Normally, I use this little online soapbox to talk about various destinations I’ve enjoyed over the years. But what was the journey like leading up to these trips?
Five summers ago, we bought our first house and moved into rooms that took forever to fill with furniture. About six weeks later, the recreational soccer season began and I registered our daughter, for the suburban soccer field has always been the go-to place to ingratiate yourself, the place to meet other parents, get the lowdown on the community, learn where to buy cheese, craft beer and organic produce and to find out who mows their lawns at unreasonable hours. This whole move was about our daughter. This was the town with the award-winning school district, so we took on a ton of debt to care for an aging colonial house in a neighborhood surrounded by McMansions so she could get the best public school education northern New Jersey had to offer.
It didn’t take long for me to feel out place. The town is populated by financially-stable families who are either second-generation middle or upper-middle class, not first-generation middle class as we are. The grandparents were educated entrepreneurs, not cafeteria lunch ladies or school bus drivers like mine. The parents are now lawyers, doctors, and managers in business with nice gigs at places like NBC and UBS. We know two people who are in the creative fields; they are both musicians and married to one another. Otherwise, we haven’t met many other creative types here and no one talks about the books they’ve read because everyone is too busy working hard to pay for this lifestyle.
I was at the soccer field in early September when it still felt like summer, watching my kid chase a ball. It had been about two months after we had unpacked. I began eavesdropping on a couple of moms sitting nearby on bleachers. One was complaining about her husband being late to some household renovation discussion. The lighting was being redone, she needed his input, their house was worth a million or two, the designer had a lot of questions, why couldn’t he be on time? These women had amazing manicures and their hands flew like agitated, coiffed birds.
I turned to my husband and said “I need to join someone’s revolution in South America stat otherwise I’m going to get stupidly soft here.”
Fast-forward five years and I still hate it here, but the kid is getting that great education, she has a great circle of friends, we have equity, and I too-often book trips to escape. I always had a case of wanderlust. I daydream of driving around the West Coast in an Airstream—which always looked like a mega-metallic Twinkie to me—picnicking my way north or south, reading books, writing whatever, answering to no one or nothing, not even an alarm clock. My husband is on board with this idea once our kid finishes high school. He moved around a lot as a kid, hated it, and firmly believes (and I agree) kids should have roots. So maybe these are girlish dreams to have at age 42, for the suburban parents I’ve met here tackle their responsibilities with gusto, chauffeuring their children to the gazillion activities they think will give them that competitive edge for who knows what, and, if anyone resents this suburban parent rat race, no one is saying so out loud, not even after too much wine at backyard barbecues.
So I book trips. I booked trips before we moved to this snobby suburb, but now travel has become a kind of lifeline, my way of holding on to a me I still recognize and like. Since moving here, we’ve gone to France, Mexico, Japan, Iceland. We have gone to California almost every year (Mike’s company is based there), we visited Colorado twice, and Canada, five times. All these trips would have easily covered the cost of a major kitchen renovation as well as several other home upgrades, for our house is old and crumbling in some places plus we would increase our property value. But we have postcards, not an open-concept kitchen with granite counter tops. We have great cocktail party stories about getting lost in Tokyo and biking Quebec, not new bathroom tile. I sometimes wonder if the frequency of our travels gives the false impression that we are rich, and here’s where the thoughts on money come in.
Three years ago, I left a communications manager job in which I was held in high regard. It wasn’t fulfilling, I had always wanted to be a novelist, and I thought, if not now, when? I could’ve stayed, collected regular paychecks every two weeks, lean in, as Sheryl Sandberg suggests, say yes to everything in the hopes that I would get another promotion and/or bonus, build up my retirement savings, maintain a decent working gal’s wardrobe, continue to pay through the nose for after school care and commuting (my commute averaged about $8,000 per year; getting across that Hudson River every day is not cheap, folks), and go on family vacations probably twice a year while watching my dreams of writing a novel ebb away because I’m not the type who can scribble plot on deli napkins in between meetings.
Instead, I’m under-earning. Way under-earning during what should be peak earning years. Juicier, larger projects that used to be easier to come by as a freelance writer are now fewer and far between. Budgets get cut. Projects fall through. The Internet continues to cheapen everything related to writing and publishing. Experts always advise to diversify; I have more clients yet less income, which goes against the equation many of us were taught. Every freelance writer I know is being low-balled for his or her work, and we’re all working harder now just to grab those smaller assignments that perhaps a decade or two ago we could have afforded to pass.
Despite this drop in income, I still travel though sometimes I question whether I should chill out, ignore my suburban surroundings and just save more and spend less. Two days ago, I hid from the Canadian wind by curling up and reading inside a Starbucks at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Quebec City. I read about Scratch magazine, a publication covering the writing life and money, or lack thereof, coming to an end after two years. Scratch didn’t paint a rosy picture of the writer’s life—no one makes any money, which made me wonder if my choices were too financially risky after all. And then I read this great article by Chelsea Fagan about money and travel. Usually articles about money and/or travel remind me of what I’ve done wrong, but this one was so validating I read it twice. Fagan writes: “Encouraging that person to ‘not worry about money,’ or to ‘drop everything and follow their dreams,’ demonstrates only a profound misunderstanding about what ‘worrying’ actually means.”
