Disclaimer: This is not a “woe is me” post. This is not a search for pity. This is not me soliciting donations. This is me, telling a story about my complicated and mostly negative relationship with money.
I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a long time. I have to admit, I have been nervous about it. I’d almost be more comfortable writing about my sex life than writing about my financial life. In fact, I would definitely be more comfortable writing about my sex life. I think that’s part of the problem though, right? Money and finances become so personal that any kind of financial drawback comes with a sense of shame. In fact, among all of the shaming things that have surrounded my divorce, the financial toll has been among the most devastating.
My relationship with money feels long and sordid. My mom received $37.50 twice a month for child support from my deadbeat biological father. I always knew when those checks arrived. Money was talked about a lot in the house. I feel like I always knew the prices of things and when we didn’t have enough. When I was nine, we moved to a very affluent suburb of Pittsburgh. My family lived way above our means, but even so, what we had couldn’t compare to what surrounded us in our neighborhood. We lived with the unspoken rule that it was better to live in a nice neighborhood and fight to keep up than to live within our means. I got a good education in our school district. That has become my standard defense of my parents’ decision to overextend us. The more I think of it, the less that defense holds up.
I’ve always worked. I helped my sister with her paper route until I was old enough to get my own. When I was sixteen I worked at Dairy Queen and at a shoe store in the mall. I worked in the cafe at the local grocery store through my first year of college. I worked nearly full time hours while maintaining my freshman course load and commuting between school and home. I liked earning my own money. I liked being able to go out with my own money. I liked not having to depend on people. I also liked giving. I came up in a prosperity gospel church that taught that God’s blessings were proportionate to your giving. Even when I left that church, that message was fully engrained in me. I sometimes wonder what things would be like if the money that I gave to church had gone into a savings account instead. I worked throughout college. I did telemarketing then I worked for a non-profit. I usually had enough to pay rent, buy books, and buy coffee and beer. That’s pretty much all you need to survive college.
I got married toward the end of college and a new pathology crept into my life. For most of my marriage, my wife made more money than I did. She put me through seminary. I worked the whole time, but she always made more. I was always proud of her. I loved that she had a great career to which she was well-suited, but in the back of my mind was this very old-fashioned notion that I was failing as a man. It’s funny (ironic) now to think that the times when I finally was making more than she did were the times when I was the most depressed. It was like climbing to the peak of a mountain only to discover that the view was of a landfill looking at other people standing on higher piles of garbage. At the time when I was making the most, I was able to buy the things I wanted (beer, books, and music), support my kids, buy my wife gifts, go on vacations, put a little bit away, pay down debts, and most importantly, give to the organizations that meant the most to me. It was where I was supposed to be and it felt hollow.
When I was asked to resign from my position in 2014, I stepped away from the highest paying job I may ever have. When I reported myself to presbytery, I laid down not just a vocation but an occupation. Not being able to serve the church has meant not being able to do the one thing that makes me feel competent and give me some earning potential even if it is small. Most of what I have made in the last two years has gone to support for my kids. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it should be any other way, but there is something humiliating about having money taken directly from me instead of being able to spend on my kids as I see fit. There’s a criminalizing aspect to it, as if I would not voluntarily care for my two people I love the most in this world if the system were not involved. Since 2014, I have lived with good friends who have let me stay under their roofs rent free. I’ve had help with food and transportation. I watched my house slip into foreclosure. I attempted to file for bankruptcy in hopes of keeping the house, but the monthly bankruptcy payments were too crippling. I’ve often been so overwhelmed by the state of my finances as of late that I have been paralyzed and done nothing.
Here’s the thing: most of America is one missed paycheck away from being where I am now. We’re all walking this perilous tightrope. I’ve been blessed to have people who care enough about me to keep me alive, but sometimes the difference between ruin and stability is the number of contacts that you have in your cellphone. My friend Hugh taught me that. What gets me is that we’re all walking on thin, isolated ice instead of trying to helping each other across the frozen pond. We’re constantly competing to have our stuff, our space, our cars and we miss the fact that needing community is not a weakness. It is what makes us human.
I hate being where I am now. I fully expect the bank app on my phone to develop the ability to laugh at me in one of the next upgrades. I hate feeling needy. I hate feeling incompetent. I hate feeling like a burden. Being broke makes me feel all three. I learned from those early days of child support that my worth is a number on a check. I pray that what I am learning in this time is that my worth can be found in places of greater substance.