get that money

Trying to Buy Happiness

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.

Ten years ago, I was 25 and working a customer-service job. I went to Tribeca a lot to work on fiction back then — there’s an excellent library there that I could spend a whole day in. I assumed many of the people who live there work in finance; I imagined the buildings as populated with a whole class of investment bankers being rewarded and validated by the endless pursuit of money. Who may or may not be happy with their lives, but can’t step off that particular treadmill because there’s no amount of money that ever feels like enough.

At the time, I was earning just slightly more than minimum wage. I had no savings and couldn’t afford any furniture. Still, I felt like I’d found a (tenuous) balance. I had enough money to pay my bills and enough time to write. And that balance is what I associate with feeling like there’s enough.

Now that I’m ten years older, I don’t think that I could live in those same circumstances again and feel like I have enough money. I need furniture. I need to pay off more than the minimum balance on my credit card each month (not doing so didn’t always cause me the abiding anxiety it does now). And these days, I’m more deeply in debt because I’ve since been to graduate school to pursue an improbable career: I decided that I wanted to write novels for a living.

When I say “improbable” I mean I chose to invest money, energy, and time into a profession I knew was unlikely to earn a living wage. I accepted that I would probably always need a second job because without one I’d never have enough money. I did write the first of those novels that I went to graduate school to write, which came out in February.

The institution that granted me that very expensive MFA — an experience integral to my training, I have to admit — recently reached out to ask me to talk with students in the program and give them my advice about post-MFA life and career. They asked me to volunteer to do this. I hold no ill will to the individual who asked, but I can’t tell you how much of a pleasure it was to turn the invitation down. Any student can have my most valuable bit of advice right here: don’t work for free for a wealthy institution to whom you’re in very serious debt.

That debt is a yoke around my neck. It’s the reason why I always answer the question of how much money is enough with “more.”

Enough money for me is a healthy savings to retire on. Enough means being able to provide for the children that I’d like to have. I am, in my own way, trying to buy happiness because, for me, happiness is a sensible plan. It’s a strong sense of security in a fundamentally unstable world.

Lauren Wilkinson is the author of American Spy.

Trying to Buy Happiness