Words by Marni Zarr
My monthly spending allowance in college was $100, that was the early 1980’s. I remember the lightness and warmth that came with seeing a positive balance in my checking account on the first day of the month. I recall the wash of renewal realizing I wasn’t in the hole. I lived for that feeling. A part of my self worth was tied to my checkbook register that tugged at my collegiate life like a fishing line attached to my father’s wallet. I never had enough to make it through the month. The first of the month deposit was often used to catch up on the previous months negative balance strategically kept from an overdraft charge by cashing a check at the local convenience mart that would then take two days to clear the bank. College taught me how to manage my spending, never how to manage my saving.
After college came graduate school and the same situation. I only worked during the summers and winter vacation. “School first,” was the motto of my parents, both teachers, and I had a mutual fund account provided by my grandparents for the sole purpose of education. I had no idea what the money was invested in or how money “worked” but I knew my dad was in charge of depositing my allowance and I was in charge of spending it.
When I needed more money, which was often, I could call Grandma. Grandma’s money was given in exchange for my attention. I loved Grandma, but she was difficult. It took some work to get money from Grandma and it took a big swallow of guilt to take it. Grandma, money, attention, guilt, became a revolving door of shame and justification. My self worth was tied to this notion of divvying up a pile of money (good feelings) until it was gone (bad feelings) and then starting all over again.
I married my husband and we began our life together in Denver, Colorado with one child on the way. I was fortunate enough to be a stay at home mom for twenty-eight years with various part-time “fun” jobs scattered throughout such as preschool and substitute teaching for a little extra cash. My contributing to our family income was never a consideration - I was the mom, responsible for running our household with minimal complaints.
At the beginning of our marriage we were living dollar by dollar. I remember staying up past midnight in our one bedroom apartment, my spouse asleep in bed for work the next day, me in my pj’s, cuddled into the handed down worn recliner preparing both our tax returns from the previous year. My heart leapt at the idea of money coming back to us. I ran into the bedroom and woke him. He was delighted! He had just paid off his last student loan and his previous years unpaid taxes and I had a refund on income from a semester of teaching and a little money left in my education account (thanks to my dad). It felt good to have a little something coming back to us to spend. In my mind that was the purpose of extra money, to spend.
I became the head of finances after that nifty display of how I could do all the calculations to get money back. I wasn’t sure how I did it. My dad had always taken our taxes to an accountant but I was now married with a tight income and an accountant cost money. In my mind it was part formula, part magic, and part dependent on my mood.
When money was low I felt low but still had Grandma if I needed her in a pinch. Even though I felt guilty for asking, the relief she supplied was worth it. I was practiced enough in the pattern to feel comfortable, used to the highs and lows of enough and not quite enough. Used to stuffing away the feelings of guilt for the feeling of goodness that came with keeping my spouse from having to deal with our money situation. He worked full time to care for our needs so I could struggle with the finances. He had enough on his plate. “Just make it work,” he said, and so I did.
Two years later, we moved from Colorado back to Arizona. Eight years later and we were living in a comfortable gated subdivision at the base of the Tonto National Forest, a two story house, three kids, a pool, two new cars, a boat, and a nice cushion of money invested in the same mutual fund account where my college savings had grown. We had a set amount going in every month from our checking account, an amount that at the beginning of our married life would have been an entire paycheck but was now easy to “ignore.” Monthly commission checks of various amounts came in and were spent on paying off credit cards, paying for vacations, helping a classmate of our daughter’s single mom make ends meet, more furniture for a larger house, cash payments for braces for all three kids, a balcony addition off our bedroom, all of it leaving a hole at the end of the month with a big gulp of relief at the beginning when the deposit hit our account but we were never “in debt.” Just living big paycheck to big paycheck.
Ten years later we decided to downsize to half the house when a less stressful position became available for my husband. The paychecks were cut by two thirds but were regular so we knew what was coming in and what we could afford. Our kids were older and had become more independent, we couldn’t help our daughter’s friends mother but it wasn’t necessary any longer, our house was paid for in full with the profit from our last house, our cars were paid for, but we still hit bottom at the end of the month and our savings whittled away with middle age house expenses and a son’s medical costs.
I recently decided to it was time to unearth my unhealthy relationship with money. Why I binged and purged and finally realized it didn’t matter what was coming in or going out. My connection to money had formed in the past. Like a phantom that fit itself to my financial life this state of being not mathematical, but mental. I’ve ignored my ignorance slapping it away like a fruit fly instead of dealing with the rot that attracted it in the first place. It’s time to go back to the beginning and find my way out. This is always the realization that comes with writing. The end providing rich soil for a new beginning to take root.
About the Author:
Marni Zarr is a sparkling new teacher at the age of fifty-three to third graders. She spent her early years as a stay at home mom to three amazing children. She is currently discovering the joys of midlife, curating her choices and making each day meaningful.