The Root of All Evil–In Which I Discuss Our Family’s (Lack of) Money

Dear Lily June,

When Shakespeare proclaims in Hamlet that you should

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,”

it’s pretty clear to me that he never lived in America in the twenty-first century. That is rarely a reality in our day and age, Lily, unless you strike it rich in some way your poor parents haven’t. And if you do, I hope by that point we’ve taught you the value of sharing! (I kid. Kind of.)

Because I don’t believe in withholding things from you, I’m going to lay it out point-blank: Your parents are terrible with money. We don’t live lavishly by any stretch of the imagination (unless you count our library, which is fairly extensive for two folks that make what we do), but we also find ourselves struggling to make ends meet sometimes.

(Side note: I used to think, as a child, that the expression was to “make ends’ meat.” I had no idea what that meant, but I got a weird visual in my head every time.)

Part of this struggle just came from poor life planning on our parts: We aspired to go to college, something 3/4 of our parents had never done, but we didn’t aspire to have jobs that would help us pay off our student loans. “I got into this for the money,” said no poet ever. So in pursuing our art, we also ended up pursuing our poverty.

Now, as Lois Lowry talks about in The Giver (which we’ll assuredly read together when you’re old enough), I believe in “precision of language.” So when I say we’re poor, you should note that we’re in no way in “dire poverty.” We can eat our meals. We can pay our bills (mostly). But we don’t go on vacations. Your dad and I have been married for five years with no honeymoon. We buy clothes from Goodwill sometimes and, like Macklemore, are proud to do so. Your Grandma Alison just brought us a heap of groceries from a Food Bank, and we are glad to have them.

And because of all the complications that occurred when you were born, and the extra hospitalization time, we owe thousands of dollars in medical bills. And because of our car breaking down before it was paid off, we owe thousands of dollars to the dealership. And because we were essentially being raised by two mothers who couldn’t afford to pay our college tuition (as a secretary and a factory worker, respectively), we owe hundreds of thousands in student loans. And that’s still after we both worked two or more jobs every semester to contribute to the debt!

I’d like to say I can envision a future where you won’t owe so much to own so little. But, Lily, I’d be lying if I knew how to make that happen for you. I’m torn at the prospect of picking up a second job, because the one I have already keeps me away from you for 9 hours a day, 5 days a week, and time with you, my little love, is absolutely priceless.

But if I were to take on weekend work, I might be able to put something aside for the prospect of our three-person family moving out of a one-bedroom apartment and into a house. Or, joy of joys, I might be able to set some aside for your college tuition so that you don’t re-perpetuate the cycle of going into debt to have an education that will lead you to a job so that you won’t be forced into debt. At least, as English majors, your dad and I have a firm grasp on just how ironic our life choices have been.

Oh, the irony!

Because I can’t give you a lot of dollars, at least I can give you some sense when it comes to money. Based on my life experience, I offer you the following suggestions:

  • Neither a borrower nor a lender be.  Try to avoid borrowing money when you can. As a kid, I wanted a Sega Genesis (an archaic video game console made out of stone that was chiseled by cave men, Lily). My mom promised to match me dollar for dollar on what I could earn (which, at eight years old, was a pretty paltry figure). I dug through couch cushions, found odd neighborhood jobs, begged for compensation for chores, and months later, had saved up enough for my toy. There was a pride that came with handing that hard-earned money over, and that toy felt to be mine in a way that gifts given to me never did so much. When you can save up to purchase things, do.
  • Neither a borrower nor a lender be. Do not get into the habit of lending money, especially not to friends or family. It gets in the way of the relationship and can cause bitterness based on dependence (on the part of the borrower) or resentment based on impatience (on the part of the lender). Instead, if you have it to give, give freely. Gifts aren’t meant to be returned, and if you give to someone who needs it, you’ll never have to wait for them to “make good” on any promises. Even if someone stubbornly asks you to make it a loan, still consider it, in your mind, a gift. If it comes back to you, great! If it doesn’t, Let. It. Go.
  • Keep a credit card for emergencies only. As we’re not big spenders, your dad and I have rarely gotten ourselves into trouble with a credit card. In fact, short of using it to fix our battered cars so we could limp along to work or grab some groceries when we’ve exhausted all other resources, we rarely touch the thing. If you’re too tempted to turn to “plastic cash,” put the card in a bowl of water, and throw the whole thing in the freezer. It’ll really slow down your shopping spree if you have to wait for your card to defrost first.
This plastic is a metaphor, standing in for the pieces of paper that stand in for shiny rocks. Money is a strange thing, little Lily.
  • Even if you end up being financially successful, don’t put all of your self-worth into the money you make or the material goods you buy. With some strokes of bad luck or bad planning (or both), you may find your goods and/or your stacks depleted, and if you didn’t cultivate a sense of self outside of “stuff,” when it’s gone, you may feel lost right along with it.
  • Remember that you’re more than your bank balance. Some people will attempt to make you feel like a lesser person based on the amount in your bank account. But unless you’re hobnobbing with blue bloods or Oprahs, there’s always someone who makes more than both you and the person who would judge you. And as the Italian proverb goes,

