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.
In my early thirties, I did not marry a wealthy man, but I did marry a talented writer who for a while made good, if sporadic, money on his novels. Our income flow during this time was like one long roller-coaster ride, swoops and dips, year after year. We had two children, and I was in graduate school while they were small, so my own contributions were minimal. When my husband sold a book, we had no money worries; other times we did nothing but worry about money.
Unfortunately, this now-you-see-it-now-you-don't economic plan was a perfect match for my peekaboo relationship with finances. Especially in the lean years, I couldn't look at the bottom-line number in our checkbook. I knew it wasn't enough. I lived in a state of low-grade panic, filled with fear that we would never have enough—at least not until a tidal wave of money crashed over me, at which point I would look around and see nothing but limitless cash. And that might, finally, be enough.
Enough. It's an interesting notion.
People can tee-hee all they want about 12-step programs, but AA and similar groups have saved the lives of many people I love. The only thing I find laughable is that so few Americans are members, given our national confusion about what is enough—rich enough, thin enough, full enough. At some point, one of those loved ones handed me a pamphlet from Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step program for people whose confusions about enough rival my own. I never attended a meeting, but I read the material, and I started to practice some of the suggestions.
First, I began to write down what I spent every day. Even during income dips, I could drop $100 in a period of a few hours: lunch with a friend, $15; a haircut, $40; flip-flops for the family, $32; treats after school, plus gel pens, $13. Bingo.
Once I gained some insight into my thoughtless spending habits, I was able to make a plan. We would take a certain amount of cash each week and sort it into labeled envelopes: groceries; order out/dine out; movies. My husband and I did this for a couple of years, until we actually knew what we were spending.
Meanwhile, once my children got older, I returned to teaching and also made a little money on my own novels. This helped to stabilize our income. My husband is a whiz with a paintbrush and a hammer, so we were able to sell our first house for more than we'd paid. The gains went straight into our second house, and we kept them there and didn't borrow against them.
In other words, slowly, slowly I stopped waiting for the tidal wave of cash. By following the suggestions from Debtors Anonymous and other folks wiser than I was, I discovered that there is some logic to personal finance. For instance, it helps to make as much as you spend. This is called living within your means. Once you have grasped that concept, it's good to begin to spend a little less than you make and put the minuscule remains in a separate account, where over time they start to add up. This is called saving money.
And, most recently, I have been trying to figure out what I mean by enough. In this effort, I've found it helpful to step back and look at the big picture.
According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 the poverty threshold for a family of four, including two children under the age of 18, was $22,113, which averages out to $5,528.25 per person a year.
More than 46 million Americans lived in poverty in 2010, the highest number since measurement began in 1959.
Of those, 16.4 million were children, meaning that 22 percent, or more than one fifth, of all the children in this country lived in poverty in 2010.
These numbers led me to a simple realization: Call it luck, fate, God or the games people play, but on a medium-bad day, my life and the lives of the people I love are safer, wealthier and more padded from despair than the lives of 75 percent of my fellow Americans. As it turned out, I was the one with more dollars than sense.
In the big picture, we didn't have enough. We had more than enough.
Money lunacy is a luxury item I can no longer afford. The facts demand clear-sightedness, gratitude and a willingness to share. I wish I could say I've achieved all these states permanently and now have no fiscal confusion. But that would be a lie.
I can say, though, that I am saner than I used to be; that I share more of my time and money; and that I feel grateful almost every day, the exceptions being those days on which I lose sight of the big picture. Facts, clarity and gratitude have turned out to be the best remedy for my fears.
A few years ago, a friend gave me an image that serves as a touchstone.
Ira and I were in graduate school together when he told me the story of his family: His Jewish grandmother, father and uncle had arrived in this country at the end of World War II, as penniless survivors of a concentration camp in Kiel, Germany. His father held a variety of jobs until he finally saved enough to found a medical diagnostic company. Over the years, the family worked together to make that company a success.
Ira and I are still close, and we often spend a week together on Cape Cod with our families. One afternoon on a Wellfleet beach, we reminisced about our lives and our great good fortune in the world. We'd both married wonderful people and had two beautiful children apiece. We had love and work and income and peace.
We could hear the voices of the children, returning from a swim, and knew that signaled the end of conversation. As he stood to watch the kids, Ira said, “I know one thing. If you lined up everyone in the world, front to back, from most fortunate to least fortunate, I figure I could see the front of the line.”
Though his family members had lived through an abomination and struggled for years afterward to survive, Ira was saying, Let's look at the facts. Today we are reposing on a beach on a summer afternoon. We are safe in our houses at night. We choose where we want to live, what we will wear, how we will make our living. We wake up rested and know we will be able to feed everyone we love, all day long.
I return to that insight often, especially when I am sinking into the delusional morass of not enough.
We can see the front of the line.
It is, perhaps, the most sensible thought about dollars I have ever heard.
Michelle Blake is working on a collection of essays, Grown Children. Her website is michelleblakewriter.com.
Want to learn how to trick yourself into saving money? Click here!
Don’t miss out on MORE great articles like this one. Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter!