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.

First published in the February 2013 issue

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