Ripping Off Scalzi, Day Two: Money

fabian-blank-78637-unsplashI just saw Avengers: Endgame, which I feel like I can’t talk about yet, so instead I thought I’d come back to this entry that I started writing oh, hey, six months ago.

This is another entry in which I take inspiration from John Scalzi, on his blog Whatever, as he continues his twenty-year retrospective of blog writing. He is on day 26. I am on day 2. At this rate, I’ll be able to keep bouncing back to his blog until the end of the year. Up today: Money! And how I have none of it! (Well I do have some and I’m insanely lucky in some ways and I suppose we’ll get to that.) So far Scalzi has blogged about cats and money, two things that I don’t have any of.

I grew up in a house that always had enough money, enough food, Christmas presents under the tree. I’m fairly certain that my parents never had to worry about having enough money for Christmas, though they didn’t exactly go wild with materialism either. They were and are very deliberate with their money, something I’ve only come to realize in hindsight and observe as an adult. Like Christmas and birthday presents were always a thing, but cable TV? Never a thing. We never had cable television in my house. We only had dial up internet until after I moved out. But that had less to do than my parents not being able to afford it than it did my parents not wanting to spend money on garbage. We could go on a trip every year. My parents have their retirement worked out. My dad pays off his credit card bill every month. Whatever long term plan the books tell you to follow to financial security, my parents followed it.

And then they raised me, and I had no idea what the hell to do with money until well past age 30. Osmosis and environment didn’t do the job there. Part of it is just that I barely ever had any money of my own. In elementary school I got $1.25 a week in allowance, and even though this was the early 90s, it was still below average for my classmates. In middle school I got $5. The last couple years of high school I got $20, but I was responsible for buying my own lunches at school, which ate most of it (I never did what would’ve been the smart thing and made my lunch while still pocketing the $20). I think I was a junior when I got my first retail job, and I worked all through college, but after college I never quite transitioned from retail/coffee shop jobs into “professional” jobs. I just kept coffee shopping. For most of my twenties I probably earned between $20-$25k a year. I had roommates, I had a landlord who was happy to rent their space to us for below market value for some reason, I never went to the doctor, I didn’t own a car. But still, every dollar I made was basically spent the minute it landed it my account. I never learned to budget, never learned to not splurge. If you know you’re going to be running out of money anyway, why not just spend it on something that’s fun? If you have to buy food, why not buy hummus instead of beans and rice?

Could I have been thriftier? Sure. But I also had a fundamental income problem. I was earning like $9/hr and had no health insurance. (I think this is a really common millennial dilemma, by the way: Not being able to figure out where your own mistakes end and the shitty system you find yourself in begins.)

In 2010, I made the dumb decision to go back to school. Dumb because I had no way to pay for it, so I took out loans and asked my parents to help me, and they did because education is basically the one thing they’ll always help pay for. This led to my dad discovering exactly how bad I was with money, how much I don’t keep track of it, how much of his I was spending, how little of it I could account for it. I remember him shoving a paper copy of his budget/yearly planned expenditures in my face in frustration, asking Why the hell I couldn’t just do this. What was so hard about this?! And I felt so dumb. So, so so stupid. It took a couple years before I realized, wait, where the hell did he think I was supposed to learn this? When was the budgeting 101 conversation supposed to happen? Should he have taught it to me? Should I have learned it from school? Should I have gotten a book out of the library? Like I’m sorry I’m a dummy and I’m sorry I didn’t take steps to fix this ten years ago but also basically no one ever told me how I should do it or even that I should learn it. It was just assumed that I knew. 

Actually, I had tried to learn, now that I think about it. I read a couple books by Suze Orman and other personal finance people whose names I heard from Oprah. I had a Mint account where you were supposed to set a budget, and I did the thing they tell you where you write down every single cent you spend in a little book. This is supposed to make you more deliberate and thoughtful with your spending, kind of how logging all your calories supposedly helps you eat less. Neither of those things worked for me. I went overbudget every month. I would forget to write down my expenditures after a few days of trying. It just did not ever work for me. It was like, every month, I looked back, saw that I had fucked up once again, tried to do better the next month, only to discover that I’d gone overbudget on everything again. It was exhausting, and discouraging, and just made me feel like an idiot. Like maybe I’m just bad at budgeting. I always struggled with math. Maybe budgeting just wasn’t my thing.

