The Haves and the Have-nots

by Megan Reynolds

I was raised in a family where talking about money was not taboo. My father did a good job of raising two girls on a variety of incomes — money, was tight, and because of this, I was always aware of what we did and didn’t have.

I spent the majority of my childhood in a small town in upstate New York, where it seemed everyone I knew was relatively well off. My two best friends growing up were a doctor’s daughter and a lawyer’s daughter, each with houses that easily dwarfed mine. We moved a lot, jumping from house to house and chasing cheaper rent. Before I moved to California to live with my mother, my father, sister, and all of our books were crammed into a small duplex within shouting distance of the Fairgrounds. We shared a wall with a rotating cast of migrant workers who played bass-heavy music that drove my father to yell and thump on the walls in frustration.

We talked about money frankly, because as children, you want the things that your friends have. If you ask for something that costs more than you have, the answer is usually a simple “No, we can’t afford it.” Specific details were never divulged, and there was always food on the table, and a roof over our head, so we were lucky in that regard, but there was an undercurrent of struggle, marked by some tense Sundays, when my sister and I would quietly tiptoe around my father’s occasional periods of blue, sending each other out on exploratory missions to get food and test the waters.

When I was in high school, I lived with my mother, my stepfather, and my two half-sisters in a very different house, and under different circumstances. Due to the aftermath of a still-contentious, decades-old divorce, finances were never discussed in my presence. My time there was mostly pleasant and the lingering tension that hung in the rafters of my New York home was largely non-existent, only coming to light during the divorced child’s Everest to climb — applying for financial aid. My stepfather and mother were very reluctant to share any information that would somehow let my father know just how much money they had, and so after much deliberation, tears, and arguments, I sent in my financial aid application a day after the deadline, and was promptly rewarded with not nearly enough financial aid. I deferred admission for a year, and worked in a Chinese restaurant in my hometown, skulking around my house, resentful of the year I had to wait until I could apply for financial aid again.

I have no qualms discussing money frankly, and I find myself volunteering information that others would keep to themselves. An example: I don’t drive, and neither does my sister. We never got our licenses because growing up, there was one car. It was too expensive to put teen drivers on my father’s car insurance, and if we were to crash the one car we did have, we would’ve been screwed, unable to easily replace it. This is my standard answer for people, strangers and friends alike, who ask why I don’t have my license. Some people are taken aback when they hear this, and I realize that only after the words start tumbling out of my mouth, but I’m so used to giving straightforward, honest responses about this topic that I don’t think twice about it.

My mother is the kind of woman who has no boundaries, the kind of woman that compliments you on your jacket, then asks how much it cost in the same breath. I have witnessed her ask people how much they make without pretense, not out of a competitiveness, or a mental checklist she’s keeping, but because she is interested in the cost of work, in how other people live, and perhaps because she’s nosy. I feel that the frank discussion of money is completely necessary. Breaking down the taboo around this subject and discussing it openly for me isn’t tacky, just a fact of life. Feeling broke, struggling to make ends meet, and negotiating the tricky terrain of student loans, credit card debt and the free-falling helplessness of being removed from your parents’ cell phone plan is the great equalizer. These are things they don’t teach you in college, so we have to learn.

I talk about money a lot. On any given day, I have a Gchat window arguing about rent with my sister, and another one working out the logistics of when the earliest is that I can send in a check when the money hasn’t quite hit my account yet. Money — having it, not having it, looking for it — figures heavily in my mind, but it’s not a burden. I have an intimate relationship with my balance. When faced with a decision to spend more than the cost of a torta from the taco truck on the way home, I rattle off a mini budget, I make lists on scraps of paper. I enjoy the intimate relationship I have with my checking account. Knowing how much I have at any given time is a bizarre ritual, designed to self-soothe any lingering uncertainty about how much those drinks last night affected my finances, or whether or not I can afford to go out to dinner. The number in my checking account is the final answer. I have no problem asking somebody how much they paid for something, not because I’m mapping out their net worth, but because I’m genuinely interested to see how people live. I view it all as useful information that helps others inform their decisions, and it doesn’t have to live behind a wall. Money is a quiet, thrumming presence, but it’s not a burden. It’s a welcome necessity.

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.