“At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box.”

  • Don’t complain about your debt to those who have less than you. Let’s just say you have a grandparent who likes to complain about the size of his lanai to your dad and I, who couldn’t afford a postcard of his tropical condo view. (Also, don’t complain about your weight to those larger than you. Or about your health to those sicker than you. It shows a cruel insensitivity to others’ struggles. Also, just don’t complain. Be happy, Lily!)
  • If you do get yourself into some debt, try to focus on the trees instead of the forest. I had three separate student loan bills, and when I’d look at the total across the three, it was heart-breaking and soul-staggering. But if I could just focus on the small amounts it took to make each individual monthly payment, trying to forget the total, I could keep plowing through it. I’m now down to the last (albeit the largest) of my loans, and we’ll likely be paying your dad’s (which are higher than mine) for a lifetime. But they say to make the sculpture of an elephant, you take a block of clay and just keep chiseling away at anything that isn’t an elephant. Eventually, you get the elephant. You make your monthly payments and eventually, you get debt-free.
  • Know that if you’re ever in deep-deep-deep trouble, you can come to us. I don’t mean my-Porsche-doesn’t-have-gas-in-it trouble. You did that one to yourself. I mean my-kids-can’t-eat trouble. I mean they’re-shutting-off-my-electricity trouble, where you had to choose between a monthly medication and the ability to see your floor after 5:00pm. If you made your own bed financially, raking up debt for unnecessary items, you’re going to lie in that bed of bills. If you just hit some hard luck, we’ll help you as much as we can. Just know we may to sell blood and tissue to do it so it’d better be worth it.
  • When you do strike it rich, please procure immediately a top hat and monocle. If Uncle Pennybags and Mr. Peanut have taught us anything, it’s that the wealthy have a uniform, too, so you should be proud to don it. (They never sell top hats and monocles at the Goodwill, Lily, so that should tell you something about what your parents have been missing all these years!)
Nothing screams class like a solid gold peanut in a top hat and monocle.

Picture Credits:

8 thoughts on “The Root of All Evil–In Which I Discuss Our Family’s (Lack of) Money

  1. Jesska says:

    🙂 🙂 🙂 Love your advice 🙂 🙂 🙂

    I’m always horrified when I read about the debts Americans get into just for being ill enough to need treatment. I can’t imagine anyone finding it morally ok to charge the hundreds of thousands of dollars that it costs. I am so totally in favour of health insurance (as a percentage of income) which is put in a huge pot and dished out as needed, by whoever needs it, that any other system is so weird to me, I can’t get my head round it…

    Awesome that you’re sticking at getting out of your debt – I might have been tempted to give up if I was in your position…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. theLiar says:

    Debt, once you get in to it, is this never ending cycle of tension that keeps building itself up like water in a poorly constructed dam. Eventually the dam bursts and all your stress ricochets in to madness. And when this happens your first impulse is to do the wrong thing and pay your debts of the wrong way

    Liked by 1 person

  3. originaltitle says:

    I just scrolled through your blog and realized I’d inadvertently missed a few posts. This is a great one. I recently read an article that said you should try to use cash in front of kids while they grow up instead of plastic so they really understand the concept of money. This makes sense because a card could seem like magic whereas counting out an amount shows you’re giving something to get something. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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