If it did, I’d have a lot more than I used to, because I didn’t use to own any trees, and now I own six. Well, three trees, and two lilac bushes, and a cedar shrub. Nevertheless, money doesn’t grow on any of them.
I have gone through periods in my adult life when I had almost no money. One particularly trying time was right after I finished my Masters degree but before I found any steady work. I had two cats who were often sick, so my credit card was maxed out on vet bills. My rent was mercifully cheap, but weeks would go by when I had to scrape dinner together from whatever cans I found in the store cupboard, without even the luxury of a bunch of spinach or a carton of milk. I’d have to refuse invitations because I couldn’t afford to buy bus tickets, and certainly couldn’t splurge for a taxi if I was out late and didn’t feel safe coming home alone.
Those months were truly terrible, and there were a couple of other periods like that, but these terrible times were mitigated by a few factors.
- I knew the misery would end. I had three university degrees, a wealth of working experience both in and out of my chosen field, and a clear career path. I was in a rough patch, but I never had any doubt that someone would hire me to do something. If need be, I would go back to working retail jobs until someone gave me work I wanted.
- I had support. I wouldn’t end up living on the street – if I had to, I would sublet my apartment and move back to my hometown to live with my father. (During one tricky period between leases, I actually did move into my mother’s apartment for a couple of months.) Friends offered to buy me dinner. My ex-husband started picking up the vet bills when I couldn’t afford them.
- I had, for the moment, a roof over my head, some cans in the store cupboard, clothes to wear, and working electricity and plumbing. I was in no real physical danger, even if I felt like crap and was consumed by anxiety.
Once I landed a full-time, tenured teaching job, I stopped worrying about money. I had no big-ticket items/bills in my life. I consistently earned a bit more than I spent. I paid off my student loans. I occasionally had large expenses and didn’t have the cash in hand (a new computer; a trip to Banff; our wedding), but I put them on my credit card with the knowledge that I’d pay them off in a few months, and I did.
Then the landlord called to announce to my husband and me that he was reclaiming our apartment. We had the money for a down payment, and everyone said, “Buy! Buy! Buy!” So we did, and we don’t regret it, but the days of “not worrying about money” are over.
Since moving into our new home in July, I have been living paycheck-to-paycheck for the first time in many years. I can’t just go to Amazon and order a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of books on a whim. I can’t eat out five times a week if my week just happens to fall that way. I can’t afford these 5 pounds I put on, because I can’t afford to buy new bras, but I can’t afford to join Weight Watchers again, either. I spend a lot of time thinking about money.
This is the source of a lot of strain. First off, the factors above still apply, but differently.
- My poverty is once again a temporary situation, although much less temporary than in the past. The mortgage payments and larger utility bills are not going to go away, nor will the maintenance our crumbly old house requires, nor our property and school taxes. However, the massive expenses of the first year of home ownership (down payment, “welcome tax,” moving, major emergency repairs that we knew we needed to address, essential furniture) are taken care of. If we stay in our new home, most of those expenses will not recur, and we can mete the other repairs, renovations and purchases out as we can afford them.
- My support system is very different than it was when I was in my twenties. My family is no longer in a position to help us out financially (my father, for example, already has a house full of adult children much younger than me who can’t seem to leave the nest, and so has no room for his middle-aged daughter and son-in-law if they fall on hard times.) My friends have children, mortgages and job troubles of their own – I’m sure they’d offer me a couch and a hot meal if I needed it, but I’d be very embarrassed to ask. However, I still have support, notably in the form of my husband. We are in this together. We also live in a country with a reasonable social safety net (for the moment…), so if one of us loses his/her job or gets sick, we will not be immediately destitute.
- I may not be able to buy a bunch of books I’m not sure I want, or to eat out when I could make myself beans and rice at home, but I have a tenured job, and my husband is also gainfully employed. For now, at least, the paycheques are coming in and we are able to cover what needs to be covered. We have a roof over our heads, and if that roof falls in, someone will likely lend us the money to fix it. We are in no immediate physical danger, even if we are pretty stressed out a lot of the time.
The strain has been a source of a lot of learning.
I am seeing some of my students’ troubles in a different light. Every semester, I have a student or two who can’t afford to buy his or her books. Yes, sometimes they can still afford their cell phones or their cars, but sometimes not. Sometimes they have no internet at home, or even no computer. I tell them to come use the computers at school, to borrow the books from classmates or the library, to find a way. But sometimes they can’t access these facilities, or even my messages telling them to come see me, because they can’t pay their student fees. I gently remind them that in some cases, we can’t go to college, at least not right now, because we can’t afford it. But this is easy for me to say. There were times I thought I’d have to drop out of school because I had no money, but I knew this was never a real threat – my parents would have found some means to keep me there. Now I’m thinking more and more about what it’s like when you truly cannot have something that you feel is essential – for example, toilets that work properly all the time – because you don’t have the money.
I’m also learning – or re-learning – how inspiring it can be to see the value in things. I’m finding myself combing the shelves for books I never got around to reading because they didn’t satisfy some ephemeral impulse. I’m opening the drawers of the DVD cabinet to see if there’s something I’d like to watch again. I’m looking in the pantry and thinking, “Hmmm. Lentils, jackfruit in syrup, and wakame. Let me see.” I’m SAVING UP for things. (When I’ve paid off my credit card balance, I get to buy Season 5 of Inspector Lewis, AND new toilets.) Everything, including the beat-up plastic flowerpots in the shed and the bottle of hand soap that I wasn’t using because it smells too strongly of geraniums, has value. Every single day, I say a little thank-you because the cats are not sick.
This was something I knew as a child, when my weekly allowance meant I could buy one book once in a while, and maybe a bag of potato chips every couple of weeks or so. I couldn’t have a new box of coloured pencils or a new ABBA cassette just because I felt like it. (In fact, I grew up in a tiny town where my choice of books, cassettes and drawing implements was limited to what the local mall decided to stock, regardless of how much money I had.) When I grew older and had a bank account full of student loan money and a pocket full of cafeteria meal tickets, and a backup plan in the form of a call home, I started to lose my sense that every item, every service, every pleasure, comes at a cost. Many of my students are in that stage now – their phones, their nights out clubbing and drinking Grey Goose, their college education, are entitlements. Money is abstract, and comes from mysterious sources not connected to their own day-to-day choices.
I can’t fault them for this; I’ve been there. It’s good for me, though, not to be there now. The knowledge that money is real, and that using it for one thing means we must compromise something else, would ideally be instilled in us very young, and maintained throughout the excesses of adolescence. I admire those young people around me who seem to understand this, as I did not when I was their age. I don’t envy them the hard times they have gone through, or are going through, in order to learn it, but I can only hope that they are putting the lessons to good use, as I will try to do.
Image by Sanja Gjenero