I keep a pot of mulled wine simmering on the stove all winter. I used to make it for parties, enjoy the leftovers for a few days, then go back to bottled wine with dinner. But I decided I liked the warmth and the spicy scent throughout the house. If I'm going to have a glass of wine on a cold winter evening, why not make it mulled. It's certainly cheaper, even if my usual plonk is the equivalent of Two Buck Chuck, and more festive.
Following on from last week's post about goals for the New Year, I can't get away from the centrality of finances. Whoever said money can't buy happiness has never been broke. There is only one thing money can't buy and that's immortality. Rich people still get sick, or injured, and die. The wealthy can pay for the best care, but Steve Jobs still died young from cancer, and I don't think Christopher Reeve had a great time after he was paralysed from the neck down. But what money can buy is, ironically, priceless: the peace of mind that comes from financial security.
I've never had financial security for so much as five minutes in my life and, as I mull over priorities and plans now that I have a new job, it is my number one goal. Yes, I want a smaller ass and bigger tits, but not as much as I want smaller debt and a bigger bank balance.
I suppose there was a blissful time before I was aware that I lacked financial security, but I don't remember it. My single mother struggled to make the rent from paycheque to paycheque and never let me forget how precarious our life was. My grandparents helped as much as they were able but they didn't have any money either; with no savings, no investments, they struggled in their senior years on Social Security. My mother worried obsessively about losing our apartment and becoming homeless, a worry I can relate to now that I am so behind on my own rent and utilities. Disabled and on Social Security, she still worries about that and with good reason. Her fixed and limited income is not enough to survive on and I am not in a position to help her.
As a well-educated snob, I associated with people who had more money than we did, which was basically everyone, without realising they looked down on us. I used to look down on uneducated blue collar workers until I realised that most of them make more money than I ever will, and have more financial security. I had a hillbilly friend from the South when I was 12. She never went to college but when I caught up with her on Facebook I learned she had become an electrician. She has a house with a pool, savings, benefits, vacations, and the kind of security my bookish but underemployed friends now envy. Another friend of mine, college educated with a major in political science, married her high school sweetheart, a guy who dropped out of high school to work in his father's contracting business. She's now a stay-at-home mom with her own horse farm. Yep, I learned not to diss the blue collar set, with one major caveat: Those friends voted for Trump.
What creates financial security? Any combination of 3 circumstances:
- Family money. I'm not just referring to trust fund babies, although I know several of those, but people with parents who have the money to help them when they are getting started. Perhaps family money enabled them to avoid the quagmire of student loans, helped them avoid building debt by paying a medical bill when they didn't have insurance, gave them a car or money towards living expenses or provided a down payment for their first house.
- Marrying money. It sounds crass but, as I wasn't just talking about silver spoon babies with mega rich parents above, I am not just talking about Melania Trump-style trophy wives here. That's about as extreme an example as one can give but, on some level, all marriages are business arrangements. They were supposed to be originally. Now we marry nominally for love but it's still really about financial security. For several of my friends who own houses, their spouse's parents gave them the down payment or their spouse's job provided health insurance, etc. In fact, few of the people I know who are financially secure are single. As a feminist I've always scoffed at marrying for money, but men do it, too. My father did; with his health problems he'd quite literally be dead if he didn't have his wife's health insurance and her financial support for half his life now. I stayed in a bad relationship because I feared I wouldn't be able to keep a roof over my head without my ex paying half the rent – and my current desperate situation proves that fear was justified. My ex also had family money – I knew I could never afford my own farm but he stood to inherit money someday that would have enabled us to buy one. And if we'd succeeded in having kids, I knew his parents would never let their grandkids starve. He was a horrible person, but women are very practical.
- Earning money yourself. This is how I always assumed I'd achieve financial security since it didn't have the stigma of inheriting or marrying it – and since I didn't have either of the other two as options. I could argue that it was tough for a single woman starting out with student loans and credit card debt (medical bills from when my first jobs out of school didn't provide health insurance, which occurred well before the days when you could stay on your parents' insurance) but that would be both pathetic and disingenuous. I have no-one to blame but myself for choosing travel and grad school, and more grad school, and more travel, rather than settling into some sort of lucrative career path. True, I was stymied by my OCD/procrastination. If I hadn't had that hindrance, I might have gotten a tenure-track teaching job and some stability. But everyone has issues and most people work and make money despite them. I tried very hard to overcome mine and failed but that's no excuse not to have made better choices all along.
