84: Interesting Times

84: Interesting Times

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Interesting Times

A moderate addiction to money may not always be hurtful; but when taken in excess it is nearly always bad for the health.

~Clarence Day

My dad once said to me, “May you be born in interesting times.” He shared this with me whenever I brought him my latest tale of woe. He would just lean back in his office chair and smile as I cringed.

Through good fortune, good planning, and the grace of God, two years ago my wife and I started working on our finances. Coupled with my father’s sage advice and something Nancy Reagan once declared to the world—“Just say no!”—I began my quest to learn more about my spending habits. If I had known the can of worms I was about to open, I’m not sure I would have been so eager to start learning.

My problem was controlling the way I thought about money and personal finances. There is an old joke about a college kid who kept writing checks; a few days later, his checks were bouncing everywhere. Shocked, he exclaimed, “I can’t be out of money! I still have checks left to write!” That story, funny as it is, explained my life. Part laziness, part learning disability, with some dyslexia mixed in, but mostly it was my recklessness with money that kept me spending.

My misunderstanding about money comes from not knowing. For instance, I believed the prices I paid in a convenience store were the same as a grocery store. Or I would call my bank to see how much money was in my checking account and then spend what was left without accounting for the checks which had yet to clear. Eventually, the bank made a smart decision and stopped my check-writing privileges.

The issues I had with money were such that when I talked to my dad about how badly I wanted to get married, he advised, “Your job, Joe, is to find a woman whose holes in her head fit the rocks in yours.” I laughed, but kept his sage advice in mind. I did find that special gal and she married me, baggage and all.

My wife came from a long line of frugal souls. She had a savings account when we first met, but unfortunately, I took care of that. Every winter, I made sure we had new ski equipment and every spring, new bicycles. Of course she shared her misgivings when I brought home the new items, but I didn’t listen. I only had my eyes on the new shiny toys.

I finally realized I had to come to terms with my emotional ties to money and spending. I had to “just say no” to therapeutic shopping. But the power I felt when I made any purchase—whether it was a dollar or a thousand dollars—was the same. It was awesome how I felt, especially when walking up to the counter, bantering and interacting with the salesclerk, while making my purchase. I liked how I felt and looked forward to coming back.

But here’s the worst part of my issues with money: loose change in my pocket gave me a rush. For years, I collected that change, depositing it in a jar on my dresser. When full, I secretly dumped the contents into a tote hidden in my closet. And I didn’t spend the money. Why? The answer is scary: a good addict needs his stash.

Yes, those coins were my stash. It defied logic, but in my case, it was true. Having a stash and hoarding money were all classic signs of addiction. The irony was that I was a rehab counselor, and it was my job to see the signs of addiction. For me, those signs came home to roost when I had a heart attack. Before the attack, I had become a sneaker with my hoards of money, but I kept spending our “other” money. I even hid money around the house, just like a good addict hiding booze or drugs. My wife and children didn’t know about my stash.

It never occurred to me until later that this behavior probably caused the heart attack. I told a friend about my money hoard and showed him where to find it if anything ever happened to me again. Dumbfounded, he said, “You’re kidding. You have that much money and your wife doesn’t know? She’s a great woman. Tell her the truth and show her the money.”

I told her. The stash is now tucked safely away. I still don’t understand all the feelings I have associated with spending, but I’m learning. For the first time in our marriage, I’ve gone two complete years telling the truth about how much money I make. Up until that point, I compared myself with others. I would look at their outsides and judge my insides by what I saw. If I didn’t measure up, I’d go spend more money just to do so. But now I don’t feel the need to judge myself with such harshness. The last addiction we give up is the hardest one. I sincerely pray that this is the last addiction for me, because I’m not sure I could survive digging as deep into myself again.

I’m glad I was born in interesting times. It gave me the chance to learn a lesson on spending.

~Joseph T. Lair

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