Where your treasure is
"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." That's from the book of Matthew, and I remember the first time I heard it a few year ago in church during the fall when the push is on to get everyone to make a pledge. I can't remember if I pledged that year or not, though I probably did, but that passage changed the way that I thought about things.
Now I'm going to talk about cats.
I currently own a number of cats that some people might find embarrassing. That's it's own story. But the point is: four cats? That's a line item on your monthly budget. But even before I had four cats, I had one very, very old cat who was ill for many, many years. When I was doing my taxes after poor Dorothy finally died, I looked at all the transactions in my accounts labeled "cat" (or "pet" or "vet") and it was shocking. This old cat didn't have surgery or anything like that, but still I spent about $3600 on her in the last year of her life.
So when I got my new kittens (which are not the four felines in my life now), and one scratched my antique Japanese dresser -- for which I had paid $1200 -- I thought, you know, "Where your treasure is, you hear will be also."
In other words, if I'm willing to spend $3,600 on one cat in one year, that's where my heart is. Not in the furniture.
I really don't think I'm a crazy cat lady, but I also don't think there is a single item in my house that I wouldn't sell or give away or burn if needed to save one of my cats. Sometimes I worry that I have lost all sentimentality for objects connected to my own past -- but sometimes I also find that liberating. We just spent what felt like an enormous sum to remodel much of our house, but I don't feel more emotionally attached to this building because of it. I like the neighborhood, and I like that we added a closet and more kitchen cabinets. But when we sell this place, it won't be the flooring planks that will make me sad to go.
I've become much more of a bookkeeper in recent years, since I started freelancing and therefore running my own business. So I know *exactly* how much treasure I invest in these four cats, their canned and dry food, their high-end litter. I know that it is more that I spend on gas, insurance and maintenance for my car in a year. I know it is more than I spend on clothes unless something unusual has required I buy a suit or something. It is more than I spend on all entertainment, including owning a cell phone and internet connection.
Having a sharp picture of my annual budget has never helped me find an unexpected way to save money. But it has helped me see and appreciate the things I value more clearly.
Confessions of a Saver
My brother and I are a case study in genetics vs. environment vs. who the hell knows? We were raised in the same house, but have a completely different relationship to money and always have. Since we were kids, money would burn a hole in his pocket—as soon as he would get it, he would have to spend it.
I on the other hand was (and still am) a saver. Most of the money I received from an allowance or various birthdays would get saved up from year to year. I’d spend, but very strategically and after great thought, and never enough to totally deplete what I had.
I kept the cash I received in an envelope that I stuck in a lock box that I don’t even know how I got a hold of. It was an old cash box that my parents had laying around (probably inherited from their parents). I still have it. It’s hidden in my closet, and I keep my Social Security card and passport in there, and still a small stack of bills—some of them (based on the dates), probably date back to my early childhood. Birthday money from 25 years ago that I still haven’t spent.
And I’m not what anyone would consider a spendthrift. When I deem something of value, I never hesitate to take the plunge. I don’t get much satisfaction from acquiring material things, but experiences like travel or theater or concert tickets, I’ll buy without thinking twice. I pay more in rent as a percentage of my income than I should, but having a nicer home and lifestyle is worth all the sacrifice that it requires.
I often think about that the fact that if I’m out to drinks with friends, I’ll spend $50-$60 on two or three rounds of fancy cocktails without hesitation, but spending that on a nice, expensive book (which I could theoretically keep forever), I would spend time significant hemming and hawing as to whether or not it was worth it.
This is something I’ve noticed cause strife in some of my friend’s marriages. If it’s something you value, then the amount of the money is immaterial, but if it isn’t, then spending it can seem insane. My brother and sister-in-law both do very well for themselves and both like to treat themselves, but the things they spend money on can baffle each other. My brother can’t understand why his wife needs a new bag when she has a closet full of them, and she can’t understand why he spends a not insignificant amount of money to buy into his various fantasy sports leagues. In that regard, their healthy skepticism of each other balances their worst impulses out, which in turn balances their checkbook.
A friend of mine who is of a similar disposition to me (a saver), was recently laid off from her job, and though she is understandably distraught about it, she has a nice safety net of savings, and so she can take some time, and make plans before jumping into the job market.
