I Just Turned 50 and I Still Don’t Understand Money
Just before my fiftieth birthday this past spring I was driving with a friend I’ve known for more than thirty years. Ours is a strange friendship. When we’re together there’s no idle chitchat or the exchange of juicy gossip. Instead all our conversations veer towards subjects profound: love, the merits of marriage or whether it’s better to forgive one’s drunken father’s failings or hold him accountable, forever. In truth, it can be exhausting. Sometimes I just want to dish about whose thighs have gotten fat or what really happened to Al Gore and Tipper’s marriage.
As I waited for my friend to pick me up I just knew that my turning fifty would mean some reckoning, some thorough reassessment of my life. I watched her car pull up with deep trepidation and had to laugh when before I had even done up my seatbelt she turned to me and said, “What do you owe money?”
Of all the subjects, my career, my marriage, I didn’t think money would be what we’d try to get to the bottom of while heading north to her country place, mostly, because I have no clue about money.
I turned and looked at my friend. Her lips were pursed and her jaw ridged. I knew then that I wouldn’t be able to joke my way out of this one. So I stalled.
“What do you mean?”
“You owe money your attention, your respect, your time,” she said. “You, on the eve of the second half of your life, have to start thinking about money, start being responsible for it.”
I stared out at the city we were leaving. If I had had the courage I would have jumped out of the car and made a run for it. How do you defend yourself against a lifetime of not making, understanding, knowing, getting, or even winning money?
To my friends who understand money, I’m a freak. For them, my not seeing how money works is as strange as not understanding something as simple as up and down, which, when you think of it, is best knowable as a physical concept. I believe driving north takes longer than driving south. I just do, and I can’t help it. Same with money. I think it is a tangible real force. And it has as much hold on us as gravity, our DNA, or chocolate.
And if something is that real, it can be that illusive. Which isn’t to say, of course, that every man on earth doesn’t feel the difference between money in his pocket or vice versa. At least I know I’m not alone. There are millions of us out there and probably have been since the first coins exchanged hands. Just think of Mozart who, while composing like a fiend, was constantly scrambling to make the rent (boy do I know that!) Or Butch Cassidy who, at least according to the movie, when asked in all seriousness by Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta, where the money that they had worked so hard to steal has disappeared to, Butch replies in all honesty he has no idea. However, not understanding money doesn’t divorce us from having strong opinions about how it should behave. My own father, for as long as I can remember, is wont to pound on the table and exclaim that all the world’s ills come down to interest. He’s actually in some good company on this one. Both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas preached that things should have an absolute worth. Although, in my father’s case, he probably doesn’t want money making money because it would only make more of something that so far he’s never managed to get his hands on.
I have tried to figure out where my money goes. Over time I’ve kept receipts and dutifully gone online to stare uncomprehendingly at my meagre sums. Even so from one day to the next it’s gone. And trust me, I’m not sitting here swathed in Louis Vuitton, nor am I on a first name basis with the hot chefs in town. Personally, I think my money gets bored by not being challenged enough and just decides to lope off to fill someone else’s bank account leaving me scratching my head.
But how to explain this to my friend? We had now broken free of the city proper but not even the fresh spring scent or the beautiful lush green of the newly hatched leaves was enough to relax her jaw. The problem was I could tell she wanted me to declare what I was worth. Not my net worth. Zero! But what I thought I should be paid for what I did.
Now here is where money gets really tricky. I am a writer. All day long that’s what I do, sit in a room and write about what consumes me. And yet, call me nuts, I am always completely surprised when someone pays me. They have put a price tag on my words. And that seems utterly surreal. And because I’m unsure what this price tag on my words really means, somehow I don’t feel responsible for the money that I have earned. If we were cartoon characters, I’d be in one corner eyeing money suspiciously while money, in the other corner, would be lolling about, preening itself, decidedly indifferent to me.
In order that my weekend in the country wouldn’t be a total bust, I had to come up with some new money-view, money-plan, some sophisticated way of thinking fitting of a newly minted fifty-year-old woman, one too that would make my friend happy. But what?
Believe me I spent the rest of the ride trying to think of ways to mitigate my adversarial relationship with that filthy lucre but I came up with nothing, absolutely nothing.
Then just before we turned off the highway something occurred to me. I turned to my friend and said with the most righteous tone I could muster. “Hey, wait a minute. Shouldn’t your question be, “What does money owe me?”
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