Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Pink Floyd tune


It scares me.

I don't ever feel as though I have a handle on it. Do I have enough? What should I do with what I have? Where should I be keeping it? How much should I talk about it? What should I spend it on?

My parents both admit to knowing pretty much nothing about money. And their actions make it clear that neither of them are particularly comfortable with it. I have probably internalized my mom's habits more than my dad's but that's mostly the Capricorn in me. My mom will be extravagant and tell us we're worth the trip, the shoes, the food, the entertainment and so are our friends and she'll spend and spend and spend. 24 hours later she'll be seized with fear and trembling and promising that she doesn't want to be paid back for the extravagance but she'll also be doing weird things like collecting bottle tops and eating peanut butter and talking in a quavering whisper about how much money was spent.

So, I try to make my decisions with the buyer's remorse factored in. To say to myself, "When I start freaking out tomorrow will I still be happy I bought, gave, did this?" Usually this works. There are a few drawbacks to this method. Often beautiful chances are missed. Often I'll have gone out with someone and will have panicked and decided to go Dutch and the next day will think, "You know, I should have treated her." Or I'll miss a sale or find I really needed something that's no longer available.

I'm also prone to weird penny pinching habits. Like if I buy something that I categorize as expensive then I expect it to last, quite literally, forever. Pants from the Gap, $44 about, I don't know, 5 years ago? Maybe a little less. I'm getting a bit, shall we say, rotund these days. My thighs rub together. Which means my trousers rub together. Which means my thighs are about to rub together again now. Which means I need new pants. I am incensed that these pants have not lasted forever. The last pair of similar pants I got for free from someone else and wore them for 7 or 8 years until the knees were all baggy and misshapen and the butt had an actual hole in it and it was still an emotional moment for me to pitch them. My couch? Ought to last until I'm so old I break a hip and need something firmer so I don't have to push my Life Alert button every time I want to change the channel. It's not going to. My cats won't let it. My mattress, however, I have high hopes for.

On the flip side I'll buy a pint of Hagen Daaz at the deli every other night all summer and not think twice about it. That's $3.99 a pop. It took me 3 or 4 years of renting cars to go visit the folks up north to realize that my average rental car expenditure over the course of a year is between 2 and 4 thousand dollars. I didn't think I had that much money to spare! And, you know, I don't. But I have to go visit the fam and the friends, I want to, and I'm not subjecting the dog to a crate and the train and the amount of savings factored with the pain in the ass quotient doesn't win you enough money to do one way car rentals and beg a car off someone else while you're up there, so $2-4K it is, I guess.

Money scares me. I'm pretty much all by myself. Any money I might inherit has been inherited. It was for the most part inherited by my parents and they generously helped me with a downpayment for my apartment. It's money ginormously appreciated and, I know, well spent. But that's it. I'm single, I'm an only child, my friends are by and large in theatre or education or music (as well as so very not responsible for me for cripes sake) so I'm going to have to take care of myself as life goes on. What if I get sick? What if I lose my job? What if my parents get sick and need me to help them? What if my friends get sick or laid off or go round the bend and join a bus and truck tour of Phantom and need me to help them? What if (by some currently unfathomable chain of Narnian events) I meet some sweet guy (or not so sweet), end up sleeping with him and end up having a kid? I'm not sure if you're aware of this but it's really expensive to have a kid. It's incredibly expensive to pay someone else to take care of a kid and it's even more expensive to stay home and do it yourself and if you're single (that's me) then you're sort of fucked in this scenario.

So, I want to be responsible, I want to prepare for these contingencies. But you know, I currently work a job that, while so much better than most jobs of its type, is a soul sucking affair...for me. It's not what I want to do. It's not in the same industry as the many things I want to do. There is nothing about it that screams ME! But it pays the bills and (most of) the people are nice and there's security to it and it gives me some good time off to pursue the things that I do love. It's OK for now but will there not be a cross roads at some point (soon?) where I would like to jump and try my hand at doing the unsafe thing and pursuing only those things I love and trying to support myself with those things? I can't conceptualize what would have to happen financially to make that possible.

