Nearly ten years ago I was out with one of the Michaels (every unmarried gay man or woman over the age of 40 has enjoyed more than one Michael). Though most of the details of our short and delightful courtship are faded, on one particular night he said something that I will never forget.
We sat at the bar on a random weekday waiting for our table at one of the best restaurants in West LA.. The venue wasn’t chosen with any celebration in mind, rather, as a course of habit. Every ordinary day brought opportunities to celebrate anything. If you don’t know what I mean, try living in Southern California for more than one calendar year. It had nothing to do with our developing tendencies as a potential couple. It was his nature and mine, to find ourselves with other people’s fine linen draped over our laps several times a week.
I remember saying, “This is a perfectly constructed lemon drop. How’s your martini?”
“Good. Everyone gets away with charging twelve dollars for a martini these days, few bartenders actually know how to make one. This one’s right.”
(By the way, that’s not the thing he said that struck me … that line is coming up.)
His mentioning of dollars set my mental treadmill going. Almost a decade later and the same treadmill drones for me now. It sounds like this:
I don’t flinch at the prices any longer. $15 hamburger — which I’ll only eat half of, $13 glass of wine, $18 grilled salmon — again left half uneaten … This type of spending several times a week. I’m paying cash, but surely it could go to better use elsewhere – like, say, UNICEF, not to mention a retirement account. Oh, but first let’s go to Casa Del Mar for the sunset, shall we?
Even before that Michael came along, I remember talking to my brother about whether or not I should buy a convertible. I had discovered that I could actually afford a sports car and it floored me with excitement. K said, “Ruth, just because you’ve got the money for it, doesn’t mean it’s really affordable.” Hm. He had a point. I did not make the purchase.
Restraining myself from succumbing to the Ooh-Pretty-Car-Must-Have virus that runs rampant out here brings the notion of controlling spending within my grasp. But that only adds to the decadence of my penchant for dining out. Increases the guilt. And the pleasure.
So that day with Michael, we sipped our expensive vodka and I let him hear my treadmill drone a bit. I told him all about my weakness for $19 cheese plates and plans to save. I went on and on about interest rates and at a certain point — I can’t remember if he interrupted or if he let me whirr to a stop — he said the thing.
“Or you could just make more money.”
If you’ve read Rich Dad Poor Dad, you’re not surprised. The notion of shattering out of my income bracket had never occurred to me. For Michael, it was a way of life.
“Keep spending. You’ll make more.”
Some of you may be thinking he’s the devil. Evil incarnate sent to encourage another decade of factory farm consumption (not to mention the damage I may be doing to my liver under this rationale). But his perspective enlightened me.
In the years since, I’ve continued spending and earning. Whenever my treadmill cycles round and round with worry over where my funds ought to be going, I still hear Michael say, “Make more.” Whenever I’m tempted to spend more than x dollars on one item, I still hear my brother ask, “What’s the true cost?” But theirs are only two voices of several.
Here’s another, “She already has a shirt.”
You heard me. She already has a shirt. Spoken by a friend of a friend. The two were shopping together in the U.S. to find a gift for one to take back to her daughter in Malawi, Africa. My friend suggested a blouse. And the African woman replied matter-of-factly, “She already has a shirt.”
This is the spectrum I dwell in. We all do, really, whether or not we choose to think about it. I do. I think about that one shirt worn by a woman on a distant continent. What does she wear when she washes it? What does she think about when she’s topless doing laundry on a muddy water bank? She’s there scrubbing away while I’m here criticizing Stefan’s interns for overcooking my cheeseburger (subpar, really, they need to step it up).
If I learn from one-shirted-women about the difference between needs and wants, if I follow Michael’s advice and earn more money, if I continue consulting with my brother about how to develop financial discretion, if I stay awake and exercise discipline, I will evolve. Thank god it’s easier than ever to get a nutritionally sound, ethical spending fix these days. I may continue to complain about white napkin lint on my black skirt and waiters who reply, “No problem” instead of, “Of course,” but deep down I’ll know that the $7 I saved by ordering house merlot instead of a Blue Rock Syrah will be going to a good cause. Mend bag, soon you will be mine.