Christmas. Merry. Happy. Joy. Stress. Angst. Guilt. That hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach. Ah, the holidays.
So there’s this family. Two kids—a boy and a girl—and their parents. The husband is a musician who’s traded his passion for a desk job to support the family. Husband is a realist. A self-described pessimist. A worrier. His parents came from modest means. They wash Zip-lock baggies and reuse them. They shop at Sears and couldn’t care less about fashion and trends. They save and invest wisely. They are secure and live well within their means.
The wife though, she comes from a family that never discussed money. She learned early on to equate material possessions with status. She knew envy and jealousy intimately. She knows better most of the time. She knows she needs to rid herself of the belief that money equals worth and that without it she will forever be some type of loser.
And yet. Her gratitude grows as fine lines etch themselves into her face. She lounges in a world of comfort. After seven years in a gritty urban apartment she finally has a house in a beautiful area—her childhood neighborhood. Her own sink in the bathroom. Central air. This makes her feel rich, and sometimes act like it too. She is quick to rationalize a batch of custom-designed t-shirts, say, and then regret the unreturnable purchase later.
The husband of course shares this house and has his own sink too. But he’s from Brooklyn. That’s where his musical comrades still live for the most part. And he misses them.
The wife writes novels. She retains her high hopes. She is a self-described optimist who embraces her delusion of imminent financial reward.
But as their savings dwindle, because each month finds them dipping in to make ends meet, the husband grows wretched with anxiety, any happy disillusionment waning in the burnished light of middle age. His hair is turning silver. He’s in his forties. He works in an office without a window. This is IT. What’s the point?
He loves his kids. He’s a family man. The wife, well, sort of. She’s more of an escapist. Escaping into her head. into her artistic passions. The kids, though she adores them, interrupt her reveries. She admits it. She feels guilty for it. She looks on in awe, wonder and resentment as her husband forsakes his own desires to play boring games with the children. Flinging plastic monkeys into a plastic tree.
But I digress.
The holidays arrive—Christmas and Hanukkah—and with them, a new host of stresses. The daughter is easy to please. She’s into fashion and has another year before she demands real Uggs. Real American Girl dolls.
The boy. He’s prickly. They call him The Porcupine. He bristles and feels easily slighted. For Christmas the kids receive a much coveted iPod Touch to share. A 4G. Refurbished. But that is to be the last present they open. Before that the kids open piles of gifts. Mostly clothing. Because Santa’s practical and $229 is a huge chunk that leaves little left for thirty-dollar Lego sets.
By the time The Porcupine receives his fourth shirt, he is in tears. His mother, bless her escapist, delusional heart, feels horrible, as does his father.
The mother thanks Whomever for her Lexapro because this would be an event that would catapult her into a shameful despair. And she decides that now is a good time to relish the wisdom of Wendy Mogel, who says that childhood disappointment is a wonderful and valuable experience, because it will teach this boy to ride the wave gracefully as an adult. It will make him resilient.
Still, she makes a mental note to nix the clothing gifts next year. There are countless other ways to disappoint the boy. No worries there.
A plan must be put forth. Control must be taken. The husband fears poverty. The wife fears—what? Hopelessness.
Finally numbers are crunched and tallied and hung out to dry. It’s not like they’ve never budgeted before. They have. And it’s never worked. But this time is different. Because this time the husband at least, for the first time, is performing without a net. And as the wife watches him tiptoe across the wire, she too knows she must touch down to earth. Steady as she goes.
The wife receives a number. THIS is the amount she has to spend every month. Every week. On food. Vet bills. Clothing. Spend more, and savings sinks. When savings sinks, so does husband. Buoy both by frugality. Spend what you have, not what you aspire to have. Don’t be like these people:
Be like this man:
The wife watches these two documentaries back to back. With a tremoring heart she realizes she has something in common with the queen of Versailles. It is a willful denial of financial reality. It stings to recognize herself in this wacky tacky siliconed lady.
And when she watches Bill Cunningham patch his cheap rain poncho with strips of duct tape, when she witnesses him remain unmoved by the coterie of high society and happily sleep on a mattress perched across a quartet of milk crates all while delighting in his artistic work, she realizes that his is the mindset she intends to embody. To be a person who has so much inherent confidence and integrity that she will not ever mistake material wealth for self-worth. To see the folly and foolishness in being a slave to money. To be clearheaded and love herself at all times, in all company. This could very well keep her within her budget.
Must she always have a guru? No. But a candle to light the way never hurts. She’s always looked to other people as examples of how to live. People are always candles. Leading her toward or away from true riches.
The success she’s determined to achieve is more than just publishing books or amassing wealth. It’s loving the life she has in the process.
And in the process of taking control, of knowing the numbers intimately, the husband finally exhales and unclenches. And rests. And uncovers a sliver of merry, happy and bright.