How Joe Berkowitz Does Money

Logan Sachon: Joe Berkowitz. How do you pay your rent?

Joe Berkowitz: I am a salaried employee at a magazine, whose website I work for. They are kind enough to provide me with enough funds so that as long as I don’t screw up too badly, I should be able to make rent each month. Then I just take care to keep my screw-ups at a reasonable level.

LS: Ha “kind enough” — funny that that’s how we view our employers now, as giving us this gift.

JB: Well, before this job, I was making less money doing something I felt was a real integrity-compromiser, so the idea that I get paid to write is still somewhat insane to me. I’ve only been writing for any money, freelance or otherwise, for about two and a half years, so it hasn’t stopped feeling like a kindness, to get paid for it.

LS: How long have you been working in the working world, making money, on your ownish?

JB: Well, I had lots of shitty jobs from age 16 on. There was sort of the implicit understanding from my family that I would have support until I was able to support myself or turned 25, whichever came first. I have a feeling it would have gone on longer if necessary, though, but thank god it didn’t. I was really late figuring out how I was going to go about having a career. I finally ended up getting my first real job while I was still in grad school at age 25, working for a publishing house. Since then, I have not been out of work. I am 32 years old.

LS: How and why did you end up going to grad school?

JB: I always wanted to be a writer, but I was lazy, indecisive, and half-assed about how I pursued this goal. So I graduated from not-a-great college in Florida with a BA in creative writing, and average grades. As you might surmise, the companies weren’t exactly getting into cutthroat bidding wars to try and ensnare me. I took a year that I didn’t even have to figure out what I was going to do for work besides write, and the answer was: be an editor. I wanted to edit books by day and write them by night. So I went to a grad school with a publishing program that might trick somebody into thinking I had marketable skills. (I did not have marketable skills.)

LS: How’d you pay for the program? And, did you have debt from undergrad?

JB: I managed to get through undergrad debt-free thanks to a bizarrely lenient scholarship called the Sunshine Scholarship, which has since been modified big-time. Also, yeah, I was relatively coddled growing up, so as long as I kicked in what I could, my family paid what the scholarship did not.

For grad school, even though I got a scholarship again, I had to take out a student loan. There was a federal and a state one, I believe? But I managed to get them consolidated into a decent rate before there was a massive increase in 2006. Thank you, Sallie Mae! Or burn in hell, Sallie Mae! I don’t even know. But anyway, I still owe about $9,000.

LS: How would you describe your financial situation? Comfortable? Precarious? Do you spend all of your money each month? Do you save?

JB: I guess precarious. I’m not the greatest saver. I have a certain amount tucked away in an ING account that I never touch, but I only add to that when I get some kind of windfall — which is not very often. I have my paycheck sent to a different bank and an automatic deposit puts money from each paycheck into a savings account, which I definitely DO touch whenever I have had a weird month or whatever. My budget is a work in progress. Also, I have a 401(k) that’s been building since 2005. I sort of trust that because I’m not married and I don’t have kids, and I don’t travel anywhere near as much as I like and I am a horrible clothes-shopper, I can afford to live this way for now.

LS: I want to hear about your “weird months” and screw-ups!

JB: Oh boy, well, I might suddenly decide that it’s time to take cabs EVERYWHERE once darkness falls, and that might be the same month several friends of mine turn 30, and I just start dating someone new. Things like that. With screwups, it’s just that I’m as susceptible to impulse-buys as the next person and some of these are fantastically awful decisions.

It’s actually been a series of weird months in a row since about November, though, because I stopped drinking for 2.5 years and just started again.

LS: 2.5 years is a long time!

JB: Right? It is absolutely bonkers how much of a money difference it makes to have booze in your social life. At one point, I took a European vacation on unspent alcohol dollars.

LS: Things I want to know: Why you stopped, why you started again, how your social life changed when you were off booze, whether you were actually putting aside booze money or just ended up with a surplus.

JB: Well, I stopped drinking because I felt like I needed some way to figure out how to be a moderate drinker. I wasn’t a fall-down drunk or anything — I never lost a job, went to jail, died, etc — but let’s just say that maybe three times a year I would wake up in the afternoon with no idea what happened the night before, but the sinking feeling that everybody was mad at me.

So one of those kinds of mornings, I decided I wasn’t going to drink for two weeks — TWO WHOLE WEEKS! — and felt instantly better. At some point during those two weeks, two significant things happened: 1.) I decided to see how long I could go without drinking, and 2.) I had my first article published online.

