We don’t talk much about money, do we? It’s a tricky subject.
How much do you have? How much do I have? We don’t discuss it. The question is rude. But why?
Well, because you might have less than I do, and you might feel sensitive about that. There might be embarrassment, or shame, or envy involved – and those are dangerous emotions. Resentment can creep in. It’s understandable.
I’ve had a shifting relationship with money during my life. I didn’t think about it much as a child, which is something to be thankful for. I was neither aware of having too little, nor lots of it. That’s probably the ideal scenario.
My father came from a very poor background. His family lived in a single room, and his mother died when he was a boy. You can paint your own picture: the patched-up, hand-me-down clothes; never being able to afford the school outings, and so on. He knew what it was like to have nothing to spare, and he made sure that we knew how fortunate we were by comparison.
My daily life was far removed from that grim collection of stories. The house was quite large (it had to be; my mother’s dance school was part of it, and still is today), we went on holidays abroad, and birthdays and Christmases were generous. Maybe excessively so. I never had a hungry day.
When it came time to apply to high schools, my academic performance was sufficient to consider the private (fee-paying) schools in the city. I sat the entrance examinations, got in, we signed up, and off I went. I was the only kid from my primary school to do so. I was the first ever.
My parents’ marriage fell apart, and not long afterwards, my father’s business went under. Let’s just say that his tax filings weren’t well correlated with the financial reality of how things were going. I don’t have details, and I’ve never asked for them – mostly because they’re irrelevant now. Long story short, he was bankrupt, and the business was secured against my mother’s house.
I was about fifteen years old at this point, which my mother felt was old enough for me to be made fully aware of all this stuff. I was also starting the first round of exams (three years’ worth) that ultimately determine whether you can go to university. A couple of years later, I finally broke under the pressure, and went down into the dark.
I was able to stay in school, but on a bursary. It was the kind of institution with so much money rolling around that they can afford to take care of students whose families fall on hard times. I’ll always be grateful for that. I’ve sometimes wondered if maybe the only reason we could afford it in the first place was how my father ran his business.
That was the point in my life when I learned all about money. It wasn’t just the tatty, endlessly-folded banknotes in the locked cash box for the dance school. It wasn’t the few price tags accidentally left on brightly-wrapped gifts at Christmas. It wasn’t a distant and abstract concept.
It was a real thing.
Real in the brutal, unwelcome way that characterised so much of what was new about those years. Real like divorce, or acne, or unrequited adolescent love, or the sense of the previously unlimited vista of the future narrowing to a handful of paths, none visible beyond the next dip of the road ahead. Money was the most real thing I’d ever known.
I’d sit in the kitchen with my mother, after a day of school and a couple of hours of homework. It would be 9PM or later, after she finished teaching. We’d pore over the letters from the bank, and her own business accounts, and we’d try to find some way out.
Numbers and minuses. Windowed brown envelopes with red lettering, and pre-printed stamps saying Not A Circular - Open Immediately. It would go on until I was too tired to think, and I never had anything useful to say. Then I’d go to bed, have dreams filled with falling, and drowning, and running away too slowly. I’d get up at 6AM, and sit on the train for half an hour to get to school again. Sometimes I’d find tears on my face, and I didn’t know why.
The bank was going to take the house.
My mother would have nowhere to teach, because renting premises five nights a week was expensive and impossible, and there wouldn’t be any money for it anyway. There wouldn’t even be enough money for somewhere to stay, in all likelihood. It was all very… real.
Money had become something to push away from my mind, because it brought immediate fear. Like a nagging pain of the wrong kind, or a patch of skin ominously changing colour. Breathe, look away, think about something else. Try to get through the day. And for god’s sake don’t spend anything.
But you can’t do that. Two teenaged boys at high school incur costs. Three people and a dog in a large house (and business premises) have to spend. Every little repair bill, or replaced appliance, or trip to the vet, felt like water rising up around my throat.
One night, the water was real. The back garden ran slightly upwards on a slope, ending in a twelve-foot-high wall that separated us from a municipal grass-bowling green. The bowling club was on a higher level, and during this particular Autumn there was heavy rain for weeks. It drained downhill, as water does. The half-basement of the house flooded, and that’s where the dancing school’s bathroom and changing rooms were.
I remember standing there, late at night, wearing rubber boots. We were bailing water for hours, down in the basement.
I knew during every moment that it was going to cost a lot of money, and that we didn’t have the money, and that it would probably damage the sale value of the house when the bank took it away, and then we really would have nowhere to live, and I had school in a few hours, but there was still so much water – maybe more than there had been when we started.
I was tired, and helpless, and terrified. I seem to remember falling over at some point, but I was back at it the next day.
We got the water out, but not the experience of the water. It had been just a little too much. That’s the thing with water: you can lift it in the palm of your hand, but with enough of it, and enough time, it’ll crack stone.
My mother went away for a while, to rest. I visited her a couple of times, in the hospital that wasn’t at all like a hospital. More like a cross between a youth hostel and a retirement home, but with nurses moving quietly around. She insisted that I wear my school uniform when visiting, because it made her proud. Eventually, she came back.
It continued. We bargained with the bank, we scraped money together, we sold things, we didn’t spend. Somehow it all came to an end. She kept the house, and she’s still there.
