Two Writers With Control Issues Talk About Money

by Jessica Gross and Jillian Steinhauer

We are writers in our late twenties, we have control issues, and money is our psychological pawn.

Jessica: So we’re here to talk about how we feel about money.

Jillian: Yes, money. $$$$

Jessica: I guess we should start by saying, we are both writers in our late 20s. So $$$$ is really more like $$.

Jillian: Or maybe $.

Jessica: Right. So there are some practical concerns where money is concerned. BUT, I feel like we both have concerns that are sometimes disproportionate to how much money we literally need right now to live.

Jillian: Disproportionate or just unrelated?

Jessica: Ha. Maybe both. What do you think about when you think about money?

Jillian: Well, generally, when I think about money, I think of impossibility. The impossibility of ever having enough of it, in New York, to live comfortably and possibly have a family. But that impossibility also doesn’t actually register as real in my head.

Jessica: What do you mean?

Jillian: Like, I know theoretically that there’s a good chance I’ll have to leave New York one day in order to have certain things, but I don’t accept it. Sort of like knowing you’ll die but not accepting that as a real fact.

Jessica: Ah, yeah, I get you. Money, for me, is almost always tied up with this fantasy future that I have.

So I’ll start with, “Oh, man, this job fell through.” (As in, a freelance job.)

But then, almost immediately, that mushrooms into fantasyland, so instead of saying, “That sucks, I guess I can’t buy X,” I’ll go, “Oh my gosh, I can’t make it as a freelancer. I cannot support myself and will never be able to support my children.”

The reality is that I do not have children, and as a single woman, that concern is not actually on the horizon. So I feel like money quickly exits the realm of reality — a literal thing that I use — and becomes a symbol of ADULTHOOD and SELF-SUFFICIENCY and FUTURE HAPPINESS.

Jillian: I suppose that’s true. But it’s funny: In some ways, I feel like we’re opposite about this. I don’t immediately jump to that place, but I feel like I should more.

Because in reality, money is BOTH things, isn’t it? It’s both something we need tangibly in the here and now, but also something we’re going to need down the line when we want to be happy and self-sufficient adults in the future.

Jessica: Yeah, it’s true, but for me it’s hard to get to that middle ground of taking some steps to plan for the future — i.e. being prudent — without jumping to the “holy crap” stage. Why do you think you should do that more?!

Jillian: I don’t really save. I don’t think about the future in any concrete way. I never have. And this is what I get stuck on: We are in our late 20s. We might want to get married and have kids. Or just have kids. Or just not move every three years. Shouldn’t there be a way to approach this at least semi-rationally?

Jessica: There should. But for me, there often isn’t. Which I feel has to do with some kind of base-level enormous fear of failure. And the future, as an uncertain place, is ripe with possibilities for that. But I guess the other and maybe more answerable question is, why does money in particular hold such power as a pawn in these psychological games? Because I am pretty sure it’s not just us who use money as this kind of not-very-helpful symbol of our own potential demise.

Jillian: Good question. I wonder if money is, in some ways, the most tangible thing to latch onto when thinking about a future, because we can, in theory at least, control it. We can’t really control whether we meet someone wonderful, fall in love, get married, and have babies, right? (Well, we can control the babies part.)

Jessica: HA.

Jillian: But money is something that should be within our grasp — we can choose our careers, make it, save it, etc.

Jessica: Right!

Jillian: And since the other elements of the future are so uncontrollable, or seem that way, we revert to thinking about money.

Jessica: I think you are so, so right. But I guess that’s the catch, it should be within our control…but isn’t always. So that when a job falls through (out of control), it triggers all the other feelings of out-of-control-ness. I.e., if I can’t control whether I can support myself in this particular way at this particular second, all these other less-controllable things are hopeless.

Jillian: Totally. Also, we’re both, admittedly, control freaks of a kind, which probably make it even harder to accept. Which then of course begs the question: Why on earth did we choose such unstable careers?

Jessica: We admittedly are. And that is an excellent question (which I ask myself about every week). I think one reason — speaking strictly about the control aspect here, and not about the other things that drew me to writing — is that being a freelance writer does offer much more control than other professions in certain ways.

Jillian: I can see that.