But anyway. I came back from New York poorer, sadder, and feeling a whole lot dumber than when I left. And now I had student loans, and the same income (once I found a job) as before, so I had to learn budgeting. Had to.

Somehow I stumbled upon zero-based budgeting, and no exaggeration, it changed my life. I use a service called YNAB (You Need A Budget), which costs money but it unlocked a whole world of personal budgeting for me, so it’s worth it. It’s also called “the envelope system,” which you may have heard about through Dave Ramsey. (Dave apparently didn’t get along with Oprah, which is how I ended up trying to follow Suze Orman’s system instead of his all those years ago.) Instead of looking backward at all the money I had spent in the last month, instead of trying to budget based on output, zero-based budgeting has you look at the amount of money that you have, and allocate funds to categories based on that. Like if your rent is $1000, but your paycheck today was only $750, you cannot put $1000 in your rent category. You just can’t. That money doesn’t exist. This somehow managed to switch my perspective around so that I was looking forward with my money instead of backwards. And I started to think about my money in terms of category balances, instead of bank balances. The fact that my bank account has $1000 in it means nothing, my Movies category has $0 in it, and so I’m not going to the movies. YNAB also highlights categories that you’ve fully funded with a little green circle, and I’ve kind of made it my mission to get categories green and keep them green. It gamifies it just enough that it works for me.

So that’s been my past four years or so. Turning into a person who actually knows what’s in her bank account and what her credit card balances are. I have a retirement account with multiple hundreds of dollars in it! I also have a personal net worth in the negatives (because of student loans), but I’m paying on those too and watching balances decrease. I save for trips and pay for them out of pocket instead of on credit cards. Who knew. I’m a person who can budget, given a wage that is more than half the median national income and the tools that make sense to my brain. And that is no small victory, as far as I’m concerned.

 

Random resources that helped me, in case you’re looking for help:

  • YNAB software. It currently costs $84 a year, which is probably less than you’re paying for Netflix, but is also more than I’m paying currently (I got grandfathered in to what the cost was when I signed up). If $84 seems like too much, they have a YouTube channel where you can watch tutorials for free and get a sense of zero-based budgeting. There’s a bit of a learning curve with the software, but once it clicks, it’s like a whole new world and you’re off to the races.
  • Dave Ramsey. I listened to his podcast a bunch, both to learn and to keep myself in the mindset of being mindful with my money. I’m pretty sure I disagree with him about just about every social issue, and I don’t like how he steers college kids towards prosperous careers instead of doing-what-you-love careers, but when it comes to finance stuff, he has absolutely helped me.
  • Bad with Money, a podcast by Gaby Dunn. It also helped keep my attention focused, and I appreciated her perspective of “I’m fucked up and don’t know anything about this and that’s my bad, but also, the system itself is not much better.”
  • Various communities on reddit, including r/personalfinance and r/ynab.

On Being Bad At Things

snowhillI get off the gondola at the top of the hill and walk, carrying my snowboard, to the Schoolmarm trailhead. I take the gondola to the top as much as I can because de-boarding from a ski lift on my board still scares me (my fear is also justified; I fall over on maybe 4 of 6 attempts).

The top of the mountain is cold, and windy. Hard little bullets of snow hit my cheeks and fall into the collar of my coat. I walk to the top of the run, sit on a bench, and buckle my feet onto my board. Before I stand, I look around me, down the slope, readying myself to get up, telling myself that I can stand up and maintain control, that I won’t immediately go shooting down the mountain like a water slide.

This is my third time snowboarding this year, after fifteen years away from the mountains. The first time, I wouldn’t say I white-knuckled it, exactly. I butt-clenched it, sliding on my heel edge, staring straight down the hill, all my muscles from my hips down tense and shaking with the effort of keeping me upright. I didn’t do turns, I didn’t shift to my toe edge, I was afraid to build up speed. I had a tendency to fall on my rear. The act of snowboarding wasn’t fun, exactly–it was exhilirating, sure, and I was with my friend Christine and she’s fun, but I was too afraid of falling to loosen up at all. (I did fall, of course. The next morning all of my muscles hurt and my knees were multi-colored.)

