I grew up lucky. My family always had food to eat and a place to live, and I knew I could call my Mom or Dad for a ride if I wanted to leave a sleepover. That is privilege. And my parents reminded me of that.
But we weren’t rich nor did we know rich people. Like me, most kids I grew up with knew that if they wanted to go to college or university they’d have to save up and pay for it themselves, and those whose parents paid their tuition worked incredibly hard so as not to waste what their moms, dads, or both had fought and saved for.
Spoiled rich people were something I read about or saw in movies, but never in real life.
Spoiled rich people were something I read about or saw in movies, but never in real life. There were a few members of the upper middle class who orbited around us, some of whom bragged to my parents when they bought a new deck or sprang for a new living room set (and it always came off as rude and tacky and made my Mom sad), but those were the exception. I’m from a blue collar, working-class city and I’m proud of it. To grow up meant to get a part-time job and begin saving towards some type of future. Laziness wasn’t an option. Not when work also meant financial freedom.
But that didn’t mean I wasn’t terrible with money.
But that didn’t mean I wasn’t terrible with money. From the age I started babysitting (12) to my first part-time job (McDonalds, age 15) to my foray into full-time/part-time retail (16-24), I had no idea how to save or spend wisely or do anything but shop. Which wasn’t anybody’s fault but mine: my parents tried to teach me to save, my Grandpa helped with my first and only semester of college (it was a gift), and every place I worked was generous with shifts. Which didn’t negate the fact I was also young and very stupid. I believed money would just happen, or miraculously appear in time for a tuition payment. Which made no sense because that was nothing I was taught. And also it never did, because that’s not how money works. Which I learned by rolling coin and eating only canned goods.
I believed money would just happen, or miraculously appear in time for a tuition payment.
The road connecting college, university, and eventually becoming a writer is a long, drawn-out one defined by stories of big mistakes, painful life lessons, and a lot of apologies (made by me) after the fact. But here’s part of one of those stories: I moved out shortly after dropping out of school, taking out a $10K loan, and convincing myself $800/month was enough to eat/ and live on, and quickly learning about eight months later that I was tragically wrong.
…it would be fine because I said it would.
I’d put months of rent on my line of credit that I was using as a bank account. I desperately waited for paychecks I could use to pay my phone bill or buy groceries or avoid maxing out my Visa (which was about $25 away from its limit). I was earning less than what I first moved out on, and had foolishly spent my first few months splurging on dinners out, random decor (truly: I don’t have any of it now, and I don’t remember what it was), and convincing myself — like I did as a teen — that it would be fine because I said it would. But where I once had my parents to fall back on (as in: I lived with them), I was alone now.
I’d put months of rent on my line of credit that I was using as a bank account.
They’d explained before I left that they wouldn’t be able to lend me money if I needed it, but would always welcome me back if I needed a room. At the time, I rolled my eyes and thought they were undermining me. And by winter 2010, I was using rolled coin to pay Visa bills, living off $8/week (which can buy a surprising amount of Chef Boyardee), and keeping the heat turned off in January. But I was stubborn. It took another month — and two back-to-back cases of the flu — before I admitted defeat. So, after giving my lovely elderly landlords my notice, I crawled into bed with a bottle of wine (something I’d always managed to spend money on), and cried harder than I think I ever had. Mainly because I didn’t have anybody to blame but myself.
I was using rolled coin to pay Visa bills.
At first, I blamed my habits on…anything I could think of.
Which was something I couldn’t say out loud for a very long time. At first, I blamed my habits on editors, late paychecks, unwavering landlords, and anything I could think of. I moved out of my apartment under the cloak of darkness for the most part, packing my car up at night with a trusted best friend, and making the commute back to my hometown without anybody seeing me. And I didn’t tell anybody. For years. (The first time I talked about the full extent of what had happened was in July 2015 for Refinery29.) My best friends knew what was up (since they’d had my back through inevitable meltdowns, me getting sober, and me also getting my mental health back on lock), but I sugar-coated my story for everyone else. Somehow I’d fucked it all up and was starting again — good luck saying that out out loud.
Somehow I’d fucked it all up and was starting again — good luck saying that out out loud.
