Showing Your Financial Brushstrokes

Let’s stop speaking in code.

Photo credit: Alex Mihis | Unsplash

Creator of Mad Men Matthew Weiner has done a lot, but one of my favorite of his contributions is his essay about brushstrokes:

“Mad Men” Creator Matthew Weiner’s Reassuring Life Advice For Struggling Artists | Fast Company

The full piece is worth reading, but here’s the gist:

Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them.

It’s culturally acceptable—and even encouraged—to hide your financial brushstrokes in as well, and why not? Being honest about finances is still widely considered rude, and this attitude is reflected in the words we employ. There’s a reason no one talks about how much they make, or otherwise shares the numbers that, if we’re being honest, define many aspects of our daily lives. Letting people know how you really got there, actually saying numbers and terms, lies somewhere between awkward and socially verboten. As someone who’s gone through mostly financial downs and is currently on a gentle upswing, I want to talk about how I got here. I want to speak up, too.

It’s not an easy ask. Hiding your money brushstrokes has a long and storied history. Matthew Weiner illustrates it well in Season 2, Episode 7 of Mad Men. “Are we rich?” Sally casually asks her mother, while the Drapers picnic in a park. Betty replies that it’s not polite to talk about money. Like many things, “polite” is slang for “someone is benefitting from someone else staying silent”.

Mrs. Draper’s response echoes into today, though it might sound more like this: “The timing was right to take the next step.” “It just all came together.” “We made it work.” “You have to be creative.” People often speak of money and what it does for you in high-level euphemisms, and why not — financial transparency is still widely considered gauche. It seeps into our verbal patterns, confusing people unfamiliar with the invisible hands that pull people up the economic scale: I’ve been more or less financially independent since I was 18, and as someone who knew how the money sausage was made from a youngish age, these terms were confounding. What all “came together?” How did you “make it work?” Tell me more about this “timing.”

Eventually, I learned that behind most turns of phrase was a deeper truth: “I had an advantage.” That advantage can take many forms: Your parents gave you money. That startup you worked for went public, and you cashed out your shares. A trust fund. Aunt Gina’s will. Those Star Wars toys were actually quite rare. Your profession is lucrative.

Getting to a stable financial place is often a matter of some privilege, particularly among those who would gloss over it with coded language. It’s not bad to have help, but acting like help is a matter of luck or fate—or worse, something innately deserved—is a lie that feeds America’s massive income disparity in small and significant social ways.

The words you use matter. Like Don Draper said, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

I want people to stop talking about money like it’s a mystical creature, appearing out of nowhere to bless people with down payments and groceries. Speeches from entrepreneurs are particularly pernicious in this way. I love fairy tales, but I prefer them from the Brothers Grimm or their modern-day counterparts Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman, not 26-year-old startup founders with angel investors and no student loans. Don’t give me speeches about doing what I love. Use your voice (and your power, and your visibility, and often, your gender and race) to pull back the curtain.

I’m at a decent point in my life money-wise, and in the spirit of not hiding my brushstrokes I won’t use decent to obfuscate. Decent may mean something different to you, and that’s okay. I’m not wealthy, and I’m not poor. “Decent,” for me, Rosamund Lannin, on March 5th, 8:51 p.m. in the year of our Lord 2017, means:

  • I am able to afford basic life necessities such as food and rent.
  • I have money left over for non-necessities.
  • I am able to contribute to my savings account.
  • I am employed.
  • If I became unemployed, I could support myself for a couple of months.
  • My debt is manageable. My student loan payments, while substantial, don’t put my checking account in the double digits.
  • I have a plan to pay off my remaining credit card debt.

The above may or may not match your definition of decent. “Decent” means different things for different people, and is heavily influenced by class, gender, race, and a host of other socio-economic factors. I’d like to hear your version of decent, and what it took to get there. I want you to think of some things that helped you achieve a goal that cost money, and some things that made it more difficult.

While you’re thinking, I’ll break down a phrase: “more or less financially independent since I was 18.” My mother co-signed my student loans, which made it possible to get them. This made it possible to finish college, which made it possible to get a higher-paying job. This is an advantage. I am paying off my student loans on my own, without parental help. I’m financially independent, but also at a disadvantage compared to some of my peers.

Here are some other advantages and disadvantages:

  • I live in Chicago. It’s cheaper to live here than say, San Francisco or New York, but more expensive than a small town in Tennessee.
  • That said, my rent is below market.
  • That said, my fiancée and I rent, which means we could be forced into a higher-cost situation at any time. Every day, I pray our landlord forgets he could sell the house we live in for upwards of half a million.
  • I have a partner to share the financial load. My fiancée and I split most expenses 50–50.

You’ll notice I didn’t include things like bringing my lunch to work (I usually do), or buying whatever product promises a radiant glow (I’m getting better about it, but sometimes you need gel blush that assures your cheeks will look like a sunrise, one of those really beautiful polluted ones). In the long run, saving $5 here or $50 there, while helpful, doesn’t make up for the more major advantages of birth, inheritance, pay scale, health, and more.

My substitute for “decent” is a little lengthy, and could possibly bore and alienate your friends and loved ones. No worries. I’ve created a financial truth translator for social situations where money talk may arise.

“You’d be surprised how things work out.”

Translation: “My uncle chipped in for the reception at the last minute. I thought he’d blown his money on that boat, but I guess he had some socked away.”

(As a side note: I have rarely, in my dollars and cents life, been pleasantly surprised by how things worked out. Also in this scenario your uncle is Joe Biden.)

“We’re comfortable.”

Translation: A classic, and one of the more innocuous ones. A little specificity goes a long way, though. “We’re comfortable. I paid off my credit card and Danielle is working full-time again, so we have more money coming in.”

“My parents grew up poor.”

Translation: This may be true, but comes off both condescending and defensive — the unspoken implication, intended or not, is that they made it out of poverty and so you should too, something something about bootstraps and not acknowledging unique life circumstances and systemic inequality. How about, “It’s great that my parents are able to help me out now, they couldn’t always do that.”

“It was the right time.”

Translation: “We saved up for four years and a two-bedroom house in the neighborhood we wanted came on the market. It was $300,000 and needs a lot of renovations, but we’ll spread them out over the next decade, or maybe never have a basement hahahaha, where is the beer again?”

“I waited tables for years in college and saved.”

Translation: “I waited tables for years in college and saved and also someone paid for my college.”

Use your words to explain what happened. Give concrete numbers. Name names. You and what comes out of your mouth are powerful — you can support or destroy damaging myths surrounding success, a few syllables at a time.

It may be uncomfortable vocalizing your advantage, but it’s much more uncomfortable to encourage a society that pretends advantages don’t exist. It is a relief to hear the nuts and bolts of how someone got there, for some of us, though reactions may vary: it’s also deeply frustrating (“Private sector salaries sound great. Back to my poorly paid position that could be cut when the government’s not into books that day.”), joyful (“We’re so happy for you!”), and neutral (“Someone really gave you two grand for Boba Fett?”). To get back to Mr. Weiner and his brushstrokes, I feel that saying what happened goes triple for creatives — and some are making a promising start in this direction.

Like a checking account that doesn’t dip into the negative, bringing reality to how we talk about money is a work in progress, and rarely happens all at once. There are areas I’m still not comfortable discussing, because cultural conditioning is powerful and the fear of coming off arrogant or self-pitying is strong. I’m not saying you have to hand out your tax returns at parties — but let’s start showing our financial brushstrokes, one honest conversation at a time.

Rosamund Lannin reads and writes in Chicago, by way of San Francisco and St. Paul. More at tinyletter.com/rosamund.

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