Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Mo' Money, Mo' Problems
When I decided as a teenager that I wanted to be a journalist, I’d resigned myself to the fact that I probably wouldn’t make a lot of money. Reading books where young reporters ate beans out of cans to candlelight, I was content when my first full-time job (two jobs actually – one part-time) paid enough for me to pay rent on an apartment the day it was actually due (no post-dated check required), eat out, and know at the end of the month, I still had a little bit of money in my bank account. But what did surprise me was when I told a friend how much my full-time job was paying.
“Oh, Sansamor,” she said, eying me with pity in her eyes. I think she said more, but that’s all I remember. That moment of pity; that split second when I felt like everything I stood for was being reflected in my paltry paycheck. I’d never cared about money before, but in that instant I felt naked – I felt unworthy, and I didn’t like it. I rationalized that I was doing what I loved and that it was only a stepping stone for something greater. I was writing, I was editing, and I supervised (Ok, only two interns, but STILL!). And although she made more money than I did (I assumed based on the reaction, but I never asked) she wasn’t doing what she loved. I also had only myself and a small dog to support, while she had a child and a car note. Even so, I never again told anyone how much money I make.
An article I read in the Fashion & Style section of the New York Times tells me that I’m not the only one feeling alienated by the size of my bank account. The article talks about “Keeping up with the Joneses” and how people of different economic status often feel uncomfortable, some about their wealth, others – like me – about their lack of it. A friend confided in me recently that she and her long-time best friend just had a falling out over money. Friend (I’ll call you DR just in case you’re trying to keep this on the low!) has been well taken care of by her parents. They were blessed enough to be able to provide her with a car during college and later, after she graduated from Grad school and was working. Well, apparently BF thought DR was acting “spoiled” when she lamented about not being able to get the new car she wanted. Now they haven’t spoken in weeks.
When did money become the measuring stick by which we measured our worth? Not that there is anything wrong with money – we all need some – but I don’t appreciate being made to feel like less of a person because of my perceived bank account. And I’m sure those more fortunate of us shouldn’t be made to feel bad because they didn’t grow up broke.
Here, in a military community, I think it’s even worse. Everyone tries to one-up the other, getting the latest BMW, Mercedes or Volvo. Buying up the Coach and Dooney bags as they come into the PX, and sporting fake Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior that we KNOW they got in the back room of some store in Czech. I’ve even been at a party where someone broke out the laptop to pull up the military pay scale so they could compare their pay to the rest of the guests!
Even though I make more money now, that’s not what defines me. But sometimes it’s hard not to get swept up in the comparison. Several weeks ago, an acquaintance speaking about his car (butter leather seats, heated seats standard) called my car a piece of shit. I’ve had my little ’96 Mazda Protégé since I was a freshman in college, and it has admittedly seen hard times, but it still stung. I was tempted to shoot back, we could afford something else if we wanted to – something better than what they have, but what would that have proven?
Just keep this in mind the next time you’re met by awkward silence from a friend after you make a crack about their financial status, or low-paying job, or when you look at a friend’s engagement ring, silently thinking how small it is.
We know what you’re thinking.
And it doesn’t feel good.