Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Feelings and Finances

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Total Black: -$95.85
Total Red: $228,454.60

Just feelings.  Nothing more than feelings.  Feelings of . . . finances?  Come again?

I started reading Suze Orman’s The Courage to Be Rich: Creating a Life of Material and Spiritual Abundance.  It’s good.  Really good.  Although the subtitle pretty much sums it up, some complain that it doesn’t contain enough strategic financial advice.  Well, that’s not what I’m seeking here.  So this book, it turns out, is just what the doctor ordered.  And just pages in, Suze Orman assigns you the task of considering your feelings about your financial situation.  How do you feel about your finances, she wants to know.  “I want you to address your emotions honestly,” she writes, “and commit your thoughts and feelings to paper.  If you don’t have the money to pay your bills, write down how it feels not to have enough money.  If you’re in debt, write down how that feels.  If you have far more money than your friends, write down how that feels.”  What better place than here to follow her advice?

How do I feel about my finances?  Well, let’s break that down a bit further into a few smaller categories.  We’ve got money, spending, appearances, and debt.  Starting with the first in that list, money: money makes me happy.  That is, having money makes me happy.  Not having it upsets me.  Seeing total black in the red is really disappointing.  When I don’t have money, I become a hermit.  I retreat from the world.  I don’t want to leave my home because everything “out there” requires money, especially in the colder months.  Meeting up with friends takes money.  Going on dates takes money.  If I don’t have any money, I just don’t want to be bothered with.  And if I mention to friends that I don’t want to meet up because I’m low on cash, more often than not instead of suggesting something free for us to do, they tell me not to worry about it and offer to pay.  That makes me feel worse because now the good boy in me won’t be rude and say no, and then I feel like I’m whoring myself for friends, so to speak.  Gross exaggerations, I know.  We’re talking here about feelings though, not rational thoughts.  Feelings aren’t rational, or logical.  But when I do have money, however, or when I get a cash infusion, it’s like a high.  It’s like a quick fix.  I want to do things, see people, relax at a coffee shop.  It’s as if my psyche wants to make up for lost time by soaking in as much socializing and action as possible.  Lately, though, having money—and using it to pay bills—also makes me happy.  That’s a new development.

It bothers me that I react this way to money.  Intellectually I know that my value as a human being is not tied to my checking account balance or my credit score.  Emotionally, though, I’m not so sure.  Mostly that’s because I’ve linked money with good times and lack of money with sad times.  Much of that is related to how I’ve regulated my cash flow throughout my adult life.  I operate as if Joseph were interpreting my dreams and predicting seven days of plenty followed by seven days of lean.  Rather than spread it out to last all fourteen, I’d typically burn through it in seven (or less), spending a decent amount on bills, but nevertheless being left with nothing to carry me through to the next harvest.  That’s something I need to tackle.

But money itself bothers me as well.  I worry about these unhealthy feelings I have about money.  I worry about struggling to make ends meet for the rest of my life.  I worry that I’ll end up worse off than my parents—or what may actually be worse, ending up just the same.  It would feel like an insult to my parents, to how hard they worked to ensure that their children have it better than they did.  My father sometimes worked three jobs at a time.  He ran himself into the ground, working as a janitor at an area vocational school.  He got injured on the job and, proud man that he was, instead of reporting it he “manned up” and suffered through, ultimately worsening his injury.  He went on disability leave until de facto retirement came along.  Then he got cancer and died a year later.  So, yeah . . . I carry perhaps too much weight on my shoulders that I, his son, his namesake, will insult his memory by ending up in the poor house, as my grandmother called it.  I worry too that I’ll struggle for the rest of my life battling the financial bulge, wavering above and below my financial wasteline.  My mother would tease that I have champagne taste and a beer pocketbook.  As Shakespeare wrote, “Many a true word is spoken in jest.”  So I worry too that I’ll be continually disappointed between what I desire and what I can afford.

