Spending to Piss Off My Father

She built her life to prove she’s not her thrifty dad—and worked frantically to afford it. Then an accident forced her to reassess her splurges

by Pam Houston
little girl sitting near broken piggy bank image
Photograph: Nina Leen/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

A few years before he died, my father called and said, “You know, I was just getting ready to write my monthly check to the life insurance people, and it occurred to me that there is no scenario in which I am going to benefit from the $225 I am putting into this fund every month. So if you want the 30 grand after I’m dead, you’re going to have to start making the payments.”

My father was a child of the Depression and therefore obsessed with money. He was the kind of guy who would drive to the next state if gas was cheaper there, the kind of guy who would go into the lobby of six different hotels at a highway interchange in the hope of saving a buck or two. He resented every dollar he spent on my mother and me and expressed that resentment constantly, in words and, sometimes, in bursts of physical violence. Even though my mother worked as an actress and in the occasional year outearned him by two or three times, the mythology in our household was that she was a hobbyist and he was the breadwinner.

My mother gave my father every penny she earned. He in turn gave her a $200 allowance every two weeks. From 1961, when they married, until her death in 1992, my mother never got a cost-of-living increase. If I needed school clothes or birth control pills, she would secretly cash one of her residual checks and stash the money under the mattress.

I made two promises to myself as a young adult: Never let a man control me with money and never resent the money I spent on someone else. I accomplished these goals by dating men who were un- or underemployed, by not having children and by becoming a workaholic. I work about 120 hours a week. This has never felt like a hardship because I love what I do: writing books, essays and reviews and teaching at universities and at conferences around the world. In the past few months, my work has taken me to New York, Alaska, Cape Cod, Greece and Turkey, among other places. In that time, I haven’t had a real day off.

My decision to pursue a writing career nearly drove my father crazy. On the one hand, the lack of job security seemed to him a recipe for financial disaster. On the other, he was so jealous that I got paid to travel—a passion I had inherited from him—that he would practically vibrate with rage every time I returned from France or Bolivia on a magazine’s dime. If he heard me talking about how lucky I was to make a living doing what I loved, he found a way to assure me I would get my comeuppance. “One of these days you’re going to realize you spent your whole life lying in the gutter with someone else’s foot on your neck,” was a favorite expression of his.

But my father never seemed oppressed to me. He wore finely tailored suits and drove Cadillacs. He belonged to a country club and played tennis three times a week. He took the family on trips to Florida, the Bahamas and London and bought us a four-bedroom house in the suburbs. What was true about my family’s finances is that we never had money to spare. We lived well but month to month, and when we took off on one of our adventures, there was always uncertainty as to whether we’d have enough money to pay the motel bill at the end.

I love an adventure as much as my father did. While I don’t buy expensive suits and I’m famous for running cars into the ground before I trade them in, I find myself living paycheck to paycheck, just as he did. When I do take time off, I treat the people I love to lavish vacations—like the $14,700 trip around the world (Paris, Bhutan, Bangkok, Perth, Sydney) on which I took an ex-boyfriend, or the two Hawaiian houses I rented for $10,000 so that friends could attend my 50th-birthday party. When the travel bug bites, I accept one more assignment or private student to cover the cost.

For me, the real value of money is to buy experiences, but sometimes I even buy things, regardless of the price tag: white truffle oil or monogrammed Tumi luggage, an Eskandar blouse from Bergdorf’s or the same kind of organically sourced hypoallergenic dog beds that Oprah buys her dogs. I don’t do this often, but more often than I might if I weren’t trying so hard to prove to myself that I don’t care about the cost. Above all, I don’t want to be stingy, to appear stingy and to feel stingy, as I believe my father always did.

The equation of my life has been simple: I earn a lot so I can spend a lot. When I was barely 30, I spent nearly $400,000 on a 120-acre ranch in Creede, Colorado, which was exactly four times as much as I could afford. I had written a book that had done surprisingly well; I had no job and not three pages of a new book to rub together. I did it, I said at the time, to ensure that in the aftermath of my success, I would continue to work hard. And I did: For the first 10 years I owned the ranch, I nearly killed myself making the $2,500 monthly mortgage payments. Now I believe I was so afraid of failing, so afraid my early success was all some terrible mistake, that I made the consequences of future failure so calamitous as to make that failure somehow impossible. If I couldn’t imagine losing the ranch through bankruptcy, I simply wouldn’t go bankrupt.

This year, though, I turned 50, and during a recent trip to Greece’s ancient ruins with my students, my workaholic lifestyle caught up with me. I had fallen behind the group while trying to e-mail an editor an overdue book review. In my rush to catch my students, my heel came down on a hole, and I fell into it, severing all the ligaments in my ankle before I passed out. When I came to, my first thought was, Oh good, I’m not dead. My second thought was, I’ve got to change my life.

I have other priorities these days besides working and earning money. I’ve had a good man in my life (underemployed but not unemployed) for six years, and he has a daughter I love. If I have built this big life around me to prove I’m not my father, why am I still living as he did, spending at the absolute limit of my resources? And why does it still make me nervous to turn down work, even when I’m flush, as if I still believe I’ll make one wrong move and my father’s prophecy will come true? How would it feel to stop living my life as if the only two choices were “in my father’s footsteps” and “in precise opposition to them”? He was a deeply unhappy man who made everyone he loved feel like a burden. Wouldn’t it be best to cut his influence out of the picture altogether?

In his defense, my father was nothing if not ultimately true to himself. When I told him that writing a monthly check to his life insurance fund would be like putting money down in Vegas on a team I didn’t want to see win, he said, “There’s almost 11 grand in there already. That ought to be enough to get me in the ground.”

What I wished most for my father in those days was that he would “spend out,” that he’d be away on some just-out-of-his-price-range Mediterranean cruise and drop dead right as the boat entered home port. It didn’t happen quite that way, but it wasn’t far off either. Now the modest amount he left behind—above the $11,000 earmarked for burial—gets pushed around for me from investment fund to investment fund by a planner who calls himself, unaccountably, Uncle Jim. It’s been six years since the money was put into my name, and not only am I afraid to spend it, but I persist in calling it my father’s money.

What will happen when I drop dead? If it’s tomorrow, there will not be $11,000 sitting in a bank account to put me in the ground. But the more important question is what I will think of the way I lived my 50 years. Here are my guesses: I should have spent more time with my loved ones. I could have written better books if their delivery dates hadn’t always corresponded with balloon-mortgage-payment deadlines. I should have watched more TV with my man and sat on my porch more, reading something I wasn’t being paid to review. What does seem perfectly clear to me now is that I have always been in complete control of my financial life in every way but one—emotionally.

So a couple of months ago, I took a deep breath and for the first time turned down a $5,000 writing assignment, and it felt good to say no. Of course, soon after, I fell into nothing short of flat-out panic—this, as we know, is the way with addictions. But the better part of me was inspired, and I decided to perform an experiment in 2013: I am going to (force myself to) say no to 20 percent of the work I am offered; I am going to (force myself to) spend 20 percent less money on travel and treats; and then I am going to (force myself to) enjoy the resulting downtime. Before too long, I’ll probably begin to enjoy the psychic space I’m opening up. I’ll be a better friend and mentor and partner to the people who have always made allowances for my workaholic ways. It will be a little bit thrilling to act from the center of my own desires with regard to the money I make and the money I spend, and to stop living to please or annoy or subvert my father.

Next: Ready or Not, Your Job Is Changing

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First Published Wed, 2012-12-26 13:33

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