I’ve been reading a few money blogs recently, thanks to the lovely Sarah Cass. I have always been very good with the green stuff since my family didn’t have any while I was growing up. I can honestly say I know what government cheese tastes like. (It tastes like the color yellow.) Therefore, I always have a certain amount of anxiety surrounding my financial situation, and also a lot of jealousy surrounding those peers who have the benefit of well-off parents, grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles or aunts. I constantly struggle with class-ism, which is why I suppose I gravitated toward to most proletariat art, printmaking.
I consider myself fairly frugal person. I live cheaply in a collective house, I have decent paying jobs, I don’t have expensive vices and I live way within my means. This allows my to put at least 25% of my monthly earnings into a savings account every month, while still paying off my student loan and leaving a little extra for much needed cultural getaways to the the metropolises of Portland and Seattle. It took a long time to get to a place of being in control of my money instead of it controlling me. In high school, I worked my ass off so when I got to college, I had scholarships as well as need based aid (government cheese) to finance tuition and expenses. In my sophomore and junior years of college, I worked as a Resident Assistant so I received my room and board for free. I went to a fantastic state school that was neatly plopped on and integrated into a private red bricked campus in the southerntier valley of New York State. I was the first person in my entire extended family to go to college, so I vigilantly researched schools and their affiliated costs until I found the program that fit me and my family’s limited budget. After college, I spent the summer working in the fields of a landscaping plant nursery, saved approximately $1000, packed up my car and cat and hit the road for Portland. That’s another story. Those years in Portland were financially rocky. I lived from paycheck to paycheck and used my credit card for emergencies. I had a lot of emergencies.
Then I decided to go to grad school, which was financed with scholarships and US subsidized government loans. Financially speaking, living was relatively easy (which reminds me – one day soon I’m going to write a post titled something like “So You Think You Want An MFA,” a realistic reference for those students who think they can avoid real life by hiding behind art). Anyway, you can check out the archives from the later part of 2004 to read more about those years. Yikes.
When my car broke down five years ago upon moving to Olympia, not knowing any better, I assumed I had to buy a new one. I chose the cheapest new car I could find. At a little over 12K, it was the biggest purchase I had ever made in my life. (I will differentiate my idea of purchase from investment a little later.) When I was signing the paperwork over at The Olympia Auto Mall (yes, this is what it is really called), the financing agent tried to tack on a $250 re-selling clause which he argued would save me money when I wanted to trade in the car in a couple years.
“I guarantee you will not be driving this car in five years,” he said. “You’re going to want to upgrade. Trust me.”
I had been trained from birth not to trust car salesmen by my father. “Is that a sales tactic you learned at school? Make the buyer feel remorse before she even signs her name on the title?” I asked. He promptly shut his mouth and I read through the rest of the paperwork in silence, slowly, as he had previously assured me that I “didn’t really need to read through this stuff. It’s just legal mumbo jumbo.” He squirmed uncomfortably in his pleather chair for the next 15 minutes. I’m pretty sure when we rose to shake hands at the end of the paperwork marathon, he left ass sweat on the seat.
I paid off that car in 2 1/2 years. It took a lot of hard work. (Also, in August, I will have had that car for five years. I don’t need your fancy Elantra, Hyundai!) Debt is demoralizing. I once thought debt was a “necessary evil,” as so many people once liked to say. Now, I know debt is just evil (as hopefully does the rest of the modernized world). Last summer, I finally became credit card debt free. The air never tasted so fresh in my lungs. Then, after two months of easy breathing, I decided I needed a laptop. A fancy laptop. “For school,” I said. That fancy laptop had the debt gestation period of a human child, and I lugged that number with me for nine months. I also racked up debt over the winter on various other obsessions, like art from 20X200 limited edition prints. I bought a Kate Bingaman-Burt mixtape print (mine was white on orange) and I just got a HUGE AMAZING PRINT from the Hamilton Wood type Museum, which I plan on making a pilgrimage to this summer. The laptop was a purchase, the art was an investment.
Paying for school is also an investment, which is why I don’t feel like I lug my student debt with me in quite the same fashion as I lugged around the $1,800 laptop debt. When something is purchased, money (read: your time and hard work) is traded for material goods which will depreciate in value over time. When I use my money as an investment, I receive limitless returns for my time and hard work. When I buy art, I get to look at it every day. I have so much art, I redecorate constantly (though I do have favorites). I feel creative and inspired when I look at art. I wonder. I contemplate. School teaches you how to wonder and contemplate in a more sophisticated fashion. And, if you’re lucky like I was, you learn to love the wonder. So school was also a good investment for me.
Now, for the second time in a year, I’m out of debt once again.
Basically, this post has been a summation of the financial lesson it’s taken me 31 years to learn: Your money has power and if you use this power for good, you invest in yourself, your friends, your community and your future. When you use your powers poorly, you end up with worthless junk and useless materialistic addictions.
The next lesson in my lifetime financial planner, casually penned by John Darnielle, is balancing those things I do for money and those things I do for love, love, love.