Think of big, empty, white room. Imagine a giant pile of money appearing in front of you in that room. What are the first feelings that pop into your head? Excitement? Happiness? An uncontrollable urge to jump up and down and start screaming like a middle school girl at a Taylor Swift concert?
I’m not an expert in psychology or anything like that, but I’m guessing that those emotions fall into the “normal” range of human responses to a windfall. Of course, if you’re like me, you feel nothing other than a strong urge to run the other direction as if that pile of money is actually the alien from The Blob about to eat your mom. Having money is scary. Not having money is scary. Thinking about money is scary. Spending money, the scariest.
Money has elicited feelings of fear in me for as far back as I can remember. One of my early memories is of when I got my first plastic point-and-shoot camera for my fifth or sixth birthday. I don’t remember getting the camera itself. What I remember is getting my first roll of film. Because, dag, Fuji film was expensive. Like, two bucks, at least.
I pored over the Sunday coupons looking for a deal that would allow me to snag some film for my snazzy new camera at an affordable discount rate, and lo and behold, there was indeed a coupon for ten cents off. I cut it out carefully, folded it into a little square, and put it in my pocket for safekeeping until we went to the Food Lion later that day.
I was a very responsible kid, and my mother had no problems trusting me with the coupon. Except, on that dreaded day, when we got to the checkout lane, the coupon was nowhere to be found! I searched all over the store, back in the car, and everywhere I could think of, but it was gone for good. I cried like a baby. Nasty, dirty, little kid sobbing all over Food Lion. And I was the kind of kid who never cried. Ever.
This may seem like a drastic reaction, but you have to understand: I was completely convinced that my family was going to be destitute because I had lost this coupon. Like, defaulting on our mortgage, living on the street, not being able to afford peanut butter anymore poor. All because of that missing ten-cents-off coupon.
It didn’t get much better as I got older. In middle school, I was in “advanced math,” which meant that I had to have a scientific calculator. You know, one that would allow you to do square roots and exponents and basic trigonometric functions. The kind that you get free now on your computer, but in the 90s cost $9.99 at Staples. This is not to be confused with the actually valuable TI-82s and TI-83s that you’re forced to pay $100 to get in high school (still! Even though you can download a free app on your iPhone now that does the same thing).
When I was taking Algebra I in sixth grade, I lost mine. After spending about a week in complete hysterics and checking my locker after every period hoping it would reappear, I decided I needed to weigh my options. The obvious solution was to tell my mother what happened in the hope that she would take pity on me and get me a new one. The second obvious solution: I could buy a new one myself and pretend I never lost it.
But that piece of plastic was the most expensive item on my back-to-school list. It would have taken more than ten weeks of my allowance to replace it, and I was convinced that asking my mother for the money would require her to get a second job. So I went the duration of middle school without one—lying to my mother about where it was and doing every homework and test problem longhand for three years.
This mental problem persists, despite my efforts to rewire my brian. I got this idea a couple years back while reading Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs that I could use video games to cure me. There’s an essay in the book about The Sims. Klosterman basically believes that The Sims is a grand statement about our capitalist consumer society, because the entire point of the game is to make your little person as happy as possible, and the way you do that is by buying it nice stuff. In Sims world, money = happiness. Since the Army uses video games to train troops and stuff, I thought: why not let The Sims teach me to embrace my hidden love for spending money and being a good consumer? But I wasn’t cured yet, so I bargain shopped for a 99-cent used copy of The Sims 3 for Gameboy Advance on Half.com.
When The Sims 3 came two weeks later in a crumpled envelope from a person in Portland, Oregon, I popped it into my machine and created a cute little person who loved money. Everything started off great. I bought her a bed and a couch, and a bike to ride around town in. She got her own refrigerator, a coffee table, and even some tasteful wall art. But I forgot to get her a lock for her door, so one day when I was out at the virtual bar, someone started stealing her stuff.
The first thing to go was the TV. But really, who needs a TV? I didn’t get her cable, so all she could do was watch FOX and play video games anyway, and video game characters shouldn’t be doing anything too meta. Next to go was the bed. Who steals a bed? Who knows, but it didn’t matter, because she could just sleep on the couch. Over the course of a few days, almost everything in my house was stolen. Even the toilet.
The social norms of consumerism—the very rules I was playing this game to learn—dictate that I should have gotten a lock for my door and then repurchased even nicer stuff that would make my Sim even happier. She was getting tired of that old bathroom stuff anyway. Right?
What I actually did was abandon the house, choosing to become a grifter that wandered around the town popping into random, empty houses whenever I needed to pee or take a shower. All that buying stuff was just getting in the way of me completing the mediocre pseudo-quests built into the game, anyway. I abandoned the game completely, failing in my mission of becoming a happy consumer. I’m still not there.
Annie Schutte is a school librarian in Washington, DC. Photo: flickr/ Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden