Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Money on My Mind

Last week, my car broke down. I'd venture to guess that I have more experience than a lot of people in a car breaking down. As I have catalogued previously, I have driven more than my fair share of clunkers. For a lot of my life as a driver, a broken car meant an abandoned car. It was simply not feasible to pour more than the cost of an oil change or so into cars that were so clearly on their last leg. I have vivid memories of being so upset when one car died right after I had filled up the tank with gas. It seems silly to think about now, but it was a $200 car with $20 in the tank, that was a full 10% toward my next car that was now wasted unless I wanted the treat of siphoning it back out and saving it for my next heap of junk.

But I'm no longer 17, and I no longer scrape together minimum wage at a string of jobs between classes. I have a stable income. I am married to someone who also has a stable income. I can drive a car that has the credentials to back up the reasonable expectation that it will arrive at its destination.

But all those years driving cheap cars plucked from someone else's junkyard for what I'm sure they considered pocket change (but what represented months of savings for me) has messed up my head when it comes to money and cars.

In this particular case, I knew that I couldn't justify spending a whole lot to fix my ten-year-old car. I had to do mental gymnastics to prepare myself for the possibility that I would need to be visiting a dealership (my least favorite rhetorical playing field) and buying a new (to me) car. Luckily, the repairs fell under the threshold and my old car lives to fight another day, but I know its days are numbered, and I will once again be forced to overcome the mental hurdle to spending actual money on a car. (And don't tell my car that I know its days are numbered. My history with cars has also left me very superstitious about their vindictive and jealous nature.)

This isn't my only odd money-related mental hang up.

As I've written about in the past, I grew up poor. We were on food stamps. I was used to watching my mom struggle through low paying jobs to keep our household running. I attribute my witnessing these struggles to the development of a rather healthy work ethic and the drive that made me the first person in my family to attend college and later to attain a PhD. I have no shame about growing up poor, but I am proud to be able to give my own children opportunities and experiences that I didn't have.

My mom has her own cyclical saga with money that she's living out. She grew up with seven siblings in a poor rural family. She often talks about living in houses without indoor plumbing . . . in the 1960s. She lived a life of hand-me-downs and scraping by, and I know that her experiences shaped her choices as much as the experiences she made possible through her hard work shaped mine. It's why she now can't throw anything away and can never pass up a "good bargain" even when the item she's purchasing has no use for her.

Case in point, I once came to visit and saw an oddly shaped collection of plastic tubes that looked like a baby tent without the cover. "What's that, mom?" I asked. She hemmed and hawed and tried to come up with a good answer for an object with which she clearly had no familiarity. "She doesn't know," my brother cut in. "She bought it because it was cheap at a yard sale." "But it was only a dollar!" my mom came to her own defense.

My mom's response to an impoverished upbringing is to surround herself with "good deals" and never let go of them, and that makes logical sense, I suppose. My response has been a little more complex.

It's not that I don't like to spend money. In fact, I will spend quite a bit of money on things that were absolutely out-of-reach luxuries to my childhood self. I have a cleaning service that comes in twice a month. We eat out at mid-tier restaurants with some regularity. I have no problem dropping some cash on a decent hotel room. Gyms, streaming video and music services, and memberships to children's attractions are all budget items that I don't feel a bit of guilt or remorse about purchasing.

Me, at the children's museum.
But something about spending money on physical items, especially physical items for me, gets to me.

After the car incident, I was reflecting on this phenomenon, and I realized that I do this with clothes, too. I buy cheap clothes that I don't particularly like and then wonder why I never feel good in what I'm wearing. I am particularly bad about refusing to buy expensive shoes. Instead, I buy a pair of cheap shoes that are uncomfortable, so I don't wear them. That means I still need shoes. So I buy another pair of cheap shoes that are uncomfortable, so I don't wear those either. So I still need shoes. So I buy another pair . . . you get the idea. I could have easily bought one pair of nice shoes with the money I spent on four pairs of awful ones that have been worn three times and are now collecting dust in the closet.

Somehow, my internal expense gauge for clothing myself is still set to the days when 90% of what I wore came from Goodwill. (The other 10% was from Hot Topic, but we'll leave that in the past, thank youverymuch.)

I can intellectually see these problems, but when it comes time to make the actual purchases, I freeze up. I feel a swelling in my throat, a sense of dread. This is disproportionately true. Even if I'm only buying a $30 shirt, I feel like I am wasting money on an extravagance I don't need. There are $5 shirts in the store down the street! What kind of monster am I?!

I read an article on Cracked by John Cheese about how growing up poor makes you develop stupid habits, and I recognize several of these tendencies in myself. Some of them I have consciously managed to break and don't have to think about too much anymore, but some of them are still a regular struggle. And some of them, like recognizing that I might need to spend a little more money on the physical items that I have to interact with on a daily basis in order to avoid being surrounded by clothes that literally unravel or cars that are going to leave me stranded on the side of the road, have yet to click for me.

I know that this is a good problem to have and I know (very, very well) that I am privileged and fortunate to have the kind of financial stability that lets me worry about such a thing. (Though those student loans are making sure I don't get too cocky about it. Gulp.)

I think the thing I worry about the most is that this cycle is continuing, and I'm not sure what I'm passing on. My own children are learning by watching me. They are learning how to think about money and how to value quality by seeing the choices that I make. I know that my own habits developed out of my environment, and I know that my mom's choices developed out of hers.

We consciously teach our children (well, one of them is only a month old, so he's a little behind on his studies) about saving, giving, and earning. I think that our parenting choices have made for a positive environment when it comes to understanding how money works. My husband and I both work hard at jobs we love and have planned carefully to have. I think in many ways we are setting good examples and teaching valuable lessons.

Still, there are these things I do that make no sense, and I fear I'm passing that on, too.

Images: Jay Kleeman401(K) 2012