When I was 8, we moved from a modest ranch in a lower-middle-class suburb of St. Louis to an affluent suburb of Atlanta. The rambling house was custom built on a lot with a creek and about an acre or so of dense woods. It’s a breathtaking community where I loved being a kid and there are reasons why I’m grateful I grew up without financial innocence.
My existence was full of exploration, catching lightning bugs and watching new fawns wobble through the woods on new legs. It never quite occurred to me that we doubled our home’s size because we suddenly had more money. I had some feeling about it all, like something drifting around in my peripheral vision, but mostly it just seemed like that’s what you do in Georgia. People lived in big houses.
My friends all lived the same way and we went to the same public schools that were rated top in the state. My childhood universe was one big upper-middle-class lifestyle supported by the windfalls of the airline industry during the early 90′s. Life was innocent.
Until it suddenly wasn’t.
The airline my father flew for started financially crumbling until it finally went bankrupt just a few years after we moved. Despite the uncertainty and hanging breath caught and waiting to be free, I somehow knew it would all work out. Wouldn’t it?
I’ll admit it was confusing living in a large house with nice things, yet knowing we were suffering. We had never been ‘rich’, at least by our community’s standards, but it was comfortable. Now there was a feeling of thick unease.
My parents rarely talked about our financial situation in front of us, but I could see it in their pinched faces and rolling waves of tension engulfing them like a tsunami. One moment it all felt so crushing and the next relative calm. I suddenly understood how money impacted everything in our world. The water running too long. Each piece of food from the grocery store. Eating canned goods and inexpensive meals instead of generous cuts of meat. The last bits of toothpaste. Avoiding spending at all costs.
We were counting every penny yet the walls around us were still finely painted and papered. Even at 12, I knew my parents felt they had somehow let us down as less was spent and given. I wanted to tell them it wasn’t true, that we were just fine the way things were. But I knew just saying it aloud would validate the truth. The truth that I knew exactly what was happening and they hadn’t kept it from me at all. So I pretended life was just the same.
But it wasn’t the same. Not really. There was a moment I caught my mother returning the clothes she had carefully saved to buy herself so she could buy something nice for me to have for school instead.
I remember not wanting to wear the new dresses, how heavy they felt falling to my knees. Feeling like I was somehow cheating. Somehow letting her down.
I still feel the sticky heaviness when I think about this moment. It’s difficult to relive the memory of just wanting my mother to be happy. Even now, I wish they had let me feel fully the effects too. I wanted to have the same consequences my parents were facing. I didn’t want them to suffer alone.
It felt like moving underwater, waiting for it to all drain away and reveal what might be left behind after months of not being able to see to the bottom of what lay waiting for us. But like I intuitively knew, things eventually worked out after the tsunami of uncertainty and perching on the edge of fear passed. My father found another job and around that same time, my mother found a part-time teaching job.
Barely anything on the surface really changed. We still had food like always. We still had nice things. The idea and whispers of money had less gravity around it. Toys were a bit grander. The only thing missing was the palpable sadness hanging over my parents. And that I was newly aware of what it all really meant. You can have a nice house and cars and still have a financial crisis through no real fault of your own.
Appearances can be deceiving, which is all the more reason you should never let your stuff be deceptive to you. Your stuff is not your life. What’s tangible is generally disposable and can be taken away. People will thumb your nose at you for living in a big house, and only you know what’s really going on inside.
Others will thumb their nose for living in a tiny apartment but never know what’s really going on in your sizable bank account. You might eat steak one year and then canned goods from a food pantry the next. And it doesn’t matter. Because none of that is your life. It’s all temporary. It’s all appearances.
And I am truly humbled and grateful for all of those experiences, for the cycles of financial gains and losses my family experienced growing up. For the subsequent moments in life when money was tight. For the times it was freely given. For the times it was just okay. Because now I know the big secret.
You don’t really need money to be happy. Or secure.
Money comes and goes. Sometimes there is absolutely nothing you can do about it but ride it out as best you can. Sometimes it will be completely your fault. But regardless of how the rambling riverbed of money flows, you will have the creativity and strength to find a solution.
I also learned how freeing it is to not worry about money. To know you don’t have it, it’s not coming in anytime soon, and there’s not much to do about it. The times I’ve been near broke is when I can stop dwelling on anything past my basic needs of rent and food. Presents are thoughtfully created from nearly nothing and received in fanfare over its innovation. Free entertainment is sought out in the city.
Travel is taken with great care through frequent flyer miles and meticulous connections that cost next to nothing. Odd jobs are sought out and rewarded with a look inside amateur pro wrestling and new friends. When I’m frugal, I’m often the wealthiest I’ve been in my life. Both emotionally and financially.
Money isn’t life. It’s just a tool in life. The real strategy is affording a lifestyle worth living, and not setting yourself up for failure. What I don’t mean is a failure over losing a job or having an unexpected setback. I mean failure to propel yourself forward. Failure to seek out new avenues and instead relying on the same path to get you out of a sticky situation that got you into it.
You need resilience. You need innovation. You need faith. And you need a life that can creatively adapt. When I was self-employed, sometimes I had thousands of dollars in my account. Other times $20. But I knew it would always work out because I was always adapting.
Not having steady income also kept me from thinking it would always be there. That knowledge kept me both financially responsible, as well as flexible. I barely gave pause to 70% pay-cuts from one project to the next if it meant getting to write about travel or earning a fresh clip for my portfolio. I knew I could always adjust when I needed it. I didn’t get locked into a system where money was King and my life was its pawn shuffling around a chessboard, waiting to move forward only if it was safe and convenient.
Look at your life and take an honest inventory of what you’re facing. Even if you’re not planning for a financial setback, are you creatively adapting for a life worth living?
Or are you mortgaged to the hilt to the gravity that if a single domino topples over you’ll have to flee your creditors within weeks? Do you spend all your money on DVDs and the latest gadgets instead of pursuing the interests you’re passionate about but think you can never afford?
Like rock climbing or a writing class? Or investing in interests that can turn into side-income like gardening and carpentry? Are you leveraging 40% of your income for luxury travel to fit some ideal you can’t really live up to? Instead of finding creative ways for free and frugal travel that lend to more experiences than you can imagine? Experiences that exist off the deep throes of your resort fantasy land and open your eyes to extraordinary new ways for life?
Or do you rely on money from a single source that owes you no loyalty? A source that’s indifferent to your well-being and to your family? A source that doesn’t really care if you were creative enough to make sure you could hold it all together… even during the times they couldn’t do it themselves?