Oscar Wilde said that anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination. There’s something to that, I have a healthy imagination, I think, but not much in the way of means. That isn’t a complaint, this is the life I chose, and this is the life I love.
You will not catch me speaking poorly of my life, surely not for money.
But I had an important revelation about money this week, I want to share it with you.
There was a time not too long ago – maybe a year ago – that an unexpected $4,000 dental bill, combined with a crumbling ridge cap on top of our barn – would have sent me into a panic. I got that bill last week.
Money has always been a problem for me, for much of my life I had too much of it, and now, I have very little of it. I never really learned how to manage money, and so grew frightened of it. Money was always the great dilemma for me, it seemed insoluble.
I stole money when I was young, I gave money away when I was older, I turned the responsibility for it over to someone else. Managing money always panicked me, and it helped lead my first wife and I into a destructive and co-dependent relationship.
In some ways, money unraveled our marriage. Co-dependence is not just a segment on Oprah. It is wicked mean. I will make an exception to my strict rule against giving or reading warnings, or taking unwanted advice: if you have the six symptoms of co-dependence, run, don’t walk, to the nearest therapist.
Your life may just be about to fall down on your head.
I was so spooked about money that I turned anything relating to it – bills, appointments, health care fees, book contracts, debts, loans – over to my wife. I never went to the bank, never opened bills, never paid them.
I was like Elmer Fudd, I was a big shot, I had a mansion and a yacht.
I was happy to have nothing to do with money, she was happy to take control of it. But the fear never left me, and I knew at the end of every month that this was the wrong way to live.
For a long while I had no idea what my bank account number was, no reason to use it. When I moved to the country, I didn’t even open a bank account.
I forwarded all my bills to my wife, I had no idea what I owed, what I spent, or what I had.
This went on for years until the process collapsed of its own very heavy weight, as a life of fear inevitably will.
I gave a fortune away, I spent a fortune, I owed a fortune. When I got divorced, I was stunned to see the loans we had taken out, so surprised to learn how much money I had spent, given away, owed.
You could have knocked me over with a feather when I discovered the truth, or even without one.
Like the therapist generously said, “you’ve lost all perspective.” That was polite of her to put it so nicely. I was bonkers.
After my marriage fell apart, there was nowhere to hide. And nothing left to put in my new bank account.
I was suddenly the manager and bookkeeper of my own life, one of the things that precipitated my breakdown. Like my new bookkeeper said when I returned from my book tour, “it’s time to panic.”
I took her advice, almost every time the mail came.
I swore to solve this problem of money, to take responsibility for myself, to face what I had to face and learn what I had to learn.
It was a slow, bloody and terrifying process. I am happy to say I’ve done well, I know just how much money I have in the bank, how long it will last, where it will go and when.
I know by heart the time of the month every bill will come due, I am learning how to plan ahead, save what I can, skip buying or put off what I don’t need, think about what we do need.
The divorce mediator told me one day after I kept talking about a financial adviser, “you have to be your own financial adviser.”
Believe me, I am.
But it was frightening, panicking over money was a life-long habit of mine, that’s why I gave responsibility for my money away to someone else.
Finally, I learned to take responsibility for my money, I understand now that it is much more frightening not to know where you stand than to know. I never got bank statements when I went to ATM, I was too afraid, now I check my account five times a day online.
I don’t guess any more or pray. I know. Maria paid the bills for awhile, I knew that was a mistake. I took it over.
I have a bookkeeper and an accountant, I give them every piece of paper relating to money that I ever get.
I saw my own evolution this weekend when I got up from the dentist chair after two or three hours of work and surgery – two crowns, deep decay – and gulped when Shelly told me the bill was $4,000. Not too long ago, that would have been a couple of panic attacks.
I am one of the 40 per cent of Americans who do not have enough money sitting around to handle any emergency. I have to think about it, a task I now relish and am getting good at.
The thing is, Wilde was right, I have a lot of imagination, but I don’t have $4,000 in the bank, or anything close to it, and I have a lot of other bills to pay. As you know, I filed for bankruptcy five years ago, that won’t happen to me again.
But I didn’t panic, to my pleasant surprise. You can use imagination to manage money. This was a big test of how far I have or haven’t come. I felt the fear in my chest rising up over the dental bill, I said wait a minute. Creativity isn’t just about writing or taking pictures, creativity is a practice, a faith, a way of living in this world.
Money is important in America. I won’t be a slave to it, but I can’t ignore it either. Paying my bills isn’t just comfortable, it is a matter of identity and pride and responsibility.
So, I talked to myself, I said don’t be afraid. Use your imagination. Panic is an imagination-killer. So is fear.
Be Creative. Isn’t that what you do, what you preach? Panic, like most fear, is fairly useless, and certainly ineffective. It is just a space to cross. As my daughter said to her daughter when she threw a fit over more cheese crackers, that is unfortunate. Panic is unfortunate.
So I called up Shelly, she handles the money for the dentist, and we like each other and talk about dogs and farms and kids all the time, when my mouth isn’t numb.
Look, I said, can we work out a payment plan together, I can’t pay this all at once, but I can pay it off in a reasonable time – three or four months, and you know I will. I’ve given the dentist a lot of money in the last few years, I haven’t run out on any bill yet.
I told her I had no complaints, they had fixed up my mouth and my teeth, I was grateful.
She listened to me, and said. “Of course, we know you and trust you. As long as you can pay something every month, no one will bother you, take the time you need.”
It was as simple as that. Perhaps not easy but simple. I didn’t need all of the emergency plans I was fretting over for two nights. I didn’t need to rob my shrinking IRA or sell a book or steal from the money I’m saving for taxes. We can still go to Jean’s for oat bran pancakes every Saturday.
I could just skip the panic and deal with it. Instead of worrying about paying this off all year, I’ll just pay it off over time.
By the end of the year, the bill will be paid.
Panic is pointless, I learned yet again.
Creativity is my thing, and it helps with money as it does with anything else. What I had to do was face reality and talk to somebody on the other side. I am no different from almost everybody else in America these days who doesn’t own Wal-Mart or Apple stock.
Each emergency is a different thing for me now, a creative challenge, a problem to be solved directly, honestly, and right away, challenge to be faced, not run away from. Emergencies, like death, are an elemental part of life.
No one escapes them. I am not shocked when a dog of mine dies, I am not shocked when emergencies arise.
I can handle them after all, something I wish I knew years ago.
When I cracked up and went crazy (sorry, therapists, that’s the word I use, I’m a writer, not an academic or a doctor in a clinic), I promised myself and my shrink that I would do four things before I died:
take responsibility for myself, never lie to me or anyone else again, find love and learn how to handle money. I call them the four pillars of my life.
Honestly, and with humility, I think I’m batting three out of four.
I took a big step towards making it to the fourth yesterday. Not bad for an oldish man.