I got through my exams. I could feel a thread unravelling towards the end, as the weeks ran down towards my final exam, which was Computing. Each school had studied a different set of modules, and we were to answer the relevant section of the paper. I was fairly out of it by that point, and I chose a section on topics our school hadn’t taught.
I got an A anyway, but it didn’t matter. The thread reached the end of its spool, broke off, and down I went. By the time I truly surfaced again, two more Autumns had come and gone.
I attended university (my exam results easily guaranteed entry) for about six months before I had a job offer from a software firm. I left university and did that, then the company was acquired by Adobe, so then I did that instead. Suddenly I was flying all over the world.
(Adobe colleagues, I systematically lied to you: I wasn’t twenty-one at all; just a mature, watchful, and eager-to-escape nineteen. I suppose we broke some underage drinking laws together. I’m sorry for making you complicit. Thanks for taking me away.)
There was no shortage of money. It was during my time with Adobe that it became a billion-dollar (in annual revenue) company, no particular thanks to me. I was being paid a salary that was ridiculous to my father. He was unsure which currency I was talking about.
I barely spent a thing. Everything went straight into the bank.
Eventually I decided that I really wanted the degree I’d abandoned, and I said goodbye to Adobe and came home. I was twenty-two or so, and I had what to me was a stupid amount of money saved up. I was going back to university to study Computing Science, and my own computer was years out of date. It never even occurred to me to get something better.
It was actually my father who pointed out that, sometimes, it’s OK to spend. That’s not irony, but it’s something.
The first thing I bought was a PowerBook of my own, upgraded to the maximum specification, instead of the succession of company-owned machines I’d carried in a backpack all over Europe and North America. I could have bought twenty more of them.
When it arrived, I felt so guilty and nauseated that I left it unopened in my bedroom for six hours, out of sight.
I did eventually open the box, of course. Then it was a wireless router a few weeks later. Then the costs associated with university. A car. Years of study, and socialising. Tick, tock. You really can forget, when you want to. Or when you need to.
I got back down to zero. Going to the ATM and wondering if a request for a single ten would result in a banknote, or a beep. Having to think carefully about feeding myself or the car.
I got by. Graduation, jobs, continued life. Keep the old computer going for another year or two. Let’s just eat in tonight.
I parted ways with salaried employment again in 2007, to work for myself. I was going month-to-month, like most people probably do. Last month’s work pays this month’s bills. It picked up quickly, though, because being a consultant software developer for the hot new mobile device was lucrative – at least, it was back then. For a while there, I was billing six figures a year.
I had my moments, but I never really spent at the same level again. My bank balance also never got back up to post-Adobe levels. I think I’m glad of it, in some ways.
Then I made my third big life-change just a year ago, to switch careers entirely. My new job, which is hacking away at a yet-to-be-self-published first novel, doesn’t really pay a damned thing. This is the down part of the rollercoaster ride again.
I have a recurring monthly reminder to log into my online banking and download a copy of the last month’s statement. It makes it so much easier to do my taxes every year,–
(Don’t ever lie to the tax man! Fear every windowed brown envelope!)
–and it saves any hassle when the bank’s system inevitably archives old statements just when you need them, then you have to apply to have them sent out again by post.
For the last sixteen months, the numbers have all gone steadily down. I knew this would be the way it’d go, and I’m OK with it, but I’ll be honest: I’ve started to dread that monthly reminder. I’ve learned to sort of squint when I’ve filled in my login information, and it loads the page with the current balance. I can get to the recent statements list without actually catching sight of the figure. If I’m careful.
I’m fortunate in several ways. First, that I can choose to try to make this new career work; most people don’t have the option. Second, that my wife is so supportive. I couldn’t do this without her, in any sense. And third, that there’s no part of my anxiety that’s based in traditional ideas about gender roles. My wife and I are a team, and some years she’s the breadwinner. I’ve searched within myself to see if there’s any feeling of emasculation or social shame, and it’s just not there at all.
I’m lucky to feel that way. I can see how, if I felt differently and my self-esteem was linked to thinking my value as a man was based on having a higher income than my partner, it could quickly shatter a relationship. As it is, she has a great job, she’s well paid, and I’m so proud of her. I’m grateful that we’re taking this journey together.
I’m also grateful for the people who support my writing, helping me pay the bills each month without feeling like my own dream is a burden or a folly.
But the tension never goes entirely away, though. Numbers and minuses, glanced at briefly before looking away, and trying to think about something else.
I feel the old fears rise up, implacable, like freezing water sloshing too high around the shins of rubber boots. They whisper from below, like drowned souls.
How long do I keep trying?
What if she can’t work for a while? What if our circumstances change?
Is there more water than when we started?
I push them away. There are rational answers to those questions now, even if it’s taken twenty years to find them. And we’re not alone anymore.
Numbers go up as well as down – I’ve seen it with my own eyes – and they’re only a part of the whole picture. We fund our dreams with pragmatism, but without those dreams there’s little point to the whole affair anyway.
That’s what I learned.
Too damned slowly, but I got there in the end. It wasn’t offered as any great insight, but then the truth never is.
Sometimes, it’s OK to spend.