It’s said that there are three topics of conversation that one should never bring up: religion, politics, and money. At least, that’s what I think I’ve heard. I don’t know boundaries. I don’t play by the rules. What’s the point of knowing them?
You never know how many toes you’ll step on by talking about the stupidity of social conservatives, or the rampant pedophilia amongst priests and other religious clergy, so talking about either is considered rude. But money? Really? Why is it rude to mention how much you make, or what you spend your money on, or the budget that you’re keeping, or the debt you’ve accrued, or the mortgage that you’re having a hard time paying? Why is it ok to talk about the family you’re raising, but not the financial hardships that come with raising a family? Why must you pretend to be doing perfectly well, even when your finances are crashing around your feet? What is this unspoken rule about money? Where did it come from? What good does it serve? And how can we break it, so that the taboo lifts?
I have a strange relationship with money. My parents are health care professionals and make enough to place us firmly in the middle class. But for as long as I can remember, we’ve always been in debt. Mountains of debt. My folks have filed for bankruptcy at least 4 times, and they’re not even in their mid-50s yet.
I don’t know exactly how this mountain of debt came to be. I can only hypothesize from stories that I’ve heard and the little that I truly understand about my parents’ spending habits. All I know is, all my life, money has been inextricably linked to debt. My folks were always indebted to someone or something, and we never really got to save any money. It doesn’t matter that they’ve been making a combined 6-figures for almost 20 years. It doesn’t matter that they’ve been homeowners for almost 20 years. It doesn’t matter that we never took extravagant vacations or bought luxurious items. Somehow, our financial standing has always been tentative at best.
Luckily, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong work ethic. The second I turned 13, I got my working papers and got a job. I’ve been working ever since, sometimes on the books, sometimes off the books, and always enough to take care of my spending habits. My parents, though, discouraged me from working. They seemed embarrassed that their child felt the need to work. They told me that it wasn’t necessary, that I should only concentrate on school, and that they’d pay for all of my needs and desires. When I didn’t comply with their demands, they showered me with gifts. I decided, Hey. Why the fuck am I gonna work if they’re willing to do all this? I decided to work only during the summer.
Those were my teen years. Even before then, there were extreme spending sprees. My mom made a habit of shopping to ward off her depression, and she was depressed a lot. You’ve never seen someone buy the way my mom buys. She’d take a cart and fill it till it was brimming. Sometimes, she’d even get me or my brother to push a cart, also. It didn’t matter what she was purchasing – groceries, clothing, furniture, electronics – if she was in the mindset to shop, she’d spend spend spend.
My dad was similar, but not as extreme. Whereas my mom would schedule entire weekends around shopping sprees, my dad treated my brother and me to mini shopping sprees once in a while. I remember, when I was around 9 or 10, and my brother was around 4 or 5, how my dad would wake us up early on Sunday mornings, and tell us to put on our coats. We’d be groggy-eyed and sleepy, but we’d comply with his sweet urgings, put outerwear over our pajamas, and slip on our shoes. We’d pile into his car, and he’d take us to IHOP or a diner, and we’d have a huge breakfast. Then, afterward, he’d drive to Toys R Us and we’d spend the rest of the morning filling a shopping cart with toys. I usually bought a bunch of Barbie Dolls and stuffed animals, and my brother always got Legos. Lots and lots of Legos.
Still, with all of this affluence seemingly swelling around us, I wasn’t blind to the fact that we didn’t really have money. Not the kind of money it takes to live as lavishly as my parents portrayed our lifestyle to be. Along with the thousand-dollar shopping sprees came lots of calls I’d overhear between my parents and bill collectors. My parents had tons of arguments about debts, money, and finances. On more than one occasion, I remember my mom screaming at my dad in Tagalog, “Why do you spend so much money on those kids?” [Not until I was 16 did I realize she was talking about my dad’s illegitimate sons, and not my brother and I.] By the time I was 11, I was fully aware of what “filing a chapter 11” meant.
The truth is, my parents have a lot of problems between themselves. They have personal problems of self-worth and self-esteem; they have marital problems that run the gambit from adultery to a lack of trust. Their communication is way off, and their ideas of money and success are warped. They came to this country without any knowledge of the way the system worked, and they got engulfed in the multitude of available options and their own expectations of American living. They never really grasped how to make more of it, or even how to hold on to it. Like many would-be American citizens, they immigrated to this country in order to have a better life; somewhere along the way, they confused consumerism for success.
My parents were always too proud to admit that they weren’t in the position to be monetarily loose, so they showered my brother and I with material goods. Consequently, we grew up with the idea that money was an abundant crop, and that our parents were the best farmers around; we’d always get whatever we wanted. So money? We’ve never really understood it. Till this day we’re paying for that mistake.
Throughout my working years, I’ve had all kinds of jobs, none of which paid less than $10 per hour, one of which paid as much as $120 an hour. I know what it’s like to feel like Scrooge McDuck, swimming in a huge piggy bank. On the flip side, I also know what it’s like to be broke. Really broke. Without amenities like cable, internet, and cell phone. Only having enough to have food in my stomach and a roof over my head. Bill collectors calling, fiscal responsibilities falling to the wayside, credit score plummeting… Yes. I know it. I know it well. It’s something that I’m experiencing right now.
Likewise, my parents’ debt has caught up to them. Their fiscal responsibilities have been stretched out beyond their capabilities, and they are depending more on the kindness of friends and relatives than they’ve ever allowed themselves to do. I know how lucky we are to have kind people in our lives who don’t belittle us because of our monetary mistakes and mishandling of money. Likewise, I refuse to feel overwhelmed by all of these money woes. I know that this is temporary, that like a prize fighter, my family and I always bounce back better than ever. But I also think that it’s important to share this, to let people know that they aren’t alone in these desperate times, to remind people of their own strength and endurance, and to say: Hey, I’m broke. But that’s not who I am. I’m a good person and, like all good people, I deserve your respect.
I think the reason it’s taboo to discuss money is because most people hear being broke and figure that it’s synonymous with being broken. Hence, no one wants to talk about what they have or don’t have – not the whole truth, anyway – and risk being negatively labeled. No one wants to feel worthless based on their credit, or their savings, or their lack of job.
But when did financial and material success ever make a person worthwhile, or worthy, of respect or friendship or affection? When did we start believing that a lack of wealth makes one less deserving of respect or happiness? When did we begin to base our views of people on their affluence? And why?
We’re each given a hand of cards, and we play them as best we can. We do strange things for money, and without money, and because of money. We learn, if we’re smart, to not depend solely on money, that there are other forms of power: persuasion, education, personal relations, connections with authority, etc. with which to ascertain our seemingly unreachable goals. We hustle however we can.
And, really, that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with it. Honestly. I swear.