What Is Enough?

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo: Getty

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.

I had forgotten how good saving money feels. For several years I was freelancing and underemployed — I was spending more than I was earning, and it was bad. First, I ate into my own savings, and then I ate into money I’d inherited from my dad. It went on for so long that it began to feel normal to me. Like the fable of the frog being slowly boiled alive, inert with its own complacency.

I made excuses for all of it. I came up with outside sources and other people to blame. It’s because of my boyfriend, or my ex-boyfriend; it’s because of my sobriety; it’s because of my drinking; it’s because I only write for myself; it’s because I don’t really believe in that company, or that other one; it’s because this isn’t right, that’s not quite perfect, this isn’t a good fit, and what if I move?

This all came after ten mostly unremarkable years of having normal jobs. I wasn’t saving all that much at any of them (or anything, honestly, except for at the last one), but I was lucky: They were all (or were mostly) salaried, full-time positions.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure that not having enough work caused almost all of my own fixable problems — a lot of the obvious ones, but then a lot of the not-obvious ones, too. Too much time, too much worry, too much shame. Ultimately, being underemployed ate away at my self esteem, my self-respect. Not that I realized it at the time, even as I paid it lip service (“I know I need a real job, but …”). It’s nice to be able to write about it now, as if it were over and I’ll always be in the black.

The work/value/self-respect connection reminds me of a book: Russ Roberts’s How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. It has a terrible title, but this book did change my life. It’s about Adam Smith’s lesser-known book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which is basically about how to be a good person. Roberts spends a lot of time unpacking a particular line of Smith’s: “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.” By “lovely” Smith meant love-ly, or deserving of love. To know oneself to be truly deserving of the love, admiration, and respect that one may receive. To not feel as if you’ve gotten away with anything or tricked anyone. To know you’ve come by things honestly. To have adequately fed whatever person inside yourself is keeping track.

I remember where I was when I first read that — Smith’s words, explained in Roberts’s book. I was sitting in a bar, and … I’m not really sure what happened, but there was a whole internal clenching. I hate myself, I thought. I hate my life. What am I doing?

I’m not sure I thought of it so clearly at the time, but the line seemed like a very simple and very true explanation of a lot that was wrong with me. I wanted to be lovely, but I knew I wasn’t. I wanted to be lovely to myself, worthy. There were people who cared about me, but it was almost repellent to me that they did. I don’t deserve this kindness, and you must be stupid if you think I do.

It’s hard to know for sure the things that matter to you, or what counts toward self-respect, to the inner person keeping track, but for me working hard and saving my own money is a big one.

Saving money is also emotionally pleasurable, which I had forgotten, too. It doesn’t feel like gritting my teeth and doing something responsible. It’s not a marshmallow deferred. Having more money at the end of the month than I did at the beginning makes me feel lighter, like there’s a little more room.

It’s not even like I’m saving all that much (if anyone investigated this piece, they’d laugh). Instead, I think it’s more about the direction you feel you’re headed. In a recent post on the Simple Dollar, finance writer Trent Hamm responds to a reader asking him: “What’s the point of working toward financial success if you’re just going to eventually die?”

I liked his response — it alleviates stress, essentially — but here is mine, too: because it feels like forward motion. Like insurance, like proof. It feels like wearing pants. For me, it’s the feeling of saving that’s enough, not necessarily the dollar amount. I know I’m fortunate that I can feel that way, and that I probably won’t always be able to. But for right now, saving money helps me tell the people I love about the things I feel and hope for. If they don’t work out, that’s okay. I have a job. I’m saving money. I’m taking care of myself. The rest is bonus.

What Is Enough?