My wife has been looking at handbags this week. It’s a recurring activity, even though she almost never buys one. She spent a few hours online the other night, and then she briefly went into a shop at the weekend when we were walking by. I think she’s finally gearing up to actually buy the one she wants. I’m certainly encouraging her to.
I didn’t upgrade my iPhone two years ago. When I did upgrade last year, it was because it was a surprise gift from my wife. Ditto for the new iPad Pro this summer.
There was a time — actually many times, for years — when I’d upgrade by default. Phone, tablet, laptop, and even desktop computer. New accessories and peripherals. I acquired a lot of stuff. And I’d be boastful of it, in that plausibly-passive, faux-disinterested, humblebrag sort of way. To think back on it, I cringe. I’m ashamed.
But I’m not upgrading by default these days. I could tell you it’s about focus, or minimalism, or artistic asceticism. I could say it’s because the toys no longer hold quite so much interest, or because I just have better things to do. There’d be an element of truth in all of that. But it’s not the reason.
Writing is enormously rewarding in pretty much every way that matters. What it doesn’t do, though, is bring in a lot of money — which is fine, and expected. Additionally, taking a few years to get the first book out really burns through a lot of your reserve, and changes some economic realities. Which is also fine. Indeed, fine is how I’d describe my situation. I’m having no trouble paying the bills, or dealing with Christmas and birthdays and anniversaries. I still buy things. There’s no problem — but equally, I didn’t buy my most recent phone or iPad. That’s pretty much the situation. No drama; just the truth.
I’ve had a tricky relationship with money. I like having money, just as everyone does, but I don’t think I handle it well. It changes too many things. I’m loath to make big purchases, and far happier to just subsist. But when the balance dwindles, it’s a disproportional cause of anxiety. Then there’s the issue of other people.
You shouldn’t be affected by other people’s money. You shouldn’t. But you probably will be. You probably are.
There’s a sides-of-the-family split on this topic. My wife’s family is comfortably off. They’re retired, they travel constantly, they own several properties (renting out the ones they don’t live in), and they think nothing of moving chunks of money around. They’re generous to a fault. They’ve always been very good to us. They also talk openly about that situation, because they rightly enjoy it. Neither of their backgrounds was wealthy, which of course has a very large impact on how you perceive wealth later. They deserve what they have.
My wife earns a lot more than I do these days — literally by an order of magnitude. It’s never been an issue for us, though. She’s frugal, too, and prioritises expenditures with a sometimes-excessive level of sense and pragmatism.
You’ll also often hear me refer to little sis; in fact Lauren’s younger sister, and my sister-in-law. I’ve known her since she was sixteen, and emotionally she’s every bit my little sister too. I’m fiercely fond of her, and the wonderful news is that she’s recently married. Her husband, a delightful lad, was last year chipping away at his list of things to do before reaching the ripe old age of thirty, and bought himself a Porsche — and indeed bought his now-wife the kind of handbag that costs quite a bit more than the iPhone it carries. And quite right. She deserves the nicest things, and his generosity is a credit to him.
There was a time when that was me, too. I’d never presume to decipher my wife’s exacting taste in handbags, right enough, but in the past, I’d have bought her whatever she wanted. But I can’t do that now.
We — jointly — drive a seven-year-old Ford, and if I wanted to replace it today with something at the same price, on my own, I couldn’t afford to. Needless to say, there will be no Porsche at any point in the foreseeable future (not that either of us actually wants one), unless my wife decides to buy it for herself.
How should I feel about that? How do I feel about that?
She works for Amazon, as I’ve mentioned, here in Edinburgh. One sunny day last year, we went out for lunch, along with little sis and a life-long friend who was her second bridesmaid. The girls had been dress-shopping, and I only joined them for the meal, then left them to their shopping again afterwards. As we ate, conversation turned to the usual topics, including work. I tend to focus on food when it’s available, so I was mostly just listening, and at one point my wife made a joking remark that if Amazon unforeseeably went out of business, both she and I would be in trouble. I laughed and nodded, and kept eating.
I thought of little else for the rest of the day.
I went down all manner of paths in my mind; eventually — and with effort — wrestling my interpretation around to simply a note of due underlying concern on her part, which would be perfectly understandable. Later that night, and without being aware I was going to speak, I looked up from my phone and with no preamble, I said that we’d be fine for quite a while even in the event of her not having a job. I think it had the qualities of a statement, a question, and maybe even a challenge.
You can imagine the duet of confusion, then gradual backtracking to find the point of divergence. She’d just meant that she worked at Amazon, and I sold books there. That’s all.
It had never even occurred to me. I’d immediately turned the idle remark into something about her being the only partner in stable employment; being the breadwinner. I did it automatically, and then my train of thought was irrevocably derailed. That’s what happens when a latent fear suddenly seems to confront you in reality. I was projecting the hell out of my own insecurity.
I’ve promised to always tell you the truth, dear reader, and I can’t very well lie to you when I’m unable to even lie to myself. Thus: not fine. Apparently not fine at all.
I can certainly rationalise. I’m great at that. For example: my situation is a conscious choice. Everyone is supportive, especially my wife. My new line of work has very different financial realities than my old one. It’s a long climb back up, which I knew when I started, and I’m still on step one.
There’s no judgement. Nobody’s whispering. Nobody’s ashamed. No-one else’s situation should reflect upon me. Oh, I can rationalise all day long.
But then I’ll hear that somebody will be buying another property, to rent out (I couldn’t get a mortgage now; it’d have to be solely in my wife’s name). Or there will be a new sports car (thankfully our own vehicle has been largely maintenance-free so far). Or somebody will already be wearing the Seamaster I have a multi-year plan to save up for. Or someone will ask which colour of new phone I’m ordering, as if it’s still a given. There will be moments like that, and then the rationality just… flickers, for a moment. Like a candle’s flame, caught in a sudden breeze.
There’s a lot of baggage. I didn’t want for anything while I was growing up, but we had very tough times with money too, during my adolescence. There was a real, omnipresent, gnawing fear about it for years. Having money as a guaranteed thing just wasn’t the background I came from, once I was old enough to realise it. I think that’s why I’m not my best self when I do have it. It’s taken me all my life to realise and understand that. I think that having the level of ease with money where it never need be mentioned is probably reserved for those who always had it in the first place.
The baggage is cultural, too. I have nothing to prove except in my work, and in my conduct as a human being. It doesn’t matter which gender I am. I believe that. And yet.
She deserves nice things every bit as much as her sister, doesn’t she?
The question itself is a trap, of course, but I’m not sure how that knowledge helps me. I don’t buy into words like providing either, because they’re self-made traps too. And yet.
I’m asked how the books are doing, as happens all the time. In what sense? I reply. Sales, they say. And how do you answer that, really? How do you separate yourself from whatever the enquiry actually means?
I don’t know how to do that. In the end, even though I may replay the question and the possible motives behind it a hundred times afterwards, there really is only one response. One acceptable social denouement, dancing carefully within the invisible rules, and the imagined expectations.
Fine, I say.