Living In NYC Versus Saving, And Other Financial Decisions Parents Don’t Understand
A conversation between Emily Gould and Logan Sachon about career paths, generational differences, and why sometimes we have to make our own mistakes when it comes to money.
Emily Gould is the author of The Heart Says Whatever and Friendship and the co-owner of independent bookseller and publisher Emily Books. She is married, has a baby son, and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. I am Logan Sachon, cofounder of The Billfold. I am unmarried, have no children, and also live in Brooklyn, N.Y. Another thing we both have in common: neither of us have been terribly smart with our money, or terribly good at earning a lot of it, both in somewhat stark contrast to our parents. We talked about the personal and generational difference between our parents and ourselves with regard to money and work.
LS: Did you have an allowance when you were a kid?
EG: My brother and I did have an allowance and we had to do chores. I don’t remember how much money it was, but I vividly remember saving it up to get dollhouse furniture and craft supplies. I think the chores were mostly really easy, like scooping/changing the cat litter and loading the dishwasher and stuff like that. We didn’t have to do laundry or vacuum, which I think I’ll make my children do because why else have children? (Haha. Sort of.) In general I think my parents should have been stricter with us but every time I tell them that they laugh at me. I think I might have been a difficult child.
LS: My parents tell me they should have been stricter, and I don’t disagree. I think it’s probably good for everyone to make kids do stuff. Was the allowance part of a larger conversation about money?
EG: My parents taught me a lot about many things but I think they’d agree with me that money is a bit of a blind spot for all of us. My mom is thrifty and into saving and worries about money even when she has plenty — but my dad and I both have the same thing of being optimistic about our earning potential and being extravagant when we feel flush, which gets us into trouble. And neither of those approaches is really that good to teach a kid.
LS: I’m interested in what you’ve learned about money from your parents just by watching.
EG: I think I learned to spend money on experiences rather than things. Neither of my parents are materialistic. They spend money on stuff like restaurant meals, going to see plays and movies, going to the beach, celebrating milestones with my big extended family, and nice groceries. Neither of them really cares about flashy “stuff.” Ok, with the exception of: my dad had a midlife crisis sports car phase. But now he drives a Mini and acknowledges that the sports car was stupid. He had a really long commute and needed to make it fun for himself (he says).
LS: Did you inherit that indifference to “stuff?”
EG: I maybe slightly care about aesthetics more than they do. Like, when I have money (or when I feel like I have money) I’ll buy frivolous but beautiful things. But I’m trying to remember the last time I did that now and I actually can’t remember it. Having a kid does make every purchase more fraught.
LS: Did you have a sense of where you were, class-wise, when you were a kid? Did your parents talk about that with you?
EG: The first time I remember thinking we didn’t have as much money as some of my classmates was in second grade when Reebok High Tops (the kind with two velcro straps at the ankle, and also laces) became a thing. I wanted a pair and my parents were just like “nope.” My parents were genuinely struggling in my early childhood; my mom was in law school and my dad was just giving up on academia to work at a PR firm. And we lived in a townhouse development abutting woods that were full of rusted washing machines and old tires. By the time I was in high school they were established in their careers and doing well, and we lived in a split level house with a big yard near good public schools. I didn’t think we were rich, but I also didn’t worry about money or feel deprived of anything, and I never heard my parents talk or fight about money. They weren’t very into talking about money with us. I think they wish now they had talked about it more!
LS: We didn’t really have any explicit conversations about it, either. I went to private school starting in sixth grade and a lot of the families were really wealthy, so I do remember them saying, “we don’t have that kind of money,” and acknowledging that they were making sacrifices in order to pay for school. But this wasn’t a recurring theme; just sporadic comments. The first really explicit conversation I remember having was just before I went to college, when my parents warned me never to sign for up for a credit card to get a free pizza or whatever. That made sense to me, not to spend money you didn’t have when you were earning $0. But I amended the lesson once I started working and racked up a ton of debt, thinking that a big paycheck was imminent (still waiting).
Are there specific things you wish your parents had talked to you about, money-wise?
EG: Until recently I had no idea what a mortgage was. I really did not understand how they worked. I thought everyone who bought an apartment had half a million dollars in cash just sitting in a bank account, and while of course some of them do (increasingly the people who are able to buy in NYC do because they are not people, they are shady LLCs), that was not as much the case in 2008, when I could have invested in my future instead of systematically making things harder for myself. “What is a mortgage?” seems like something that should be taught in high school, not something that everyone finds out piecemeal. If I’d managed to attain something like basic financial literacy by my mid-20s, I could have used the first big lump-sum checks I ever earned to put a down payment on a tiny studio instead of using them over the course of years to pay rent on a beautiful wonderful 1-bedroom apartment in a neighborhood that I loved living in. I guess?!