I've been trying to get some facts about my spending in order to conceptualize. I gathered together all the proof of my assets and I xeroxed them and I sent them to my uncle/financial advisor. He'll talk to me about my options and he'll give me research and information. What makes him good about this is that he's an advisor, he won't tell me what to do, he'll just give me all the information and have me make the (terrifying!) decision. What I like about him, though, is that he's really good at making me feel smart when I do. The first time I invested any money I asked him what I should do with it. He brought me a bunch of prospectuses and told me to read them through. I did, knowing really nothing of the terminology, trends and practices of the stock market, and I picked the ones I thought would be good. He said, "Yup, that's what I'd have done, too."

I'm not smart about this stuff, though, and that's one of the things I hate about the whole process. I hate making a decision based on the words, phrases and statistics I understand and knowing those are only the tiniest tip of the iceberg. I feel like the fucking Lusitania (they hit an iceberg too didn't they? The Titanic is so done). Since my company isn't actually a company my 401(k) is actually an IRA and I had to set up the IRA account for the money to be added by my employers. At the very last moment before this paperwork really had to be in I was poring over the literature and utterly baffled, truly near tears. I was in a room full of people who work in finance and I was brought to my knees by Investment 101! So I screwed up my courage and gulped down my pride and I asked one of the people, prefacing it with, "I'm so sorry, I feel like an idiot but could you explain this to me?" And he was very kind and he clarified my question and he gave me a lovely 90 second answer with words that I could define. I had no idea what he said when he put them in that order. But, he's a nice man, and he's a pretty good parent from what I can tell so he knows what to do, he asked, "Does that make sense?" And I had to say no. I was able to say why and he went back and told me again and I got the barest of fingertip holds on it and I made a decision. It still feels shameful to talk about, though.

On the everyday front I'm trying to figure out where I spend my money, Hagen Daaz and rental cars notwithstanding. I've been keeping a spending journal. After I've kept it a couple of months I'm going to try and see how it all breaks down and figure out where I can do better. ChemE and QueenBee have told me they can help me learn to budget. I had an interesting conversation with ProfDoc about the budgeting. I told her that while I knew it ought to help me that the whole concept of budgeting and tracking my spending I knew should be good but it just didn't make sense to me. And she asked a really great question (I am not being sarcastic at all), "What doesn't make sense?" I don't know that I clarified my position much when I answered but it certainly helped me to answer.

What doesn't make sense to me in the end, after much more thought and feeling and gnashing of teeth, has, probably, less to do with the numbers of it and more to do with the choosing. I want to look at the numbers and see what I have and what I spend and what I want and what I feel I need and have it add up to a stack of instructions. "BUY SPEAKERS NOW!" "THROW BIG BIRTHDAY PARTY IN COOL VENUE WHEN YOU TURN 40." "SELF PRODUCE LIKE THE MOON IN 2007." "GO TO BAHAMAS AT WILL."

I suspect this will not happen.

The refrain from Chili is, "It's all about priorities." I know that she's right. I know that the budgeters will say the same thing and I know that the budgeters are good at priorites. They know what they want and they know how to get it and they know when to buy now and when to save up and how to pay off and all that good stuff. I have a lot to learn from them. I can't shake the feeling, though, that they won't have a frame of reference for ordering the sorts of priorities that I have.

I have many of the same priorities that "normal" people have (despite the fact my friends are far from normal - in great ways). I don't want to eat cat food when I'm a senior citizen. I want to have pretty glasses and contact lenses. I want to be able to upgrade my kitchen and the electricity in my apartment. I want to decorate my apartment and make it feel homey. I'd like to buy some art, nothing extravagant, but a few nice pieces. I want to have nice clothes and a good hair cut and the occasional piece of nice jewelry and to be able to go out to meals with my friends and buy them good presents. I want to be able to go places on vacation.

