get that money

How Much Money Means You Don’t Have to Worry?

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.

When I was a kid, I somehow became aware that some people could allegedly make $100,000 a year — more than both my parents combined some years, and the closest answer my father would give to my nosy questions about his income. He always told me to never look down on people who do honest work for little pay, but, concerned I would tell other people, he also refused to tell me how much he made. The lesson I drew from this has been a very Catholic-influenced do not ever make anyone feel ashamed, but please remember to allow shame to infiltrate your life at all times.

We were not a $100,000 family. I did not come from $100,000 stock. And so, obviously, making $100,000 became my one true path to happiness and feeling quietly better than everyone else. I could own a bigger house, with newer toys, and I could buy clothes that weren’t on sale at Walmart. I could own every single Backstreet Boys and Brandy CD. CDs were so expensive! CDs were $19.99 each! I would never fight with people I love about money. I would never let the hot water get shut off. I would never stand silently by a cashier at the head of a long line as they counted off pennies two-by-two 75 times.

Of course, we were not truly poor. We were immensely privileged compared to many, but my bubble was very small and the other people in it all had better stuff — they had American Dolls that looked like them, cable, pink Power Wheels. Their living rooms had too-nice furniture I never quite felt comfortable or clean enough to sit on. And somehow it all matched, like a Good Homes magazine, like the pieces were bought at the same time, together, on purpose, from the same collection. Utterly alien. But back then, I was ignorant enough to think we were poor, and I’m dumb enough now to sometimes forget where we stood compared to most.

My parents took out a mortgage for a raised ranch in 1996. We had a washer and dryer that almost always worked. We had shelter, we had bicycles, we eventually got a computer, and a bit later even got that cable. My parents allowed me to stay at home for free while I went through college with loans somewhat offset by multiple jobs. I had my own bedroom. Most of our material items came to us used, but we still had them. We were more or less comfortable, firmly stationed in our place in the lower-middle class. A whole family of Bruce Springsteen songs, baby. It’s a place so many know well: You’re always in a hole, but you’re also always digging out of it, so it’s never really all that bad. A little struggle never really hurt anyone.

A little struggle never really hurt anyone, but too much struggle can strangle anything. Even a 30-year relationship. My parents argued constantly about bills for the last 20 years of their relationship, maybe especially when the argument wasn’t about the bills. I watched their marriage burn until it fizzled out into two adults who lived under the same roof and only communicated through their four kids. It couldn’t have only been about the ever-growing debts, but I imagine it would’ve been a lot easier without them. More vacations, more material rewards to ease hard weeks, more time off from work, better health care, less worry, less math, fewer overdrafts, fewer debt collectors. The things people forget about when they try to tell you money can’t buy happiness.

I think about this in my own relationships as an adult. How much is enough to keep two people happy? How much to keep a family? How do you accurately convey the importance of financial security to someone who might never have experienced taking an unexpectedly cold shower before school?

Now, at 31, I live in Brooklyn, alone. After a brief six-month period of living with friends 25 minutes from my parents, I moved here in 2013 for a job. They offered me a starting salary that was as much as my mother made after 35 loyal years as a cook at the same neuro-rehabilitation center where she’d been employed since she was 17, but I could still barely afford my little rented room in Sunset Park. I was promoted a couple times, and then made more than my father ever brought in at any of his jobs in construction, truck driving, motor-oil-lubricant sales, or courier deliveries along the Eastern Seaboard. Now I am 81 percent of the way to my childhood goal of making a $100,000 salary. It is no longer an unattainable dream, though it remains a personal goal — something I know I can achieve with the right career moves and continuing luck.

I carry both intense guilt for making more than my parents and self-righteous envy that most of my friends in New York make a lot more than me, living in far better apartments than mine. I think “Why shouldn’t that be me?” as often as I think “Why should it?” My parents have worked very hard, very demanding jobs their whole lives while I sit on my ass and write, or yap on in meetings about B2C communications.

Some of my friends made their money, some of them were born into it — parental death being their only retirement plan as they walk around without any real savings account. They seem to get some rich-person signal that tells them where to travel every year. In 2015, an alarming number of people I know who make good money went to Japan. In 2016, it was Iceland. 2017 brought them to Cuba, and 2018 to Africa. Context clues on Instagram led me to believe it was Kenya and Ethiopia, but sometimes their captions just said “Africa,” a continent with 54 countries and 11 million square miles.

As my salary grows, my debt will shrink. My guilt will surely balloon accordingly. Money is awful, and someday I hope I feel extremely, paralyzingly guilty due to some windfall of millions and millions of dollars. I am fine with the idea of feeling uncomfortable about my bank account while reclining on a California king bed in a multistory New York penthouse.

In truth, I will not suddenly breathe easy when I reach the six-figure salary I’ve always imagined. While $100,000 will satisfy certain dreams and desires that hadn’t been before, new concerns and worries will pop up in their place. $100,000 doesn’t necessarily mean I can buy an apartment, at least not without years of frugal living. But it probably means I could rent an apartment somewhere in Brooklyn with an in-unit washer and dryer.

What if I never find someone I want to spend the rest of my life with and decide to raise children on my own? How much does that cost? How much is … sperm? Would a friend give me sperm for free? Would I even want any of their sperm? What if one of my parents has a stroke and needs around-the-clock care? Won’t it all fall on me as their only adult kid who has a career that pays them enough to move out on their own? My mother has worked in the kitchens of nursing homes of all kinds her whole life. I can’t put her in there after what she’s told me about what she’s seen. Can I afford a house with an in-law apartment? What if one of them has a stroke and then the other one an aneurysm soon after? They haven’t spoken a word to each other in years. I’d need two in-law apartments in one house, and there are probably zoning restrictions that would prohibit that in some areas.

Last year I asked my mother what she plans to do with the house in her will, and it was revealed to me that she did not have a will. After some choice words back and forth, she told me, “You worry too much. Things might happen completely differently than what you expect,” which I took to mean, “You might die before me.”

Really, in the end, all I want is enough money to never worry about money. I just don’t know if that amount exists.

How Much Money Means You Don’t Have to Worry?