I almost stood up at Le Château Frontenac and applauded. Holy crap! Someone finally said it. Out loud. On the Internet.
But, hey, Katrina, you quit your job, you’re following your dreams now, and you’re thanking Fagan’s candor from the lobby of a four-star hotel where you once stayed. All true, Internet, but here’s the thing: I spent my teens, 20s, and 30s working jobs I didn’t like to dig myself out of debt. We should all do stuff we don’t like for extended periods of time because it makes us appreciate what we really do like. I had six figures of debt when my daughter was born in 2004. My parents didn’t have bachelor’s degrees or any money when they were married and then when they divorced while I was a teenager, there was even less money to go around, and let’s just say getting child support from my father wasn’t easy. Money was so tight I missed out on my high school French class trip to Quebec City because I couldn’t afford to go (and I was the only student who didn’t go). My mother occasionally borrowed $20 from me—my earnings from babysitting, strawberry-picking and bussing tables at the town country club—to fill her gas tank to get to work. Growing up, our financial situation was precarious, and the cost of this dysfunction would be mine to pay off for years. I had to borrow to go to college, as most of us do, and worked a number of odd jobs to continue to afford college. I used credit cards to buy groceries and make ends meet. I once borrowed $3,000 from an ex-boyfriend (obviously, a super-nice guy, whom I did pay back in full). I didn’t come from any means whatsoever. Low expectations were encouraged, verbally and otherwise. I sometimes think middle- and upper-class families, where the money just moves from generation to generation, don’t get this, that lack of a safety net, what it feels like to stretch $20 bills farther than they are meant to go. My parents didn’t grow up with any money so “making do” was what you did, but as a teenager I resented this hand-to-mouth living. The breadwinner of our household had a debilitating mental illness and made a number of bad choices that would follow me for a long time. I wanted to break loose from all of it, financially, geographically, emotionally.
What changed? The first shift came in 1997 when we threw our few possessions into a small U-haul trailer and moved cross-country to Seattle, my first big life lesson that risk can indeed pay off. I came into a wave of dot-com money in the late 1990s and paid off $10,000 in student loans and a car loan (leaving about another $36,000 in student loans to go). A few years after being flush from our West Coast dot-com days, Mike and I both lost jobs and credit card debt went back up. Oh, and we had a baby. He was offered a job in New York City, and 11 1/2 years later, I’m still shocked we live here. We both did the nonprofit treadmill for a while and stayed afloat. I earned bonuses from exhausting office jobs and paid off what I could while Mike worked overtime. I got to the office early, Blackberried while driving home, arrived at daycare past closing, and watched a paycheck based on a 40-hour work week start to look small as the job consumed more of my life. Any windfall led to paying something off and, when we were lucky, a trip. First, small jaunts to the coast of Maine or back to Washington, D.C., where we used to live, and, eventually, trips to Belgium and England. Meanwhile, I contributed a meager 2 percent of my paycheck towards retirement—because daycare, credit card bills and other student loans ate the rest of my paycheck—and eventually that 2 percent grew to the point where we had enough for a rather laughable but legally-appropriate down payment on a house that was surprisingly accepted without issue. The real game changer, however, came in 2007 when my husband was offered a corporate gig that literally altered our lives. Nonprofit is called nonprofit for a reason, and folks can bash the corporate realm all they want, but the corporate realm helped us dig out faster, and I don’t badmouth the hand that feeds us. Because of one particularly awesome for-profit company that values my husband (and approves of work/life balance), I now have the freedom to attempt to write a novel while still being able to afford our daily expenses.
Which brings me back to the soccer field. The start of school and the new soccer season means the tail end of summer vacation. Sometimes I find myself chatting with a parent at the sideline and we talk about where we went and other trips we’ve taken. “Wow, you get around!” is usually the response, and I want to explain to this mom or dad how my mother, newly divorced, would yell at me for keeping my bedroom heat on too high because I was needlessly running up the utility bill when I could just throw on a sweater; how during my freshman year of college there was that discussion about whether I could afford to continue; how there would be a stack—a stack—of credit card bills on my desk; how I asked an ex-boyfriend for money.
But I don’t say any of these things.
When I meet others in our ‘burb, they ask what I do, the typical American chitchat filler. I explain how I stay at home and write freelance, and oh, yes, I’m working on my first novel, and yes, my husband writes for a mutual fund company, and really, you should go visit Iceland because the lava fields are beautiful this time of year, and I catch myself. But what can you really say on the sidelines of a kid’s soccer game? That it took you 20 years to dig out of debt, that you still worry about money even though the trips you take suggest otherwise because ever since you were stuck at home listening to your parents argue, you knew you wanted to see the world, that, yes, by all appearances you sound like a suburban corporate hausfrau but you’re focused on becoming a novelist and there are people in the publishing industry who think your manuscript is pretty good, that what you see standing before you here on this manicured soccer field isn’t always how it’s been, that you once counted pennies to buy spaghetti and butter, that when you were 23, your mother would call asking for money to help pay for your own health insurance because you were still on her plan and it was eating into her paycheck, that it was a long, weird, often difficult road, that financially, the woman you see before you is a late-bloomer compared with the neighbors, and that sometimes she’s surprised to be having this conversation at all?