“well dear, what is the dem’d total?”
[Warning: an excruciatingly longwinded post. About money.]
One of the things I always do at the beginning of the year is go through my receipts from last year. I have a red square paper box that I got at a thrift store, that has slots labelled JANUARY through DECEMBER, where I throw all the receipts and don’t look at them all year, except to sort of vaguely note when the charges hit my checking account. This is a change from my control-freaky twenties and thirties, when I kept a spreadsheet and reconciled every transaction and bank statement to the penny blah blah blah, who has time for that anymore? And Internet banking has made it kind of silly anyway.
So I go through my receipts (holdover from the days of freelancing, when I would deduct business and medical expenses), and as I recycle most of them, I see things, I see patterns. For example, one recurrent phenomenon is that every time I pay for a $25-75 psych med prescription at CVS, this apparently makes me so despondent that I then get “a little something” for myself to take away the horrible taste of impecunity and craziness. However, spending roughly $8 on a bottle of essie every time I fill a script and feel sorry for myself has left me with…let’s see, with nine bottles of essie.
Then, I have spent way more than I feel comfortable admitting, getting those $2.60 sourdough bagels with salmon cream cheese at Einstein’s on campus. With or without a large blueberry green tea, which I have often clutched during student conferences/office hours/horrible endless afternoon graduate seminars as a security blanket: comforting, cooling warm tea.
Worst of all, there were the big-ticket items, some unavoidable, others quite avoidable. Unavoidable: two grand for the cat’s life (and I’d do it again) (and probably will). $250 for a texting phone, which, really? Yes, apparently, really. It was cute and green and has a sliding cover and a proper keyboard so I don’t have to type numbers three times in a row etc. My parents gave me enough birthday cash to cover that (in addition to paying my family-plan phone bill every month, which is unbearably kind of them; it’s only like $12 but it means so much to me). Oh, and a car. I bought a car, for an unimaginable amount of money. I’ve not held in my hands a check that large since getting my disability lump sum in 2007. But again my parents chipped in over half of it, so I have a beautiful blue 2005 Toyota Yaris for only about $3500 which is a miracle and please oh please Yaris do not ever break down, you only have about 115K miles on you and I need you to last all the way through grad school and ideally beyond please please.
Then the two exceptionally avoidable big-ticket items: the cashmere duster, which I am wearing as I type this, so I’m really trying to consider it a $100 “investment” in snugness (if not smugness) and comfort and keeping the thermostat lower (it’s always been on 69º and my bill was still just over $100 last month, so it’s now set at 67º and if I were a real trouper I’d leave it at 65º because I live in the TROPICS for godsakes I shouldn’t even have the heat on at all)—and, far worse, The Handbag, which went on 25 percent markdown and I bought it AGAIN, after returning it the first time, avoiding return shipping by making a laborious expedition to the Kate Spade store in the Galleria (which was this entire fascinating education into how some Houstonians apparently live, especially younger ones, I forget sometimes that Texas cities are still reaping the handsome economic disparities of oil money, there is a whole other world that I never see in my little academic enclave and it involves Prada, Fendi, Versace, preteen girls buying $300 skinny jeans and handbags that cost more than Elizabeth Wurtzel’s wildest dreams) (aside: I love that Jane Birkin doesn’t even like the Birkin bag). Anyway damage, and I shudder to tell you this, was $125, which is actually not much for a KS, probably because it’s like twelve seasons old; and after hiding the box from myself in a cupboard for several days in horror, I finally managed to unwrap the tissue paper from all its glossy golden hardware and cut off its tags, and have put my wallet and keys and lipbalm and phone in it, and taken it out to dinner once; but I still regard it with something like fear, and wonder if I am worthy of such a bag, and when a shambling derelict male wandered up to us and asked for money as we emerged from the restaurant I felt weak with self-loathing. I wanted to utter some kind of disclaimer: I’m not really wealthy, this handbag only makes it look as though I am because of its gleaming hardware, I’m actually a hippie and I carry my own little wooden spoon in here because I don’t want to use a plastic one which I will only have to throw away.Partly I did not give the derelict male a dollar because I could not bear the thought of taking it out of such a gorgeous purple leather purse (leather! from a cow! an innocent trusting brown-eyed cow!); and partly I was with my consort who categorically disapproves of handouts to beggars, as my consorts statistically have done. Mostly I was angry at myself because I had eaten too much dinner and felt uncomfortably stuffed, and if I had only asked for a box for my leftovers instead, the man might have wanted them (shrimp with mixed vegetables). This all goes through your mind in a flash and in the meantime you are carrying on a conversation and stepping carefully over the water-filled gutter in your brown suede wedge boots ($60, Aerosoles, last year’s pre-AWP purchase) and feeling nervous and uncertain and miserable with social inequality.