About a year into not-drinking, I knew for sure that it wasn’t going to be forever. I never wanted it to be forever, and the effect on my social life was, shall we say, intense? Some of my friends got weird around me. I felt like an outsider much of the time at night. Dating was difficult for so very many reasons. But I felt great, and I didn’t know if I was ready to drink yet. The extra money was just a side benefit. I never put any away in the drinky jar or anything. I just noticed that I had more money all the time. Like, a lot. I mean, think about it. Every time I went to a bar, I ordered club soda and whatever juice they had. As long as I didn’t buy too many people birthday drinks, it was a lot less weekly cash spent. I should also say that I’ve worked in publishing and the media the whole time and, as you know, it’s an especially boozy bunch of folks.

Anyway, I started again because I realized that somewhere between a year into not-drinking and 2.5 years in, I had thought many times about how I might HYPOTHETICALLY start drinking again, but always as an abstract concept. This past Thanksgiving, I was coming off an epically bad string of dates, and another bachelor party that I felt like nobody was talking to me during. I had some time to myself, and I really thought about it, and something I realized was that I’d been holding on to a superstitious association between when I quit drinking and when my first piece of writing got published. My life had changed a lot because of writing. It had changed because of not-drinking too, but those weren’t necessarily the same things. Long story short, except that it’s not: I decided it was time to try setting fire to the wagon, or something. I have a loose system for how much to let myself drink in different situations, too boring to recount here. So far it’s been good, except I’ve gained ten pounds and my collection of monies has dwindled some.

LS: So when you weren’t drinking, you still went to bars and did the same things, just without alcohol? Or did you start crafting?

JB: Yeah, it was as bad as that sounds, but I still had plenty of good times. The worst was going out dancing. I would have fun for like 30 minutes or an hour of actual dancing, and then get bored of doing the same stuff and nobody I was with would have that problem. I also took 5-hour energy, just so I didn’t fall asleep and had something happening in my blood stream. In terms of a craft, I took up writing. I stayed home to write a lot.

LS: Did you ever feel guilty at the bar or at dinner not ordering alcohol? (Asking this because when I’m in periods of not drinking, I always feel guilty not ordering alcohol and then tip too much to make up for it. I think the main thing is don’t want anyone to think I’m cheap? Which: I should be)

JB: What I always did was say, “Could I have a glass of water and I’ll tip you?” and bartenders were generally cool about it. Any guilt I may have felt toward not giving my fair share toward the cost of getting to hang out in the unspeakably hip and fancy bars I’m telling your readers I hang out at — that guilt was alleviated whenever I would split group dinner checks evenly despite not drinking, for convenience sake, which didn’t happen every time, but happened enough.

LS: You’ve mentioned dating a couple times. What is a date?

JB: A date doesn’t mean dinner and a movie. That’s what couples do. A date just means let’s definitely hang out with nobody either of us knows around and probably consume alcohol at some point.

LS: Do you ask people out and then feel obliged to pay?

JB: I just sort of assume I’m paying unless strongly encouraged to split. Every guy I know does this. When I hear female friends’ stories about cheapskates or dickheads, I am legitimately flabbergasted.

LS: Almost everyone I know feels like the guy should always pay, even if they can’t really articulate why they think that. My guy friends that date guys … also expect their date to pay. Maybe this says more about the people I’m friends with than gender roles.

JB: I was just about to retro-make my last statement more inclusive to acknowledge the existence of same-sex lovers! Yeah, there are implications about the guy always paying that feel kind of icky to me. I don’t think that the act of paying connotes entitlement. But I guess it’s just part of the wooing. It’s wanting to create an experience where a person feels taken care of. Not saying that’s me personally, but I suspect that’s where the attitude comes from. I feel like I’m perilously close to saying the wrong thing here.

LS: So like, how do you spend your money? Besides on booze and dates. What’d you spend your last hundo on?

JB: Well, I just bought a down comforter and duvet cover, if you can believe that. It was the first one I’ve ever bought for myself. All the others have been familial gifts. It was like $330 total, and I did it without pricing it out at different places first. I just went to Bed Bath and Beyond and was like “Yeah, I guess that sounds about right.”

LS: Yeah that sounds about right.