In the end, that is the real satisfaction that comes from being a saver. Having a number sitting in a bank account (or a stack of old $10 bills in a lock box) doesn’t do anything for you, except that it provides a sense of security. Being able to go to sleep every night knowing that the rug can’t just be pulled out from under your life, is, well, priceless.
Picking Up The Pennies
In high school, our brother Greg is a delinquent. He is suspended periodically for different, usually petty offenses, and though it upsets our mother, one day she is amused when she gets a call from school and hears the story. A study hall is in progress in the school’s cafeteria when some students start throwing pennies against the large, two story blinds. The coins hit the windows and then cascade down the metal slats making a louds pings as they trickle to the floor, disrupting study time. Greg is nabbed not for throwing coins, but for picking up the pennies. “Well that’s Greg,” my mother said, chuckling, “he likes his money.”
Growing up in Wellesley, we cherish snow days because not only is there no school, we spend most of the day shoveling our neighbors’ walks and driveways. Once home, we divvy up the proceeds, stacking piles of one dollar bills. We talk about how much fun we have earning that mountain of cash for the rest of our lives.
During high school, Greg has part-time jobs, usually carry-overs from his summer jobs. He has lots of stories about the work and how he has found shortcuts for his various tasks. He saves his earnings and during his junior year he gets the chance to buy a white, late model Jaguar sedan from a neighbor who just wants to get rid of it. Greg has the classiest car in the high school parking lot. Later, he trades the Jag for a more practical, beat up van. And after the Jag, as an adult, he drives only Hondas and Toyotas, mostly used cars.
Looking at his high school record and grades, Greg’s guidance counselor advises him to apply to junior colleges. But Greg doesn’t think he wants college at all and as the deadlines loom, he has no applications or ideas about where he might apply. I am a sophomore in college and one afternoon my father and I order up a dozen applications for him using one of the college directories. Greg ends up at Rochester Institute of Technology in the business program. Not only does he like it, he graduates with honors. Then he earns a Masters in economics at Georgetown University and continues there to become the family’s only Ph.D., in economics.
He lives simply, frugally, with a like-minded wife, and he plays the market, now as a working economist with knowledge and data. Our mother says he still has the money he picked up off the cafeteria floor in high school. I believe her when he tells me his birthday outing this year is having a Big Mac and French fries at McDonalds.
In the End, Nothing
It started, as many things do, with something that was my fault. In this case, I stupidly got bit by a spider and some time later the bottom of my foot showed disturbing results of the bite. Also, if I remember, my whole foot swelled up, so I went to one of those urgent care places and the doctor gave me some antibiotics.
That may have worked, I think it did, but more importantly it led me to get a real, permanent doctor, the kind everybody else has, and he treated that bite, too, with more or different antibiotics, and for four years or so, that was that.
I had a large callous from the bite, surrounding it and that was about the size of my thumb. Some months ago, on a regular check up, my doctor sent me to a foot doctor because the bite had opened up again, was bleeding, and actually exposed one of the bones on my foot.
That’s not really all that important, but the nearest podiatrist I could see is located in Palm Springs. That’s about fifty miles away and 2500 feet lower, so every time I went to that doctor, it meant driving up and through the mountains through one of the windier spots in California and site of a forest of windmills.
It also meant that I could stop at Costco and Trader Joe’s, which have no presence any closer to me, to “justify” the trip up and down the mountains, as well as a very good deli where I could pick up an excellent pastrami sandwich, which also isn’t available where I live.
Near the beginning of August, I had a doctor’s appointment and got ready to make the trip. I was low on gas, but had enough to make it to Palm Springs, and my plan was to go to the doctor, fill my tank at the Costco, and then drive back home as quickly as I could to get out of the heat of the lower desert.
The doctor’s visit went fine, I guess, and I drove to Costco and my debit card was refused. This happens sometimes, so I tried cleaning it on my shirt, tried again, and this time read the error notice that said something about contacting my financial institution.
That got my attention, and also got me to worrying.
I parked the Jeep, ran into Costco and found their ATM, and thought I’d check my balance and, if necessary, transfer money from my savings to my checking account, and be back in business.