It is purple, the handbag. And I have adored it from afar for years. We will just have to learn to live with each other. Also my beloved brown cloth purse, which was handmade for me by a wonderful etsy seamstress, is pretty much thrashed, as I discovered when I turned it inside out and divested it of its gritty, linty collection of surprisingly grimy hippie items (little fabric wallet I sewed myself, coconut oil lip balm, etc.).
(Also, The Handbag makes my scratched, dented purple Pep Boys carabiner “keychain” look just super-shabby. Is one forced to upgrade everything now? What have I gotten myself into?)
Fortunately those were all the big-ticket items. There were a couple of Old Navy knit skirts in there (more pre-AWP jitters) and two viscose scarves and one long-sleeved t-shirt (purple!) and finally the two pairs of slightly dressy $19.99 Lands End sweatpants (so I can take out the recycling without having to hold my trousers up with one hand); but I am still teaching in the same pair of $10 jeans that I’ve been teaching in since fall 2010, and they still (sort of) fit (not right out of the dryer, but after I’ve worn them a couple of times). There may have been a couple of sundresses, I cannot lie. Oh, and the two cashmere sweaters, an embarrassing $60 each. That was bad of me, but one was sky blue, you know how that went down.
Insanity. Insanity! I told myself, looking in horror at the receipts. And thus the no-buy 2013 rules were formed. And here they are:
• Other than another pair of jeans (cheap, maybe from thrift store? do not want to have a 31″ waist forever) and a bottle of NYC top coat from CVS ($1.99, I’ve been trying to use base coat as top coat and um DOES NOT WORK), there are to be no more fashion-related purchases. Doesn’t matter if panties from Target go on sale! Stay away from Target so you don’t even know about the panty sale!
• Tell the pdoc I am seeking a cheaper antidepressant/mood stabilizer.
• Ride bike the five miles to school. This is going to take some doing, in terms of time management, and be unpleasantly sweaty when spring sets in, but I will save $30-40/month on petrol and soon be able to fit into the size 2s again therefore possibly not needing new jeans at all. (Need tire pump; lost in move to Texas.)
• Combine nail polishes in creative & exciting ways. Do not need new nail polish.
• Color, draw, journal, read, play music, write songs, and go for walks for fun, as I did in my 20s and early 30s. How this decade of my life became about conspicuous consumption rather than creation anyway I am not entirely sure. It crept up, somehow.
• Make sure I bill both insurances as soon as I have a therapy receipt to bill. Can’t continue to pay $100 per therapy session when both Universal HealthCare and Medicare will pay on the claims, if I would just file the claims.
• Yoga can be found for cheaper. I shall find it! Plus I’m scared of the fancy studio anyway. Do yoga at home!
• And go jogging. Jogging is free!
• Take snacks to school so I don’t have to buy energy bars and string cheese at the campus convenience store, or the aforementioned bagels. Take tea in my beautiful Chinese purple clay thermos.
• No book purchases UNLESS they are course texts that I cannot get from the library.
• No more cat toys. Cat prefers pieces of string anyway.
• No art supplies. Use the beautiful art supplies I have.
• No haircuts from anywhere, unless Mom takes me to see her stylist Meredith, as women’s haircuts in Houston are outrageous. Pin back hair as bangs grow out. Wash hair more often. Enjoy long hair.
• Cat food is 50¢ per little can, cat eats 3 cans every 2 days = $22.50/month. Is there a cheaper way? Could buy bigger cans; but cat won’t eat food unless it is sufficiently fresh, and I don’t blame her?
• Nothing from the grocery store except food (for me and the cat)—no housewares and no beauty products, period. I have enough toiletries and cosmetics to start my own small drugstore and I don’t need a single other bottle of cleanser, moisturizer, sunscreen, shampoo, conditioner, or hair treatment. Plus I have solved the perioral dermatitis problem (it was either the SLS &/or essential oils in Tom’s toothpaste) so, no need for fancy skin-care anything.
• Okay maybe I am allowed to buy one compact of drugstore powder, since I threw mine away in a panic during the rosacea/mite scare (I do not have rosacea). But no new lipsticks! I make do with my Neutrogena rose-pink that I bought in Phoenix which is still perfectly fine. (The two Santa Fe Neutrogenas probably need to go, they are old and gross and one of them is an incomprehensible, as in why did I ever buy this color, beige, and the pink is FROSTED, which, gah.) (Also I have two serviceable Neutrogena balms AND two brand-new untouched dark red Ecco Bella lippies that were gifts from S., if I feel the need for something eveningish or vampy. I’m still sad I lost my beautiful Sephora red at AWP last year, but I shall not replace it!)
