I read an article last week from The New Yorker's Meghan Daum: 'My Misspent Youth'.
Daum writes about her life in New York City (an expensive life) and how she went from a 17-year-old with a vision of an artistic, poetic, bohemian life on the upper West Side to a 29-year-old with an artistic, poetic, bohemian life of debt on the upper West Side.
I enjoyed the article, which was witty, clever, honest and ultimately thought-provoking.
Daum decides as a teenager that she wants nothing more than to live in NYC in a slightly faded apartment, complete with frayed floor rugs and chipped bathroom tile. She then spends her college years strategizing and, ultimately, realizing this dream.
Except.....the dream becomes its own sort of nightmare. The cost of this dream is far more than Daum anticipated, and the life of an artist (or one attached to the arts) isn't for the faint of heart or, more to the point, a young woman without family money filtered her way.
In under a decade, Daum finds herself dodging collections calls, having her utilities shut off and owing her boyfriend several thousand dollars.
How all of this happened is what she details in the article, but she's quite honest that it is due, in large part, to decisions she's made along the way that don't balance, either financially or metaphorically.
She eats out and buys wine and has a compulsive fresh-flower habit.
She attended an MFA program that put her squarely in debt ($60,000 to be exact).
She makes peanuts for wages, and what peanuts she makes, she feels entitled to spend on a lifestyle she can't quite afford.
In the end, after examining the mindset that lands her in debt and scuttling bills around and afraid to answer the phone, she writes that while she may not have made the best decisions, the whole thing sure was fun.
I kind of smirked.
I've developed a bit of a love-hate relationship with money that I don't think is unusual.
On the one hand, I am compelled by the whole Dave Ramsey philosophy of money, which is (though I've never read an entire book of his) that we shouldn't live beyond our means, shouldn't purchase things we can't afford, shouldn't base our sense of self on monetary value and should, generally, use money as a means to an end, an end which is never contingent on money.
Something like that.
Pay cash for cars. Use cash instead of credit. Spend less than you earn. Have a 6-month emergency fund.
Maybe use coupons?
I can sometimes get pretty gung-ho about this way of viewing money. I will start making pots of beans for the week and telling the kids they can't afford a new toothbrush or that's what their allowance is for or whatever else I can say with conviction in that moment, at Target, a wad of cash in my wallet to last me the entire week.
Then, life starts to get really small and petty. I start feeling grumpy and miserly and poor.
I know an older couple who lived this way their entire lives. They've got plenty of unspent money in banks, piles of it. They have so much they randomly give their adult-children sometimes thousands in monetary gifts. They've put all of their children through college, with cash. They're set.
Except, they live in a constant state of deprivation or restraint.
Everything is about saving money. They split meals when they go out to eat. They wear patched clothing. They take all of the free condiments at restaurants to use at home. They rewash Ziploc bags.
I'm not knocking this way of life. Like I said, I have my moments.
But then I also have moments of wondering what all this savings is for anyway.....for when we're in our 70s and can't use it?
I don't know anyone in their 70s who is traveling the world and living the dream. Well, I know a few people like that, but they were rich to begin with and have done that their entire lives.
Mostly, the people I know in retirement are living pretty much the same lives they lived the rest of the time. Except, now they've got health issues that make travel less compelling. They struggle to keep up with seeing their grandchildren, often spread out in various states, which is exhausting. Their worlds get smaller, which isn't a bad thing. I think it's a normal thing. I see it myself, as I get older.
But it isn't the dream they often talked about when they were young, or when they were sending that money off to financial advisors and refusing to buy a new car because they could get another 15,000 miles out of the old one.
Either way, whether you're saving it or spending it, life somehow becomes about money.
I'm torn between wanting to enjoy it all now, sucking as much marrow out of life while my body still allows for it, while my kids are still young and with me, while I still have the energy to run through a field of wildflowers (hahah, just kidding...I'd be sitting in an Adirondack chair and telling the children to be careful).
You get my point.
I'm torn between that and saving. Living small. Keeping it simple. Watching my ps and qs and dollars and cents. Being reasonable and responsible and maybe drinking green tea and sleeping on a bamboo mat (seriously, it's supposed to keep you super limber).
I mock slightly, but the question is serious: what is the sweet spot? How do I use money not to define my life but to enhance it? Is there ever a good use of debt? Is there ever a time to splurge?
Or are splurging and debt simply a sign that you've gone off the rails and need to reassess your values and will likely leave your children having to clean up your financial mess?
I fear two things, equally:
1. Going into debt and being poor and vulnerable in my old age
2. Failing to live my life in the moment, always waiting for some other distant future to feel alive
Perhaps the key is to figure out how to live large without focusing on monetary value. I'm thinking here of social circles, friendships, community and connection,which all sounds reasonable and good in theory, but then one must pay the bills - the bills that include a safe place to live, access to an environment one finds comfortable, healthcare and the ability to shop at a grocery store where one doesn't need to pay a quarter to use a cart.
You can see how my mind goes in circles.
What is the sweet spot?
I think there are a few questions we need to ask and answer to get there.
1. What are we passionate about? What kind of lifestyle do we need to engage in that passion? For example, if you're passionate about flying, you're going to need some money. I've never met a pilot (or a horse person) who didn't have money. But if you're passionate about gardening or reading or hiking...that requires much less of a financial investment and is easily paired up with a part-time job. Either way, knowing what we're passionate about helps guide the plan.
2. What does retirement look like? This is a hard question for a lot of people. My husband can't answer it. He doesn't think like that, with some far-off image in his mind. He thinks about right now (maybe 6 months out...maybe). I know other people who have really clear, vivid images of retirement. Most of us are kind of in the murky in-between. But it's important to think about it and start forming some sort of idea, even if we know it's fluid. If staying near your kids and being active in the lives of your grandkids is important, money isn't as big a factor as it might be for, say, taking a luxury cruise around the world (I know people who do that). I don't think it has to be specific, this retirement image, but it needs to be something.
3. What does right-now look like? We can't focus on the future to the detriment of today. Right now I have kids who depend on me financially, and this is likely the only time I'm going to get with these kids day-to-day. I don't want to focus so much on the future that I don't enjoy and embrace this moment, but what is it I want to embrace? If I want to focus on my time with my kids, that doesn't require a lot of money. It requires time. And energy. And good health. How can I use money to enhance this time without overshadowing it with work - leading to exhaustion, time away from the kids and poor health.
4. What means more than money? I think it's easy to get hung up on the stuff we want that costs a lot of money: the nice home, the vacations, the ability to pay for actives for our kids. But what matters more than money? Anything? When we figure this out (and it's different for all of us), we can start determining where money ranks in our values and how to use it to enrich our lives rather than define our lives.
5. What are we willing to give up for money? We all need money. We have to pay for the basics. Beyond that, we have to ask what we're willing to give up for more money. Time? Energy? Health? Community? Faith? The list is endless. When we start determining what we're willing to give up for money, we start inevitably seeing what we aren't willing to give up.
After I ask myself these questions, I begin to see money not as the thing that makes pleasure or happiness possible (more on the difference between the two next week), but as a tool to give me some of the things I need but not all of them.
I also see money (or the pursuit of money) as something that inhibits my happiness and limits my ability to have other things that I need (time, friendships, community) if I'm not careful.
Maybe the sweet spot is that moment when we have everything we need (healthcare, housing, food, clothing, deodorant) and a little bit of what we want (facial oils, grass-fed beef, a weekend trip to Charleston)....but we're always just a breath or two away from having it all...including calls from debt collectors, unpaid utility bills and a $3,000 tab with the ex-boyfriend.