When I was growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of money. My dad was the breadwinner, and my mom stayed home with my brother and me.
There were some lean years.
One particularly difficult year, my dad didn’t work at all. He had been hornswoggled by a business partner. Strung along with promises of opportunities and financial gains that would never manifest.
My parents modeled living within their means. They didn’t charge credit cards in order to appear as if we had more than we did. I am thankful for this life lesson, and I imagine it was difficult to enact in the midst of such uncertainty.
As I have gotten older, I find I am a saver. It makes sense. I am frugal with my money. I never imagined being wealthy. As an actor, I assumed I would be a “starving artist”. Having money wasn’t really on my radar.
I married a dancer. We met working at a theme park. We moved to NYC to pursue performing careers. We were braced and ready to pinch our pennies.
A year into our lives in NYC, my husband, Judah decided to pivot from pursuing performing to consider computer programming. He had taught himself how to code in college. His NYC interviewers were shocked by his dance degree but impressed that the faux e-commerce website he built actually worked. The other candidates, with computer science degrees, did not show up so favorably.
He got a job as a web developer getting paid peanuts, but from our midwestern point of view, it was the most either of us had ever heard of someone being paid.
Over the next two years, the company gave Judah large raises to push him closer to what he should have been paid in the first place, but he was still grossly underpaid for the industry.
He applied for another job and was hired. They doubled his salary! (It took doubling his salary to get him up to par. That’s how underpaid he had been all that time, even with the raises given.)
He worked for this new company for two weeks, basically training for the position, only to be laid off and given four weeks of severance pay. The company had decided to shut down the division he had been hired into.
It was very disquieting for him to be laid off. It also made no sense why the company would hire so many new people, only to shut down the division.
In the midst of the unsettling emotions, we were also very thankful for the severance pay. We joked that he should pursue jobs at companies that were looking to shut down divisions. Not a bad gig to work/train for two weeks and then get essentially a month of paid vacation!
When he got his next job, they increased his salary even more. Because of the short, two-week job, he went from his under-rated pay to more than twice the amount. What a gift! Also, this company clearly valued him. They offered him more than his asking amount. What a difference from the first place who hired him and low-balled him so disrespectfully.
While all of this was going on, I was working as an administrative assistant for a fabric design company and auditioning for theatre. I would go away for a few months to do a performing contract and then come back to my job at the design company. I started booking more theatre work and pivoted to pursuing performing full time.
Then I booked a national tour that would take me away for ten-and-a-half months.
I had minimal expenses on the road, so we set aside most of my income to put toward buying an apartment in New York.
During the six years we had been living in NY, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment that only had a window air conditioning unit in the bedroom. The living room and kitchen area had no ac. We used the discomfort of being hot in the summers to keep us motivated to save so we could buy our own place.
While I was on the road, I was living with my castmates, many of whom were still paying off student loans. We were paid well, as far as tours are concerned, but it wasn’t a lot of money by the NYC standard of living.
Budgets were tight.
I didn’t have the same stress I saw around me. I hadn’t had to sublet my apartment. Judah was home with our two cats. I wasn’t living off my stipend and salary. I was living off Judah’s income and was able to save most of my stipend and salary.
I felt ashamed. Embarrassed that I wasn’t struggling but saving.
When I got home from tour, Judah and I bought a house. We had intended to buy a two-bedroom apartment. I wanted a place for people to be able to sleep and close a door when they visited.
The real estate woman we worked with made the case that we could get more for our money if we bought a house. In a condo or co-op, you have fees you have to pay. If you own your own house, you can save that money in an interest-bearing savings account and use it to repair the roof or replace the boiler whenever the need arises. The main trade-off was that when it snows, we would have to shovel the sidewalk.
So, we ended up buying a two-story, three-bedroom house with a basement and garage.
Judah randomly asks me sometimes: What is it to be rich for you?
For me, it was a two-story house. I grew up in a one-story house. Many of my friends grew up in two-story houses. I knew it was because their parents had more money than mine did.
For Judah, it’s having Coke at a restaurant.
Within the first week of living in our house, I heard neighbor kids outside, playing in the street.
And I started crying.
I may as well still live in Oklahoma.
I was so committed to the “starving artist” narrative that hearing children kicking a ball in the street meant failure.
I was in a house. In a neighborhood. Kids played outside in the street.
I’d sold out.
I struggle with this often. Most people we know in NYC live in apartments. For years, I have continued to call our house an apartment, or “our place”, to not stand out as “having more”.
I am proud of how hard Judah and I have worked for what we have. We live within our means. We budget. We save. We give. We host.
And, I still feel more comfortable with the idea of being poor than rich.
Even writing the word seems silly.
Honestly, I have typed “rick” each time. It’s like my fingers can’t even type it correctly!
I don’t feel rich.
What does rich even feel like?
I have imagined it would feel like the freedom to do and buy and have whatever things and experiences you want, whenever you want them. But, if people actually used their money that way, they wouldn’t have it.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel “rich” when it comes to money. I’m not sure it’s even a goal of mine. I would like to celebrate my riches in quality friendships and deeply lived experiences.
But, I would also like to release the embarrassment around being comfortable. It’s been a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” journey so far. If I am struggling financially, I can settle into the lived struggle of so many people around me, but I’m struggling. If I have money, I have some safety and security, but I feel “other” from my friends and fear they may see me differently or think that I think I’m above them.
Neither of these options feels nice.
I want the freedom to be me. With or without money. No elevation of status. No embarrassment.