I grew up with money, but I’m bad with money. Right now I’m the kind of bad that has collection agencies calling. The kind of bad that has trashed my credit score. The kind of bad that leaves me feeling like a Rockefeller if I have more than $50 left in my checking by the end of the month—something there hasn’t been a single instance of in my working life so far. The norm: Daily alerts from Chase that I have $3.50 in my account the week before a paycheck. And I have a well-paying job.
I have no excuses. Growing up, my family had money. I half assumed we did, in fact, have a money tree growing out back. My father made the money, a lot of it, and my mother spent it, a lot of it on me: figure skating lessons, summer camps, horseback riding lessons, eventually a horse.
The family money meant I haven’t had the roadblocks to financial health others have. My family paid for my education, gave me money to spend during school. After graduation, I was able to live at home with parents in New York while I looked for a job. When I found one that paid but not enough for rent, I stayed longer, and I even received a generous allowance from my father. He wanted to help me out while I was getting on my feet. I was profoundly grateful, but I squandered the gift.
I saved exactly zero dollars. I managed to blow through all of it—and then some. I maxed out and then ignored statements from one credit card, then two, racking up $2,500 in debt. I try to see a silver lining: If I’d gotten a card pre-credit crunch and actually made payments, the evil overlords might’ve increased my limit to $10K (as they did for many of my friends) and I would end up in a deeper hole. For that I’m thankful for my wrecked score.
My spending was about feelings. I felt like a failure for living at home, and going out to dinner and bars and shopping and taking cabs made me feel like less of a failure. Cabs and dinners and cocktails allowed me to pretend to be one of those very busy and important adults I saw everywhere. Adults spent money, and I was determined to behave like an adult. So I did.
I’d convinced myself I was behaving responsibly by spending with wild abandon. But it made me happy to be able to meet my friends who worked in finance or consulting out for drinks, to buy a few rounds of $15 martinis. It felt like my peers weren’t leaving me quite as far behind. So I kept up with them, and spent all my money. When I finally got a job with a higher salary, the kind of salary where I could get my own place, I still had to ask for help: I needed yet another loan from my family for a security deposit and first month’s rent. I got it, and then I still kept spending. More clothes, more drinks, more dinners, and now rent.
And then, an empty bank account and a trashed credit score before me, I decided to make some changes. Last month, I sat down with my checking and credit card statements and highlighted where most of my money went. The culprits: eating out, ordering in, online shopping. I resolved not to online shop or order in at all for a month, and to keep careful track of every single dollar I spent. And suddenly I began to appreciate the value of a dollar.
Now I’m the friend who insists on waiting 18 minutes for the C train after midnight instead of taking “only a $12 cab home.” It may be awhile before I’m good with money, but I want to be decent, at least.
Kate Louis lives in New York.