How Much Money Is Actually Enough?

Michelle Blake on what it took for her to do the math, stop feeling financially strapped and start counting her blessings

by Michelle Blake
balloon tied to money image
Photograph: Dan Saelinger

My grandmother grew up in a white mansion on a green hill above Turtle Creek in Highland Park, one of the exclusive Park Cities just outside the Dallas city line. Her father, my great-grandfather, was a big noise in the cotton market, until that market took a precipitous slide, due in part to the invention of polyester. At some point my grandmother married and had a child, my mother. And then, for more reasons than I have ever understood, my grandmother ended up widowed and penniless, raising her daughter in a one-bedroom walk-up.

As a young woman, my mother married a wealthy self-made man, who became my father, and then another wealthy self-made man, who already had a son. Eventually my mother and stepfather and stepbrother and I moved next door to the grand house in which my grandmother had lived with her parents decades earlier. We could see the impressive roofline just over the thick clipped hedges. Somehow our prosperous present never lived up to that golden, prelapsarian past.

Not too surprisingly, money was a loaded subject in my family. Of course, we are not alone in that. Though I suspect it's partly a stand-in for the truly most loaded subject, which is love.

Growing up, I got a lot of different messages about money: that I was a lucky girl to have everything I wanted; that there was not enough of anything; that other people had better lives than ours; that other people had worse lives than ours; that the people who had worse lives than ours didn't work hard enough and wanted to take our money away from us; that if I played my cards right, I could marry a man even wealthier than my stepfather; that if I didn't, I could end up like my grandmother, alone in her third-floor walk-up (a place I loved more than anywhere else on the planet). But the clearest message of all, ironically, was that polite people didn't think or talk about money.

My mother and stepfather, who had both grown up poor, were prone to excesses of hoarding and spending. In our linen closet, I remember seeing rolls and rolls of toilet paper. Sometimes my parents gave lavish parties; at other times they punished my brother and me for spending our 50-cent allowances unwisely. Only my penniless grandmother acted as if money were not a problem.

“If it fits, buy two,” she would say whenever we shopped for clothes.

She also liked to say, “It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is to fall in love with a poor man.” Unfortunately, like my grandmother, I did not find that to be true.

The saying of hers that I do still use is, “More dollars than sense.” In her lexicon, this applied to people who tore down 19th-century homes and built sharp-cornered boxes that ate up the green lawns in Highland Park; people who spent hundreds of dollars on handbags with logos on them; people who gave their children birthday parties featuring fireworks and rock stars. My grandmother might not have had much money, but she knew what it was intended for, and providing free advertising for Louis Vuitton was not its purpose. In my lexicon today, the phrase usually refers to people who have lots more money than I do and are not spending it as I see fit.

When my wealthy stepfather died, he did not leave me any money. At the time I was bewildered, but looking back, I suspect my postcollege behavior—tending bar and driving across the country with my guitar-wizard boyfriend—did not make me seem like a very good investment. No one in my family offered to share the inheritance, and my biological father had cut his ties with me years earlier, so I was on my own financially.

I had already benefited enormously from my stepfather's wealth in that I received an excellent education and had the confidence of someone who'd been denied little in the way of material goods. Also, this was the early ’70s, so money had acquired a bad reputation in my social circles. On some level, I felt relieved of ties to my family and its bewildering financial history. I waited tables, wrote advertising copy, got paid to go back to school, taught writing and ran two graduate writing programs.

First Published November 23, 2011

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