As I have written previously, I made a vow last December to make peace with money. I decided to let the ways in which I interact with the currency of currency be my spiritual teacher and to let it show me the ways in which I am still contracted and fearful and doubtful–and maybe even a little self-depriving. I wanted to do this because I was spending $1400 a month on groceries on the one hand, and on the other, unable to sleep at night because I was so worried about how my kids would go to college. Also I don’t know how to balance a checkbook. And even though I am richly blessed with resources, I can’t seem to control the mechanism that begins in my brain (“I need a yogurt maker”) and ends with non-appropriate purchases (e.g. spending the money on pretty journals instead, which I add to the huge collection of pretty journals sitting on a stack in my office.) I have never been able to do numbers. I can remember your birthday if you tell it to me, and I will probably remember it even if I haven’t seen you for 20 years, or at least I’ll pin the tail a few days around your birthday. I remember the names of kids I teach and kids I taught twenty-five years ago. But if you tell me a series of numbers–the amount I have in my bank account, for instance–I will forget it ten seconds afterwards.
I started by just keeping track of every penny I spent and every penny I earned. In order to do this, I had to be present a lot, which was hard. I much prefer to zone out and kind of float about in my daily routines. I had to remember to pull out a little notebook every time I went through the grocery line, which wasn’t that hard except that I forgot to do this every other trip. Even harder was tracking the quarters and dimes that go to feed the meter when I parked the car. I wrote down what we spent, and I noticed quickly that we consistently spent a little more than we earned. Not an egregious amount, but enough so that it would affect us if we wanted to save money for our kids to go to college. And I was not happy about this. It gave me the feeling of being porous; not like a sea sponge where water flows in and out with equilibrium, but like a coat with holes in the pockets whose owner is blithely dropping coins into its slippery interior. Clink, clink, clink.
As a veteran dieter, I knew that the solution would have to be more than making a budget. I knew that if I tried to adhere to something like that, I would just feel deprived and act out. I knew that I had to change the way I interacted with money. So I started by saying thank you each time I touched the stuff, even if the “touch” was digital. Thank you. I get it. You are taking care of me. Thank you. I asked for help from some friends who understand this kind of powerlessness and got some great advice. It’s the same advice your grandmother probably gave you: Save up for what you want. It will taste sweeter if you do.
By the way, do you know what the interests rates on savings accounts are? Like, NOTHING. I was banking at Bank of America and when I asked to open a savings account, and inqired about compound interest (see, I knew to ask about compound interest) they said, “Point oh five.” “Like, five cents on the dollar?” I asked. “Nooooooo,” my rep said, shaking his head and looking at me as if I were a child. “Zero point zero five.” “So,” I said. “No one really wants us to save our money anymore, right? They’d prefer if we contributed to the GDP. That’s cool. But I need to save my money so my kids can go to college.”
So after some more good advice, I moved my money from that bad bank to Florence Savings Bank where they give you 1.25% if you cross your Ts and dot your i’s on a number of items. As the months passed, I created a spending plan rather than a budget. I saved for college, and I saved for things I wanted, like a white Irish Fisherman sweater (I know, I posted about this three years ago, and I still am searching for the perfect one.) And I saved my money until one day, Saturday, I had enough to go shopping. I was sweater-bound–a dark purple cardigan might suffice if I couldn’t find the fisherman sweater, and we were scheduled to have a break right down the street from Anthropologie, my favorite store. As I was leaving for my gig at Passim, the kids said, “Mama, pleeeeeease bring us back a present.” Guess what? I had even saved enough for that kind of spontaneous treat for my kids.
Our gigs at Passim were so much fun. At the family show in the afternoon, we did “Aikendrum” and as we sang, Katryna drew an Aikendrum and clothed him in the foods the kids suggested. We sang “Wise Mama Witch,” our new Halloween chant, and we got our publisher Jonathan Greene to play banjo with us on “Old Joan Clark.”