That brings me to spending.  I like spending.  I do.  In a prior entry, Getting There From Here, however, I shared that I don’t spend nearly as much as people seem to think I do.  I value quality over quantity.  I’d rather spend $500 on a good pair of dress shoes—and have them last for three or four years (or more)—than spend $75 every year, for example.  But that’s only recently.  I’ve had spending issues for years.  It started when I was twelve years old.  I became enamored with the Franklin Mint.  I bought the Chess Set of the Gods, porcelain chess pieces of Roman and Greek gods, the Star Trek chess set, the Monopoly collectors edition, made out of cherry wood with 18-karat gold hotels and silver houses, a collection of ceremonial daggers, and on and on. I suppose though that bought isn’t the correct word.  Order would be more appropriate.  I ordered those things.  And I had them right up until my mother stepped in and sent them back to the Franklin Mint, explaining that I was underage and shouldn’t have been allowed to buy them in the first place.  I only got to keep the Monopoly set, and then in an idiotic moment I later gave it to an ex.  So, shopping and I have been old friends.  And I don’t doubt that Little Me was shopping to fill some void.  But I’ve come a long way since then.  Slowly.  As I acknowledged in a subsequent post, If You Find Yourself in a Hole, my credit cards couldn’t have gone up if I didn’t use them.  But now, with rare exception, I don’t spend excessively or frivolously.  Most of my purchases are smaller: coffee, books, the occasional new tech gadget.  And even that’s changing.  I succeeded in avoiding both Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts today while walking back from a interview with a temp agency because I had morning coffee still in the pot waiting at home.  Having to answer to this blog every day helps to keep all this at the forefront.  It’s really effective positive reinforcement.  But it’s not easy.  Part of the lure of spending is appearance.

So many people are still crippled by those pesky Joneses.  For me, money means being able to spend, which means being able to afford nice clothes, which leads to appearance.  Alright.  You got me.  I’m gay.  I like nice clothes.  But that’s not the only point.  Wearing nice clothes is tied with self-esteem and self-confidence.  You carry yourself differently when you’re wearing something nice.  As the saying goes, the clothes make the man.  But the appearance aspect of money isn’t just the externals.  It’s also a vehicle to escaping my parents’ lives.  It’s the motivation to get out of Dodge, and stay out.  As Suze Orman notes, money is attracted to people who are strong and powerful.  Not having money or not being able to project the appearance of money bothers me.  I met my birth mother when I was twelve years old.  She had no teeth, was covered in psoriasis, and showed up in a sweatpants suit to meet me.  The fear that I came from, even in the remotest sense, that poor, toothless woman has been an undercurrent until now.  I guess I’m finally voicing it.  Dressing nicely.  Having expensive things.  They were all ways to puff up my worth, my standing in others eyes.  I couldn’t be seen as the son of a janitor and a factory worker (and the biological offspring of a gummy, classless woman) if I appeared well-groomed and well-dressed.

The problem though is that it’s all smoke and mirrors really.  I commented in a prior entry, The Lowly Penny, about the Arizona homeless man, Richard Leroy Walters, who was a closet millionaire.  No one could determine his net worth based solely on his appearance.  Appearances are deceiving.  Just like with my parents—all of them.  I’ll take an honest, hard-working, blue-collar man like my dad any day over the snide, shifty, back-stabbing white-collar professional.  I used to be embarrassed to tell people that my dad was a janitor—in fact as a boy I used to say he was a custodian because that seemed loftier.  But working as a janitor myself (actually as a porter on a steamboat cruise line) humbled me and let me see how hard my father worked.  Although I haven’t worked in a factory like my mother, being stuck at a computer reviewing documents, performing the same menial and tedious task over and over—that sensitized me to how long and hard she worked.  I guess in some aspect I stress about my financial appearance so that my mother can feel proud of me.  Keeping up financial appearances, though, has really increased my debt load.  And debt keeps me up at night.

I can feel my chest tighten when I think about the IRS debt I’m carrying.  I mentioned in a prior entry, Never Been Further Apart, that the telephone ringing makes me bristle because only creditors call on that line.  The size of my debt also makes me nervous.  I worry about the long-term consequences of my debt.  Earlier today for the temp agency position I had to fill-out an authorization for criminal and financial background checks.  I worry that I won’t be able to get hired because of my debt.  I’ve avoided applying to some federal agencies because they ask you to disclose if you’re delinquent on federal income tax payments.  Sure they say no single item will be dispositive, but in a tough economy with lots of competition . . . .

This has been helpful.  It’s good to just vomit up all this bile and purge it from your system.  Drag it out into the light.  I certainly don’t mean to dwell on the negatives, but it’s important to make connections.  There’s definitely a connection between money, spending, appearance, and debt that’s led, at least in part, to my financial situation.  I know that now.  And knowing, as they taught us during Saturday morning cartoons, is half the battle.

2 Responses

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  1. Joe, I’m stunned. Bowled over by your honesty here but I’m embarassed that I did think you were well off even when you were unemployed. I did realize you were making a statement when you spent money but I thought the statement was that you were exagerating when you were going to run out of money. Even when the behavior didn’t match that theory I noticed but didn’t give it much thought. I should have. I’m sorry

    Larry E

    September 8, 2009 at 09:09

  2. No worries. I’m at this point because of past actions—both good and bad. Not sure what comments by others would have done even a month ago. But getting out of this quicksand is now the priority.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    September 8, 2009 at 09:41

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