Anna Sale wondered if at some point in the coming weeks of not spending, as the variety of food in my kitchen cupboards began to narrow, if I’d ask for help.
“Like, maybe you’d ask someone to get you lunch because you just wanted some protein,” she laughed.
I told her I wouldn’t turn it down, but I couldn’t see me asking for help — not for something that was clearly self-inflicted.
“The only thing I’m a little worried about is Valentine’s Day,” I said. “As usual, my planning is terrible.”
Anna suggested I might make a nice card. I told her my art supplies consisted of pens and highlighters in the Gazette-Mail newsroom.
She laughed. I was probably doomed.
I’d called Anna, the host of the NPR podcast “Death, Sex and Money,” to talk about the difficulty in discussing money.
Anna had joined WVPB as part of the news department back when I read the weather and the ID at the top of the hour, mid-mornings on West Virginia Public Radio (I still read the weather and the ID at the top of the hour mid-mornings at WVPB).
Anna had been a rising star and her career has only continued to fill me with the worst kind of envy.
She makes it look easy.
After catching up for a minute and describing our lives under COVID-19, I explained my plan for February. I was going to spend some time learning a little about money and as a personal challenge, I wouldn’t buy anything — except for gas to go in my car.
This included food.
The morning before we spoke over the phone, I finally took the lid off the big plastic tote I’d filled with “emergency supplies.”
The collection began in the early days of the pandemic as a “prepper-lite” approach to the potential end of civilization. I didn’t actually believe society would completely collapse, but temporary food supply disruptions seemed possible.
I figured having enough food to last for a month or so was a good idea and really just an expansion of what I’d done since the derecho of 2012 and the water crisis of 2014, when I’d been without power or water for weeks.
Online research suggested I should have a broad range of foods, including comfort foods to help keep spirits up in dark times.
Who doesn’t like brownies?
I should have kept a list. What I’d assembled only half made sense. I’d stored away 19 pounds of pasta, but only had seven jars of spaghetti sauce. I had 25 pounds of white rice, but just 14 pounds of beans.
I’d packed away one jar of smooth peanut butter and a single bag of craisins.
“Why?” I wondered.
I like extra crunchy peanut butter and what was I supposed to use the craisins with?
I had ramen noodles, a couple of boxes of cake and brownie mix, two cans of frosting and four bags of (probably) stale Girl Scout cookies.
On hand in my kitchen, there were 16 cans of vegetables, a box of green tea (I drink coffee), three cans of water-packed tuna (not a fan), two cans of soup and an assortment of hot sauces, which had been part of a gift set and all tasted like vinegar.
My “fresh” food on hand was an unopened bag of carrots, half a sack of potatoes and a single onion.
But I could live off this, I thought. Meals might get dull, but there was enough to get by with.
Anna and I laughed about my predicament and segued into discussing money, but it was hard for me to get specific. I found myself talking in circles, sputtering and stammering, halfway avoiding the topic I’d asked her to talk about.
I wondered if maybe it was an occupational thing. A lot of people in media will joke about not being good at math. Money is math, and journalists can get defensive about what they earn, even talking in ballpark figures.
Nobody believes they make enough money, but media is the only field I’ve seen where people will seem embarrassed that they accept the salaries they earn for the work they do.
It’s a tough field and a lot of us feel lucky to even be here.
Major market personalities and celebrity journalists command huge salaries, but the rest of us get by on a lot less. One of my college media textbooks referenced maybe tending bar as a side job and discussed how often journalists become police officers, firemen and teachers.
I’ve watched a television journalist worry about affording hip replacement surgery, seen young reporters take on part-time retail jobs to deal with student loans and stood in the parking lot of a radio station as a DJ friend’s truck was repossessed.
He got the truck back. It turned out that he was only one month behind on the payments, not two.
Anna said none of us like talking about money problems.
“There are financial therapists who are uncomfortable with talking about money,” Anna said. “With a lot of us, just asking about money, we think it’s being uncouth or rude.”
There’s also the assumption of sameness. We assume the people around us have roughly the same sort of resources, but when that assumption is challenged, like if it becomes obvious that a friend has considerably less, sometimes we will downplay differences to keep from feeling uncomfortable or guilty.
I wanted to blame social media for all the confusion, but Anna sort of thought I was oversimplifying things.
“People use social media to show their most aspirational selves,” she said.
And really, your Facebook page is about who?
Besides, how much do we really care about what other people spend their money on? What my friends from high school spend on their houses or vacations shouldn’t matter to me, except it reminds me I’m not doing as well as they are but should be.
Largely, this is my fault.
For years, I’ve drifted from paycheck to paycheck, from disaster to windfall, letting the ebb and flow of money carry me along like the current of a river whose end I couldn’t possibly know.
I didn’t save. I couldn’t seem to get out of the hole enough to justify putting anything aside and then 10 years ago, my then-wife and I bought a house.
It was an agonizing experience. At one point, I had to explain to the bank why I hadn’t paid the Columbia Tape and Record Club for a Weezer CD that must have been sent to me.
I don’t even like Weezer.
And then, a few weeks after we moved into the house, my wife and I split. There was no drama, but I got the house, which was funny, because neither of us really wanted the place.
Over the past decade, owning the house has alternatingly been a blessing and a curse. If I’d remained a renter, I probably would have moved on by now. I might be on a fishing boat off the coast of Florida right now or (just as likely) parking cars in New Jersey, but because I had enough space, I could give my son a place to live when he needed it.
There was also a certain degree of comfort in owning something, even if it was just a little place with a steep driveway nobody likes and a yard only a masochist with a push mower could love.
But how I’ve come to look at the house has changed over the past year, as my outlook on money has changed.
I used to worry about losing my job. This was not an unrealistic concern. Newspapers across the country are shrinking or closing. In the past few years, this newspaper had been through a merger, a bankruptcy and a sale.
There have been management and staffing changes along the way.
If the worst happened, I expected to go bankrupt, lose the house and maybe have to go live in my sister’s basement in Tennessee.
That kept me up at night.
Then I got laid off, but instead of melting down, an eerie calm came over me.
So what if I lost the house? My sister had a really nice basement, but I didn’t mail the house keys to the bank along with a note saying, “So long, suckers.”
I kept going — and I did something different. I started paying off and closing accounts, and I started saving.