Until I was nine years old, and dying for a pair of designer blue jeans, specifically, Jordache jeans, I had no idea of my parents’ financial limitations. We couldn’t even find designer jeans in the stores where we normally shopped. We had to go to the special department store in the special shopping mall. Without making any promises, Mom agreed to take me there to consider the purchase.
So we went to Garfinkels. With the shiny floors and chandeliers, it felt like a modern day castle. I spoke more quietly than usual, but I couldn’t tell you why. I’m sure some classical piano melody floated down from the PA system the moment when Mom told me there was no way she would spend forty-four dollars for a pair of children’s pants. Perhaps it was a delicate Bach tune seeping in to the disappointment I felt when I realized I would not be wearing Jordache jeans to school that Monday. Or maybe it was a Beethoven masterpiece that magnified the pity I felt for Mom because she could not afford something I wanted. I stood there whispering my What ifs and Pleases while my subconscious self entered a grand ballroom where guilt and anger had not been invited, but joined the waltz anyway. Guilt, because even at nine I knew there was something wrong with pitying the woman who had given me everything. And anger, because I wished I never wanted those stupid blue jeans in the first place. In spite of it all, I loved being there with that music—the music of fairy tales. I loved that special department store so much that I almost didn’t notice the shame I felt. Shame, because deep down I worried that even if I had Jordache Everything, I would never be good enough.
Only, I was just a girl, so the pentagon of emotions came out in four quiet words of defeat, “I hate you, Mom.”
Later, in Sears, she stood holding a pair of Wranglers telling me she could not see the difference between this denim and the designer denim. I thought she was utterly blind. We compromised on Lee jeans made by Levi’s and ended the day with an Orange Julius and a soft pretzel. I spent the rest of my childhood praying that my parents would not die because I knew the plan was that I’d have to go live with my Uncle and Aunt in Michigan. I was sure they did all of their clothing shopping at K-Mart, and you couldn’t even get Levi’s at K-Mart. Forget about the Jordache.
As a rule, my parents provided everything my brother and I needed. They were generous on gift giving occasions, and provided scouting dues, dance and music lessons without flinching. We ate in restaurants once or twice a week. I didn’t know what gratuity was, but I remember hearing Mom’s flirtatious refrain to Dad “You’re too kind,” each time she spied the tip as we got up from a restaurant table. Dinner at home often included thick steak, juicy and rare. Until a neighbor girl’s mother served something gray and dry she called, “steak”, I had no idea how special the beef at home really was.
We knew not to disturb Dad on those weekend afternoons when he sat at the dining room table with a big pile of mail, his checkbook and a yellow legal pad with rows of numbers on it. He never mentioned what he was up to, but we knew it made him grumpy whatever it was. Once in a while, collectors would call to check on a late payment. I suspect it was usually his procrastination, rather than a lack of funds, that caused him to make any late payments at all. He simply hated doing the bills.
When got his dream car, a practically new 1979 Sedan De Ville Cadillac, it was with the overt message that typifies my spending today, “We can barely afford this, but isn’t it fun?” Mom agreed to help Dad pay for it under one condition: he had to promise to attend church every single Sunday for an entire year. The man still sings in the choir. He often performs solos. Our other car at the time was a brown Pinto with an AM radio and a persistent odor of gasoline. We called it “Chug-Chug.” The first time I ever heard Mom use profanity was when that damn car wouldn’t start. Meanwhile, in the back of the Cadillac, I could lie down flat without bending my knees. The soft taupe leather interior was smoother than my best shoes and for the first time ever, I had a reason to say the word taupe. If Dad turned on the right radio station, I was in Garfinkels on wheels.
Fueled by visions from PBS’s Brideshead Revisited and my growing collection of Lady Diana photographs, I developed a rich fantasy world which translated into a long list of material desires. Why put up with Chug-Chugs and Wranglers when there were Cadillacs and Calvin Kleins in the world? Still, I found it incredibly painful asking my mother for things that she considered “too expensive.” So, I took up babysitting as soon as I was old enough and used all of my earnings to supplement what my mother was willing to spend on clothing. Later, I worked a the local video store. I took great pride in being able to buy the clothing of my choice at the stores of my choice. Nothing could get between me and my Calvins. I worked all through college—but because my parents were capable and generous, the money I brought in was always for fun. Mom and Dad took care of the necessities like tuition, rent, books and food.
The older I got, the more Mom openly confessed to feeling as if she and Dad had been “bad with money.” Her tendency is to compare her financial situation with that of her parents. Like most people who survived The Great Depression, Grandma and Grandpa knew the importance of saving. In contrast, my parents, children of the 1950’s, knew the importance of having a good time. Consequently, Mom’s comments on the topic are laced with guilty self-deprecation that put my grandparents’ practices on a pedestal. “Your father and I are awful with money. Do as we say, not as we do.”
I didn’t have much to go on because they really hadn’t said all that much about money. My grandparents, the shining example of what to do right (according to my mother) had indicated only two things to me about finances: one, before giving to a charity, be sure to research how they spend their funds and two, it’s impolite to talk about money. I had heard that Grandpa did not believe in buying anything on credit. Armed with these meager pieces of information, and a strong desire to never ever have to buy my clothes at K-Mart, I set out to earn the most money I possibly could.
I’m proud to say that within a year of graduating from college, I was 100% financially self sufficient, and have been for the 15 years since. I suppose one way to look at it is that I’ve set the bar pretty low for myself. The facts are: Bill collectors don’t call. I avoid the designer blue jeans in Bloomingdales or where ever it is that people buy designer jeans these days. My credit rating is good. I’ve read two fifths of Suze Orman’s book about financial freedom, and the complete “Rich Dad Poor Dad.” I’ve never bounced a check. I eat out too often. I’ve played around in a stock club, but have trouble getting interested in P/E ratios. All of my debt is shuffled to an amazingly low APR. I contribute a little more to charities than to my 401K, and simultaniously wonder if that’s just plain stupid. A couple years ago, I turned down a high paying job – twice – just because I was holding out for something more emotionally fulfilling. I tell myself that money is not the only commodity. Most of all, I try as hard as I can not to compare my situation with my friends and neighbors.
In most recent years, my periodic hands-on experience with philanthropic groups has had a profound effect with the way I view money. For the first time in my life, I see the playing field in two new ways: globally and spiritually. Months ago, one of my new mentors related a story to me about an experience she had shopping in the U.S. with a woman visiting from Malawi, Africa. They would be choosing a gift for the woman to take home to her daughter. “How about a shirt?” my friend suggested. “No,” the mother replied, “she already has a shirt.” It’s with stories like this one that I move forward.
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Originally written for dear Dear Reverend Allen Newman’s class called “Remembering Your Story”. In case you hadn’t guessed, this assignment was on money. Reverend Allen will remain one of my favorite teachers of all time.