One-lowsmanship, money anxieties, and being a work in progress

Guest post by BlueCanary
Stopping On A Dime
When the very thought of spending a dime does your head in… (Photo by: JD HancockCC BY 2.0)

So this is me admitting that I have a problem with money. I grew up really poor. I had a great childhood, my parents are awesome people and I was surrounded by love and relatives. But until I was 10 or so, I thought the power company hung everyone’s power bill on the door knob. I wore my boy cousins’ hand-me-downs. I didn’t ask for stuff that was expensive, because I knew we couldn’t afford it. And because I didn’t have access to that stuff, I became that kid who did not give a shit about status clothing and labels, for the most part.

When I was in high school, I saved up money from my first job waiting tables so that I could buy my first beloved pair of Docs. I went to college via scholarships and loans, and worked at least one job if not two (sometimes three) all the way through to pay the rest.

Most of my friend group were upper middle class kids whose parents were lawyers and who already had stock portfolios in their names. I’m not judging my college friends — they were great people — they just came from a different place than I. Money, to them, was a constant — something you picked up the phone and ordered in. To me, it was something that I was constantly hustling for — scrubbing toilets, waiting tables, tending bar, and busting my ass just to barely have enough to pay my part of the rent.

And at some point some idiot actually approved me for a credit card, and I went NUTS. Like, OMG, free money, I can BUY STUFF! Like, any time I want! So then I was poor and in debt. And it took me several years of hard work to dig myself out of that hole and realize that credit cards are just not for me, ever.

There is a great article that John Cheese wrote about what growing up poor does to your brain. It’s pretty dead-on. One of the things is that when you have extra money, the desire is to spend it RIGHT NOW before some disaster happens and you have to use it to take care of that instead. For years, that was me. And then, after lots of soul searching and hard lessons, I went so far the opposite direction that my cheapness practically qualifies as a mental illness.

And even though now I actually have money, god help me if I spend one cent of it on myself. The guilt and panic feelings are just overwhelming. I know that it’s stupid, but knowing that something is stupid does not make it go away.

I can’t take pleasure in buying clothes for myself. I can’t drop $100 on a pair of nice jeans that will fit me like I want them to, because I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. Because the dog needs a haircut, and the car insurance is due, and the house needs all new screens, and OH MY GOD, WE CAN’T SPEND MONEY because if we do, a disaster will happen.

I’m not sure what disaster (anxiety-related disaster premonitions are not very specific) but something broken in my idiot brain assures me that if I purchase a nice pair of jeans for myself it will be DOOOM. Because it’s easy to justify a pair of jeans when they cost three bucks, even if they’re not perfect and don’t fit quite the way I want. They’ll do, right? Because some people don’t even HAVE jeans.

Over years of poverty and necessity, I’ve come to have a lot of my self identity tied up in being thrifty. My mind has always decided that cheaper = better. And we know that isn’t true, always. Cheap laundry soap that I make myself, awesome. Cheap concrete for the bridge abutment? Not-so-much.

There was a day I spent $60 on myself, I then promptly went out to my car and proceeded to have a giant panic attack. Because I spent money on myself. I had to sit there for fifteen minutes, smoking, assuring myself that it was okay. It wasn’t our last sixty dollars. We have money in the bank. All the major bills for the month are paid. I am no longer living in poverty. I am an adult who owns and runs two businesses, who is about to marry an adult who has been putting money away in savings since before he hit puberty.

Obviously, I’m a work in progress here. And not all my thriftiness is bad. Actually, most of the time, it’s useful. But I can’t put it on other people, like I have a tendency to do. (Oh my GOD, can you believe she paid that much for X?!) because that is not cool. Plus, I imagine, that I’m not the only one out there who feels this way.

Comments on One-lowsmanship, money anxieties, and being a work in progress

  1. This is awesome. I saw the Cracked article too and could also really relate. It’s nice to see this one as well, and all the comments. At least I know I’m not the only one with Money Issues. I have this weird thing where I feel like complete ass if I spend anything on myself but I will almost gleefully pay for things for my kid that will make it even harder to pay the bills. I’m usually not getting her actual tangible stuff, but I’ll shell out an extra eighty a week so she can do the horseback riding program at a summer camp that would otherwise be childcare actually within my price range, for example. I vacillate between the two extremes you mention constantly. I’m terrified to spend a cent and yet whenever I get a “big” chunk of money, like a tax return, or student loan disbursement, I will spend it all before “something happens” to it. Usually on stuff we do actually need (thrifted clothes for the kid for the new season, stocking up on pantry and freezer food, getting the car maintenanced, etc) but still. I’ll put some of it aside in savings, but invariably I will end up eating the savings dry in a few weeks paying for something or other. I hate thinking too hard about money because it gives me anxiety attacks so it’s almost never spent or managed mindfully. Like the author and many commentors I grew up in a house with a low-income, but my father came from a well off family so he consistently asked them for help with things like buying a car when the one we had unexpectedly died, and then felt resentful and guilty at the same time for it (he never said that until I was an adult and both his parents had passed on, but we kids knew anyway). Now I’m in a situation where I sometimes ask them for help- paying for the kid’s birthday party, or unexpected car repairs, or help with a medical expense- and I feel the same sense of guilt even though they never give me a hard time like my grandparents gave them, and even though they are much better off now than when I was growing up. It’s like a script in my brain: asking for money help = GUILT. Given the commonalities expressed here, I wonder if there is any kind of work being done in the therapeutic fields for developing protocols to help people work through this kind of stuff? I should go find out.