So, where does that leave me today? First, I need to define what constitutes financial stability. Considering I've never experienced it, I'm not sure what it looks like, let alone feels like. So, the first criterion is a change in attitude. The extreme debt I carry and the precariousness of juggling bills each month, of living in my overdraft and on credit, would seem like an unbearable crisis situation to a normal person but I have always lived this way. I read articles that refer in hushed tones (yes, sometimes the written word can have a volume) to those poor people who live from paycheque to paycheque, or who don't pay off their credit card balance in full each month, or who don't have savings or assets, as some sort of anomaly. But it's normal for me. A cause of constant, health-and-energy-sapping stress, but normal. And that is actually going to be the hardest problem to overcome. For example: I have a $7K overdraft on my checking account. I haven't been in the black in well over a decade. So, when I see my balance is -$6,500, I don't process that as debt, I see that I have $500 at my disposal. In other words, since I have always lived on credit, credit to me is money to spend, whether on essentials or frivolous things.
Let's spend a minute on frivolous things. There was a great article posted online some years ago by a guy who was once poor explaining why poor people seem to blow windfalls, something inexplicable to their betters with financial security. The gist of it was that you don't expect the good fortune to continue long enough to make a difference in your overall situation so you figure you might as well do something fun whilst you can. It takes the form of a depressing conviction that you are never going to dig your way out of debt and life is short. People who have a goal, like paying off a single loan or saving for a down payment on a house, can find the will power for self-denial by telling themselves rationally that short-term sacrifice will lead to long-term gain. But I tend to see my situation, equally rationally, as permanent, and to feel that I am getting older and, if I keep putting off things, I will still die in debt but never have lived. If you haven't had close to 25 years of constant calls and letters from collection agencies, of lawsuits and judgments, of paying the gas bill one month and the electric bill the next, of most of your payments going toward interest that does not actually lower your balance, of thinking you were making headway on one debt and then losing an income source or having a major car repair, you won't understand what seems like short-term thinking that only makes the long-term situation worse. Think of it this way: if you can tell yourself there is a light at the end of the tunnel, you can make those short-term sacrifices. But if you are drowning in debt with no realistic way of ever paying it off with any job you could plausibly get, there is no light, the tunnel goes on forever, and you can't put off living indefinitely.
The second challenge to formulating a concept of financial security is making it realistic. Ideally, financial security is having enough money that you don't have to work and have no restrictions on what you can do. But that takes being a billionaire to achieve. A more modest notion of financial security might comprise being debt-free and having 6 months worth of living expenses in a savings account. But paying off my student loans is not realistic so being totally debt-free is not an option. It's also problematic to start a savings account when you are trying to pay off high-interest credit card debt. I've always told myself I'd start saving the minute I pay off my last credit card but that minute has never arrived.
Prioritising isn't difficult because it's obvious in which order debts must be paid:
Rent, utilities, high-interest credit cards first then lower interest, then overdraft, then start saving. Student loans aren't on the list because, with no realistic way to ever pay them off, any money spent on them is just flushed down the toilet. The living-one's-life-before-it's-too-late part complicates things. I have a horse who has reached the age where he needs to be in full-time training, I want him to be closer to me, and he needs other things besides training that are expensive, like a saddle and insurance; I have a second horse I also love and want for my own, and I have some travel and fitness goals for the year, among other priorities. I also need to help my mother.
I know that I cannot possibly earn my way to financial stability, that I have to swallow my pride and marry money. But that's easier said than done. No rich man wants a 47-year-old wife when he can score a 30-year-old or even 25 if he's not too repulsive. So far, on the dating scene, I'm pleasantly surprised at the amount of interest I am receiving but the guys in my age range who are single and not too fucked up are usually looking for someone with money themselves. I have had several encounters with guys who seemed like they might be suitable until it became clear that they were not financially secure themselves.
Above all, what I need most is to keep my spirits up, to never despair or sink into depression. The winter after the holidays is dark and dreary; it feels like spring will never come. And don't get me started on the impending political catastrophe. What I need to have the strength of will to do is keep this job and just chip away at the debt as the paycheques come in, without losing heart at the relentless immensity of the task, and create concrete things to look forward to along the way that will lift my spirits and make me feel like I am living life without setting me back financially.
I think I will have a mug of mulled wine now.