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

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image by Nate Williams

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?

Apparently, many people view money as an organic, growing thing. For me, money in the bank is like soup in a chest freezer. I put it in there in June so that when we all have bronchitis in January, we can still eat dinner. I don’t expect growth. In fact, insistence on economic growth seems to me an inherent threat to the planet.

Am I alone in my beliefs here? It’s hard to guess. Even though the Great and Terrible Oz called Wall Street has now been unveiled as a doddering swindler, few of us know much about one another’s financial lives. Even among friends, talking about how much each of us earns, owes, and saves is taboo.

Indeed, the highlight of CNBC’s Suze Orman Show is the segment “Can I Afford It?” in which callers ask Ms. Orman if, say, a vacation in Fiji is reasonable to contemplate. So great is our hunger for economic disclosure that Orman’s verdict is less enthralling than the numbers–income, savings, debt load–scrolling down the screen. “Ann from California has $600,000 in retirement? No kidding?”

Orman’s implicit message is “you are not alone.” But television is no substitute for conversation. Our stories about money, when they’re told without nostalgia or judgment, provide perspective. On the bleak day when I handed the piano teacher the last of my crumpled cash, I walked around my house and looked at everything. Nothing is allowed to break. And I paid a visit to Ruth, an 80-year-old potter.

Ruth listened to my story and then told me one of her own about the time her father was laid off from a New Jersey silk mill and her mother boiled chicken legs for dinner–the part that begins south of the drumstick and ends with claws. Here was the point: Her knowledge, as a child, that everyone else’s father was likewise unemployed, that everyone else’s mother was likewise turning poultry bits into gelatinous glop, was what made the Depression bearable. We were all in the same boat. It wasn’t private.

Last fall a manufacturing company contacted me about a writing project that involved analyzing environmental health risks. The budget for the project was “in the low six figures.” But as negotiations continued, it became clear that I would have to sign a confidentiality agreement regarding proprietary chemical processes. I’d have to keep secrets. I thought about Ruth’s chicken legs. I thought about what my own grandmother had told me: Silence is the sound of money talking. I said no.

Excerpted from Orion(March-April 2009), a magazine about environment, culture, and spirit;

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