JB: I had a bedbugs incident last fall, which is a fancy way of saying I had bedbugs in my room. So I had to throw away all my bedding and my mattress and EVERYthing. The comforter was the last thing on my list that I needed, and I’d put it off for some time. Getting bedbugs was actually kind of a mini-blessing, because, financially, it made me feel like an adult with a sense of finality, like “Case closed!” I’m 32, and for most of my adult life, any time something terrible and/or costly happened to me, I sort of waited around to get an offer from my folks or grandparents to help out. This time, I knew immediately that I was in the hole for literally thousands of dollars, and obviously it sucked, but I assessed it and knew I’d be able to absorb the hit and keep it moving. And that felt good.

LS: Why didn’t you ask for help this time?

JB: I knew I’d be okay. It was going to be a huge hit, but that is what happens. That will happen when I have a family and my share of the two-parent income will have to take care of them, and I have nobody to rely on or fall back on. So I just felt like the only reason I would take any familial offerings would be because paying all these sudden expenses myself wouldn’t be the most convenient way to do it. But adulthood, at least most of the time, is not very convenient. I always say that I’m very immature for my age, and it’s true. I sometimes sort of refuse to admit that I’m at an age where it’s perfectly reasonable to assume I would have a mortgage or a baby or something. So to be able to respond to a financial emergency like somebody who takes care of either of, or both of, those things — it felt like something of a watershed moment

LS: Also I think that story — that you’re 32 and immature or a slow mover or whatever — is not productive. I mean, I say the same thing, about myself, but we are just Living Our Lives. There Is No Timeline. (right???)

JB: I can’t help but compare. I hang out with people who are younger than me frequently, and they have their shit so much more together — for their age, at least.

LS: So is that a goal for you — mortgage and kids, asap? What’s your five year plan?

JB: Oh, no. God, no. My five-year plan is entirely selfish. This is the last stretch in my life where I can think in those terms and I want to milk it as much as possible. I want to be as creatively fulfilled as I can be before I have to share the time I might use on projects now to, like, feed a baby every three hours or make sure my wife isn’t a stranger. If I meet someone who I just couldn’t stand ever being away from again, I would totally get married. If I accidentally procreated with THAT person, I would have the child. But I’m not really on a timetable. My only goal, in terms of timing, with parenthood, is not to be a dad who looks like a grandpa, but I think I’ve got maybe even ten years before we’re talking cane-limping to a high school graduation.

LS: What else do you spend money on besides bedbugs and bed linens?

JB: Honestly, a lot of it is food. I just can’t seem to force myself to be smart about money when it comes to food. It’s sheer laziness, not because I’m some gourmand who has to keep himself up in burgundy truffles or whatever. I probably spend $60-$80 on groceries during the week, and then I spend $7-$8 on lunch every weekday, then there’s the odd meal out or ordering in, and drinks. I think I like to pretend that being a vegetarian somehow precludes me from cooking the kinds of meals that are easier to make with an eye toward bringing in leftovers, but that’s patently, almost paradoxically, false.

LS: Hha yeah, being vegetarian was my number one excuse why it was okay to eat dinner out all the time — because it’s not like I’m eating STEAK. Do you use credit cards?

JB: I’ve always been terrified of getting into credit card debt so I’ve been good about staying out of it. I was the kind of kid who fucked with Columbia House Records a lot growing up and I was very consumeristic altogether — your classic indoor kid — so all signs pointed to me being just entombed in debt. So I was always mainly a debit card person out of caution. Funnily enough, my credit rating is middling because every now and then I seem to accidentally erase the email telling me to pay up and I end up being late. But I’ve never missed a payment because I was dodging it.

I somehow racked up a $1000 balance recently and forgot about it! I know a plane ticket was involved and like Cat Power tickets and stuff like that. I saw “Glengarry Glen Ross.” With Pacino! I guess I spend all my money on tickets. Food and tickets. So I racked up this $1000 and was walking around for an extra month as though I’d paid it off. But boy had I ever not done that! When I got the bill and realized I had to pay still, I braced myself for getting lean for the next month or so. But then I got a bonus at work. Most convenient bonus ever. Take that, adulthood! With your lousy soul-crushing benchmarks!

LS: Yes it’s very hard to be responsible when things always work out.

JB: Yeah, I mean, the bedbugs thing just barely worked out. But this, with that bill I forgot about and the bonus, was almost Truman Show convenient.

LS: “TRUMAN SHOW CONVENIENT.” Do you feel like you’re going to be scraping by forever?

JB:I think I will be able to make enough to do slightly more than scrape by, and I do hold out hope that some creative project I get involved in could surprise me and everyone else and do really well. I mean, I’m not banking on that happening, but it crosses my mind.

Joe Berkowitz lives in NYC. His superpower is being alone forever.