Monday, November 16, 2009

How to Save Money, Really (The Money, Part 2)

Swallowing the frustration and sense of powerlessness associated with this entire conversation, I'm digging one more layer into the mystery of personal finance, in search of the place where decisions are made.

I, like most of my generation, am poorly educated in financial matters. I remember my older sister, Becca, teaching me how to balance a checkbook, but when the time came, I rarely actually did it. It takes too much attention. It's too hard. Now, as I rescue stationery and birdhouses, and use Freecycle in both directions, and otherwise conserve resources in a hundred different ways, I often feel like I'm doing penance. I think of my six weeks on a pink contract for Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, earning fifteen hundred dollars a week. Was I living rich for those six weeks? Was I living happy? And what did I do with all that money?

When you're working those hours and under that much pressure, you don't think about it. You don't have time. And if you haven't trained yourself to think about it, you don't think about it. You don't have the skills. It takes such an act of will these days, to stop the train -- to get control of your money. There are so many other forces, people, faceless people, who are offering to do it for you.

The banner on the front page of my banking website says, "Spend less time banking and more time living." Thank you very much, Mr. and Mrs. Financial Institution, but I want my banking back. I don't want it to be psychologically divided from the essence of living. I don't want to imagine that control over my finances, my livelihood -- the relationship between working and surviving -- is some kind of an inconvenience that I should get through as quickly as possible so that I can hurry back to more important matters. So I can hurry back to... to what? To spending more money? To giving more of my money to someone else?

I think of myself at a very young age, deciding how to spend my fifteen cents, or whatever small amount I first got into my grubby little hands. Should I get two lollipops? Or one lollipop and two tootsie rolls? They were excruciating, those decisions: delightful, all consuming. At what age did the power of deciding how to spend and save my money get to be such a drag?

Well, when I lost control over it, that's when. My 18-year-old niece asked me a question about money the other day, and I found myself tumbling over my tongue to answer. Please, don't make the mistakes that I made. Don't go at it blind, the way I did, the way so many people do, the way the world expects you to. And, most of all -- I told her to call my brother -- please get your advice from someone other than me. I am utterly unqualified.

It isn't my value system that I blame. I don't regret my trips to Europe. I'm not sorry I've seen Paris. I'm not sorry about the many, many dollars in resources and time that I have donated to small theatre companies making thrilling pieces of art. Sometimes it hurts that Nick and I didn't buy property while we could, and are now looking at continuing to rent, maybe for a long time. But we did have other things to do with that money, things that were in line with our value system at the time. Why spend money on a space that you don't really live in? Because for a long time, loving what we loved, and wanting what we wanted, our house was nothing more than a place to drop our stuff.

And, seriously, we dodged a bullet. We are just the sort of people -- untrained in money matters, unsure of our long term goals, and categorically uninterested in fine print -- who would have foreclosed.

I would like to pay more attention.

I realized, recently, in the same session of banking in which I bought the checks with stubs, that my bank has provided me with an overdraft line of credit. I don't want it. I don't want my debit card to be converted into a credit card. I have credit cards. And that is, actually, the one small stroke of luck in my financial history. Even though I have been blithely clueless, I have never fallen to the credit card hatchet. I am cheap, and I am stubborn, and a hard sell is to me like a bad rhyme. It causes temporary deafness.

Is it possible to get a line of credit without being asked? No, of course I was asked. There's my signature, right there on the form in my welcome packet. I couldn't possibly have signed for something I didn't want. Milo and Stella were with me when I signed those papers, so maybe I was distracted. But Nick was there, too. In fact, it's really his bank account. One of the other dramatic changes associated with my hard swerve from career-lady to house-mom has been letting go of my individual account, which is a capitulation that tempts me right off this unyielding topic of financial responsibility, and into another post's worth of musings on gender and family and power. But yes, of course, that was exactly the distraction! Now I do remember that we discussed the overdraft line of credit. And by force of will, I bring this back to the point at hand.

Am I really this practiced in ignoring things? That I can forget a financial decision even when it was discussed in person in bright sunlight with the most relevant party and the bank officer?

I am that good at ignoring things. I have to be, in order to survive my life in the information age. I ignore hundreds of items of information every day. The billboards. The banner advertisements. The user agreement and the privacy policy. I am very, very good at ignoring things. I would like to be a little less good at ignoring my money, particularly the movement thereof from my bank account into someone else's.

As per the MasterCard slogan that is burned into all of our brains: Fulfilling basic survival needs without the internet...20 some dollars per month. Actively making decisions about how to spend and save...priceless.

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