Jessica: Like: I can choose when I work. I can turn down assignments. Which I think offers the illusion sometimes of total control…which, when shattered, is panic-inducing. Because no job offers total control, obviously.

Jillian: I have to say: Honestly, lately I’ve been fondly remembering the times when I had full-time jobs and regular biweekly paychecks. And my logic has turned upside-down: I went from thinking that I could control the projects I worked on by freelancing to now thinking that perhaps I can control them better by working full-time.

Jessica: Okay, wow, I’m having a kind of realization moment reading that, actually.
Because I feel like I do exactly what you described, in my head, all the time:
I flip between all the various possibilities (full-time freelancing, part-time job and part-time freelancing, full-time job, other “perfect” option that has yet to reveal itself to me) and compare them all on the basis of…the control they offer.

Jillian: Yes!!

Jessica: But again, coming back to what we said at the beginning, (a) total control isn’t actually available, and (b) is that actually the best yardstick by which to judge these possibilities?

Jillian: Sometimes I think this is what being in one’s late 20s is all about: figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t, which things matter (money, control, happiness) more than others.

Jessica: See, I want to say happiness, but then in my head I quickly say, “Yes, when I can control everything, I will achieve happiness!” Ugh. Yeah, I sincerely hope this is a late-20s phenomenon.

Jillian: Hahaha. Maybe you achieve happiness by letting go of the thought that you can control everything. That sounds zen-ish, I realize.

Jessica: Um, but exactly, totally, yes.

Jillian: So then what do we do about money?!

Jessica: I mean the question is really, how do we think about money in a sane, practical way (how much do I need to live right now, how much do I want to save, and how do I do that) without spinning off into the land of projection where money is a symbol and the thing we latch onto for the illusion of control?

Jillian: Right. Although one thing I think we haven’t said but is relevant:
We live in New York City. I think it’s so hard to extract money from its symbolism here, for a million and one reasons. It’s also a lot harder to literally live with less money: New Yorkers lose a huge chunk of our incomes to rent — more than in most other places. So obviously money is going to be a bigger burden.

Jessica: A bigger literal burden.

Jillian: Yes, but I think that literal burden seeps into our thinking, don’t you? The literal becomes part of the symbolic.

Jessica: Yeah, you’re right — it does make it easier to make the leap.

Jillian: I’ve also been thinking a lot recently about the difference between being broke and being poor. As in: I do not have a lot of money and am poor by poverty-line standards. But the conditions of my life are such that I will never be homeless (unless my family all dies in a freak accident).

Jessica: Yeah.

Jillian: So — not that I think my worries and fears about money are disingenuous, because I know they’re real. But I also sometimes wonder if the panic is overly inflated, given where I’m at, class-wise.

Jessica: Right. Yes, I think absolutely. Money feels like a dire, life-and-death concern, when in truth it is not.

Jillian: Exactly. And I think I don’t remember that often enough. I mean, how fortunate are we that that’s not actually the case? I wonder if remembering that would help with maintaining sanity in these situations.

Jessica: It’s extremely fortunate. But I feel like also, I don’t know how helpful it actually is. Because it seems to me the part of the mind that imbues money with all this symbolic significance is actually kind of divorced from the part of the mind that is in tune with reality/practicalities. At least in my mind.

Jillian: Hm, interesting point.

Jessica: It’s like saying to a fearful flyer, “You’re so much more likely to get hit by lightning than die in a plane crash.” I’m not sure the reality of that statistic can penetrate the irrationally fearful mind.

Jillian: Ha, yes, I definitely see your point. But I’m not sure I completely agree: In my case, I’ve been trying to do this lately, and occasionally it works. So maybe we agree to disagree? Slash, we have different minds that work in different ways, obviously.

Jessica: Yes, we do, it’s true.

Jillian: So, in the interest of people’s preference for neat endings: What are our takeaways, if any?

Jessica: We need money in a practical sense, but it is also a very convenient vehicle for projecting into the future, aka panicking. Oh, and money is very much tied up with control issues.

Jillian: And if you worry about money and control, freelancing will drive you nuts…but might still be worth it.

Jessica: Slash life will drive you nuts.

Jillian: #truth!

Jillian Steinhauer and Jessica Gross are writers in New York City. Photo Credit: Kate Hiscock

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