Afterwards, in between shows, Katryna and I went off to spend my savings. Now I should say that part of my goal is to learn to be a good shopper. To buy, for instance, the yogurt maker rather than the journals if that is indeed my need. (Some days I really do need journals, and on those days, it would be better if I got one, rather than a yogurt maker. But, see, I do need to be conscious about these things.) Anyway, I’d left the house at noon when it was in the low sixties and I’d forgotten a coat. Now it was in the high forties and I was feeling it. We ducked into my favorite store and poked around. I tried on a bunch of ugly sweaters. Katryna found adorable mugs with my kids’ initials on them. Each mug had a hip piece of thin twine wrapped around the handle attached to a green crayon. Perfect! And as I was sighing, giving up on my sweater search, I looked up and saw a magnificent parka complete with a leonine faux fur stole around the hood and fleecy lining. The coat said, “Nerissa, take me. I am your heart’s desire. I fit and I will keep you warm.”
“But I have a coat!” I protested. “In fact, I have several. I need a sweater.”
“No,” pronounced the coat. “You have a dorky dirty yellow parka that embarrasses your husband. You have your grandmother’s boring green coat that looks like an old lady coat. I am hip and beautiful. And face it, all anyone ever sees of you in the wintertime is your coat. You never take it off because you’re always freezing, even indoors. Buy me, and I will be your complete fashion statement. When you think of it that way, I am a bargain.”
Indeed I had to think of it that way in order to apply the word ‘bargain’ to that coat, but this line of argument worked. Plus I was cold. As I left the store hurrying back to my second show of the night, I felt so warm, so taken care of, as if God were putting Her arm around my shoulder.
Presently, though I began to feel guilty. “What was I thinking?” I thought. “I don’t need a coat! And this coat is expensive! And I am supposed to be living within my means! That is a coat for someone who has money to throw around! I just blew my sweater money! Now I will have to wait a whole other year for a fisherman sweater! I am supposed to be buying only what I really need! I am supposed to be patiently waiting for the perfect items that make my heart sing! I am supposed to visualize what I want and trust that it will manifest, and not to impulsively buy furry parkas!”
I wondered if I could return it. I doubted if it would even be warm enough for January winds.
The next morning, I set the bag with the wrapped mugs outside the kids’ room. When Elle came shuffling down the stairs wrapped in her blanket, I scooped her up and bounded with her in my arms up the stairs, with Jay following close behind. “Come open your presents!” I shouted, grabbing the bag and running down the stairs again. The kids squealed and exclaimed and bounced after me, grabbing at the bag with the wrapped items. They each unwrapped a mug. Elle pulled at the crayon and said, “I don’t like green,” and started to cry. Jay said, “I don’t wike gween eiddur,” and started to fake cry. I frowned, swept up the mugs with great dignity and muttered something about gratitude. I felt completely deflated and even worse about my spending spree. I wondered if I could wrap up everything and ship it back to Cambridge and get my money back.
And so as I was muttering on Sunday morning about gratitude, while my kids wailed in frustrated disappointment, it hit me. We don’t get to choose our gifts. That’s the point of a gift. They get given to us. What if that coat really was a gift from God? What if I am never ever going to learn how to be an effective shopper who holds out and waits years for the item of my dreams? What if I never find the perfect Fisherman sweater? Maybe I really do need more pretty journals, and the yogurt maker can wait. Isn’t it the truth that every single best thing/person/job/experience I’ve ever had has been way better and more interesting than my dream for it? Hasn’t it all been a co-creation with the Divine rather than me bossing It around to match up to my vision? Don’t I, too, cry with disappointment when first confronted with the “wrong” item?
I turned around from the sink. Elle said, “I really like the mug, Mama. I just don’t like the crayon. Hey! What if we attach a blue crayon to the handle?” A moment later, we’d replaced the green crayons with a blue one for Elle and a purply-pink one for Jay. They spooned some marbles into their new mugs and pretended they were eating them as soup. Shyly, I showed Tom my new coat.
“Wow!” he said, nodding. “It’s about time you got yourself a really nice coat. You deserve it.”
What’s the Big Idea? What happens when your family of origin is too happy? How does one leave one’s family if there is no good reason to? What if there…