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

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.

First published in the February 2013 issue

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