Monday, March 31, 2008

Why I Write About Money

Money is an odd topic. It is something that touches and impacts all of us, but is still viewed as the purview of 'professionals' - brokers, economists, accountants, financial planners and so on.

Those folks provide valuable services, but money is something we're all qualified to talk about, write about, and have opinions about. We all use it - most of us daily.

I write about money because it's had a profound impact on my life - both the having of it and the not having of it. It's not that I'm so interested in money per se - having money is nice, not having it is scary, but it doesn't buy you happiness, no matter how much you try. It's that I'm fascinated by the physical and emotional impacts of money on myself and the world around me.

When I was 18, my parents told me I needed to either go to school full time or work and pay rent. I never learned much about money at home as a child. My father was a compulsive spender, My mom and stepparent never talked about it, but I knew they didn't have much.

So I started out with the idea that money would always be in short supply, and that I should spend what I had. While I wish my parents had taught me about how to handle money responsibly, what I did with my knowledge, or lack thereof, is entirely my responsibility. Still, I took their inadvertent lessons to heart. And having grown up with little in a relatively affluent area, I felt my distinction as a 'have not' amongst the 'haves' pretty deeply.

I saw money as a means to the list of things I wanted to buy. I was ecstatic at the preapproved credit cards that had started arriving. And since I had difficulty with school (unbeknownst to me I struggled not with lack of discipline, but with attention deficit disorder) despite being fairly intelligent, I weighed all the options and went to work.

But making 7 bucks an hour at a grocery store isn't exactly inspiring. I headed into the military, and left my credit card bills to rot.

After a few years, I was in a debt-spend cycle, with, of course, completely trashed credit. I had a corporate job by that time, but never made much. And then a few things conspired that really changed my life, and I realized I had to get my financial house in order.

I picked up a copy of "The Complete Tightwad Gazette" by Amy Dacyczyn, and read it cover to cover. I'd seen a review of her books, and I was curious.  It was literally one of the best decisions I'd ever made.  I slashed my spending in a number of areas, learned to love beans and rice, and watched my debt go down, and my credit rating and my savings go up.

I became quite interested in personal finance, and resolved to learn everything I could about it.  I read everything I could get my hands on - books, message boards, websites - everything.
But I never learned to stop wanting, or to stop feeling like I was a 'have not'.  And so when things went badly, as they sometimes did, I would spend.  

Finally, a few years ago I met my husband.  He had debt, I had little savings, and we had dreams.  And I somehow finally got it - there would always be temptation, and a long list of things I wanted.  I will never not be a spender by nature.  So I would have to learn to work around it.

Once again, out came all my personal finance books.  And this time, I meant to take it to heart, to really learn, and learn I did.  In just over 3 years, we paid off over $24,000.00 in student loan and other debt, paid for a good-sized chunk of our wedding and honeymoon in cash (we received the rest from our families), and began saving for a down payment on a house.  We bought that house in March of 2007, and not only did we have a large chunk of money to put down on it, but we had saved closing costs and funds to renovate and furnish it.

In short, I learned what it really meant to set and achieve goals.  I think, in the past, I had set goals that were either unrealistic or I simply couldn't visualize them coming true.  But once I started achieving goals, once we started hitting those targets, the success bred more success.
Some of that was me changing jobs to increase our income.  But much of it was simply deciding that I was finally going to be in control of my relationship with my money.   And that if I was in control of my money, I was a have, not a have not, no matter how big or small my bank balance was.  It's a profound mental shift.

Today we have a lot more goals to acheive.  Downshifting, kids, retirement, travel, and much more.  And I still love to go shopping.  And I still sometimes would love immediate gratification.   But I have learned it is so much better to wait and get what you really want - those things that make your life truly better, than to just get a new sweater.  

And because I have made this shift, and spent much time talking with others who are struggling with the same things I have, I think I'm very qualified to write about money.  I don't have a degree in it, and I'll never hang out a shingle as anything other than what I am - someone who knows what it is to be at the financial edge, ready to fall off, and then to step back from the cliff.  
Money is hard.  Sometimes it flows through my life with abundance.  Sometimes it does not.  But it is always a presence there.  It isn't what makes me happy.  But much like the blood in my veins, money is the liquid currency of daily living.  It pays for the roof over our heads, it allows us to achieve our dreams, along with covering the basic necessities.

I'm not a professional.  Except that I am.  "Mon metier et mon art c'est vivre" wrote the french essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, in the 16th century court of Henry III.  My trade and my art is living.  Like de Montaigne, I write about what I know.  What I think.  What I feel to be true.

We are all professionals at life, as much so as anyone else who has ever lived. We do it every day.  Some of us attended the school of hard knocks to learn a lesson.  I learned mine well.
I am qualified to write about money.  I know it - how it can hurt, how it can help, what it can and cannot do.  

I am a student of it.  And I am also a teacher.  My trade and my art is living.  And I am good at it.

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