Again, the contact your financial institution message showed up, and I got very worried. Was there a freeze on my account? Had I somehow run out of money? And where the hell would I find a branch of my bank in Palm Springs to clear this up.
I should mention I don’t have a smartphone and the city of Palm Springs no longer has phone books conveniently located on every street corner. I had about eight dollars in cash, and found a gas station and put that in my tank. It would be enough to get me home, where my bank was, but I tried using my phone’s 411 function to find a nearby branch of my bank. Instead of an address that I could punch into my satellite navigation thing, they gave me an address that was nothing but computerized responses and never gave me the chance of asking for their location.
So, I started the hour and a half drive home.
After driving myself sick with worry for the first half of the trip, I wised up and realized that, while driving home, there really wasn’t anything for me to do, so I put all the thoughts of frozen accounts or having been robbed out of my mind and tried my best to enjoy the ride, which I couldn’t really do because of the high winds that made driving more of an unpleasant, dangerous chore than I would have liked.
I made it to Yucca Valley, the bustling metropolis of 25,000 people that has, in addition to my bank, not one but TWO Del Tacos (neither of which I’ve ever visited) and stopped in my bank to see what the problem was.
Yes, I was nervous when it was my time to see the teller, but she quickly told me that they’d sent me a replacement card a couple weeks ago, and that the one I had was no longer functioning.
I left, went back in, and got an emergency $100 cash in case I had trouble finding or activating the new card, but in less than an hour after getting home, everything was fine.
So, really, other than my panic, nothing happened.
It is strange to go places these days where one needs to carry cash. Transactions are handled online mostly, or through debit cards. Money no longer seems real. It is easy to swipe and sign, forgetting that there is a cost, both literal and figurative, for that purchase.
This spring I was in Washington DC with my boys. When I was younger, my dad would always go to the bank before a trip and withdraw the cash he expected to need while away. Today, however, that thought never crosses my mind. I don't need cash for a cab because I have UBER on my phone. I don't need cash to tip the bellman because I booked through Airbnb.
We were walking and walking, and all of a sudden my son's alarms start going off to let us know his blood sugars were dropping. Fast. Like, we needed to stop walking and find the boy something to eat. No easy task on the Mall in DC.
I set my son on a seat near one of the museums and had his brothers watch him while I went in a somewhat frantic search for a vendor or some place to buy the boy a Coke. I found one, gathered what I needed and then some (they were all hungry as boys often are) and went to pay with my card. "Cash only, please".
There was a time when there were pay phones on every corner. The cell phone made pay phones obsolete. There was also a time when one could find ATMs on every corner, but when businesses started accepting debit cards rather than just cash and credit cards, I suppose banks gave up their strong hold on real estate. For the life of me, I could not get my hands on cash! The closest ATM was six blocks away. Six blocks doesn't seem like much until you are racing the clock and blood sugars.
My father would have been appalled when I sent Parker to Europe without travelers' cheques. Ignoring the fact that one can no longer even get them, the idea that I was sending him over there with merely his debit card and not pockets full of Euro and Pounds would have made my father furious. In true testament to how little paper money means to us now, it wasn't until the day before he was leaving that we even had the thought that he might need a few dollars converted while he travels. (We couldn't get it. Evidently, you need to have a full weeks' notice before you exchange to Euros in the states.)
But the dependence on technology has its down side as well. While no one tried to pick-pocket Parker or any of his friends on the trip, each of them were victims of skimming. His friend had over $700 taken directly from his bank account. Parker lost less; around $250. Luckily for them, it was easy to prove they were nowhere near the bank where the withdraws took place and their banks will refund them their money. And who's to say that if they had taken all the cash they needed for the trip that some scumbag would not have pickpocketed them. Truly nothing is foolproof.
Cash has its place though, even in today's modern technologically inundated world. Cash would have meant getting Matthew food sooner in DC. Cash could have kept Parker's bank account safe while traveling. I find I spend less when I have to part with cash - something about counting it out and handing it over makes me both more conscious about what I am spending and more reluctant to spend. I understand there are companies that are trying to do away with accepting cash, preferring instead to keep all transactions in the cloud, automatic and electronic.
