The almighty dollar—what is it good for?

Editor’s note: Apropos to the Recession Survival Guide this issue, we are reprinting this column from February 2008, which remains just as relevant now as before the economic spike.

I’ve never gotten the hang of money. Sometimes I tell myself it’s because I’ve never had enough for a real lesson, but that’s just what I tell myself.

I’ve referred to myself as fiscally handicapped, and that seems like a reasonable tag, although not much of an explanation. Where money is concerned I’ve always been in the moment, way before it was fashionable.

I got in debt over my head for the first time more than 40 years ago, and things haven’t improved much since. I ran up a credit card bill at the bank where I worked, and the personnel department called me in for a talking-to and recommended that I cut up my card on the spot. I was insulted or offended or something, and I refused. They had the right idea.

If money management were something else, like drawing or shooting pool, I wouldn’t mind incompetence. I don’t expect to be able to do everything well, and since I’m not bad at everything, I can accept being lousy at some things.

Money’s different, though. It’s everywhere, figuratively speaking, and necessary for damn near everything but the sun and air, although that could change. So fiscal incompetence is a serious disadvantage and seems to affect all areas of my life, including my relationships with my nearest and dearest.

I suppose, like most other personality disorders, poor money management stems from some early trauma, maybe not enough breast milk. I remember my parents’ arguments about money and how feeling poor doesn’t require actually being poor.

I had another economic recession in the late ’70s and managed to scrape by on little or nothing until I started working in bicycle shops and raised myself up to the lower class.

The way things are in this country, affluence—and excess if possible—is the only universal indicator of personal success, so I expend much of my psychic energy trying to convince myself that although I don’t have two nickels to rub together and am unlikely to, I can still be a good person and worthy of life and love and all the rest. Sometimes I believe me, and sometimes I don’t.

Having a family has made my money hang-ups and dispositions much harder to deal with. When I was broke and alone, eating oatmeal until payday was unpleasant but bearable. If my sons need something, though, I just don’t know how to say no, and I use whatever credit I have to get them what they want, even if it’s an iPod. I know it’s dumb.

My parents never owned a home, and we were nearly the only family in the neighborhood that didn’t. I realize now that I always felt less than, not quite as good as, people who had a house. I know better now, but feelings don’t just go away. If we’re lucky, the unpleasant ones change into something better.

I used to deny poverty, thinking that would make a difference. I’m not denying anything now, and last year I finally cut up my credit cards. It’s a start.