LS: I also wish this about myself, just that I’d been generally smarter and more keyed in from an earlier age. And this is no one’s fault, though I do like the idea that it should be a part of basic education. My do-it-over-again pipe dream is that I would be a nurse: a good, solid job with actual skills and then I could do whatever on the side. Or maybe I could have done exactly what I did and just lived within my means and saved money. I still hope that my earnings will dramatically increase in the next decade and everything will work out. I think my parents also have this hope for me, but we don’t really talk about it.
EG: I also didn’t understand debt until much too recently. I do still have some, but I’m working systematically towards paying it off, and it’s much less than it was a few years ago, when I was basically living on credit so that I could finish a book.
LS: Are you worried about your debt? Do your parents?
EG: It sucks but I’m not worried about it per se.
LS: I used to be very worried, but now that I have a payoff plan set-up, I don’t think about it as much. Every now and then my dad will check in to make sure I’m staying the course. They’ll be as relieved as I am when it’s gone, I think.
EG: I don’t know if my parents worry about my debt. And I don’t know if they have debt; they have all kinds of adult things that I don’t (and should), like retirement savings and investments. They probably still worry that I’ve chosen such a precarious career path and that I live in the most expensive city in America, and I worry about that too, but at this point we all understand that it’s actually too late for me to change course.
LS: Did they initially encourage you to pursue a more lucrative profession?
EG: My parents have always been incredibly supportive. That said, I think for a long time they did worry, with good reason, that I was making bad choices about how to support myself. I remember when I was younger I was routinely going on some awful talking head’s show and saying ribald, silly things, and my mom was like “Aren’t you worried that future employers will see this and not want to hire you?” I was like “GOD mom you don’t understand ANYTHING.” But then of course I did end up in a situation where I was a little bit unemployable for years. My parents probably wish I was ‘Being a Writer’ in some more conventional way, the way you’re supposed to, where your books are just bonus checks on top of your salary you make as a tenured creative writing professor or a TV writer. I … hmm. Well, sometimes I wish that too! But my path is my path.
LS: It seems like people our age own less substantial stuff (cars, houses, etc). Is that a function of coming up in the economic climate we did? Do your parents have a sense of how different it was from their experience?
EG: I think that might just be us, Logan!! My parents’ kids’ friends have houses and cars and stuff. I had to tell them straightforwardly at some point “I have chosen to live in NYC rather than have savings.”
LS: I’ve only been here, well, I’m on my fifth year now and the seeds of my financial mistakes were already sown, but I think perhaps I will steal this excuse from you. Do you think the way you think about money versus your parents is circumstantial? Or generational?
EG: I definitely think there is a huge difference between our generations’ ideas and expectations around money. Things have changed so much in the last ten years alone that we’re all struggling to come to terms with the world’s new financial reality. I think even when my parents struggled, and even though neither of them started with a safety net, they never feared for their baseline stability. Their generation had a presiding expectation of being in similar jobs at similar salaries for large chunks of time, and having an employer pay for health insurance and even pay into retirement plans. Whereas now more people are making it up as we go along, participating in the “gig economy,” paying for our own insurance and setting up our own long-term savings or investment accounts (or at least the former.) Even for people who do work at conventional jobs, there’s still an expectation of moving around a lot. It’s hard to plan around uncertainty, and there is increasing competition and an” underlying anxiety that our parents’ generation don’t typically understand; even people a decade older than us can seem to be “grandfathered in” to a system that no longer exists for us.
My parents probably thought the world would continue mostly to function as it always had, in their experience. Whereas I wonder whether college will still exist in the same form in sixteen years when my son would be applying to it, for example.
LS: Are your parents still on the career track set up by that system — or are they retired?
EG: Neither of my parents are retired. My mom is working harder and more than she was when I was younger. My dad works for himself rather than a big company now and is much happier. I think they are in the process of figuring out what “retirement” will look like for them. Both of them love working, but their work requires them to be close to DC, which is an incredibly expensive housing market. If they didn’t have to commute there they could live much more cheaply.
LS: My parents are both retired, something they were able to do because they both had government jobs and pensions, but also because my father is incredibly smart and planned and saved and invested and did all the things one has to do to make money grow. He bought his first house a year after he graduated college, for instance, and still owns it, and the house they currently live in. Do your parents own a house? Do you?
EG: They did. They don’t now. They may again. I don’t (ha!!), I really wish I did. I really, really, really wish I had been smarter about money as a younger person and had put myself in a position where that would be more of a possibility for me. Like most people, I am hoping the L train shutdown turns L-and-G-adjacent Brooklyn into a shantytown full of abandoned high-rises that we can squat in.
LS: Do you ever ask your parents for advice?
EG: I probably should.
LS: Have you started to think about how you’ll talk to your son about money?
EG: I think I will almost unavoidably be more open with him about money (and lack of it) than my parents were with me. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know. I do know that he has already motivated us to get our act together in various ways and to think about doing different types of work. But unfortunately for him his parents are both writers with complex relationships to capitalism. Poor bunny, I hope he doesn’t get Alex P. Keaton syndrome.
LS: Or maybe that’s the retirement plan — a return to the model of your kids taking care of you. In which case, I hope my nephew will add me to his roster, thanks.