Sunday, October 14, 2012

Mo Money

If there one thing that I’ve had to battle constantly in my life – its money.  We were not always foes –in fact when I was a kid, we were the best of buds.  If someone gave me a dollar, it was like I suddenly had power.  I could go out on my own and buy things –even if it was a soda and a candy bar – it was still my choice and my dollar.   I remember the thrill of handing that money to the cashier at Buy-Rite or Sentry Drugs and getting my things put into a bag and then getting of all things – change!  Change to either save or use to purchase something else another day.   Oh, the feeling of financial freedom – the feeling of being a customer!  The money would change form, it would ebb and flow, but it was there to help you get things that you needed or wanted.   You have to admit – that’s one hell of a friend.  When I was 10 or 11, there was no job to worry about, no mortgage to pay, no utilities, no credit card bills, no student loans, just the exhilaration of being a pure consumer.   When my dad would lie on the floor and change would bleed out of his pockets, us kids would circle like sharks going for chum. Once he got up, we made a mad dash because most of the time, the change was there for the taking.   I remember thinking that shiny pennies were like manna from heaven.  They were these perfect spots of change – more sparkly then their friends the dimes, nickels, quarters and half dollars.   Just seeing one as a kid made me so damn happy – it was like I was the first person to send this little coin on its long trip through the financial waters of our economy – where it would get used and tarnished.  I still smile when I get a shiny penny because it’s money in its simplest and purest form.

Growing up, my family was middle to lower middle class.  There were five kids in the family and it never felt like we wanted for much but I knew there were times my parents were really struggling.   During the recession of the 1970’s, there were gas lines, and boycotts of lettuce and ground beef because the prices were so high.   Much like today, people were hurting.   Saying that you couldn’t afford something was not something to be ashamed of – it was a fact and the reality was that many people had to cut back to make ends meet.   Good God, interest rates on home loans were 19% - that’s not an interest rate – that’s loan sharking!  You would see episodes on All in the Family about how they had to cut back and it made you feel a little better about where you were.  If Archie, Edith, Michael and Gloria had to eat spaghetti with just tomato sauce for the fourth night in a row, then maybe sausage noodle casserole twice a week was not so bad.  The emphasis on designer jeans had not hit until I was in high school and things then were a bit better for my parents. Even though I could have asked for them, I always thought it was stupid to pay so much more for a label that you wore on your jeans like Calvin Klein or Jordache.  You were paying the designers more money to wear their label on the pocket to promote their product?  Really!?   The fact that nothing came between Brooke Shields and her Calvins was a bit gross.  I even did a song for the school talent show lampooning designer duds.  Shabby chic and the Annie Hall look were fun, cheaper and way more comfortable then really, really tight jeans.

