Right now, I am having a panic attack about money.
The experience is nothing new. I have a panic attack about money at least once a week–that is, whenever we don’t have any.
How does this happen? Payday was just last Friday, less than a week ago. And yet, we’re broke. In fact, we’re about $400 in the hole. More, much more, if I count the money we owe various places that I just ignore because there’s no way of paying it after meeting our immediate needs, and thinking about it sends me right over the edge.
I’m having a panic attack because in the culture in which we live, in the United States in particular, but perhaps elsewhere as well, cash on hand is equivalent to personal worth and personal success. As much as I repeat to myself that this reasoning is flawed and my inherent worth is not contingent upon worldly riches, there’s always the niggling voice at the back of my head telling me I have no right to complain because other people have it so much worse, that I have no right to live because I’m incapable of providing for my basic needs and those of my family. I’m not a Christian, but I was raised Presbyterian, and Presbyterian doctrine includes the Calvinist notion of predestination. No one talks about it much, but it’s always there, behind everything. You’re damned or saved at birth, nothing can change it, and worldly success or failure is a sign of which direction you’re headed. Success means God loves you. Failure means God hates you. The end. There’s nothing you can do to change it.
My husband is a high school English teacher in a charter program for kids at risk. I am on disability for mental health reasons (this alone, the fact that I have claimed disability for an illness no one can see, is problematic for me. It doesn’t matter that the United States government agrees that working at a regular job is impossible for me and would cause further damage to my health. I can’t help but feel that if only I tried harder, if only I got over myself, if only I stopped being so lazy, I could do the things that need doing). This is the story of where our money goes.
Michael and Kele’s Payday Adventure
Michael gets paid on the 22nd of the month. In August, this falls on a Friday–fortunate, because we inevitably have many errands to do on the one day of the month when we’re assured of having some cash in hand, completing all these errands involves travel, and we only have the one car (a ’97 Ford Escort, in case anyone cares). Also, Michael’s school is on a four-day schedule, so on Fridays he’s free to DO the errands we need to do. When payday falls during the working week, it’s a whole different set of complications actually getting access to the money.
In our household, I’m the one who looks after finances. I’m not crazy about the role, but I’m capable. We’ve tried working with a more equitable system, but Michael is really bad with money and organization and keeping track of dates, like dates when bills are due. So it’s just better if I handle all that. The downside for me is, I constantly have a running tally in my head of what’s in our bank account and what’s out, and what’s owed on what date, and what needs to go where. What can be put off for another month, what needs to be paid now, what utilities are about to get shut off, what’s the last possible moment I can wait before I have to take care of this, that, or the other thing. I did this even during the five years I was otherwise incapacitated with depression and spent every waking moment staring at the walls. It’s extremely stressful, especially when there simply isn’t enough money to go around. Which there never is. I don’t mind being responsible for our finances, not really. But when there isn’t anything to work with, it gets rough.
Anyway, this particular payday we have about $100 in the bank to start. That may sound like a good thing, except it’s not. The reason we have this money is that the cheque I sent to the phone company to keep our service from being turned off bounced; when it came through, we were $10 short. So the bank returned the cheque and charged us an additional $30 for the honour. I also had to spend about $100 on medications that weren’t covered by my disability insurance, but that cheque hasn’t gone through yet.
Sidebar: I hate insufficient funds fees. I suppose, if I’m charitable, I can believe that banks have some kind of cost when there isn’t enough money in an account to cover a cheque, but to me is seems like charging a person who hasn’t got any money MORE money is counter-intuitive and unnecessarily punitive. I saw a meme somewhere to the effect that banks make $30M a year from poor people by charging them fees for being poor.
Another sidebar: I could have let the phone company hang, I guess. We never use our land line. But if I hadn’t paid, we would have lost our Internet service, and the Internet is one of my main mental health lifelines.But poor people don’t deserve DSL connections. What in the world am I thinking by wasting that money?
So, we have a little money, which is good, because we have no gas in the car, and to deal with Michael’s paycheque, we have to drive 30 miles to Delta. We go up to the Stop & Save on the Corner and spend $10 on gas. Then we stop at the diner in Hotchkiss and get breakfast, because we had no food in the house and we’re starving, and we figure it’s okay to spring $25 for bacon and eggs. Because it’s payday.
All through breakfast, while we’re discussing our plan for the day, I hear my father’s voice in the back of my head: “Why do you think you deserve to sit down at a restaurant and be waited on when you keep having to ask hardworking people to bail you out of your financial troubles?” I try to tell him everyone needs treats from time to time and $25 isn’t going to make a difference to our finances one way or the other, but he’s very loud.
After breakfast, we drive up to Garnet Mesa to pick up Michael’s paycheque from the school office and then into Delta to cash it. The reason we have to do this: Michael doesn’t have a bank account. Michael doesn’t have a bank account because our previous bank charged off a credit card balance we ran up paying for my medication before I qualified for disability (at one time I was on medications costing in excess of $1200/month), and there’s some Federal regulation that you can’t open a bank account if you owe a bank money. Our new bank account is in my name only. But we can’t have Michael’s paycheque direct-deposited, or even have him sign it over to me for deposit, because the current bank is afraid if my name isn’t on the cheque Michael will one day make a fuss about “his” money ending up in “my” account. Despite the fact that we’ve been married twenty years.
