What's the least amount of money you have ever had? Have you had zero? I don't mean as a metaphor, like not having a lot or having to use your credit card. I mean zero funds, nothing more to access, your account is completely bereft. No more overdraft, your credit card is maxed, no more friends to borrow from, no more change left on the floor. Just you, your wit, and your organs, whose value you're increasingly becoming aware of.
I've hit zero a couple of times. Nothing permanent or too scary—mostly for just one day, but once it was for two. Not for any tragic reasons either: tight funds + poor planning + lack of self control = zero dollars. Regardless, when you hit zero, you feel like less of a person. You're impotent, powerless, unable to interact with the world. You're a wraith, haunting an earth you can't touch while sick to your stomach about all the things that brought you to this moment.
Of course, whenever I'm in this precarious scenario, I have no one to blame but myself. I am horrible with money. I've never saved in my life. The closest I've come to saving is figuring out which of my bill collectors has the most chill (Fun fact: When a bill says "Final Notice" on it, that's a lie; there will be more notices, don't worry.) I don't save because money is the sovereign domain of my quickest, most immediate impulses. I've only ever treated money as the passageway to satisfying my compulsions. Extra money? Sure I could put it toward building a stable life and future, but I want pot and beer right now.
It's this compulsiveness and lack of discipline that has left me in the dire financial straits (talk about money for nothing) that I'm in today. Desperately waiting on every check in growing panic, sinking further and further into debts both institutional ($35,000 in student loans, $15,000 to the bank, $800 to my phone company) and personal ($1,200 to my ex, $200 to an aunt) and with no real plan or hope to pay any of it back. I used to be able to counter the mounting terror and disgust for myself with hippie platitudes, "Money is an illusion, man, meant to enslave us," or "You're an artist dude, you're after something bigger than money," but this self-administered bullshit has left me spinning in place, calcified, broke, and wearing the same pair of self-made jean shorts far too often. The reality of being an adult with no money and the lack of opportunity and freedom it causes has become too pressing to ignore. Here's a brief list of things that I'm finding are nigh-impossible with no money: looking good, having sex, maintaining friendships, having hope for the future
Like most couples, my parents' worst, most vicious fights, the kind that sent me and my siblings to our rooms, trembling with fear, were about money. Of course they were: Money (or its lack) was the manifestation of all my father's failings as a man and as a provider. Money exists as a very succinct ledger of your mistakes. Money was the horror of my family's life. When she wasn't fighting with my dad, my mother (who I consider an Imperator Furiosa–level badass for holding together the psyches of four boys while dealing with a drug-addled spouse) would detail to me, as the oldest boy and her having no one else to turn to, the financial apocalypse that was always on our horizon. With tears in her eyes, she would describe having no idea how we could keep the lights on, where food was going to come from, the shame she felt about us needing welfare, and the hopelessness of not knowing what to do or where to turn to. Except the sky never completely fell; the four horseman never showed. While we didn't go on trips or have new clothes, we never ended up like the more misfortunate kids on the block. There was always food in the fridge, the lights always stayed on, my brothers and I got to play hockey.
It was this mysterious ambiguity, this delay of disaster that defined money for me. Lack of money was an always present but never culminated fear. This is why money never felt real to me. Raised in a house where the main source of income was a drug-addict carpenter, money never existed as a stable, reasonable thing to me but was instead mysterious and vengeful. Money never seemed like an object, something that was a resource that could be tabulated and managed. Instead it was and is an omnipotent force that surrounds me, like gravity or time, that is unexplainable (physics not my strong suit), affecting my life while remaining outside of my grasp and control.
I internalized money as the site of trauma. One thing I've learned in therapy is how we are constantly recreating the circumstances that we are most comfortable in, even if those circumstances are anxiety-provoking. This is me with money: It's why I'm constantly spending it until I hit the zero zone. I only know and understand money as a continual traumatic act, a focal point for all my terror and sadness. Being broke and uncertain about my future is exhausting and depressing, but it's where I want to be. I'd rather be cursing about the cruel gods of finances than taking a breath and telling myself, Maybe no pot this week for you, you crustbucket.
This isn't meant as a solution for anybody else, and I certainly do not mean to imply that the solution to poverty is some bullshit like working harder and saving money. I am fortunate that I have no systemic impediments to any success I may achieve. Money, though, is more than just numbers in an account. It's your dreams, your freedoms, and ultimately your worth. What are you worth to yourself? I am realizing that is why money for me has always been the vehicle for my self-destruction because I view myself as worthless and need to make sure my account balances reflect that. And unless I can change that, I'm always going to be way too dependent on my tax rebate checks.
I want to start dealing with my money like it's a real thing that I have control over. That means not being satisfied with working crappy go-nowhere day jobs, being OK with asking for more money when it's deserved, and treating my future like it matters and saving money. First step: figuring out what to save money in. Under my mattress like a rebellious farmer during the Great Depression? I know, a retirement savings plan. Yeah that sounds good and middle class. I will become the proud owner of a sleek and sexy savings account and make the world my delicious oyster.
Photo via Flickr user KMR Photography
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