But here’s what’s changed since I first wrote about moving back home last summer. First, it’s been another year. Another year of saving, another year of paying down, and another year of owning my shitty story since I’m the only one who can. Plus, I’ve finally learned to be okay with actually taking the steps — doing the work, making the payments, ensuring I don’t make the same mistakes. Which has forced me into being in the moment, that is, as it applies to work. (I’m happy to keep saying yes to assignments and cool things and to regularly pitch my editors, but I will always “what if” over social interactions and assigned plane seats.)
Another year of saving, another year of paying down, and another year of owning my shitty story since I’m the only one who can.
But most importantly, I’ve gotten perspective. Not just in terms of where I was mentally, emotionally, and even physically, but in terms of understanding — like, really understanding — what a fickle friend money is. Now, I see it like a co-worker you know not to trust, but who you have to collaborate with regardless. I don’t reject and/or refuse to use it (because hi, I am a conscious member of society), but now I know what it’s like to lose everything; to sell off your furniture, to evade your landlords, to live off bread, and to re-evaluate what kind of person you’ve become.
Money is not a guarantee. So even if you have it, it can go away at any time because that’s what money does.
Money is not a guarantee. So even if you have it, it can go away at any time because that’s what money does. It owes us nothing. It doesn’t just show up when summoned, or swoop in to rescue you. (At least, as a rule. I did win $100 at Bingo once, so that was pretty amazing.) And it is exactly what you make it. In my apartment, a few weeks before moving, I remember finding two extra dollars and psyching myself up for the fancy tea I’d buy later. I remember telling myself that paying $5 on a student loan (separate from the $10K one) would make all the difference. I remember how betrayed I felt when the loan that was supposed to keep me afloat was something pulling me down.
I’d become entitled for absolutely no reason, save for my own delusions of grandeur.
Which makes no sense. I grew up being taught the opposite of fine. I grew up being taught that you work, and you work, and you save, and you work, and then one day you will have built something for yourself that’s entirely yours, if you are very careful and lucky. I grew up seeing what living paycheck to paycheck was like, and learning that work ethic is what matters most. But I didn’t get that until I took the years of lessons and advice and told them to go fuck themselves. And then I lost everything, and found myself in bed with a bottle of wine, crying audibly.
And then I lost everything, and found myself in bed with a bottle of wine, crying audibly.
I used to think that moving back home was unimaginable; not an option. But now I’ve told my high horse where to go because I know there are no guarantees, quick fixes, or easy ways out. Now, at 30, I see hard work as the only constant, as the only sure thing, and as what you are in control of (because we all know we’re in control of little else). I know not to flaunt what you have, to help if you are in a position to, and to appreciate every job you get because you’re lucky to have it. I’ve learned we are entitled to nothing, that I will send many emails chasing paychecks I am owed because the fear is real, and that if you find an extra $2, no tea is ever worth that much, so just get a coffee.
But most of all, I realize I am even luckier than I was as a kid. When my world blew up I still had somewhere to go and family and friends to help me pick up the pieces. And that is a privilege. And it also makes me realize: in no way am I or my story the exception. So, what are we doing to make sure when this happens to somebody else, they can come away from it, too?
When we don’t talk about money — or our lack of it — we operate under the assumption that everybody is doing fine.
When we don’t talk about money — or our lack of it — we operate under the assumption that everybody is doing fine. They’re not. And the sooner we can comfortably tell our stories about crashing worlds, and being hungry, and living alongside mice (I made a deal with mine after the first time I saw them to never, ever show up again — and they didn’t until moving day), the sooner we can talk about everything else. Because while money may be the least trustworthy thing, it’s also a constant — mainly in that it’s tied to all other aspects of life, making financial rock bottom seem even worse.
So this was my money tale. What’s yours?
Anne T. Donahue writes for MTV News, Refinery29, The Guardian, The Flare and other outlets. She is also the host of the Podcast “Nobody Cares (Except Me).” Her book Nobody Cares was released September 2018. She is in a loving and committed relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio, even though he is not aware of that.
Well Wallet Money Stories is a place where real people share their stories of financial struggle, loss, perseverance, and triumph. If you have a money story that needs to be told, please submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will never publish your name without your permission. You can use a pen name or choose to remain anonymous. Or you can submit photos and go fully candid. It’s up to you. We all have money stories, and we need to talk about them. It is through sharing our stories that we heal, grow and learn from each other.