But I went back another day, and took a lesson. Learned about placing my weight and how to hold myself (for instance: not like a rock) and where to look (up, up, always up), and how to make turns. I still fell, but it was in service of learning, not from trying to stand still while sliding downwards.

And now, here I am, ready to board down all three and a half miles of Schoolmarm. I’m still stiff and clumsy, and I have to think about every turn before I make it, but there’s also these moments where I’m sliding along, feeling comfortable and relaxed, feeling like there’s butter under my board, like there aren’t any edges that might catch on the snow and set me on my ass. And when I’m tired, I can sit on the slope and look at the mountains and the sky and take deep breaths and listen to the silence.

During the lesson that I took, my teacher showed us how to do flat 360s (spin in a circle without jumping off the ground), and to my enormous surprise I master it immediately. I do it until I’m dizzy, giggling and giddy, spinning in circles on a mountain slope.

I got a new job last year, and with that came an affordable gym membership, so I’ve been trying to supplement my running with gym classes and lifting. It has also, somewhat unexpectedly, been a place for me to battle with my anxiety, and my fear of being seen (to be more specific, to be seen doing something poorly or looking stupid in some way). The gym classes are all in a big room lined on two facing walls with mirrors. The weight area always has other people in it, and it feels like they’re all lifting more than me, like they all know than me. Intellectually I know that this is wrong, but my anxiety brain is full of people watching me. Getting into the gym sometimes is like waiting for Argus, with his thousand eyes and hypervigilance, to go to sleep. Some days I would fall asleep in my car instead of going inside. Some days I would change into my gym clothes, then sit in a chair and kill time on my phone instead of going to use the equipment. Some days I tell myself to just get on the exercise bike, because if I can do that for twenty minutes I can usually talk myself into doing something else. Some days I’ll do squat but then decide that I can’t do deadlift, not today, no thanks. 

I didn’t always used to be actively afraid of the gym, though when I look back on what I was doing in the gym at the time, it was almost always treadmill or pool. Challenging myself with new things—and, at the same time, becoming afraid of all of those things—is something that happened after I left New York City, when I was sad and broken and felt far away from everyone. 

When I was a student at Columbia, there was a gym on campus that students could use. The cost was folded into our tuition. At first, I went because hey, free gym. At some point I started going because I think I could sense that my mental state was not the best, but exercise is supposed to be good for depression. So I would go. I took a step aerobics kind of class, and tae kwon do, and ran around the quarter-mile loop that was in the center of the gym. Maybe that’s when the anxiety started to amp: the classroom where step aerobics and tae kwon do happened were in the center of the gym, with big walls of windows; the track was immediately around that, and the outer ring was the weight machines and treadmills and stationary bikes. It was easy to feel like you were being watched, but hard to see if you actually were. Also, I wasn’t going to the gym because it was fun and I wanted to; I was going because I felt like I should. And I was going to step aerobics feeling incapable of dancing, incapable of moving with any pep, any grace. I’ve never been a great dancer, but this was a whole other level. I felt like I was sleepwalking through gym class. Everything felt slow. Everything felt stupid. Everything felt unsuccessful. I always stood at the back (against the windows) and when class was over, escaped as soon as I could. I never spoke to anyone. I was a ghost.

So here I am, five years later, not feeling like a ghost anymore, but still feeling haunted by one. Still feeling the specter of Argus’ eyes.

It does get better. After almost a year in the gym, I found a program and I’m following it and that gives me something to lean on, something to focus on besides all the weight I’m not lifting, all the people who are (not) staring at me. Usually, these days, when I say, “I’m going to the gym after work,” I actually get there. And one happy side effect to global warming is that I’m still running in parks a few times a week, even though it’s December. I also made significant headway on a project at work, which was a big contributor to the “You’re dumb everyone’s going to find out you’re dumb and then they’re going to take your job away from you” feelings that I was having all fall.

Maybe someday soon I’ll feel that gliding feeling with my writing, that coasting-along-while-you-stare-at-the-sky feeling. That’s the feeling that I’m waiting for. But until then, I have to accept that I will suck until I don’t. That some days it will feel like pulling a car out of a lake with nothing but my bare hands. That I have to sit through some boredom and not knowing what I want to say. I might be bad at all kinds of things, but I’m trying really hard to not let that stop me.

2019 goals, man. Happy new year.