Filthy Lucre

This blog-post is a kind of no-brainer. It is about money. But it is also about all the things that many of us encounter in our relationship with money: financial insecurity, freedom, autonomy, gratification, ownership, deferring payments, borrowing, owing anonymous institutions—unless we’re out on the street, we, in America, are all in on it

Money, it was once said, is the root of all evil. “Filthy lucre,” the medievalists called it. On the other hand, I was reminded many times in my youth that “money doesn’t grow on trees.” That was a statement that usually came out of the mouths of parents to remind their kids to give up even thinking about another handout from good ol’ mom and dad.

I think I first became aware of money when I was a Catholic elementary school student. “Second collections” were part of the Sunday-service ritual. I learned from that ritual that there were “needy causes” out there (usually in the Catholic Missions or in the Catholic Charities movement), that, no matter how poor my own church was, there was always some pocket change we could come up with to send to those we just assumed were more in need.

Cold, hard cash, of course, was the rule. I don’t ever remember paper-trail checks in the collection basket. As I look back at that 1950s Catholic blue-collar culture I grew up in, the long tax form didn’t exist. Nobody seemed to be amassing a folder of charitable contributions. We were definitely a short-form clan.

I also remember my father always having a lot of folded-over bills inside of a money clip. That, of course, reinforced my belief that fathers always had money. My dad kept some of his money behind a drawer in one of the chests in my parents’ bedroom. Everyone in the family knew where it was. And that told me that men must always be given the freedom to “hide” their money (a pared down male lower-class version of corporate off-shore tax havens).

Visits to my father’s police credit union had become routine. Everybody in my family even knew the name of the credit union manager, Louis McDade. His name became part of household conversations.

Although I didn’t understand what a credit union was at the time, as I look back, I was subliminally being introduced to the concept of a loan. My childhood version, of course, was that money was available through my father’s job, if you needed it. For those of us over 18 in my family, we could take out a low-interest loan. Dad, of course, would always co-sign.

Co-signers were always the adults. And co-signers were essential in my lower-class 1950s post-adolescent culture, especially if you were a young male and wanted to buy a car.

Among the male teenagers I grew up with, cars really had very little to do with needed transportation. They became the fleshed-out versions of masculinity, autonomy, and sexual conquest. If you were a guy and you had a car, you could take a girl on a date, you could hang out at bars without having to look at a bus schedule, you could show up at a street dance in your wing-tipped Chevy Bel Air. And you could take a girl to a drive-in.

Money of course was needed to buy that car. You could work at a paper route or at a local movie theater. But, in the end, you needed a loan. A co-signer was an essential part of that process—one of the reasons to always stay on the good side of a father.

My father’s credit union made car loans possible, at least for one of my brothers. As a result, the credit-union became a kind of extended family headed by the quiet, cigar-smoking credit union manager who always had a drawer full of cash and a cabinet stocked with loan forms requiring co-signers—a parent who worked for the police department.

The credit union, then, became for me the small family-oriented repository of trust. The credit-union manager knew everybody on the police force. Retirees came back and borrowed money or kept their savings there. And children of both retirees and active members of the police force also borrowed and had savings accounts there.

My mother was the first person to introduce me to lay-away. “Will-call” was the favored phrase of the time. And what a concept that was. Imagine, your eye would catch the slim lines of a pair of sleek black pegged pants. But you didn’t have enough money in your pocket. You took the pants off the rack and brought them to the will-call desk. You slapped down some chump change. The store would hold the pants for a week until you came back with the balance.

Within that narrow frame of the “will-call” window was an entire world of delayed payments, deferred ownership, slow gratification. You made a quick, out-of-pocket down payment for an item. The store kept your purchase in a safe place. You were given a certain amount of time to pay off the balance. You arrived at the store, a week later, cash in hand. The cashier put your item in a bag, then cashed you out. You owned it.

I went through my adult life having a solid, long-term career. I really never worried about money, even though a divorce that included child support and alimony, forced me to minimize my life-style. I had credit cards. What else could a guy ask for?

Over a span of about fifteen years, I developed a dependence on credit cards. During that period, I maxed out all of the cards and often ended up borrowing from one card to make a minimal payment on another. I was also in the throes of my alcoholism and was totally reckless about how much money I was spending. I had a secure teaching job, at the time, so I had no reason to worry about where the next paycheck was coming from.

In my alcoholic mind, a savings account would have distracted me from the ever-expectant world of credit, a world that had what seemed to be an infinite set of possibilities. I could always get another credit card in the mail that would allow me to travel to Paris, to take a cruise to the Caribbean, to spend a week in Montreal. (At this time in my life, most of those trips were fantasies. Montreal was the only city I managed to drink my way through on my first couple of excursions there.)

A savings account, in my tortured mind, would have robbed me of all of that and a credit card, in the end, became the magic wand that could make all my fantasies come true.

And what isn’t there to love about a “minimum payment”? It doesn’t intrude upon a disposable income. It is, by its nature, a very small amount of cash. It’s “doable,” a favorite word of one of my colleagues.

Minimum payments allow you lots of time to pay back a loan. To someone who has a solid career, the longevity factor is very attractive. Initially, a minimum payment doesn’t cause much, if any damage, to a guy’s wallet.

Unless, of course, you keep making purchases on the same credit card. But we don’t want to talk about that, do we? A new purchase to a credit-card addict just doesn’t seem real enough to fret about.

I’m in my declining years and have had my income reduced by much less than half of what I earned when I retired. That’s thirteen years, so I suspect that inflation has eaten up a significant portion of even that amount.

Has my attitude about money changed? It has.

I bought a small apartment after I retired, thirteen years ago. I invested a lot of money (two equity loans) to renovate the place. The property values in the area where I bought continue to be unaffected by the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the country. I sold my apartment for a moderate profit. I am now happily renting.

I initially had no intention of selling my place or of turning it over for a quick profit. I simply never felt comfortable owning a home, and I didn’t want to risk the remaining years of my life worrying about a mortgage payment.

Quite frankly, I just wanted to be economically free of the mortgage burden, the upkeep, and the annoyances of having to worry about whether or not something else was going to break down.

The relinquishing of my home allows me to pursue my writing, without all of the home-ownership distractions that were beginning to drive me crazy. I also have much more time to to uncover more of what Socrates called the “unexamined life.” It is a choice I have made, for better/for worse, or in spite of the diminishing returns from my “estate” after I die. (I will let my adult children figure that out.)

We live in a culture where money appears to be a requirement for living. We can choose, however, to horde it, if we have the means. We can be careless with it. Or we can see money through the lens of what is really important to us.

I have chosen to live out my days without extravagance. I continue to spare down. I invest in my writing on many levels. I plan on keeping my old car for a very long time. I shop at Marshall’s and The Dollar Store. I have dialogues with myself about how long my money will last. And then I go back to the computer to write some more.

It’s all good.




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