I was born into the worst type of families: a miser and a spendthrift. In reality, it's not fair to call my mom a spendthrift, but miser fits my dad's bill. As a child, I knew how much everything cost - at that moment, five years ago, 20 years ago, and at the turn of the century. I knew because my father reminded his children on a daily basis. "You kids and your money," he'd shake his head, "no wonder you're always broke. The Old Man is not made of money."
He said, "the Old Man is not made of money" so many times, that we've only half-joked about putting that on his tombstone. We have rolled our eyes at him so many times, it's a wonder he didn't call a priest in for an exorcism. After hearing it day in and day out, it's hard to remember and realize Dad was a child of the Depression. He didn't talk to us about how poor he was, and it wasn't until my adult years that I learned how poor his family was, although they were extremely generous to those in need and their neighbors and family.
My mother's family was not as poor, but not wealthy. She countered my dad's ironclad wallet with more of a freer hand on the checkbook. I can't begin to count the money I've weaseled, for lack of a better word, out of her. And she's probably never going to get any of it back.
However, it was my father's staunch denial that he was made of money that led me to swear off being fiscally responsible. I can't say I'm a complete mess; a rare college bout with credit cards led to a Mom-payout, and I have never touched one since. If I don't have cash, I don't buy it. That has worked for the past 14 years of my life. It has also limited my spending to what I have, and knowing what's in the checking account, down to the last penny. And I've taken that account pretty close to a penny.
Paying the bills has always been a bummer. If I said I paid them all on time, I'd be a liar, so I won't. I've tanked my credit, and slowly, like a lumbering beast, worked to rebuild it. From time to time, I falter. Take this evening, for instance. I put off paying a bill that, in the back of my mind, I knew exactly how much I owed, and knew I had until about June 30 to pay it, with no penalties. However, when I opened the bill, it was $100 more than I planned. I gasped. I was outraged. It was ridiculous! I fired off a somewhat snarky email to the person who patiently has waited on payment. I didn't know these charges were being billed! Then I complained, and fumed. Then I reread the email. The person, who is extremely nice, and just the fiscal officer, specifically told me what some of the bill was for, and how I could stop the bleeding at any time.
When I took my new job as a high school Spanish teacher, I knew from the one full-time and three or four part-time jobs I work throughout the year, I'd make more money than I ever dreamed of. That's not saying much, but it was a dream come true. It was also true, as I realized, I could make seven figures a year and find a way to spend it and complain I needed more.
Working for my money has never been a problem for me; I love my job and enjoy all of the other little jobs that add up to a few thousand extra dollars a year. In reality, I can live, paying my bills on time, on what I make from teaching alone. The rest should be in savings, or I should be writing this blog on the shores of Bali, as I travel the world. You can see how that's not happened.
What did happen with my new job was that I now drive 110 miles round-trip. We had a very mild winter, and the district I'm in normally has above-average snow days. This year, I skated to work on mornings or drove home in sudden rain or snowstorms, fearing for my life in my little economy car. I loved the car. It was only 2 years old, and was the third one of the same model. It got 36 miles to a gallon. On a slow day. However, it was light, and all over the highways I drove and the hilly country roads that took me to work early each morning, in the dark. If it was windy, I swayed from lane to lane. If it was rainy, it slid. If it was snowy, I was doomed. This later model didn't seem to be as great as the earlier ones. Maybe. Who knows?
After months of deliberation, research and hard decisions, I decided to get a small SUV with all-wheel drive. Several colleagues drove the same make and raved about its handling in snowy weather. I crunched numbers. Could I, on the salary alone, right now before a new contract is approved, afford this car? Could I buy it and not take into account the other "extra money?" Could I pay all of my bills? Could I afford the increase in gas, due to the much lower mileage and bigger tank? Yes. I could. Could I do it without putting undue demands on my own poor financial skills? Maybe. Would I have to be more responsible? Yes.
Opening and dealing with the aforementioned bill tonight was part of my plan. And if I have to pay for my mistakes, I have to pay. It won't be the first, or I suspect, the last time I do. However, I have to remind myself that in this tough economy, I am blessed. I have a home, a family who holds me accountable but not unfairly, and I am working.
Don't feel too sorry (or sorry at all) for my financial follies. I have friends with families who have made it work on less money and are richly blessed in so much more than any thing I could buy. There are people working three jobs every day just to feed their children, whom they never see, and have no health care. That is the new reality in our country. I am living the dream. And I have to make it a good one, because if you do ask me how much the SUV cost, I, parroting my father, could easily tell you. Just plunk your quarters in the meter when you get in the passenger seats.
Published: June 13, 2012