In my 20s, I had a very dreadful mantra about money: “it’s only money, and you always get more.” Apparently, I made it up, because a quick Google search doesn’t yield any references. Fortunately, no one else is quite as silly! I would toss this little slogan off anytime I was worried about money or whenever friends were trying to decide about how to spend money. The idea was that there were much more important things in life and no reason really to grub over every dollar. I felt that I was talented, educated, and pretty lucky in life, so I figured I’d never make heaps of money, but some money would always be there.
How did I cultivate such an annoying sense of entitlement? No, I did not have a trust fund — far from it! However, I did basically get paid to go to college. I chose to go to our local public university. In an effort to boost their quota of over-achievers, the school awarded full rides. Our state also gave scholarships to everyone with a certain ACT score to keep them in state. I was fortunate enough to get both scholarships, so I think this may have shaped my thinking about money. Don’t get me wrong, I believed that I worked hard for that money. However, I also had the feeling that I’d always have a job and that lucky breaks would fall my way. In many ways, that held. I had a teaching assistantship all through graduate school and lucked out on the academic job market when the time finally came. I have always had a steady stream of income. For most of college and graduate school, I also worked part-time jobs for extra money. Over the years, I did fund raising for our university, was an orientation leader, taught ESL classes, answered phones, taught with my high school marching band, judged competitions, did SAT tutoring, sat at a reference desk at the National Archives, and wrote for the Maryland State Archives. Four of those part-time positions offered me full time work; I accepted two — one for a year after my M.A. and one for a year after my Ph.D. So, on the plus side, my “you’ll always get more” mantra worked for me; I was never without work.
However, lately, I’ve been thinking about how awful the “it’s only money” half of the mantra really was. Basically, my little philosophy set me up to live paycheck to paycheck. Since I thought I’d always get more money, I spent all the money I had. I have two big regrets about my financial choices during those years: not studying abroad and taking out all those student loans for my Ph.D. In college, I had all my expenses covered — tuition, room, board, and books. I worked every year after my freshman year, so I could have used that money for my car, insurance, and “fun” expenses. If I had put the state scholarship in the bank rather than spending it, I could have easily taken advantage of our study-abroad program, especially since my school scholarship would have covered everything except spending money and plane tickets. However, since I had a paycheck-to-paycheck mentality, I spent everything I brought in. In my family, money had been tight when I was in high school, so blowing my extra money at the mall or the bookstore felt great because I hadn’t really done that before. Thus, when the time came each year to apply for the study-abroad program, I never had enough saved to think that I could do it.
The other time in my life when that “it’s only money” sensibility really hurt me was during my Ph.D. program. Again, I had tuition covered. I lived in group houses and didn’t have a car at first, so I didn’t have major expenses. I had a friend who hooked me up with that cushy job at the National Archives, so I had extra money coming in. However, since I had used student loans on my M.A., I just kept taking them out for my Ph.D. I charged everything from dinners out to clothes to hiking gear, so each semester, I had that debt to deal with. I used the loans to pay off the debt, vowed not to run up the cards again, and kept chanting “it’s only money, and you always get more.” So, when dinner invitations came along, or a friend suggested season tickets for the ballet, or another friend wanted to go to Europe for a few weeks, I’d remind myself “it’s only money, and you always get more” and say “sure!” Granted, I had a lot of fun and experienced many things that I never dreamed I would have back in my hometown, but I also had no sense of priorities. Imagine what would have happened if I had lived within my actual means and saved money? I probably could have graduated with the $16,000 in loans I took out for my M.A. rather than the $114,000 that I took out over eight years of my graduate education.
Dreaming of Ferraris tagged me with a meme the other day to write a six-word memoir. Fortunately, “it’s only money and you always get more” is eight words. I can dump that off in the dustbin of history and come up with a new one for the rest of my life! After thinking it over, I’ve come up with:
“It’s seriously money, so save some!”
It doesn’t have the optimism of yourth, but I think it will get me farther than my old mantra. And I’m tagging Craving Anthropologie, Pixie Stick Queen, My Small Cents, Save and Conquer, and The Digerati Life to try their own six word memoirs. Enjoy!