This Is Why I Can’t Have Nice Things: I’m Poor


I read this article in The New York Times recently, and it was like finally seeing the monsters I imagine under my bed right in front of me on the computer screen. The rather leading title, “Do Millennials Stand a Chance in the Real World?” can apparently be answered with a half-assedly apologetic, “Mmm….probs not! Sorryyyy.” The main takeaways that this millennial got were #1. I will never be financially comfortable and #2. I’m obsessed with money.

As to Takeaway #1, the article cites economic data that indicates that the generation entering the workforce at the height (or depth) of the recession — Class of 2010, where you at??! — appears to be in the same position as those who encountered similar post-graduation conditions in the early 80’s. This resulted in an earnings gap that, 15 years later, was found not to have closed! My generation is the first “in modern memory” that is barreling on track to be poorer than our parents. We will have less wealth accumulation and lower savings. We will not be better off.

But the economy is recovering! I said to myself. Things are getting better. And then I read this depressing little gem: “Members of the 1 percent have taken nearly all the wage gains made in the recovery. Their incomes bounced back. Nearly everyone else’s fell.”

Now, let me say that I have been feeling, increasingly, like I am just climbing a staircase that has no end. When I read that sad statistic, I had that sensation of stepping up, prepared for the next stair, you know? — only to bring my foot down with a slap and stumble and realize, “Oh, I’ve reached the top.” Only the top is this vast plateau and there is absolutely nothing there. There is nowhere to go.

Maybe that’s dramatic. Joshua, my boyfriend, will tell me that it is, that I’m only 25 and that I’ve come a long way in the less than 2 years I’ve lived in New York, and that I have to give myself some latitude. He tells me that all the time, and I try really hard to believe him but secretly I don’t believe him at all. Secretly, I think that I have failed because my life is a fiscal roller coaster. Secretly, I think that I have squandered whatever potential I had studying something I loved that has almost no long-term professional opportunities. Secretly, I am embarrassed of how my SAT score would seem to imply that I should be earning at least that number in dollars every month. But I don’t even come close.

And secretly, I totally agree with Takeaway #2: I am obsessed with money — but not in the Scrooge-McDuck-roll-around-in-a-pile-of-it-make-it-rain way. I am obsessed with my lack of it. I worry about money and how much of it I (don’t) have multiple times every day. Even on the rare days when I do not have to spend it, I worry about the next time I will. And when I do spend it, I feel every single cent that leaves my bank account like babies ripped from the arms of their weeping mothers. Anything over $10 is “expensive”. Buying groceries makes me feel like I am just opening my veins and emptying them into the cash register at Trader Joe’s, which I am sure the way-too-friendly cashier would not appreciate. To eat for about a week, I spend around $50 on groceries. This is not a lot of money…except that it is. And I hate that that’s true for me.

Compounding my despair over the NYTimes’ brusque eulogy to my chances in life, today I was tricked by Groupon. Lulled into a false sense of affordability only to be rudely reminded that no, I cannot actually have nice things. Or in this case, do nice things for people I love. Case in point:

“The lenses alone are $320,” the lady says. And I am watching Joshua’s birthday present fall apart in front of me.

Groupon has made a lot of things possible in my life that I would otherwise not be able to afford: manicures for special events; bikini waxes for bathing suit season; a freaking haircut once a year. Within my relationship, Groupon (and similar sites) have allowed Joshua and I to celebrate things like birthdays and Christmas with each other without necessarily starving for a week to do so.

I had bought Josh a Groupon for his birthday next week. The deal included an eye exam and $250 toward lenses and frames, because Joshua’s glasses literally look like he got them in 1998− and the prescription is about that old, too. So we show up to the eye doctor and Joshua tries on a few frames from the least expensive case so we can stretch the $250 as much as possible. He finds a few possibilities before going in for his exam. Conspiratorially, the lady behind the counter and I pick out a few more for him to try. Then he comes out, eyes bleary with drops, and hands the lady behind the counter his prescription.

“Oh, he needs high index lenses,” she says in a tone that means, “Isn’t that a shame?”