I love technology - have been called the gadget queen by both my father and my husband. I love the ease of using my debit card. But much like the beauty of reading a book rather than a Kindle, there is something about holding cash, feeling the linen paper, the smell of it, that is comforting and insipring. I do not believe we have seen the last of cash in our society.
He needed money. I gave him what I had. Fortunately, my bank card did not work at the ATM that happened to be right there.
I had left work early. Black older man walking down the street stopped me to ask if I knew where the VFW office was. Not the VA office, he said, the VFW office. He said he had been at the VA office for an appointment and they had changed the date to tomorrow without telling him and he had traveled here, to D.C., by bus from Spotsylvania.
He showed me paperwork and his ID card from the VA as he spoke, but almost as if he was frustrated at being given the run-around, not that he was trying to prove who he was. He was annoyed at what had happened and asked if he could use my phone (he said, "Please if you want to hold on to my bag, do, because I don't want you to think I'm going to run off with your phone").
Here is where I could have found out the next day if he scammed me but I didn't want to check, even the next day, when I increasingly realized he had.
He phoned a number he said was a VFW locator. He was told that the nearest VFW office that was open was in Towson, and he said tartly to the guy (if there was a guy), "If I could afford to get to Towson, I would have the money to pay for a place to stay in D.C."
He told me that the VA had given him the address of a hostel in D.C. and he had called the hostel and they said they'd hold a bed for him and the VA said they would pay for it when he showed the receipt the next day.
He didn't ask for money but of course I felt for him because he said he needed to find a place to stay till he could get to his appointment the next day. This sounds more slick in retrospect than it was while it unfolded; while it was happening I just felt annoyed on his behalf at the incompetence he seemed to have faced.
I could have looked up the phone number the next day-- and the number of a hostel he said that the VA had told him he could stay for less money overnight -- but I was unsettled by the whole thing. Was it a scam? Was he really in need? The verisimilitude of a story is made better when tiny details are included, my father the writer, a boy from New Orleans who knew from scams, used to say.
But you know what? I think I would feel worse if I had said, "Sorry, but I can't help."
If nothing else I paid for a great performance. I think I would have felt even worse thinking that perhaps he really is a Vietnam vet who came by bus to D.C. who couldn't find help. I keep thinking, Well, I'm not a cynical hardened person.
With the band
When I was growing up, I always knew in the back of my mind that money was tight--and being the hyper-vigilant, overly-conscientious first child, I felt like I had a responsibility to voluntarily keep a lid on the things that I might want. Or if I did decide that there was some experience or some thing I wanted, I took it upon myself to present it alongside a scheme for paying for it.
However, such was the oddball relationship my family had with money that backgrounded this vague awareness, that we never really overtly talked about money. It was just something that we had sometimes, and didn't have other times. And so, it took me until I reached my first job out of college to be really smacked in the face with the fact of income inequality and the relative value of a dollar.
My first job out of college was working for an orchestra in Orange County (the third-largest orchestra in California behind LA and San Francisco! we never tired of mentioning). And given our location, the strange and strained economics of a way of doing art and commerce that desperately needed innovation and a new donor base tended to take on even wackier forms.
Part and parcel of the fundraising calendar of any arts non-profit worth its salt is the annual gala, where the hoi polloi go to see and be seen, eat a fancy meal and see some entertainment. Ours also included an auction, with items ranging from tickets for 8 on American Airlines to France where our Music Director would personally cook for you, to items who's value was in their novelty, like getting to "conduct" the orchestra in the National Anthem at a summer pops concert.
It was an item like the latter that brought me up short: my first year there, the chance to "play percussion" (read: bang on some timpani at an opportune moment) in the pit of the orchestra when, without a thought, to someone who won with a bid of $25,000. And as a bit of context, this was in 2008 during the height of the financial crisis.
I was sitting in the back when it hit me: as an hourly employee at $15/hr, $25,000 would be about my take-home pay after taxes for the entire year. My yearly wage, with which I would pay for rent, food, student loans and the occasional movie, used to buy the privilege of pretending you're "with the band" and not a hedge fund manager (oh and also to support the arts, but who is counting, right)?
The things a dollar can mean...