But then there's the rest of me. I rented a rehearsal room that turned out to be too small for a rehearsal for my new play. It cost me $73.50 for 3 hours. I still have a 2.5 hour rehearsal and a 5 hour rehearsal and performance day to get space for. That CD I want to record would run $10-15,000. If I were to attempt a full production of the Chekhov there would be a lot more rehearsal space to rent, there would also be performance space and lights and possibly speakers and people to run those things and props and costumes and a set and people to make those things and, you know, actors who might work for free but I would hate not to pay them anything. I'm guessing in the vicinity of $30K. Conservatively. I don't have a clue how much it costs to shop around a novel but that's got to cost something. And, I want to keep performing. So, a cabaret, those usually run me around $5K overall, it's spread out so far that you hardly notice but it's still money that's not going toward the mortgage or the electrician or whatever else. If I'm performing there are other extras that go along with being presentable to have pictures taken, to stand in front of an audience, to meet an agent. A half head of highlights in NYC costs $200. Ideally you get that done every 6 weeks, you could get by with quarterly and you can probably get away with twice a year if you put your hair up most of the time. This does not include hair cuts which run about $60, I already get those done about quarterly right now. It's not Supercuts and it's not The Arden Salon so I'm OK with that compromise. You can usually get away without pedicures if you choose the right shoes but manicures are expected. So, around $15 a pop. Monthly at the least. Good clothes, good shoes, good makeup, good outerwear, nice bag. All part of the package. Oh yeah, and some day I'd like to quit my job and concentrate solely on writing and performing and selling my work of all types.

How do I prioritize all this stuff? How do I know when to spend $300 taking my friends to dinner and when to not go out to eat for a couple of months and buy 2 more bookshelves so the Great Literary Avalanche of 2005 isn't repeated? How do I know when a manicure and some highlights and some new resumes and pictures will get paid for by a job I'll get hawking a dishwashing liquid?

That's what doesn't make sense.

Any ideas?

No, really, I'm looking for any sort of guidance I can get here, lots of input.

Or better yet, a sign.


  1. First of all, you are an excellent writer. Now, that never made anyone a lot of money, but it's better than money in certain ways.
    Secondly, you live in New York City, which probably means that you have serious money management skills operating in the background. And living in New York City is better than money. Or at least equal to money.
    I'm a journalist in the suburbs with very similar personal finance skills to yours. And living in the suburbs is not as good as money. As time goes by, however, I keep thinking how great it will be when the sergeant at arms from the debtors prison drags me off, and I spend most of the trip correcting his grammar (of course, he will be correcting my spelling, but that's all right). The best advise I have is to read lots of Whitman, keep getting advice from smarter people than me, and go full steam ahead.

  2. baby girl I'll do your hair for free. Till we both need hip replacements and can afford a new couch.
    high light low light. free ninety free.

    we're just a mere several hundred miles apart. let's work on that.

    I love you more than my bladder control !!

  3. Yeah, let me second vanx's two dead-on points; that you're an exceptional writer (I've been telling you this for YEARS) and the fact that you live in NYC, and have managed to do so successfully for what? nearly twenty years? That tells me that you've already got far more money sense than you're giving yourself credit for. Hell, I come to visit a couple times a year and am CONSISTENTLY amazed that I can land at Penn Station with a hundred bucks in cash and leave with something like seventeen, and have nothing to show for it except a metro card and some chocolate from the Village.

    Honestly? It sounds to me like you're doing all the right things. You're investigating your spending habits, you're consulting professionals, you're learning to budget (just that WORD gives me the dragging dreads!). Hell, you're even saving for the future! That puts you in the excpetional minority right there!

    I've said this before but it bears repeating; if you decide to jump off the proverbial ledge and try supporting yourself with what you love, I will be FIRST in line to support you. I'll buy tickets to your shows, I'll arrange for N.E. friends to buy tickets to your shows, I'll give everyone I know a copy of your book, I'll promote you to everyone who will listen, and I'll buy you PeaPod gift certificates so you don't eat cat food. You may be an only-child and a single woman, but you are SO not in this alone.