Apparently, this means that Joshua’s eyes are bad enough that he has to wear special lenses in order to avoid strapping Coke bottles to his face. And of course, those lenses, by themselves, cost $320. Because of course.

At first, Joshua mishears. He thinks the lenses and frames are $320 total. He has to ask her the price again.

“The lenses alone are $320,” the lady repeats. She is really sorry about it, too.

I feel like I’m frozen to my chair. I know exactly where this is going, which is exactly what happens. I can’t afford to make up the $220 difference. Joshua can’t either. Even if we split it equally, $110 apiece still might as well be $500 apiece.

Josh has to tell the lady we can’t buy anything. We walk out with nothing but a piece of paper that says Joshua’s eyes are really bad.  

I feel humiliated. It’s not my fault. It’s not Josh’s fault, nor his eyes’ fault. But I feel so…worthless. And powerless. And frustrated. Because what I wanted to do, of course, is tell Joshua not to worry about it– who cares if it’s over the coupon amount? Still a good price! I wanted to tell him that this is your birthday present so no worries! I got this. It’s not that much money, babe. I can do this thoughtful thing for you because I want to. Because you deserve it.

But I can’t. And that makes me feel pathetic.                           

I know what I have, and I know it’s a lot more than many people. I’m not ungrateful that I have a roof over my head and food to eat and a (somewhat tenuous) internet connection, not to mention amazing friends, a supportive family, and a loving (if legally blind) boyfriend. But for me and others in my position, the kind of financial stability and security enjoyed by my parents and their parents is relatively impossible. As one researcher tells a concerned mom in the NYTimes article: “Maybe this generation won’t have a worse life, but just a different life.” But what does this “different” life mean for young people who still want the life of their parents? A stable job, a house, a family, a car, a retirement plan…? And millennials — most of them — still want that, according to the National Marriage Project. Does it mean, “too damn bad”? 

The prevailing advice about career choice while my generation was growing up was, “Find something to do that makes you happy. Find your passion. Live your dreams.” Sound familiar? It wasn’t just our parents; it was our teachers and our children’s books and TV shows with squishy morals at the end of the episodes. It was encouraging and affirming. The trick was simply to find something to do that you loved doing more than anything else…and just do it! Apply yourself to it. Stick with it. 

So I did what I was supposed to. I found what I loved to do and I studied it and I practiced it and I got good at it, and as I neared graduation and the economy went belly-up, I realized that no one was gonna pay me to do it. In fact, the economy was so shitty that no one was even going to give me a slave-labor internship to do it because there were a hundred other more qualified, more experienced candidates who now couldn’t find jobs, either. 

Everyone says, “Do what makes you happy.” And my work makes me happy– when I actually get to do it. It makes me so happy, in fact, that I will often do it for free because if I don’t, I will not be doing it at all. Usually, when someone approaches me about a job, I don’t even ask about payment. I forget that’s a thing. If someone pays me for my work in my chosen field, it is a treat. But I am doing what makes me happy. 

What does not make me happy is feeling like that has come at the expense of building the infrastructure of my life. Next year, I can no longer be on my parents’ insurance, and so I will have none. I have no savings, nor any means to start. I have student loan debt. I could not live without the 3 roommates I have, nor could I live with them in a nicer neighborhood. I could not get married or have kids even if I wanted to. And while all that is fine for right now, for being 25 and a relatively new transplant in a very expensive city, I also cannot see that it is temporary. I do not feel like I am on a path. I do not feel like I am moving toward any of those things. 

Maybe I’m impatient. Or maybe I just can’t see it. To abandon ship and reboot my life with a different career with a more defined path to personal and financial stability seems just as impossible, though. I am qualified to do a narrow thing, and my experience makes it narrower. To go back to school for something else so that I am qualified for something more lucrative entails acquiring more debt and seems unwise. And then what? What happens to doing the thing that I love?  What happens to that half of my happiness? 

Reason tells me there is some middle ground, but it’s hard to pick out from between failure and long shots and playing it safe and calculated risks and hoping hoping hoping that I will get to be, somehow, one of those lucky people whose talents and passions match up with someone with a big bank account who needs them.

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