• And finally further to that end: clean out bathroom cabinet and box up all beauty products I am never going to use and take them to school with a taped-on sign reading FREE TO BAD HOME and put them in the grad student lounge so someone else poor can use them.
• Finally, while I’m at it: vacuum more, for chrissake. The carpets are festooned with tufts of black cat hair and there’s no need for us to live in squalor.
That’s it. Austerity measures! as it were. If I’m broke enough to be taking out student loans, I’m broke enough to go back to my younger ways and stop spending money as though I have a full-time middle-class income, when I don’t. And I know how to do this, I did it for decades, it’s actually not that difficult as long as there are no catastrophic expenses.
Honestly a small part of the reason I liked parts of the Wurtzel essay (and I know I am severely in the minority on this one, you honestly do not need to list all the many flagrant ways that piece of writing is a terrible unedited mess reeking of nuttiness)—was that it captured, quite accurately I thought, the weird both/and nature of the financially privileged/victimized dichotomy, that strange way it is possible to be both wealthy (apartment in Chelsea!) and weirdly destitute in a paycheck-to-paycheck way, especially depending on the people with whom you spend time/went to undergrad. Non-New Yorkers always make fun of Manhattan/Brooklyn residents for being so overextended and leveraged on six figures, and indeed, that’s pretty much shooting fish in a barrel; but I’ve lived in two large East Coast cities (Boston, DC) and I know how expensive they can be, in ways you can’t predict until they have a death grip on your VISA card and you’re gasping for air. I’ve never been in real credit debt (have only paid off, laboriously, about $30K in loans for Mount Holyoke and Cambridge); but I remember the horror of the monthly bill, I remember it well. And if you’re supposed to dress and look a certain way, for lunches, for meetings? And if you’re supposed to pay for cab fare and storage and tip your doorman for the holidays and all the rest of it? Exponentiating, how fast it adds up, the price of being urban and trying to behave as though you’re anything approaching middle-class. I remember once buying a gray irregular Calvin Klein t-shirt from Filene’s Basement for like $8 and calling my friend Coco to hyperventilate, because I felt so guilty, because it wasn’t a three-pack of men’s white Hanes. (Oh I loved that t-shirt. It was the softest thing ever.)
Even without a car, those cities are murderously money-guzzling. My Boston roommate and I used to rent out the parking space that came with the apartment, for the extra $70/month. She had a car until it was stolen (twice). We ate too much macaroni and cheese, too many quesadillas, for women who made $35K/year (we were too tired to cook, it was too cold for salad, kale had not been discovered really yet). We never bought clothes, rarely books. It was a big painful moan-worthy expense to purchase the Green Line pass for the T at the beginning of every month. Everyone is already sick of the story about how I found my double mattress on the street down by the dumpster and somehow hauled it myself up two flights of stairs. It was mostly unstained! That was Boston.
When I lived in DC and somehow rented a $350 room on my minimum-wage book-clerk salary, my housemates and I had a food kitty, a little zipped pouch, into which everyone was supposed to put a completely reasonable twenty bucks a week for the shared grocery purchases. I can’t tell you how many weeks I ashamedly had to put a little paper IOU into that kitty instead of a twenty. I didn’t know about reusable menstrual products in those days, the early 90s, and it might be that they weren’t even around yet; so if I had my period that week, it cost $5-7 and I had to scrimp to come up with that. A banana milkshake or a movie was an impossibly rare treat. We didn’t have a television or rent movies then; there wasn’t an Internet. A pitying older friend gave me an ugly silver bicycle her teenaged son had outgrown, and I used that to get to work, until it was stolen. Always scrounging in one’s pockets for another coin for add-on Metro fare. When a tourist would give you their partially used card, a flare of celebration and gratitude.
The point is, cities cost so much money it will make your eyes bleed. I’m really lucky this PhD program is in Houston and not LA or London or anywhere along the Eastern seaboard. I’d be taking out more than this loan to cover the cat’s medical expenses.
Money money money must be funny in the rich man’s world! Hah, they’re Swedes and have socialized health care, what do they know about it. —I’m done writing about money today. Today, Pyewacket is sedately washing herself after devouring a 50¢ can of tuna and chicken, and I’m going to paint my nails and try to get some thinking done. Which is, of course, the point to living like this, why I have tried to choose this life, and other lives like it. To make as much space and time in the days and the mind as possible, so that words and ideas can creep in and curl up and nest, if you are quiet and still and don’t make abrupt scary movements and startle them away. Priorities.