I love money.
And I’m really ashamed about that sometimes. I’ve done a lot of thinking about why and where it comes from. Like a lot of what I’ve once thought was love, it’s more accurately an infatuation. Not with anyone else’s money. Only with my own.
I check my bank account at least three times a day, even when I know there are no changes to report. As I ride the bumpy Blue Line from home to work and back again, I track in my head how much I’m owed, how much I have going out. I rarely think about how I want to spend it. I’m just reminding myself that I have it. Reminding myself that I am safe.
Because that’s what I love about money. I love how having it makes me feel. Ironically, having money makes me feel free. I think our love of money, not unlike the love we have for our mothers, is partly rooted in our fear of it. And fear, more so than love sometimes, can lead us to do some pretty ridiculous things.
In middle school, prior to an eighth grade class field trip to the amusement park Cedar Point, I counted what change I had recently been able to scrape together. These coins came via several revenue streams, like forgotten vending machine nickels I’d dug out after basketball practice or quarters I pilfered from my dad’s box of change, which was an old cigar box that me or one of my three siblings had coiffed in golden-spray-painted macaroni noodles. He kept the box open and on his dresser. A really stupid idea with so many hungry children lying around.
I took the money I had and asked for a ride to Salvation Army. There, I found a shirt–THE shirt–I had been looking for. OK, well, not exactly. But it was close enough.
It was a red T-shirt, cut for a middle age woman, not a middle school age girl, but I gave as few shits as Britney Spears would seven years later during her “breakdown.”
Why didn’t I care? Why wouldn’t I want a shirt a bit more flattering or with a cute pattern or an interesting cut?
Because it was made by Calvin Klein.
And when you are a 13-year-old girl who gets a mere $50 for school clothes at the beginning of each school year — which is approximately the cost of one arm of an American Eagle jean jacket in 1999 — you get pretty fucking excited when something with a brand name comes even remotely close to fitting your awkward little body.
Now, listen this was before stores like TJ Maxx and Marshall’s changed the game for small town, eighth grade girls like me. Back in my day, the closest you could get to hip fashion choices — let alone name brand clothes — in these future Trump Towns was the Junior’s section of a DOTS or JCPenney, which were probably too expensive too. Every cool girl I went to school with went to the malls — which were at least two counties away.
See that? It’s the chip still on my shoulder about the fact that most people who win the “Best Dressed” senior superlatives are deemed so not out of creativity, but by level of parental wardrobe funding.
Herein lies my theory of why Abercrombie and Fitch struggles to capture the popularity of its heyday in the early 2000s. Nerdy, misfit, poor kids from that time, kids who are now young professionals flush with disposable income, kids who had to actually form a personality despite our sartorial shortcomings, won’t shop there because of how shitty af not having A&F made us feel as said kids.
But back to this Calvin Klein shirt. There was just one problem with it, besides the boxy lesbian cut, and that was this: There was no outside indication that it was a CK original. That wouldn’t do. It’s like that age-old question, if a Calvin Klein shirt doesn’t outwardly say Calvin Klein, is it really Calvin Klein? If no one sees Britney Spears beat paparazzi cars with an umbrella, did it really happen?
So I did what any pull-herself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of country gal would do. I cut out the tag that said Calvin Klein, you know, the shirt tag, the one inside your shirt that sits right at the nape of your neck, and super glued it to the center of the shirt chest.
Nevermind that when I cut the tag, I also cut all the little silky threads that held the tag together, which started to unravel as soon as the field trip started.
Nevermind that there is absolutely no mistaking a shirt tag glued to a shirt. There’s no being fooled into believing that a fashion designer with an eau de parfum hand-crafted by a man named Pierre Jean in the lavender fields of France would, also, design a shirt like that, with super glue seeping from its pores.
Nevermind that super glue is no match for Cedar Point’s Thunder Canyon, on which gallons of water are dumped onto you and your classmates as you “ride the rapids”… Nevermind that super glue easily crumbles away under all that pressure… Nevermind that soon, there’s a raggedy Calvin Klein shirt tag seen sloshing around at the bottom of the boat.
I saw it before anyone else did and pocketed the evidence, awaiting my fate. Certainly someone would notice my cool new shirt was straight outta emperor’s new clothes.
“Why! It’s not Calvin Klein at all!”
