Money anxiety is an interesting thing. As a single-income 30-something, I don’t think it’s possible to live in this world without some degree of it in general, but today I had the first of what I can only assume will be several realizations about the ways in which I am more free of it than I’d realized.
The first modification to my lifestyle came this afternoon, when, instead of going out to eat as I normally would have with a friend, it was decided that she would come over and I would cook us a brunch. This, actually, was quite nice. I’ve not traditionally been much of a cook. Most of my forays into the culinary world have resulted in comic disasters involving fire alarms, melted spatulas and even, in one instance, the loss of my eyelashes. This is a fact of my life that I’ve been trying to change for the last several months, and it was a sweet satisfaction to cook an uneventful and even vaguely edible meal for a friend and serve it up. She brought over a ridiculously delicious fruit salad and I prepared a scramble with roasted fall veggies and cheese. It was nice, also, to not be around the din of other diners and to be able to sit in the sun on my patio and talk intimately without interruption.
I found, though, as the afternoon progressed and I got closer to my one expenditure for the week (a trip to the grocery store) I began to feel a vague unease. The combination of my lack of cooking skills, general confusion about grocery stores and fears of not buying enough of the right things to see me through the week without incident began weighing on me. As I made my shopping list, I began a mental checklist: What would it be HORRIBLE to run out of? Tampons? Check. Bar soap? Check. Diet Coke? Check. (see: caffeine addiction, which is likely something I’ll give up another week. *shudder*) Toilet paper? What was I missing?
In addition to nixing expenditure for the week, I also gave myself a budget for the shopping trip. I didn’t want to cheat myself on this experience by splurging wildly at the grocery store to cover all my whims in advance. This challenge is not just about being more mindful of how I’m spending money, it’s also about challenging my addiction to instant gratification and encouraging me to think creatively about comfort and security. So while I tossed a few items in my cart that don’t necessarily qualify as NEEDS (cookies, diet coke, a bag of potato chips) I didn’t once stray from my list — and while I often buy store-brands, I made a point of doing so intentionally on this trip with greater frequency.
As I drove home from the store, I was reminded of the first time I went grocery shopping as a 20-something after getting an above-minimum-wage job. My girlfriend at the time and I had just moved in together, and it was our first joint shopping trip. As the cash register rang up $150, my face went white and my palms started to sweat. I felt nauseous and instantly began sorting through the bags to put things back. Since I’d left home at 18, I’d never spent more than $60 at the grocery store — frequently much less — and that for a week of groceries. My girlfriend chuckled at me and told me it was alright, that I had a good job now and I could afford things like fresh vegetables and organic meat — but something inside me was horrified. I felt guilty, like a traitor to my class. Living off Top Ramen and saltines and scrounging together change for the laundromat was my way of life, and it was a commonality I had with my friends. As I surveyed the most well-stocked cupboards I had ever had, I set my jaw and made a promise to myself not to take it for granted.
But then I did. Over time, dropping that much at the grocery store became habit. I stopped thinking about it. But today, as I filled my cart, I remembered that old feeling of “This is all there is. There is no more.” I remembered the feeling of spending the last of my check and realizing that whatever I bought would have to see me through until the next one. I remembered agonizing over each purchase, having to choose between deodorant and protein, having to walk past the fresh fruit and veggies in favor of tinned peaches in sugar syrup and frozen peas.
I have no shame about having a good job and not having to struggle in the same way. Like anything in life, the fact that I’m able to indulge myself more frequently has come from a mix of hard work and good luck. But I am reminded today, and I expect to be reminded over and over again this week, about just how much about my lifestyle I am taking for granted, and about how many unconscious decisions I am making about the ways in which I spend money. This is going to be an interesting week.