I met Chris at a mutual friend’s concert in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in early 2011. We bonded over the fact that we had both been in junior high productions of the same, very obscure, musical, Angels Aware. He sang me one of the songs from the production and I was instantly smitten. He was handsome, smart, funny and driven. What I didn’t know that night was that he was also hopeful for the first time in his life. He had just returned to work after a double lung transplant to replace his diseased lungs, which had been ravaged by cystic fibrosis.
Chris passed away on Feb. 20, 2013 at the age of 31. I spent the day after he died lying face down on my carpet waiting for my younger sister to fly in from out of town. The next day, I went on a shopping spree of epic proportions.
That kind of irresponsible spending is against my nature. I work in a notoriously low-paying industry (book publishing), and I have always been good at setting and sticking to budgets. I am not a reckless, impulsive spender. My budget is divided into weekly and monthly spending allocations. I use transit check and a flexible spending account to get as much mileage out of my pretax dollars as possible, and I contribute enough to my 401(k) to receive all of my company’s matching funds. My multiple savings accounts for different savings goals pull money from my checking account as soon as my paycheck lands. I love to save money for well-considered, big-ticket items. I once saved for five years to be able to quit my job and travel around the world with my sister. For me, it’s worth it to not carelessly spend on the small things that add up—I’m always looking at the bigger picture.
But the Friday after Chris died, I didn’t care about any of my budgets. My high school tutor once told me I should always dress up for an exam, because if I looked good I would feel confident as well. I knew I would be visible at the wake and the funeral, and I thought that if I looked my best, I would be able to make it through the day. I bought a $268 dress for the wake, $182 black shoes I could stand in all day, a $160 black sweater, and a $43 purse. I spent $70 on makeup at Sephora. I got a $40 blowout and a $10 manicure. My sister looked at me and said, “You look stressed. A chair massage would make you feel better.” So I opened my wallet and paid $20 for one.
That night I took my sister out to a cocktail bar I’d wanted to try, and to and a nice dinner at Momofuku Ssam Bar. We took an unnecessary taxi back to my apartment. Another $236 was deducted from my bank account.
My spending spree continued over the next few months. I needed a reason to get out of bed in the morning, so I registered for races to run ($70). I needed something to look forward to, so I joined a summer share with my friends on Fire Island ($1,200). I signed up for kickball and bowling leagues so that I had somewhere to be during the week ($375). Then, of course, I needed cute clothes for all of these social events ($500).
My therapist suggested that I sign up for a writing class to help me process my grief ($445). Therapy? That’s not cheap ($2,100 since the day Chris and his nurse called to tell me it was time to say goodbye). On what would have been Chris’s 32nd birthday, I sent his mother flowers ($75).
Since Chris died, I’ve gone out to dinner or drinks almost every night. I am desperate to feel connected and I avoid being alone. I buy rounds at dive bars ($40), and eat long leisurely brunches on the weekends ($55). I take taxis all the time that I never would have taken before ($262). I have thrown my credit card down over and over and spent money without a second thought. My therapist says that this type of spending is a typical reaction for women who lose their partner, especially after a long illness. She says that spending money on things like classes and vacations is a way for me to reenter the world of the living.
Three months later I’m just starting to feel like I can control myself, but I’m still burning through my carefully saved money at a rate I would have panicked about earlier. I don’t care—I just want something concrete to hold onto. When I swipe my card I think: I deserve this. I have been through so much. I think: I will do anything to make myself feel better. Or I think: Who cares about this money anyway? Chris worked hard and saved money his whole life and look where it got him. Chris is dead and nothing else matters.
A native Midwesterner, Sarah has spent time living in Boston, Auckland and Berlin. She is currently grounded in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she balances a career in publishing with freelance writing (when she’s not balancing her checkbook). Photo: senhormario