When I was a junior at Southwest Senior High, my first job was to work at Publix Supermarkets and I got paid $3.10 per hour minimum wage in 1980.  I would work 12 hours on Saturday and then another 12 hours during the week.   I was so disciplined that I would take out $20 per paycheck for spending money and put the rest of the bank.  I was tough keeping my grades up and working that much and sometimes I felt really burned out but I was able to save close to $3,000 to go to college with which my father matched.  I had a really nice bank account and a chance to study at Florida State University – so now me and my besty money were together to set the world on fire. 
So how did my elation about money turn to so much anxiety as an adult?  Why do I spend so much time worrying about it?   Probably when I had the responsibility of actually paying for things on my own.  I was able to go two years without working and living on what I had saved in college.  I was living in a dorm which my parents paid for and I just needed money for food, going out and clothes.  I didn’t even have a car that first year so I didn’t have to pay for gas and at FSU – most things that you needed were within walking distance of the campus.   But then I wanted to move out of the dorms and live in an apartment and have a car – so things got more complicated financially.  Money was tighter and I needed to go back to working – this time waiting tables.   I began to worry about money especially when my roommate was consistently late with her share of the rent.  One time she wrote me a bad check which then made me bounce checks which sucked.   Money wasn’t there as a sure fire friend – sometimes I could depend on it and sometimes I couldn’t.  It was very unreliable.  Worse, I would get tight feelings in the pit of my stomach wondering how I would pay for things.   I could no longer take it for granted and maybe that was money’s payback. 
When Max and I got married, we were worried about money but we always seemed to get by and we were both working.  Except for the time when we won a lawsuit about six years into our marriage, we were always just scraping by and if we came up short, we would ask my parents for help which they were always willing to do.  I hated asking for help but my parents were always nice and understanding about it.  We actually moved up to Georgia in 1998 with the lawsuit money and bought a house.  At that point, I decided to take a year off from working to spend more time with Amber who was just a toddler.   It was weird not working.  I didn’t feel like I had an identity and as much as I loved spending time with Amber – I longed for adult conversation during the day and something do to that was not focused around when the Teletubbies came on.   The money would not hurt either as the lawsuit money was beginning to run out- another ebb and flow that my friend money was all too often prone to.
So I went back to work doing what I did best - working for non-profits.  The kind of organizations who have very little disposable income.  The kind who are dependent on government agencies, grantors and kind benefactors to get their funding.  That’s how I’ve lived the bulk of my financial life so I’m comfortable with organizations that just pray that a big grant or check comes in just in time.  I’ve worked for international agencies and know that money does not come easily to some parts of the world –where  so many people are just getting by on $1 to $2 per day, no clean water and terrible medical conditions.  In this country, we spend $5 on Starbucks when that would feed a family of four for a day in other parts of the world.   Hey I’m not knocking loving your Mocha Light Grande or your tall Salted Caramel Frappanchino – I’m just pointing out that there are people in this world that would do more with that $5 then get a java buzz.
In the 20 years that I’ve worked for non-profits and I’ve gotten to know some really wealthy donors.   Some are real down-to-earth type of people who would give you the clothes off their backs to help.  They understand the mission of the charities that they are trying to help.  They have a real desire to make a difference in the lives of the people that you are working with.  It makes raising money so easy because it’s not a donation – it’s an investment in the social cause they are passionate about.  Those are my favorite type of donors – they are not pushovers but they know how their money can help and ask you directly what you need.  There are those that write the checks to get their names on things or to be recognized.   They are still doing good with their money even if it’s just for the recognition- it doesn’t matter because in the end they are helping your cause.  Then there are the ones who use their donations or promise of donations to manipulate the organization to do things their way.  Those are the donors that use their money to hurt – not to help.   That’s the side of money that I really hate to see.   How many times have you heard about a donor at a major university that donated millions of dollars to build a building but reneged because they weren’t happy with a campus’ stance on gay rights, or the use of the medical building for something like stem cell research, or an editorial in the school newspaper that they didn’t agree with.   Sure, the fundraising department probably needed to spell things out little clearer for that donor, but sometimes there’s just the unforeseen.  When a donor takes back a donation or pledge - it’s obvious they never really had the institution’s best interests at heart to begin with – it was all ego.    
I’ve seen donors dangle even something as small as $5,000 or $10,000 donations to try to get what they want.   You jump through hoop upon hoop to never see the donation or maybe a $1,000 here and there because that donor is too busy playing games than to give you the money.   In the meantime, you could have been cultivating a major gift donor who was sincere rather than playing fetch with Mr./Mrs. Nevu Riche.    Again, it’s a side of my frienemy money that I really hate to see – manipulating those in need – kids in abuse shelters, international healthcare organizations to satisfy this misguided need for financial power.   
I also hate to see money squandered in the name of fame.  Who can forget the Kim Kardashian $10 Million wedding that lasted only 76 days.  How many people in developing countries could you have helped with that kind of money that went for essentially nothing but to satisfy a spoiled brat with an overinflated ego?  Millions or enough to build schools in Africa to help thousands of girls become leaders and not winey celebrities.  I’m not preaching socialism – I just think that we need to take a look at what we as society spend money on and who we support.   If you don’t like Kim, then don’t watch her show or buy her products and with any luck she and her family will go away. 
Max once told me that “Everyone is broke on a different level.”  Maybe we want too much and when we can’t buy it – it feels like we’re barely getting by.  For me, it’s the simple times, the ones with my kids at the park and seeing a wild rabbit or going to the library and checking out books for free that we read at storytime  when they were little that I cherish the most.   Does that keep me from having knots in my stomach at the thought of having $40 in the bank and still four days from payday?  No, but when the money flows back in – I do have to remind myself that less is more and we don’t need the latest and greatest to be happy.   Maybe if I keep on remembering that, money and I can be friends again.  Maybe we’ll sit down at the 5 and Dime, have a soda and a moon pie and remember the power of a shiny penny.

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