The social stigma of spending money, particularly when you’re not wealthy and especially on “non-essential” items has a note of arrogance to it. It believes the future is an equitable given.
When I was 12, my mother liquidated my modest college fund so that we could buy a 23-year-old ex-racehorse named Fancy.
No, this wasn’t the plan. Fancy was one of the lesson horses at the local stable where I took classes in English riding, an already expensive hobby for a girl whose single, working mother made $40K a year as an administrative assistant. My mother allowed me to start lessons when my first major depressive episode had cost me my honor roll grades and most of my middle school friends, a generosity I’ll always love her for, but before my first day at the stable, she sat me down at our kitchen table, looked me square in the face, and pointed her lit Salem at me.
“Repeat after me,” she said. “We are not getting a horse.”
“We are not getting a horse,” I parroted.
In hindsight, my mother probably should have known better. Our house was already home to four of the neighborhood’s stray cats, which all seemed to know just where to go for a free meal. And we’d both fallen in love with Fancy, who, despite her advanced age, had a gleaming bay coat, a youthful sass in her long, Thoroughbred stride, and intelligence that made life with her wholly unpredictable. Like the day Fancy managed to escape the paddock, and took herself on a tour of the sprawling grounds, ripping mouthfuls of lush spring grass from the ground—my mom and I chased her for hours like idiots, useless halters dangling from our wrists, pausing every few minutes to watch her gallop against the sunset.
When the stable owner threatened to euthanize Fancy and sell her body to the dog food factory, my mother’s heartstrings were sufficiently tugged, and she decided that my present—and Fancy’s—outweighed the future. She withdrew the several thousand dollars she had saved for me, and bought Fancy.
Yes, her friends told her not to.
Yes, they told her she was nuts. Irresponsible. Played by her manipulative pre-teen daughter and her own bleeding heart. You’ll regret this, their tones implied.
I suspect my mother fully imagined her friends would be proven right, but after two divorces and years of improvisatory single parenting, she wasn’t all that afraid of regrets. She’d saved a horse’s life, and by proxy, her daughter’s happiness, at least for the moment. That particular moment was the only one she could be sure of.
I did end up going to college on an amalgamation of scholarships, grants, and loans, then to graduate school with a full tuition remission. All told, I walked out of school with two degrees and a little less than $20K in debt, which is fairly reasonable in my generation, but certainly puts pressure on my monthly finances. During lean years, I’ve taken loan deferments and put my federal loans into forbearance. My husband and I don’t own a home. The last time we went on vacation was seven years ago, when we went to the beach in Alabama and stayed in a motel that smelled of suntan lotion and bleach. We now make more money than my mother ever did, but we live in Boston—one of the most expensive cities in the country for renters—and the end of the month often finds us counting pennies. Savings? We got none.
There have been times in the past 10 years, since my husband and I finished graduate school, when money issues have gotten us down. I won’t deny the tears and worries we’ve had when we imagine a lifetime of perpetual renting, constant scrambling. I won’t pretend that seeing photos of our friends’ vacations make us ache a little for the adventures we can’t afford.
But maybe this is why I don’t really sweat our daily expenditures. A frugal relative recently asked if I buy lunch or coffee on workdays, and I admitted that, yes, I often do both. This relative cited an article she’d read about the yearly savings one can accrue by cutting out these small luxuries, and I felt my brain go static, my attention short out. I’m aware that my $3 coffee is costing me over time. I know I should pack my freaking lunch. If you were to show me the money I’d save by doing this, I might feel motivated to do make such changes for, like, a week.
Money and shame go hand-in-hand, even and especially for middle-class Americans who, despite the dollar figures of their salaries, continue to struggle since the beginning of the Great Recession. Though so much is explained by wage stagnation and a rising cost of living, plus the crisis of student loans debt for Millennials, we still judge how people spend their money, and these judgments often track along class lines.
I remember when one of my dad’s patrons at the bar he owned pointed out that my dad could save money by quitting smoking. “You’re throwing away $20 a day with those things,” the customer said, because my dad smoked two packs a day.
The customer was right, of course, but right doesn’t necessarily mean compassionate. Smoking is a complex habit for the poor, and the poor were frequenters of the bar. As the owner, my father often shared cigarettes with his customers as a way of solidifying the friendships that formed his most loyal patron base. He also smoked to combat loneliness and cope with anxiety that was often related to—you guessed it—money. And because he was self-employed, he denied himself health insurance for decades, which meant having no professional, medical help in curbing his nicotine addiction.
We judge, too, exactly what we buy with whatever money we make. At Slate, Elissa Strauss criticizes our tendency to privilege “experiences over stuff,” meaning those allegedly life-enriching vacations over domestic comforts. She rightly questions the sexism and classism of some bygone “Thoreauvian” mentality that tells us we’re not consuming when we travel or take up snowboarding or eat “exotic” foods marketed to the wealthy. Because it’s mostly men who still live much of their lives outside the home, and mostly women who still make the home, judging someone for buying a new couch instead of picking one up at the Goodwill denigrates the home as a place of spiritual or existential value, and reinforces women’s second-class citizenry.
I’m not saying that saving for the future isn’t important, or that using a budget is a waste of time—on the contrary, I have plans to become intimate with the budgeting program You Need a Budget this year as a way of challenging myself to become better and more empowered with my money. But I also can’t help but feel that the social stigma of spending money, particularly when you’re not wealthy and especially on “non-essential” items like lattes and cigarettes and a new dress has a note of arrogance to it. It believes the future is an equitable given.
We don’t have a college fund started for our 2-year-old daughter yet, but we do say yes to the daily joys our dynamic city has to offer: the zoo, the aquarium, the restaurants, the carousel in Boston Common that costs a whopping $3 a ride, the children’s museum and its reasonable yearly membership rate. We say yes to Indian food delivery because our kid loves palak paneer. We say yes to music classes.
Maybe it’s because another type of future might be unreachable to us that I say yes to a present that costs more.
Our years with Fancy were marked by other sacrifices, but more by purpose. We became “horse people,” my mom and I, structuring our lives around mucking stalls and farrier appointments and the shows Fancy and I competed in, shocking judges who had never seen a horse so old jump so high. After years of driving out to the barn, my mother made another ill-advised financial move by declaring bankruptcy, foreclosing on our house in town, and buying a fixer-upper “farmette” complete with paddocks and a rickety barn. She eventually bought a second horse, another elderly mare named Limerick that needed a retirement home. Both mares lived out the rest of their days with my mother long after I left for school, and though she decided that her horse years were over after Fancy and Limerick were gone, I don’t think she ever regretted the time marked by her relationship to those awesome, time-consuming, gentle, powerful animals. Because it was also a time marked by her relationship with me—those many, many hours we spent caring for the horses, talking and hauling, riding and watching, participating in a world we had no right to, but had chosen to enter anyway.
There is a great equalizer for all of us, of course: death. Maxims about “living presently” are really just reminders that the future is always uncertain, that we only know about today, now. A colleague’s husband likes to tell their daughter, impatient on road trips, that they are always already “there” because there is here. There is here.
We don’t need to max out our credit limits or default on our student loans. What we might try instead is just wanting a little less so that we can savor what we buy a little more.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.