I have been feeling a little deflated about blogging lately. I’ve talked about this before, I know, and I’ve pondered whether I’ve become too predictable because I’m such a routine-lover. I can confidently say that I’m not dialing it in by any stretch and I still love sharing my creations and each comment still makes me feel giddy. But I’ve also been conflicted about what I’m doing (at what point is too many dresses for one child? Probably about 100 dresses ago) and haven’t been pouring myself into my posts as I did in the early days, when I was scared to hit the “publish” button each and every time. Scary can be a good sign.
Not that I think this should be a vehicle for bare-all confessions or be an extreme sport version of sewing blogging, but my approach seems to have gone from comfortably intimate coffee date to community center craft fair — you know, instead of that cozy feeling of sharing recent updates with a good friend over a hot beverage, I’ve been getting the sense that I’m manning an irrelevant booth where folks meander from a safe distance, vaguely noting my amateur paintings and handicrafts, scanning the room for something better elsewhere. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. I don’t know. I know it’s a useless way to think, and I guess it’s the old insecurity monster rearing its head…I’m not looking for assurances but am trying to identify this current state I’m experiencing.
So to shake myself out of this slumpy mood and externally-focused mentality, I am going to talk about a taboo topic today: money. It’s something that makes me cringe all over, and it always helps me focus when I write outside of my comfort zone. If you haven’t gathered by now, I am not a naturally frugal person — I never have been and probably never will be (reading this, my husband is clutching at his heart and gnawing at his already bitten-down-to-the-nubs nails). I’m obsessed with pretty, delightful objects. Clothes and shoes. Stationery. Art supplies. Fabric. Books. Organic, hand-plucked, truffle-infused, wildly expensive edible things. I love love love giving decadent gifts. M jokes that if he wants to know where I am at any given point in the day, he just needs to find the nearest overpriced, beautifully decorated coffee shop.
Despite this Achilles heel of spendthrift tendencies on my part, we live a debt-free life. Yes, zero debt. No mortgage, no car payments, no credit card balance, no school loans, nada. It was incredibly hard for me to get here and it most certainly wasn’t always this way.
I’ve been going down memory lane these past few days as I am wont to do at the end of the year, unearthing dozens and dozens of my old journals. I came across a ratty old notebook with “2003 + 2004 + 2005 budget” scrawled on the cover. In it, I had meticulously recorded every expense: utilities, student loans, credit card bills. So many credit card bills…
My parents never talked about money when I was growing up, but I knew that we didn’t have much for most of my childhood. When I was a kid, my dad ran a liquor store in downtown L.A. and business quickly boomed. We moved into a spacious white house in a tony part of town and I switched from an all-black school to one filled with blonde, blue-eyed children. But then, inexplicably and suddenly, everything went belly up. We lost the store, the house, the car, the apartment building my parents had invested in. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out about all of this — at the time I was in the second grade and just couldn’t understand why we had to skidaddle to Japan in the middle of the school year. I completed my second grade in Japan and stayed at my Grandma’s house in Tokyo, where a metal tub sat on the ground in a structure that was similar to an outhouse. It was dark and terrifying in there. Hot water had to be manually poured into the tub if we wanted to take a bath, and most days we went to the public bath house. I can still recall the bustle of naked women and girls surrounding me, how I averted my eyes and felt out of place even though I looked like them. I missed America.
Eventually, my parents cobbled together some funds and we returned to the US, briefly settling into a tiny house in an area called Hawaiian Gardens, the smallest city in Los Angeles county, and then we moved again. And again. Because my family uprooted so frequently, I grew up observing the whole socioeconomic spectrum from scrappy, welfare families to multi-jillionaire Hollywood aristocracies. I could go on forever detailing the surreal worlds I saw, but what’s important is this: I learned that money was something no one talked about.
Though dollars and cents were never explicitly discussed, I knew that spending more than you earned was not an option in our household. That was antithetical to our industrious, Japanese work ethic. As soon as I turned 15, I immediately applied for a worker’s permit and looked for an after school job in earnest so I could finally buy all the on-trend clothes that I’d coveted for years. I blew through my meager paychecks with one shopping spree after another, and my mom looked on worriedly, meekly suggesting that I might want to try to save some of my earnings. Save? What for? I was a teenager! I was certain I’d be earning gobs of money when I was older.
In college, I knew a girl who amassed an astronomical amount of credit card debt as well as parking ticket fees. I recognized in her the same carpe diem attitude I had in spending my paychecks, except she was using borrowed money and this unsettled me. In my naivete, I couldn’t figure out how she was paying off her credit card bills at first. When I finally sussed out that she wasn’t even meeting the minimum payments, I was astounded. Why wasn’t she worried? She seemed so confident and together and appeared secure in the knowledge that everything would take care of itself; her closets overflowed with clothes and she proudly kitted her dorm room with a state-of-the-art microwave and mini-refrigerator.
“I’m going to own a Lexus before I’m 30,” I was horrified with myself as I mentally saw the words come out of my mouth like a cartoon bubble while I chatted with a co-worker. I was 22-years-old and was earning $24,000 a year at a marketing firm in Santa Monica, and I was trying desperately to impress the much older and much more sophisticated woman who was training me. I remember how she tucked her glossy highlighted hair behind one ear and looked at me askance without a word. My face burned. We were heading to an L.A. hotspot for a company lunch — the type of place frequented by A-list celebrities — and I was feeling inadequate surrounded by all the glitz and glamour. It seemed like the sort of thing I should say, but it sounded all wrong when actually verbalized.
It was around this time that I got my first credit card. And I started to worship the altar of “should”s. Oh, I should get a sleek haircut so I don’t look like I’m fourteen (I looked ridiculously young with my long hair, but after my haircut I discovered that I still looked ridiculously young, only my head resembled a mushroom). I should really buy a suit so my boss will take me seriously (I bought a red polyester pantsuit that made me appear like I’d raided Elvis Presley’s closet to play dress-up – not my best look. I returned it the next day when I saw my boss’s suppressed smirk). I didn’t, thankfully, buy a Lexus on credit, and at first, I was very cautious with my newly acquired purchasing power. I kept in mind the debt-ridden girl from college and smugly knew that I wouldn’t ever allow myself to go down that route. I paid off my balance each month and soon, hooked by the ease, I was using my credit card for everything and not just for special purchases as I had done in the beginning.
And then I utterly lost control.
*That’s a good cliff-hanger, right? Look at me, trying something new! Stay tuned to find out how I got out of debt — not an easy task…