How comfortable are you with accepting money?
+ Barbie, bankruptcy and focussing on being happy
I don’t think I said in this newsletter that my laptop packed up a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been using one of my old ones that I’d passed to the 14yo, but it’s pretty erratic.
Last week, a friend messaged asking how much I’d need for a new laptop. I told her, following up with “But you’re not buying me one.” She pretty much ignored my response and carried on asking questions, meeting my “This is so nice of you, but I can’t let you do that” with “Bank transfer or Paypal?”
And I took a second to breathe. And to think about why I was so resistant. She wanted to give me this money. She told me she could afford it. So I said yes. And then I had a little cry.
Whenever I think about having enough money, or more than enough money, I think about giving it away. About helping friends. About how if someone says ‘My car failed its MOT but I can’t afford the repairs, I don’t know what I’m going to do’ I could pay it. In the past when I could afford it (and sometimes when I couldn’t afford it), I’ve helped friends out.
So I need to think about why I find it hard to let people do it for me. (I mean, obviously not that hard because I accepted, but still.)
I’ve also, inevitably, been thinking about Barbie. When I was growing up, we didn’t really have Barbie in the UK. We had Sindy. (I googled and looked at some old Argos catalogues and 1980 was all Sindy, no Barbie. By ‘83, it was all Barbie, no Sindy. Poor Sindy.)
The only Barbies I saw belonged to friends. Rich twins. Their parents were young and glamorous (the mum once caused a commotion by wearing leather trousers to primary school pick-up). The dad was a former model who worked away for months at a time and always brought them back incredible presents.
They had a bunch of Barbies that they didn’t even seem bothered about and I distinctly remember wondering why they wouldn’t just give me one. They had plenty! They could spare one. I’m sure I hinted. Probably not at all subtly. And I remember being genuinely surprised when it didn’t work. They had so much more than me! They probably wouldn’t even miss one! Why wouldn’t they give me a damn Barbie???
It’s always been an uncomfortable memory.
And I wonder if part of the problem is that I still feel too close to the little me who didn’t have enough (not Barbies, but in general; I know I’m labouring the metaphor, stay with me) and felt ashamed asking for more.
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An interview with… Sandra Ann Miller
Sandra Ann Miller is a writer of wrongs, temporarily-paused podcaster, and newly-minted happiness coach living in Los Angeles. Her first book, A Sassy Little Guide to Getting Over Him — 10 Steps to Heal Your Heart After an Unhappy Ending, was released in 2006 on her imprint SAME ink. The Young Adult edition of it was released in 2017. You can find her and her writing at A Sassy Little Substack. Or on Instagram and Threads at SassyLittlePod.
What is your relationship with money currently?
Friendly. Considering we were enemies for so long, this feels really nice. I’m not afraid of it anymore, and it no longer ghosts me (the benefit of giving up freelancing to be an employee).
For my current job, I took a fairly significant pay cut in order to have more of a work/life balance (and to work with nice people; never underestimate what that’s worth). I’d made that amount previously and thought it wouldn’t be a big deal.
Well…it only took me six months to feel the pinch. I didn’t calculate for inflation when I accepted that offer and, for the first time in years, I’ve had to dip into savings to pay for a couple of unexpected-yet-predictable expenses. That was unfun. And, a weird thing about life is, the older we get, the more expensive life is.
Still, money and I do get on these days. We have a weekly date where I update my Quickbooks, we pay bills every other week on payday, and reconcile monthly. (Shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but I actually enjoy doing that.)
What’s your earliest money memory?
My great-aunt Mary sending a $5 bill in every birthday, Valentine, Easter and Christmas card, even when I was 3 or 4. That was a fair amount of money back in the 70s. She only lived a few miles from us in the same town. I loved that she took the time and care to mail that to me. I also remember that money burning a hole in my pocket. Couldn’t wait to spend it.
What advice would you give your younger self about money?
Live below your means! That’s so hard to do when we’re starting out with modestly paying jobs, and student loans and other life expenses to contend with (not to mention wanting to present as a self-sufficient adult who can do it all).
If I had followed that advice, life would be different today. And the sad part is that I wasn’t jetting off to Paris or Capri, or buying designer duds. No. It was getting my own apartment when I should’ve had a roommate or two, going out to dinners I should’ve been making myself, buying things on sale just to have more stuff. It's silly, in retrospect. I should’ve gone to Paris, though.
What’s the biggest money mistake you’ve made?
Credit cards, and financing my life on those. It started with paying for things for school, and then basic life stuff. That was back when groceries stores didn’t take credit cards, or fast-food places for that matter. So, if I was hungry and needed to get food, that meant going to a restaurant. And who, at 19 or 20, wanted to eat at a restaurant alone? So, I would treat an equally broke friend to dinner.
It was fun at the time. But spending like that led to me declaring bankruptcy at 25. A truly painful decision and humiliating experience. (By the way, new credit card offers started showing up a couple of weeks after the bankruptcy went through. The system is rigged.)
While I still struggled for a long, long time with money, I’m happy to say that I am now debt-free (excluding my car payment and student loan, which I just see as facts of life). Credit cards are paid in full each payday, and my credit score is “excellent”. It took a while to get there, but it is possible to dig ourselves out of a debt hole.
Could you tell me more about making the decision to declare bankruptcy?
