We Have No Money
by Lynn Steger Strong
We have no money, says my husband. We are poor.
You need to understand, my husband says. He travels often but is home with us for the week. He’s spent almost all this time working on the house, the fence he’s building, the backyard. I mention a professor that I had in college making fun of the guy that lived next to him, Joe House, he called him, no interests, no ideas, no nuance, just a dude, every chance he got, who worked on his house. This is my passive aggressive way of asking my husband to come inside and talk to me. Instead he tells me that we are poor and so he can’t.
Poor is a state I’ve claimed almost my entire adult life. It is a word I’ve thrown around wantonly, even proudly, a word laid claim to by almost everyone I know. All of us in our late-twenties, early to mid thirties, some with secret stores of help from their parents, some who just got a raise or have for years now had solid steady jobs: we all say that we’re poor.
In Brooklyn, where we used to live, everyone was poor because everything was so expensive. Everyone wanted to meet at the cheap Thai place, to get takeout Vietnamese sandwiches instead of sitting down; they packed their lunches in small metal containers and drank their homemade juices from glass jars. Some of them looked for houses, some brownstones, East or South of the more gentrified parts we all used to live in, but the private schools will suck us dry, they said, though none of them had kids.
We moved to Florida and are even poorer. Cost of living’s less but we’ve accounted for this in too many ways. I signed our two year old up for the expensive preschool. I’m staying home to write, to parent; I go to two job interviews, have two fancy degrees, and am offered less money to work full time than it would cost to cover the care of both the kids. My husband’s working less so he doesn’t have to be gone every week.
Seriously, though, he says. Really. We are actually poor.
We go through our expenses together. I get a pen and a piece of paper and add all of it up: the credit cards, the student loans, the mortgage, health and car insurance, chlorine-free diapers. When I add up the expenses and then what we make, we’re almost exactly even, as in we make almost as much as the bare minimum of what it costs for us to live every month. As in we are methodically going deeper and deeper into debt.
I cancel our 7.99/month Hulu plus subscription; we already don’t have cable. I’m not sure what else we spend money on. Maybe we don’t need the chlorine-free diapers? I say. I research this. We go back to the chlorine-free that don’t work as well, but are less likely to give our daughters some kind of weird chlorine-type cancer; I let them go without their diapers when they play outside. We start potty training the two year old.
Food, I say. The only thing we buy is food. I try to pay better attention. I stand, at the grocery store, infant strapped to my chest, toddler in the cart trying to stand up, grabbing fruits and vegetables. I stare at the organic and the non-organic fruits. Maybe it’s okay to get the non-organic if it has a peel? Like oranges are fine? Except the baby always tries to eat the peel. The toddler throws a peach, organic; I pick it up and put it back. My brain keeps saying bankruptcy or cancer: then, the choice seems clear. I put the non-organic back and buy organic frozen. Frozen is cheaper and doesn’t go bad. I buy bags and bags.
Books, my husband says. How are there more books? This is my job, I say, reading. He doesn’t answer. He looks down. I make no money from this “job.” I read three or four books every week. This is becoming more and more apparent, my “job” not making any money. I am embarrassed even calling this free-fiddling-I-fight-mercilessly-for-time-for a job; I am embarrassed even by the amount that I still fight.
No more hardbacks, I say. I’ll go to the library.
I get a card and swiftly run up a late fee so large that I’m afraid to even drive on the same street as the library. I can talk about this fact to no one. My husband quietly, mercifully returns the books, pays the fees.
My husband looks into jobs in finance. He studied economics at an ivy-league college. He’s good at math. We’re trying harder to grow up. The jobs sound like death and would have him away even more than when he travels. But we’ll be able to afford childcare? He says. No one wants to interview him, so the point is moot and he’s finally able to admit he wants to be a teacher.
A teacher? Asks everyone we know who knows how broke we are. A teacher! Exclaims everyone we know who’s always had money.
We decide to move back to New York. This is the worst financial decision ever in the history of financial decisions. If I don’t go back to New York I will curl up and I will die. Bankruptcy or a long slow death with republicans and no friends and no ideas I ask my husband. He transfers the last of the money from our IRA. We sign a lease. We’re moving to a more expensive place for me to get a pay cut, says my husband. But it’s good, I say, it’s right.
My twenty-four-year-old brother comes to visit just before we move back to New York. He looks awful. He lives in Houston, has no friends and a job in finance. He discloses that his last end of the year bonus was over 100 grand. I almost throw up my lunch and then ask him to pay for our older daughter’s preschool. He agrees and then rescinds his offer via text within the hour.
