get that money

Unlearning My Buffet Mentality

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.

In 2015, I was working as an editor and making $55,000, an enough-to-me amount, when I was accidentally forwarded a document listing the other staff members’ salaries. Though I was the magazine’s most senior employee, it turned out I was making significantly less than the newest hire, a man younger than I was, and only about 60 percent of what another new hire, also a man, did. Suddenly my salary was no longer enough. When I mentioned this fact to my boss, he seemed embarrassed to have been caught, and bumped my salary immediately up $10,000.

Though I was, of course, pleased to be paid more, I hated everything about this situation. I hated that the amount that had seemed to me enough no longer did. I hated that they thought I was worth less than these two dudes. And I resented the reminder that money is an indicator of value — of what other people think you’re worth. Even though I’m a writer, and money was never the point. Still, it wasn’t long before I left that job.

As a self-employed person, there is always the question of how much is enough. My gauge, I think, is off. When I was 6 and 7, my family lived in the Daisy apartments in San Dimas, California. Sometimes, as a treat, we went to Sizzler, where we were introduced to the American buffet, which my parents pronounced boo-fay. My parents weren’t making a lot of money then, and our buffet strategy revolved around this reality. The expectation was that we reload our hot plates no fewer than three times. There was no such thing as “full” until we had gotten at least the three plates, and preferably more than that. We shouldn’t get pasta or bread or thin soups, but high-value proteins. Clam chowder was fine, because clams.

The grown-up me still does this. There’s a classic restaurant in San Francisco called The House of Prime Rib, where if you finish one prime rib, you get another one for free. My dining companions mostly do not take the restaurant up on this offer, whereas I will eat the whole prime rib, and then the second one. What I’m saying is that my gauge has been off — forged in times of scarcity and want.

But, listen, I’m getting better at this. Delineating my own needs and wants, knowing what enough means to me, and not feeling so terrified of running out. As a freelancer now, I make what I make, and it’s an enough-to-me salary. I’m still a person with ambition, but money seems to me a poor — even harmful — measure of success. I’m still recovering from the belief that how much money I make is a reflection on who I am. This is something I have to remind myself both when I make a lot of money, and when I make hardly anything. Believing I have enough means feeling I have plenty to share, and sharing seems to me the better metric than the money itself.

There’s construction happening across from our apartment, and a few Latino construction workers were on a break, leaned against the plywood. Today I watched from my living-room window as an elderly Asian woman slowly wheeled a cart past one of the workers. She held up a plastic bag bursting with conchas, those sugary Mexican buns. She had a lot of them, for some reason, and she held the bag up as an offering: Did he want one? She had more than enough. The young man smiled and shook his head, patted his stomach to say that he was full.

Rachel Khong wrote the novel Goodbye, Vitamin.

Unlearning My Buffet Mentality