly perceived success, that I was doing fine. I lied with my drinking and I lied with my spending. The two are interchangeable, and with every single lie I sunk lower. There were tangible consequences to both, but I think the worst part of all of it was the parts that no one could see. That a very real part of me thought I would die before I had to deal with the money or the booze or the food or the relationship shit that had swirled into some giant house-lifting cyclone of self-hatred that I couldn't seem to escape.
I'm reading Gaby Dunn's Bad With Money (it's phenomenal…relatable and funny and useful, four things I didn't think a money book could ever be for me), and in her introduction she talks about how, because she had her work published in The New York Times and Playboy, that people assumed she made a lot of money, when she was really struggling financially. That there is some weird human tendency to pretend we're all on the same level financially within our peer groups, when we aren't. There's a tendency to never ever bring up money, in the ways we've grown increasingly comfortable talking about sex, politics, religion, and social issues. Social media really amplifies this. You can look at someone on vacation in The Maldives, but you have no idea whether or not they're saving anything.
My point is, like the rest of life, money is complicated. I owned a pair of Chanel peep toe pumps back then that kill my feet. They're unbearable and I wore them through 9 hour shifts for days on end. I think if anything sums up my past issues with money it's those shoes, that I couldn't afford. The way I literally hobbled myself for other people's opinions, made the image more important than the painful reality. And yes, capitalism is pure trash, but unfortunately we need money at this point to survive. I still have times when I mindlessly spend, when I get home and wonder what the hell I was thinking. But mostly, I return everything now. I'm back to thrifting my clothes and looking how I want to look, rather than how I think I should look. I'm paying down my student loan debt. I pay my credit card in full every month and my credit score is actually in good range instead of just a sad face emoji. I look at my spending each month, even if it's messy. I'm not afraid to face it anymore.
I have long term financial goals and most of the time I can set my love of brocade loafers (turns out I'm not a heels gal after all) aside long enough to remember and prioritize them. I invest in people and experiences, much more often than things. My spending, for the most part, reflects my values. And I’m able to give a shit about my financial wellness because I actually am able to give a shit about myself. I’m able to face the ways I messed up because I know that girl was doing the best she could and I love her for it. She’s taught me a whole lot.
We all have our shit with money. Money is a journey and a story and it's complicated by our past, the systems we live in, and the realities of our lives. But I think, just maybe that it's starting to be something I'm ready to be honest about.