No one noticed. I went home and promised to never give a shit about name brands — at least not this desperately — ever again. But I would be so ashamed of this story for years. Ashamed that I cared so much, would go that far to be accepted for something as meaningless as clothing — clothing that, as a child, I had absolutely no power in picking out. Ashamed that I was stupid enough to think it would work, like the time I thought if I just curled my red hair I’d look *exactly* like Wynonna Judd or if I went tanning my skin would look as sunkissed and perfect as Britney, bitch.
Once we finally love ourselves, it’s easy to forget how many hits we had to take to get there. Maybe we want to forget. Maybe it’s good we forget and that’s why it manifests itself into something else.
Recently, my older sister told me about a time when she was in seventh grade, and she cut out a Nike swoosh from a cardboard shoe box and stapled it to a T-shirt. She had it worse than me. A classmate called her out for it. Someone pointed and laughed. I didn’t look at her but could feel her cheeks getting red. Still, nearly two decades after the fact.
We had been talking about money and buying clothes for her own kids and how we both overcompensate because of what we didn’t have.
I don’t have children, so my making up for never having money as a kid has turned into a weird pride about money. Not, like, I’m proud of myself for finally making some on my own–but I’m too proud to let people pay for me. To buy me things.
It’s exacerbated by my feminism. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. But I can see this hyperawareness in all my relationships. Like, I’d never let a man buy me gifts. I am sure to tip 20-plus percent. I’d never let a date pay for my dinner. I pay for mine, you pay for yours.
I get annoyed by women who not only want, but expect, to be completely taken care of by a partner. There are like, fifty fucking Beyonce songs about why we all should stop doing that, girlfriend.
I never accepted free drinks that came my way at a bar. Feeling like I owe someone something makes me anxious and I want to pay it back immediately, fending off the memory of owing a classmate nearly $40 worth of lunch bagels after borrowing 75 cents after 75 cents during a middle school spring semester.
Also, dudes, just because you buy a woman a drink doesn’t mean she’s going to sleep with you — I’d rather buy my own appletini (because, sure, that’s what women want) than deal with telling you this basic fact.
When I finally got a good paying job in my late twenties and broke the decades-old-carpet-ceiling to Single White Female of the solidly-mid-range-middle class, I was obnoxious about it, constantly talking about my raise. I wasn’t bragging. I was shocked. I was relieved. I couldn’t believe how much easier life was with even just a few thousand dollars to fall back on. I finally felt safe. I finally felt truly independent. Like my independence was secure.
This is not to say I lived in poverty as a child. I see my privilege. I know a lot of people and children in this country, and even more in this world, would love to grow up the way I did — they could fairly roll their eyes at this story’s definition of poor. But that knowledge can exist alongside grief about the things I missed because of the gap of inequality in our country and how it did affect me.
That includes the dumb things that turned into embarrassing situations I learned to cover for quickly. Like not knowing to take the thread out of a kick pleat before you wear a skirt or jacket–because I’d never really had new skirts and jackets from which to remove a kick pleat thread.
Or that the bocconcini is just that and not a wiggly hard boiled egg you didn’t order on top of your salad. (May we all take a moment of silence to mourn the loss of net neutrality, the freedom of which allowed me to Google search “what’s the name of that cheese that looks like a boiled egg” and get thousands of results for “uh, duh bocconcini.”)
When I got married last fall, my money baggage reared itself in a way it never had before. To me, the biggest vow, the biggest promise of trust, we took was combining bank accounts. To a modern bride in her early 30s, her hard-earned independent-woman money is her virginity.
Justin, my husband, and I sat in the stale office of PNC banker as we merged our accounts together. Two became one, right there in front of Todd.
I asked, “My name is on this account, right? We are equal owners? It’s mine as much as it is his?”
Todd could sense my dismay and decided to make a joke.
“Yes. You can take all the money now. Haha. My name’s Todd.”
Of course he’d think that’s what I was worried about, but Justin knew the real reason. When we were done and got back to the car he turned off the radio and turned to me, “I know you don’t trust me with your money. But you can and you should. I love you.”
Now, I think this is true: I had every right to ask the banker my question and to confirm I was protected. I am proud I spoke up to voice my concerns.
But in that moment, as this person who knew all my shameful stories and biggest fears held my hand and told me to jump, I remembered this truth: Love is always stronger, better, faster than fear.
And, just for good measure, I reminded myself of this truth too: My purse that now held our new joint debit card was one I bought myself. And it was a Calvin Klein.
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