on money, lots of it or a lack thereof

It was a glorious mid-September afternoon, and I was in the football stadium at my alma mater with a half dozen of my girlfriends. Our friendships span twenty-two years, and we had spent the morning tailgating with people we had known just as long – it was our annual tailgate and football game with everyone from the second floor of our freshman dorm.

Several of us had seats together for the game, which got off to a terrible start and only grew worse as the time passed. It didn’t particularly matter, though (okay, maybe it mattered a little bit)…and we chatted idly, mellow from the early morning, beer and the warm autumn sunshine.  And in that moment, sitting in the middle of the nosebleed section in the middle of a Big Ten stadium, wearing nothing more than a college t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, a wave of profound gratitude washed over me. This time, last year, if I went to a university football game it distinctly mattered what I wore. I learned quickly after my husband took his fancy new job that women of a certain age and means considered what they wore while occupying box seats at a football game, and what they wore didn’t include sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers. Instead, I had to think in terms of blazers and coordinating blouses, slacks and sometimes even high heels. This was particularly difficult for me because I hadn’t previously cultivated a life where this kind of fashion was necessary, and I was also, for the time being, a stay-at-home mom who had to wrangle two young kids from the house to the game as well.  I did it though, just like I posed for magazine photo shoots and attended faculty dinners, once even when I was recovering from acute food poisoning, just like I tried to tame my hair and do my nails and be the wife I was supposed to be in our new situation.

I didn’t really mind any of it. While this sort of activity wasn’t an innate reflection of who I am, I have always supported my husband’s career, and I am practical enough to recognize the importance, when you are part of a couple, to showing up. There is a reason the term “power couple” is as ubiquitous as it is, and it would be disingenuous to pretend I never referred to my husband’s position or career when doing so seemed like it could benefit us both.

But oh, to be free of it! To go to a sporting event dressed in jeans and sneakers – to curl up on the couch with my kids on a Friday night with a bowl of popcorn and takeout pizza instead of worrying about getting my hair blown out and my nails done for a dinner party – it’s bliss.

I’ve read over and over again that having money correlates to your overall happiness only in that, after your basic needs are met, having a similar amount to your peer group helps with happiness.  When we lived in the city, we earned the same general amount of money as our friends – more than some, less than others, but generally participated in the same range of activities and faced the same financial struggles (paying for daycare and making student loan payments, primarily). We could easily participate in potluck dinner parties, the occasional, fancier, dinner out, movies and theater and the odd sporting event.

When we moved, our income skyrocketed, which should have led to pretty quick financial freedom. We were on our way, and probably would have achieved it if my husband had been able to continue working, but I was surprised at the same time how many demands come with elevated income.  The Midwest town we moved to has very definitive ideas of what constitutes a good neighborhood, and it was important to live and be seen in one of the so-called good neighborhoods. Good neighborhoods, it turns out, have expensive housing.  So we moved into an expensive rental house and the best thing that could be said about that is it was close to S’s work place.

Everything about this house, and I mean everything, cost more money, from the electricity it required to the amount of water we used to the lawn care team we were required to keep, per the rental agreement. I quickly began to understand how household management could become a second career or even, really, a career in itself.  And I found absolutely all of it brain-deadening, except for the bills, which I found horrifying. Back when we lived in the city, I used to joke that I didn’t need any more money, I just needed thousand-dollar problems to stop occurring. As it turns out, thousand-dollar problems rarely stop occurring, so it’s how you manage the promotions and advances in life to guard against them that really count.

In the entirety of my life, I have had true financial security for the six or seven months after we left the city. But I had emotional security for the entirety of growing up, and half of my marriage. The second half of my marriage was rocked by my husband’s addiction, and my own co-dependency and enabling. I am preparing to return to the home we own (a more modest version of our rental, in the same “good” neighborhood) and my kids and I will be living a modest life, defined at least in the next few years by reducing debt, reestablishing our savings for retirement and college and positioning ourselves for a successful future. We will be clipping coupons and putting on sweaters instead of turning up the heat; when we go to sporting events, we’ll be in the nosebleed section most of the time.  We have enough money for what we need, and more than enough love to spread around