    • “I wonder if there is any kind of work being done in the therapeutic fields for developing protocols to help people work through this kind of stuff? I should go find out.”

      Yeah, if you find anything useful, please share it with us here! I have lots of books that tell me how to live very frugally (and in some ways, validate my cheapness) but I have yet to find anything that really deals with the kinds of dysfunctional money issues that I am apparently (thankfully) not the only person suffering with. If it is not something that is being studied and talked about, it really should be.

  2. Holy shit, I was reading this going, “Wait, did I write this?” It is terrifying because if you’ve been in the situation where $100 is the difference between you and living on the street or starving, then, well, it’s really hard to spend it on FUCKING DINNER, (or whatever nonessential fun thing) right? But now that I’m a successful adult with a home and a career and soon, a husband, and a solid nest egg saved up, I’m obsessed with just saving as much as I possibly can. Because like you said, SOMETHING might happen!
    Then today, I had a revelation.
    We were at the garden centre, looking at these fig trees that were a steal at $15 each. And I was like, cool, that’s cheap, figs are awesome. But wait! You probably need two to get fruit!
    And he said, yeah, and?
    And I said, It’s thirty dollars!
    But then I realized- thirty dollars does not do anything. These fig trees will produce fruit and shade and happiness in my yard.
    I bought two.
    There’s hope for us yet.

    • Awesome. Figs are awesome. You might not need two, depending on the type. Our Petit Negra fig self pollinated and we had figs, till I killed the poor thing. But still. You do need two. Because figs are wonderful and healthy and also EXPENSIVE, like 7 dollars for 5 moldy figs at my grocery store this season, which I couldn’t do even though figs are the almost hubby’s favorite thing. We will be planting fig trees here at the new house.

      And yes, there is hope for all of us. 🙂

  3. Oh my goodness, I can relate. I grew up in a not quite poor house hold and it was made clear early on that we did not have a lot of money to spend on frivolous things. I remember feeling so guilty when at 14, I was a size 8 and my older sister (whom I was supposed to get hand me downs from) was a size 2. Talk about teenage weight issues. I dressed in the cheapest frumpiest clothing I could get, all the while feeling guilty that extra money had to be spent on my clothes. I hated buying new shoes, even though my old ones were completely worn through. I didn’t figure out how to use make up until my mother insisted (all the girly stuff seemed to cost too much to me).
    Even now, I feel uncomfortable buying clothing for work. I have a dress in my closet for going out that I never wear for fear that it will be ruined. I hate wearing my nice clothing for the same reason, even though it makes me feel pretty and mature, like an adult.
    I just want to be a fabulous woman without feeling guilty financially, but I feel terrible, even when I buy attire from TJMaxx or Goodwill. I can only imagine how many other people here feel the same way.

    • Lucky for me, I discovered the magical thrift shop about 8th grade and came of age during a time period when it was perfectly OK to go to school dressed like a lumberjack and Dracula had a baby with too much eyeliner. I wear frumpy clothes now, though. Part of it is, I destroy my clothes because almost everything I do on a daily basis involves some degree of getting dirty. Part of it is, the “fashionable” women’s clothing is just so poorly made these days at a price I’m willing to pay for something trendy (ahem, looking at you Target) that I can’t pay 30 bucks for a top that will fall apart after two washings. So I’ll pay .25 for a t-shirt that, even if it does fall apart after two washings, means I’m not out much. I used to put fort the effort to be “girly” and I still will if we are going somewhere special (hello, one fancy Vegas dress) but really for general purposes I wear clothes that are comfy and make me not be naked, with extra points if the t-shirt advertises something that I really like. I feel like I’m supposed to feel guilt about this, like I’ve “let myself go”, and I do get the occasional “sir” from some nearsighted idiot at a gas station and that makes me a little sad, but for the most part I’m pretty OK with just having the whole “girly” scenario be one less thing I personally have to worry about.

  4. I had a job that paid a portion to me in cash as an independent contractor. I was terrible with it I spent it on groceries clothes kid stuff gas all normal things but didn’t keep track and that really really hurt our budgeting.

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  6. “And even though now I actually have money, god help me if I spend one cent of it on myself. The guilt and panic feelings are just overwhelming.” This describes me perfectly! My financial history is like a roller coaster; when I was a child my family was very well off thanks to my dentist father, but when my parents divorced, my mom (who was a stay at home mom at his insistence, thus had no quality job prospects when she needed them) my sister, and I were left in poverty. We crammed into a one bedroom apartment and struggled to keep the lights on until I was in college. Now I have a job with a decent income but I still can’t bring myself to “waste money” on brand name items or new clothes. I have literally been wearing the same shirts for 10 years! I realize I take the thriftiness too far, but I have gotten better at reining in the compulsion. My fiance has helped me to use my highly logical brain to talk some sense into myself when it comes to necessary spending (like new wiper blades for my car and shoes when mine start getting holes in them), though it still gives me some anxiety.

    The problem is my fiance’s family is very well off and has always been that way, so he grew up very differently than I did. He isn’t nearly as spoiled as he could be thanks to 8 years of hard living in the Army, but his expensive taste, and history of being able to get most things without worrying about if it is affordable, makes itself know at times. With us now living together and having no help from our parents I find us butting heads sometimes about our discordant spending habits. As Jen said, he’ll do something nice for me (like getting me flowers or buying my favorite brand name cereal) and all I can think is “why did you spend that much money on that?!’ We’re getting married next year and the wedding planning has really brought these differences to the forefront. Slowly but surely we are learning how to compromise between his grand ideas and my extreme frugality. Hopefully we’ll be able to meet in the reasonable middle.

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