Michael’s net pay this month is $1571.00. For anyone who still thinks teachers make loads of money, this is how it works. His salary is actually $19K a year, for ten months, four days a week, seven hours a day, trying to teach the most difficult students in Delta county the rudiments of the English language. A lot of the time, his teaching does not look like teaching. It looks like counseling, because the kids with which he works have problems ranging from poverty and homelessness to substance abuse. Their school is the one safe place in their lives and their teachers are the only trustworthy adults they know. Michael does not get any benefits. Contrary to popular belief, teachers do not get 2-3 months “paid vacation.” His yearly salary is spread out over twelve months, only ten of which he’s paid for. This month he got an additional $150 for a week of mandatory “training”–a euphemism for a bunch of meetings that had very little bearing on what his job actually does. At least they paid him for sitting through them.
We cash the cheque and walk up the block to the crafts store, where we spend $30 on beads and a book of knitting patterns. Then we walk around the block to our insurance agent’s office and pay them $71.00 to keep our car insurance up to date. After that, we run up to City Market and fill up the gas tank, a thing we only get to do on paydays. Because we earn “fuel points” for shopping at City Market, the tank of gas costs just over $30.
While we’re there, I notice that our car registration expired in April. Great. I’ve been waiting for the notice with the mail-in renew form since January, and we never got it. Okay, good thing I noticed. We can stop and take care of it at the County Annex in Hotchkiss on our way home.
We’re now at $1440, if anyone was keeping track. I definitely am.
Our next stop is the health food store on Rogers Mesa for vitamins, face cream, and a deodorant rock. I also get a pound of peaches and a couple cookies, because breakfast is wearing off. These five items cost $85.00. Again, I hear my father’s voice. My father was one of those people who would drive 30 miles to get a double coupon deal and fill the closet with boxes of crackers he got on sale. He says, “Why do you need to waste that money at a health food store when you could get vitamins and face cream at the normal grocery for twenty bucks?” Well, Dad, I’ll tell you: I’m allergic to every face cream the grocery store sells, and the more expensive vitamins work better. They’re a mediation for me, and medications don’t come cheap. I also don’t think spending $20 every six months on a nice face cream is out of line. I value my skin. But maybe people in my financial position don’t have any right to vanity, either.
The bank envelope now holds $1355.
Next stop, the County Annex to renew our car registration. This is where we find out that 1. The County isn’t responsible for sending out the renewal notices. The State does that, and sometimes they forget, and they’re phasing our renewal notices anyway, so we’re just going to have to keep track and 2. There’s a $25 fee for every month you’re late on renewing your car registration. So, instead of the $75 we’d have paid if I’d done this on time, we have to spend $150 to bring our car into compliance with the law. I don’t like it, but it has to be done.
Our bank envelope now contains $1205, and I’m beginning to get short of breath.
We stop at the Credit Union and deposit $1000. If you’ll remember the beginning of this adventure, $300 of that is already spent on the phone bill and on medications. Another $550 goes to pay our mortgage. When we make the deposit, I find out that the phone company cheque came through a second time before we got the money into my account and bounced again to the tune of another $30. Shit. I was praying that wouldn’t happen. I’ll have to make an Internet payment when we get home.
If you’re keeping track, which I am, we now have $205 in cash out of the original $1571 and $150 available in the bank. Usually at this point we’d go grocery shopping, but I’m so freaked at the sudden depletion of our funds that I can’t cope, so we just head back to Paonia. We stop at the market to pick up something for dinner ($30) and at the Post Office for me to mail some packages ($10), leaving us with just over $150 in hand at the end of payday.
It’s not over. I have to spend $100 on books that I promised people as part of various promotions–giveaways, pre-orders for which I may or may not get paid, a copy for the firm that holds the license to a song a quoted. One for the Library. It’s another place I hear my father’s voice: “What gives you the right to waste time and money at this unprofitable hobby? Can’t you write in your spare time while you do something worthwhile? And how do you imagine you deserve to SPEND anything when you have no guarantee of making anything back?”
Well. At the end of payday, we’re about in the same place we were at the beginning. $50 in the bank, $150 in hand, which will have to go toward food, because we don’t have any. That’s where all the money went.
And my mind is full of the electric bill, and the water bill, both of which have to be paid immediately. Not to mention the $500-odd I owe the local clinic and the extra $500 that got tacked onto the bill for my surgery last January because reasons. The $200 outstanding to the company that provides the oxygen condenser I have to use at night. The $10,000 some collection agency is demanding within 10 days or else they’ll take me to court, again from credit cards we had when we weren’t quite as poor, which we ran up paying for my $1200+/month medication. Michael’s student loans, which I think started out at $10,000 but now have accrued interest up to about $20,000.
I get my disability payment on the 3rd of next month. It’s $384, and it’s already spoken for.
That’s where all the money goes.