Prompt: What’s the best purchase you ever made?
One of the hallmarks of growing up poor is not being able to regulate your spending. You’re constantly splurging, getting into trouble, and then playing catch up — or you go an intensely long period of time without spending any money, feeling incredibly guilty whenever you do (only to blow all your savings in a weekend). Budgeting is difficult as is saving, and you have trouble taking advantage of beneficial sales for things like vacuums, dishwashers, etc because you never have the money to spend. Then, when you get a windfall (like a tax return), you don’t spend it on anything you need like a new refrigerator or paying off a credit card. Instead, you get a Goddamn smart TV or Roku system and three weeks later your power gets shut off. It’s a problem.
When I was growing up, I never quite understood where money went or how it worked. My dad emphasized saving money, but he never really said why. Now I think he wanted me to save for something really important — college, a car, retirement — but when I was eight, I didn’t understand that kind of long-term planning. I simply wanted my American Girl doll and a laptop.
Nonetheless, I dutifully went along with his decree, anticipating the day when I would have a whole pile of cash and be able to roll around in it like Scrooge McDuck. Unfortunately, we were poor, which meant that my money was not my own and that my mother would take it if she needed to pay bills.
Every time she did that (or I had to save up money only to have my family snake it), I lost my faith in budgeting and saving just a little bit more. It seemed pointless to save for my American Girl doll, summer studying in Cambridge, or semester abroad if someone was just going to take the money from me at the last minute. I had done all that work for nothing, working two jobs and not getting enough sleep and scrimping on movies with friends, and then someone else got to enjoy my money. So what the hell was the point of trying?
Despite the fact that I know better, I still often operate in that mindset of “I need to spend it now or I just won’t have it!” which is part of growing up poor and part of having an irresponsible family. The more I save, the more worried I become that I won’t even get to enjoy my savings, which become this point of anxiety in the back of my mind. Who’s going to need something this time? What unpaid bill or deferred necessity am I going to have to finance? Don’t I deserve something nice every once in a while? Shouldn’t I get to spend my own money?
A part of me wants to be able to let go of this anxiety and realize that money is just money. I have a regular job, am able-bodied, and am decent at saving. I will inevitably restock my savings. And money is meant to be spent anyway. Why should I begrudge others having access to my money? I pay taxes after all.
But I still want to be able to control my money. I want to be able to say where it goes. I want to be able to set a financial plan and carry it out. I know others need it (often more than I do), but I want to dictate when or if I give it. I want my money to be a gift born from respect and love rather than a burden I have to shoulder. And so, since I’m not allowed to make that gift, I splurge and spend and make bad choices, barely happy for as long as it takes to hit “submit.” Then I feel guilty and anxious and wish I could go back in time — only to repeat that cycle again and again and again. Like I said, it’s a problem.