Baring All Expense: Our Stories About Money—Or Lack Thereof

| July-August 2009

  • Money Expenses

    image by Nate Williams

  • Money Expenses

In 1989 I finished graduate school and took a research position at a think tank in San Francisco. During the interview, the institute’s founders mentioned that the salary was $24,000. I said, “That sounds like a lot.” I was 29 and living on $7,000 in teaching stipends, so it was a candid, if unstrategic, thing to say. The founders looked at each other. Then one of them said, slowly, “Sandra . . . it’s not.”

Later that year, the Loma Prieta earthquake condemned my apartment, and my employer, for reasons other than the earthquake, began having trouble making payroll. With my $2,000 FEMA check, I moved to Chicago, where I became a professor. My starting salary was $30,000. Three years later, I quit teaching to start life as an author.

The next year, I had an agent and a book contract. My advance was “in the mid five figures.” The book took me three years to write. I married a sculptor whose salary was “in the low five figures.” Which is one reason we eloped.

The paperback rights netted an amount “in the high five figures.” And the advance for my next book sold for a similar sum. I used it to buy writing time, pay off student loans, and move us to upstate New York, where, five years ago, we paid $106,000 for a 1,100-square-foot house. By that time, Jeff and I had two children.

When I file taxes, I feel pleased if our income as an author and an artist meets the median income for a family of four in New York ($79,900). We have no credit card debt or car loans. My retirement plan is to be found stiff and cold at my writing desk.

That is my financial autobiography. I first shared it publicly when I participated in a workshop in which four writers described how we make a living. In so doing, I had to explain that I have no investments and avoid interest-bearing accounts. I told a story that I intended to be inspiring, about how I once ran out of money and, to pay for my daughter’s piano lesson, I found $15 in a coat pocket. If I had expected sympathetic nods, that’s not what I got. Puzzled silence preceded edgy questions. Had no one explained to me the glorious arithmetic of compounding interest?

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