I am built to think that I deserve things. It is safe to say that there are things that I do deserve. All humans deserve shelter, a belly full of food, the most basic sense of human decency that we can put out into the world, be it holding a door or giving up your seat on the subway for an old woman clutching the pole. These are truths that I carry deep within my heart.
Here’s a list of things that I don’t “deserve”: new shoes, five pencil skirts of varying shades of gray, a pill-y sweater and a handful of cheap gold from Forever 21, a couple of paperbacks from the guy on Bedford who sells them 2 for $5.
But ever since I’ve been unemployed, the pile of things that I’ve purchased because I deserved them has grown. I feel like I deserve more than ever.
Working full-time and having a steady income allowed me to convince myself that I was good with money. Before and after every purchase, I’d check my bank account, dividing the amount of money I had by the number of days until I got paid. Armed with that magic figure, I could make swift decisions on what I could and could not do. Yes, I deserve to go out on this Tuesday, because the number is okay. Yes, buy this shirt, you’ve been good this week. You need those jeans, you can’t find your others. Buy the books, add them to the pile. You deserve it.
Without a steady income, my budgeting has become simpler, easier to manage. There is a finite amount of money to work with. I am attempting a financial lockdown, trying to spend only what I need and not what I want, but now, I feel I deserve more. Long days spent indoors at my desk writing cover letters and sending emails find me wandering the aisles of Duane Reade late at night, dropping $30 on nail polish and magazines. A quiet voice whispers, “You’re wearing your contacts today. You are trying as hard as you can. You are doing everything you can do. You deserve this.” Because I woke up, because I went through the motions that other people with jobs, with health insurance, with midtown lunch ennui do every day, I reserve the right to purchase frivolities with impunity.
The notion of a system of self-rewards means making tiny deliberations with myself. One pitch that I knock out of the park is a pencil skirt that I’ll wear to a job interview not yet secured. A day that ends in tears and a succession of cigarettes smoked in frustration on my roof deserves a full-price copy of The Most of Nora Ephron, purchased in a fit of pique at the bookstore across the street. These purchases are bandaids, an attempt at staunching the flow of anxiety and unease. Without the reward system inherent in most jobs, where people show their appreciation in ways big and small, I have devised my own way of generating that valuable bounty.
My relationship with money is uneasy. Growing up, we had not enough, and then slightly more the older I got. My mother is a woman who occasionally hides Macy’s bags of clothes with the tags still on in the backseat of her minivan. She has a walk-in closet stuffed to bursting with unworn clothes, purchased out of a desire to stay relevant with her four daughters and the teenage students she works with. When I’m home, we shop for hours, diligently searching for sales, buying ourselves things that we certainly don’t need, but definitely deserve. There’s a slight anxiety that hits when you hand over your debit card, a brief tingle in your feet followed by the thrill of what could be when you have the item in your hand, when it’s yours.
Two weeks ago, after a frustrated gchat conversation with a friend who informed me that I did not need to buy anything else, I closed my computer and walked down the street to a clothing store where I touched racks of sweaters, an act of reassurance. I deserve this.
Megan Reynolds lives in New York.