Growing up poor and winning the lottery

It’s important I define the ‘poor’ that I’m talking about here: single parent-white-suburban poor.  There are millions of people struggling with a poverty far greater than I’ve ever known.  And I believe one of the responsibilities that comes with abundance is to make the world a more fairly matched place.  We who’ve won the ovarian lottery must strive to make the odds that any one person might have a chance in this world not so small, or arbitrary.

The problem with the single-uneducated-mother brand of poverty that I experienced, is that my mum’s lack of knowledge about money and the pained interactions we had with it, have the power to keep me poor and bewildered when it comes to money, despite my law degree.  You'd think an unexpected windfall might've me things better for me, but it's only exacerbated the problems. It's a big windfall with a lot of baggage.  An inheritance, more than I expected and no direction on how to handle it, whatsoever.  Certainly not from my mother, who hovered between maxed out credit cards and made me promise that when she was old I’d take care of her, that I’d be rich enough to support both of us. 

I remember 12 years later when I told a boyfriend: "all I want to do is earn $100,000 a year at some point in my life, and then I’ll be happy.  And rich."  He laughed and said, “Kiri, you’ll be earning $100k per year before you're 30, if you’re a good lawyer.  $100k is not what it once was.”  I didn’t keep at the lawyering, so I’m still a long while away from surpassing the golden hundred, but it taught me something.  I had the conscience of a poor woman, even though, through various scholarships and schemes on my mum’s part, I’d associated with, and dated, people far above my pay grade.  I was going to law school.  But I had no idea how to handle money, and neither my mother, nor anyone after her, had taught me how.  It remained something big, scary and foreign, and I never felt like I deserved it.  How could anything I ever did with it live up to the loss I suffered in exchange?  Her parting gift.  My consolation prize for raising myself.  A complicated piece of furniture labeled ‘fragile’ and missing the instructions.

When I sold my childhood home and got access to the money, I did what any flighty, travel-ready, depressed lawyer would do: I ran.  I was well-intentioned, and a couple of days before I left for Africa, I took notes on the difference between stocks, and fixed and floating bonds.  But the decision was too big, and the material too confusing; so I left the money in my savings account, to invest when I was settled.  When I knew where I was going to live.  When I’d found a home.  The feeling I had was one perfect, unshakeable freedom.  “I’ll live on the interest from my high interest savings account,” I’d told my panicky auntie and uncle before I left.  It would amount to about $30,000 a year, I figured, and Africa was mostly a cheap place to exist.  And, if I went a little over here and there, it wouldn’t matter so much anyway.  I was young.  This was the time to travel.  It was my time.  

It was a beautiful time, and I enjoyed the lengthy anonymity of my days, not having to worry about money, or having to work, and drinking most afternoons from 3 or so, at some bar.  I pretended to be Hemingway for half an hour, until, invariably, after the second glass of wine, words jumped around on the page and my attempts at stories turned into long-winded journal entries.  Pleas for help, injected with all my yearning to be a success; and the pain, indecision and doubt that comes from there being no clear pathway to the kind of success I wanted.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t even know where to start.  With the writing, that is.  I pushed the money to the very back of my priority list, never checked my bank balance and started living, without even realising, like my mother.  Or, the way my mother would’ve lived if she’d come into money: erratically, frivolously and generously.  Without a budget or a plan for the future.  In blissful ignorance, perpetuated by the hope that one day someone might come along, and look after me.

Until recently, I kept living like that.  I bounced from place to place until I wound up in New York, on the generosity of other people, which I repaid as often and lavishly as I could.  I ignored the poor exchange rate (“too depressing, and out of my control anyway”) and indulged myself. It’s so easy, and nice, to buy the things that you want; presents for your friends, French cheeses to serve at drinks, treating guests, events, and new dresses to wear to the events.  Here, there are thousands of unlikely, wonderful, ways to spend money without feeling like you’re spending anything at all.  The inheritance still sits in my account, and I’m scared of making a decision about it, even as it slowly, steadily, slips away.  I’m very good at forgetting about it most of the time.  I furnish my fantasy with high hopes and blame my inaction on the victimhood of despair: how come nobody ever explained this stuff to me, and, how am I meant to find out on my own?

One small step I took was to enrol in a Financial Literacy weekend that I went to last weekend.  I ummed and ahhed about whether to do it, as I um and ahh over most things that aren’t a kooky vintage dress that actually fits.  But I know I was only so indecisive because it was so scary.  To stare the money in the face, and acknowledge how much of it I’ve already spent, seeing how it has whittled down over the last years, as it lay uninvested.  Ponder what it means, that the weight and heft of my mother’s life can be measured by a number, and that the sum of her struggles and sacrifices has been spent, in part, on my thoughtless folly.  Oh mummy, I think, and feel, in my deep-set fear of money, my scarcity-mindset, and my refusal to deal with it.  Oh mummy, what should I do?  I think, and it is here in the thick of my worry that I commune with her deeply once more.  I empathise with the anguish she felt, her worries for the future, the anxiety that caused her to make me promise that I’d take care of her.  But instead of teaching me how I could take care of myself, she only knew how to teach me to fear, and bury my head in the sand.

What’s your biggest financial fear?  Finance whiz Manisha Thakor asked on the opening night of the weekend… that I’ll waste the last precious gift she gave me, I wrote.  The money is so much more than money, and at once so much less.  I didn’t earn it.  She's no longer here to need looking after, but I’d trade that responsibility for this one in a heartbeat.  Money is energy, a karmic exchange. “It’s not a question of whether you deserve it,” someone once said to me.  “But you have it, and now you've to figure out what you do with it.”  It demands I take responsibility, and when dealing with it, I feel a great deal of pain.  “Money gives you voices.  Money gives you choices,” Manisha said to reassure us.  I have too many choices, and no clear voice, I think.  I feel paralyzed; alternately admonishing, or applauding my dithering, impulsive actions.  It’s hard, heartbreaking work to be at war with yourself, trying to determine what the right thing to do is, all the while fighting the urge to do nothing.  To remain ignorant, and sit on the couch, at home, in the cycle of financial unconsciousness that my mother modeled.  Perhaps there is no way out of this for me, I think sometimes, when making any decision at all feels like it might be a death I cannot weather.  Perhaps there is nothing that should grow out of this windfall.  It's statistically proven that most people don’t cope well with inheritances, that in many cases they’re wasted, because their recipients are unprepared and ill-qualified to make them anything more than brief, lucid dreams.

Money is so multi-layered and personal.  I wonder if I'll ever pin down what my relationship to the dirty, green stuff is.  I’m only a small part of the way in learning how to keep it flowing into my account, rather than out.  It’s more than budgeting, more than increasing my income, and more than deciding to buy a closet in Brooklyn that I’m told I could surely rent for $2200 per month with a Murphy bed, as a pied a terre.  

Having money only amplifies the qualities that you already have: my flippancy, preference for not paying bills, or opening mail, my desire to buy friends rounds, cook dinners, and decorate my house and office with flowers.  Some of these qualities I like about myself, and want to cultivate, but in the extreme, they pain me, stretch my resources, and lend themselves to periodic panic attacks all around the same question: am I being wasteful?

Manisha asked us to light candles at the end of our first session together.  We lit the candles in honour of what our financially stress free lives might look like.  Well, what does it look like?  I thought.

It looks like having enough, and perhaps I already have it; enough, I mean.  It’s easier to think of all the things I can’t do with the money.  Easier to wonder... what if I just had a little bit more.  It brings out a slither of greed in me.  A selfishness  A loneliness.  A financially stress life looks like understanding, and allowing myself to be understood.