The decision to declare bankruptcy was very hard. This was before credit card companies would work with you. I called each of them and told them the problem I saw coming (soon to be out of work, as a film I was working on was about to wrap) and asked for assistance. They all said they couldn’t help me. Every one! But I was already at the tipping point by then. Between the credit card debt and my student loans (something you can’t discharge in bankruptcy), I felt like a sinking ship.
I spoke to a few elders, one of which shared that she and her husband had declared. She and others told me it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but it sure felt like it and there was such a stigma to it then. It was a shameful act. A declaration of stupidity and failure (how other people I knew talked about those who filed), or a way to cheat the system (another common opinion). It meant you were bad with money (as if handling money is something we're taught; I wasn’t), that you were irresponsible and not to be trusted.
It took me a while to finally have the courage to file, but a lawyer needed to be involved back then to be sure it was done it right. Can you imagine being broke, going to an attorney and being asked for a $1,000 retainer? I didn’t have a tenth of that.
Then, another elder told me about a nonprofit of volunteers who provided legal services to artists, either pro bono or at a much reduced fee. I found a very nice man who did the work gratis (bless him) and was there with me the day I had to stand up in court and admit to my financial sins. That literally made me feel dirty.
Only a few close friends knew what I was going through at the time. I could tell one or two were swallowing opinions. It took me to the day I went to court to tell my boyfriend at the time (he and I had started dating a few months before, but after the process had started), and even he had a reaction at first, but came to understand.
And that’s what I think is important: to understand what would make someone choose that option. Most people don’t know what’s involved or what it takes (the stress, pressure, anxiety, depression) to push someone in that direction. Yes, there are many wealthy people and businesses who use bankruptcy to their advantage; we see those stories in the news or gossip pages (and, somehow, those folks are considered “smart”). But there are others who feel like they are drowning, who do it as a matter of survival and a chance to start again, much wiser for it.
After a few years, I became more open about it. I was able to help a friend or two go through the process, and I hope lessen their pain about the decision. I assured them that they'd be able to function — I was able to buy a car when my bankruptcy was still active and, of course, those credit card offers came in quick. The thing is, there’s a period of time when you cannot declare bankruptcy again, so you become somewhat of a safe bet (at a higher interest rate).
The laws have changed since the time I filed, making it harder to declare and the process more unpleasant, from what I understand. A certain administration wanted to bring the shame back to it, it seems.
Clearly, I blab about it now because I think it’s important for others to know they’re not alone in their financial booboos. A little shame bubbles up about it every now and then. But I didn’t intentionally put myself in that position. I did intentionally try to get myself out of it. And when the people I thought could help me didn’t, it was as if the choice was made for me.
Some folks still have opinions about those who’ve gone bankrupt. Take a look at that word. It’s ugly, no? We relate it to morals and a lack thereof. And I know I’ve been judged for it. I even missed out on a great job opp a couple of years ago because, even though it’s off my financial record, I wasn’t sure if it would show on a background check, so I admitted it in the interview (the third and final; the job had basically been offered to me). Oh, how the mood changed immediately.
But, here’s the thing: I didn’t repeat the mistake. I learned from it. Yes, I was still a little money messy for a while after it — some learning curves are longer than others — but we aren’t taught in school (or many of us at home) basic life economics. We have to learn the hard way. Harder for some than others. When we tie emotions or self-esteem into money, that’s a recipe for disaster. And if there’s abuse in your background, that’s just gas on the fire.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever spent money on?
Massages. Really. I wish I had a more glamorous or pragmatic answer than that, but it’s the truth. For my birthday this year, I cancelled a quick trip to Palm Springs and treated myself to two massages instead (hadn’t had one since pre-pandemic). Oh. My. Gawd. I had no idea how badly I needed those. And the best part was that the massages were not only incredible but modestly priced. So, yes, massages are the best thing I’ve spent money on recently. I firmly believe we need to find (affordable) ways to give ourselves what we need.
Do you have a pension? If not, do you have a plan?
Yes and no. I started an IRA just a few years ago. A very late start but, then again, it’s never too late, right? My current job has a 401K that I contribute to each pay period.
Aside from that, I don’t really have a plan. I’m realistic enough to know that there may not be enough for a full retirement. Basically, I’ll be working forever.
What would you do with £10,000?
First, I would squeal with delight! Then, I would pay off what’s left of my student loan. With the currency exchange, I think it would cover the balance. I was going to answer, “Invest in bonds and munis!” because that would be the smart move, but the interest rate I’m paying on that loan is much higher than what the bonds would yield. Besides, I want that debt off my back.
If you were me, what would you want to ask women about money?
Why do you spend? I know a lot of my spending was emotional — wanting to feel better, have some temporary happiness, feel like I was sort of living the life I hoped to have (or wanting to appear to). But it was all smoke and mirrors, and digging a hole instead of building my dream.
Money doesn’t fix the things we think it will. We have to do that inner work ourselves. Then, money becomes a tool rather than a crutch. That’s why I’m focusing on being happy, and trying to help people find their version of happy, too, so we can avoid these problems. (By the way, being toxically positive is not being happy.)
Focusing on being happy isn’t easy when we’re stuck and feeling low, but it’s possible. And once that shift happens, everything else — oddly and wonderfully — falls into place.
Previous interviewees who also declared bankruptcy…
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