I look at my babies. You don’t know we have no money, I think. They are young and gorgeous; they don’t understand money, I think. They don’t know that we all die. They wear the hand me downs we are given from my sister and people for whom my husband used to work and they don’t know any better. We live in a tiny house. Our toddler calls it “Our little blue house,” and when we go to the massive houses of the kids she goes to school with, she looks at me, completely innocent, and says, this house isn’t like my house, seeming to pity these kids who can’t always hear their parents breathing in the room next door.
We move back to New York. We want the good school district, the good nanny, the organic food, the time to work, to read, to breathe, the time to talk to one another at least once a week. The ability to talk to one another about something besides the fact that we have no money, about something besides the fact that we need the other to please just give me one more fucking hour to get what I need to get done done; all of this, though, will make us poorer, so we don’t. We fight more than we ever have. What are you doing mommy? The toddler asks me as I yell on the phone to my husband that he has to come home early knowing full well that he can’t. Why are you saying that, she says.
I get an email from my former grad school informing me there are job openings at a writing center at a college uptown. They pay 13.60/hr to people with a master’s, 16 to those with PhD’s. This is before taxes. The babysitter gets 20 bucks an hour. Cash.
I acquire a twitch in my eye, start having panic attacks in the middle of the night. I need to talk to my New York therapist, but our Florida insurance can’t be cancelled until August and it doesn’t cover it, so I call her only when I’m so bad I worry I might have to be committed. I hyperventilate, hysterical, running my hands along my legs in the backroom as I watch my husband down the hall of our small apartment, trying to calm the toddler down; my therapist is good and kind and helpful; she agrees to these randomly appointed triage sessions and gives me a small but merciful discount. We still cannot afford the sessions that I have.
We can’t do that anymore, my husband says, once I’ve talked to her and I’m calmer. You have to call her, he says two weeks later, when I can’t breathe again.
There was a time when our ideals matched up perfectly with our poverty. We didn’t want clothes or cars or houses. We didn’t want real jobs. We spent years doing just exactly what we wanted. I waited tables. My husband mostly worked with kids. I wrote four failed novels. I read so much. I quit almost every job I hated. I quit jobs I liked because they weren’t the thing I’d always thought I had to do. My husband got paid to travel the world and ride on boats. We hung out, ate well; we moved a lot.
I once ran into a guy I knew from high school on the subway coming home from waiting tables when I was twenty-two. We’d been the smart kids at our public high school. Both our parents successful. Him nerdy, perfect, clean cut, me, always, something of a mess. But we’d gotten almost the exact same test scores. We’d gone to the most well thought of schools. He was wearing a wilted suit at 2 AM on a Thursday, looked so much older than we were. I was in waitressing clothes: all black and tight with supportive well-soled shoes. I’d had too much to drink after work and had made friends with two guys on the ride downtown from my restaurant. I had agreed to take them to the tattoo parlor close to my apartment to get their first tattoos. And this kid, his face, our stilted, awkward conversation, I felt for sure that night I’d won.
Of course it’s not as simple as how wrong I might have been then, how much he might have, might still pity me. I had won, insofar as I had then what I wanted. He had too, maybe. Maybe what it is as simple as is winning is bullshit. We were both paying, losing then, we both still are.
My brother drives a BMW to and from work. He has savings, a 401k. I can’t even type those words and not see the face of myself at twenty-four, bored, annoyed, disgusted; does he have ideas? Interests? Does he have a soul?
But money isn’t nuanced. Neither is debt. No matter how many books I’ve read or written. How much of the world I’ve seen. That shit won’t get my kid to preschool. It won’t get me childcare; it won’t feed my girls good healthy unprocessed foods all fifteen times a day they want to eat.
I started writing this thinking maybe it would get me to an answer. I had just looked at our credit cards online and, instead of looking for a job, instead of cancelling the day’s childcare, I sat down and began to write.
We have no money, I wrote. I wanted to see what it looked like, what it felt like, to see if I could make sense of it. Because to me nothing is real until it’s shaped into language. We have no money. But still, I’m not sure what those four words mean.
We have no money, but we have New York again. I have no idea how we’re planning to pay our rent. We have no money, but our babies are happy, well fed, adored and read to. We have no money, but we have friends who put us up last month when we couldn’t yet move into our apartment, friends who come over, who bring us food, and conversation, who love our kids. We have no money and all that other stuff we’re rich in will not help us if and when bankruptcy happens. We have no money, but there’s still nothing that I’d change.
Lynn Steger Strong‘s first novel, HOLD STILL, will be published by Liveright/Norton in 2016. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.