It’s Not Mine — My Weird Relationship with Money

So my credit card got flagged for fraud today (at the Dollar Store, which my best friend pointed out is a funny comment on who I am), and honestly I’m not actually as pissed as I thought I would be. Sure, people are shitty and I’m trying not to dwell on how this style of credit card theft is done by professionals and I might have funded a meth ring’s purchases for a couple of hours this morning, but I’m more irritated by the inconvenience of needing to use a different card for a couple of days that doesn’t earn points while I wait for my new card to come in the mail. The whole thing to me is amusingly indicative of something I’ve toyed with writing about for a while — my weird relationship with money — but have been avoiding for fear of sounding too bougie. But whatever, might as well — I talk about my depression super candidly, why not my money?

I’m what I like to call an armchair Marxist (hi, present and future employers! It’s been pleasant being considered for you role, I expect though this is where I get booted from your candidacy!) and have been since college. Not like a “lets use our hammers to smash the means of production, comrades!” kind of Marxist, but definitely a “Lol capitalism is so fucked, my dudes” kind of millenial ennui I think a lot of us feel and identify with. It just so happens I have a degree in economics (oh the irony) and wrote my senior thesis using a Marxist frame to analyze the true beginning cult of consumerism in America around cars in the 1950s (blah blah blah, I know) so I can cite academic sources to back up my ennui when someone says “you’re just entitled” at a Christmas party or whatever.

As is pretty common for kids right out of college, too, I was pretty damn broke for a while — I even technically lived way below the American poverty line for a bit, though admittedly it was in a different country and currency where I actually lived frugally but not uncomfortably. I’ve had a variety of jobs on top of all that and generally my experience with being an adult is “nothing lasts, nothing is permanent.” Including my money.

So hearing these things — armchair Marxist who laughs at the idea of money staying in your wallet or even being anything other than a social construct used to dominate others — what do you think I do to pay rent? Etsy underwater taxidermy, Uber, and creative accounting on my taxes? No, but to use a Matthew McConaughey meme, “Be a lot cooler if you did.”

Nope, I work in finance. Yes, really.

I wear suits and high heels and red lipstick to work, I have a couple of FINRA and state licenses, and I’ve become the kid my friends show their bank voodoo letters to and answer their questions about “what on earth does this second language mean?” Why I do this is another story, but at least part of it is that my dad also works in finance, and I grew up around this stuff. It wasn’t what I planned to do, but it was an environment I was comfortable with, and so far have thrived in.

Which brings me to the other weird end of this spectrum. If “money isn’t even real” is on one end, this is the other and probably labeled something like “have you considered an annuity, Dad?” I grew up, on a global scale, ridiculously wealthy. On an American scale, we were (and are) solidly couched somewhere in Upper Middle Class, and on a single income to boot (Dad works for a defense contractor, which I also have opinions about). I certainly don’t think we lived extravagantly, but I realize that we took annual family vacations and grew up skiing and each had our own car and I went to a private university and a variety of other things that certainly mean we had (and have) more money than a lot of people globally, nationally, and even locally. One of the lessons I absorbed in our home was living comfortably within our means — I never heard “when Dad is making more money, we’ll _____”, though I did hear a couple of times “We can’t afford that, hun.” Sometimes it was trips to Hawaii, sometimes it was take-out for dinner, because my folks did a good job at sticking to their budget even when it would have been easier to order pizza for dinner. Mom also taught me the therapeutic relief of small indulgences rather than retail therapy, so bad days get fixed with hot coco, not Coco Channel.

These two experiences — growing up wealthy but not extravagantly vs living pretty dang poor and being happy anyway — have made me largely ambivalent about my own money. It’s like functional limbs — the less you have, the harder life is, but once you reach a certain threshold everything else is just gravy. Would I like to make 30% more and have an extra arm to help carry groceries in? Sure, but I’m not hitting the bricks looking for new jobs any more than I’m investigating robotic alternatives to growing a fifth appendage.

But something kinda crazy happened to me this year that made me seriously examine my relationship with wealth and/or extra appendages beyond ambivalence that is usually straight up indifference until I have to pay a bill/carry too many groceries upstairs. No I didn’t grow another arm — my income went up by about a third almost overnight and with what I feel is some pretty minimal input from me.

That’s not a humble brag, that’s really what happened. I was working a job that was pretty under stimulating but by no stretch of the imagination awful with my best friend (“haha, clearly they knew it wasn’t you because you’d never step foot in a dollar store” girl), when she up and left. So I found myself exploring other options not out of a desire for more money, but out of boredom. At her suggestion, I applied for a new internal position on a different team working for a different guy, which was a little over a 10% bump, and then Things Happened, and he handed me another 20% one morning, without me even knowing it was an option or something coming down the chute (he’s also genuinely the most generous and humble person I’ve ever worked for, which is also a huge part of why I work in the industry and for the company I do).

But it actually made me really uncomfortable — you know, after I ran out and bought myself a bottle of champagne because I could. I wrote this email to one of the pastors at my church about it:

I had something kind of weird happen to me last week. I got a 20% raise out of the blue.
You’d think I’d be excited, but the more people congratulate me, the more bummed out I feel. My dad and my grandma have both told me how “proud” they are of this, my mom said “you deserve it more than anyone else I know.” But I don’t feel like that at all. I was already making enough to live comfortably, it certainly wasn’t something I needed. It wasn’t something I was aware was even an option, so it’s not like I was putting energy into pursuing it. Frankly, it wasn’t even something I wanted. Don’t get me wrong, an extra 20% isn’t something I’m going to pass up, but by no stretch of the imagination was it something I was even wishing for, like “sure would be great if I made more money.” It is pretty much the definition of a blessing unlooked for.
So I guess this is what I’m struggling with — this thing is a gift. It wasn’t earned, deserved, needed, none of that. While it certainly makes my life easier to have it (boo hiss capitalism), and working in finance I know all the things I should do with it (save, invest, etc), all of that just doesn’t feel right. Unto whom much is given, right? I guess, can you just help me pray over what direction the Lord wants me to take this before I get too attached to “my” money?

I probably could have just posted this email without the backstory, because it turns out that this really is how I feel about money. It’s just not mine. I’m not attached to my money any more than the tires on my car — I’ll take care of it/them because to not would make my life harder in the long run because we live in a capitalist/car oriented society, and it sure would suck to suddenly not have it/them. But neither money nor tires are all that important to me. Any money in my account is no more mine than the park across the street or the blue sky on a pretty day, and it just so happens that the stars in my life have lined up that I get to enjoy the benefits and comfort of wealth and oh my god how screwed up is it that others can’t because of this totally artificial construct that is just so very dumb.

So here’s what I decided to do with the money that is not mine and shouldn’t be “only mine” but has apparently landed into my stewardship anyway. I gave a $20 to a panhandler on the mall with an oxygen tank. I took a friend who was having a rough week out for a nice dinner and drinks. I moved my roommate and I into a much nicer apartment without jacking up her rent. I don’t tithe and give back in the structured way a lot of religious folks do, or the way I was taught by my dad when I grew up. I ascribe much more to Mom’s philosophy of helping those around you when you can (and she’s done some pretty extravagant helping in her life). By some miraculous luck, in this particular moment I have the means to help those around me and that’s pretty great. And frankly a lot of fun.

But don’t get me wrong — I’m also enjoying being able to buy spontaneous champagne. I’m generous, not a saint.

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