"We can't afford that right now."
"It's not in our budget."
"That price is not realistic for us."
These are some of the polite, comfortable phrases most of us have learned to use in talking about money. Maybe it is my little world, maybe it's being human, maybe it is just living in the materialistic U.S., but money is simply not a comfortable topic.
As my husband, Caleb, and I have grown in our marriage (i.e., lamented money problems), we have become more and more befuddled as to why this very real necessity in life called "money" makes people squirm in their seats. No one wants to talk about it. We can tell someone that we are hungry (we NEED food), that we are cold (we NEED a jacket), or that our finger hurts when we've cut it (we NEED a band-aid), and all of these things will likely require some amount of money in order to acquire, yet most people are happy to oblige in either fulfilling this need or, at the very least, discussing it. But if you turn to your neighbor and say, "Things are tight, we can't get a lawn mower," the chances that he or she will readily discuss this further with you are one in none.
I can understand why. This is a need your neighbor can't fulfill -- the fact that you can't afford a lawn mower means that you have an unfulfilled need in your life, one that could very well be fulfilled in your neighbor's life. That's an uncomfortable reality. We all have different incomes, we all have different life-circumstances, and we all have different needs. Also, talking about how someone can't buy a lawn mower is incredibly boring. It is very unlikely that you and your friend have the exact amount of money in your bank accounts, that you both need to replace the rotting chairs on your porch, and you both need groceries this week, but will also slash out "chocolate chips" because your kids need new sippy cups instead. If your circumstances aren't the exact same, it's just going to be weird to talk about. One of you will walk away from the conversation feeling guilty, and the guilty party is more than likely to be the one who -- at that moment in time -- has more disposable income.
There is, however, more behind a discussion of money than money itself.
Within months of getting married, I was pregnant with our sweet Alice. What God had planned in the months to follow was not at all, ever in a million years, what Caleb and I would have chosen. We moved out of the college town where we had met, put our stuff in a storage unit, and settled in at my parents. Each month I watched my pregnant tummy grow and my anxiety grew tenfold. Caleb was working at Starbucks and searching fervently for a full time job with benefits. I cried a lot in those months as every part of me wanted to be planning and making a nursery for this baby to come, but couldn't even pour our own coffee into our own mugs in the morning because we were relying solely on the help of others -- my parents -- to pull us through this time.
"At least we have a roof over our heads," I always thought. "We would be utterly lost without the help we have from my parents," I would tell myself. "We should be grateful."
These thoughts were true, but I beat myself up with them countless times a day. I could hardly allow myself to complain because that would just be ungrateful. But what I didn't realize at the time was that feeling and stating "This is the hardest thing I've ever done," was not a complaint. Saying, "We need our own house," was not whining. These were just plain facts -- hard facts -- that I needed to stick inside my head and work through. Instead, I kept telling myself that I shouldn't feel this way.
When friends and family asked how we were, most of them, bless them, wanted us to see the bright side.
"At least you have a place to stay."
"Things could be worse."
"He'll find a job, don't worry."
Though filled with good intent, these words stung. These words reinforced the words I'd been beating myself up with. What these words actually communicated was,
"In all fairness, you should be in a homeless shelter."
"I wouldn't be complaining if I were in your situation -- pull it together."
"I found a job one time, so your husband will likely get one, too -- stop needing my understanding."
When something is difficult, it could always be more difficult, and it is neither helpful nor sympathetic to point that out.
I was desperate for someone to really and truly understand and sympathize with our pressing need. Sometimes needs look like a sink waiting to be fixed or an empty fridge needing to be filled, but we didn't even have a sink or a fridge... we needed money first. Our lives had been whittled down to life's basic necessities to the point where all we needed in the world was money. In the same way that the only thing we will think about when we haven't eaten in half a day is food, the only thing we could think about, and the only thing we really wanted to talk about, was money. We had a family to consider and, unfortunately, that meant we had money -- first and foremost -- to think about. It was a big fat bummer of a reality. When I spent time with anyone, it took a conscious effort to NOT talk about jobs and money. When it slipped, I was always met with disappointment because no one seemed to truly understand.
What I failed to verbalize at the time -- because it seemed so obvious when I was in the thick of it -- was that yes, money is a physical need, but I was emotionally burdened by the reality of it. It hurt me, it crushed me, and everyone's responses communicated that I was wrong for letting it hit me that way. There are times in life when you can pray day and night, but your spirit will not feel at peace until someone wraps you in a blanket. And I just wanted that blanket.
Fast forward about 3 years later to the present. We are in our rent home that we moved into when we left my parents' house (1 month before my due date!). We have been through our sweet Alice staying in the NICU, Alice released from the NICU, yet another bout of unemployment, another job, another sweet baby, a totaled car, a sold car, a replacement car, and the list goes on and our gratitude swells. I can now scream across mountains, "This is the hardest thing I've ever done," then shout to the world, "I am better for it."
Since we're still human, we still have needs. I'm still learning to say, "I NEED mascara," and not feel guilty about it (because, seriously Julie, you can survive without some stupid makeup). I'm still learning to say, "I need to put 'shorts' in the budget because Alice doesn't have shorts and she actually NEEDS them," (because, seriously Julie, she already has some dresses).
I'm also learning not to scoff at people who say, "Things are tight, so I can't upgrade my iPhone," (because SERIOUSLY, who cares), or, "It's been a hard summer, we just couldn't fit a vacation in the budget," (hahahaha, well, WE couldn't fit a trip to the zoo in the budget).
To sum this up, I am learning not to compare or compete over who has the more difficult situation and who is more of a saint because of it. The man on the street corner holding the sign that says, "anything helps," would look at my life and see a wealthy woman indeed. In the same way, I look at people whose lives look materially better than ours and see wealthy people. However, these "wealthy" people still have needs, whether physical or emotional or spiritual, that are just as "needy" as my needs.
In part, I feel compelled to write these things because I know I can't be alone. I know that it can be incredibly awkward in social settings to be surrounded by the upper middle class. It's an awkward barrier in relationships because most of the time those with the higher income are the ones blind to this barrier, leaving you feeling extraordinarily isolated (like how I truly have no idea what to say when someone comments on what a bother it is to go car-shopping when all I can think is what a delightful problem that would be... "Um, yeah, maybe that would be a bother!" *weird laugh*). It's not super fun to account for a Starbucks drink when you plan out your budget, nor is it a thrill to really want to give your friend that amazing gift, but must settle for that cheaper, less-amazing gift. Some -- if not all -- paychecks can be a neon sign that say "You are limited! You have no control!" (Fun fact: we are all, actually, limited and not in control.)
The other part of why I want to share this, is this: we must be gracious to one another. It is not up to us to decide whether he deserves that car or she deserves our graciousness. We must rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Even if it's hard or makes us squirm in our seats, we must be happy when our friend is, and be truly happy for them. And we must also feel disappointment for our friend when they "just can't afford to join you at the concert." Let's not be afraid to talk about money, whether it is because your friend needs it or because your friend got a fat raise. I am obviously not advocating that we should all start talking about money or let "the budget" become an obnoxiously regular part of conversation. After all, the love of money is the root of all evil, and I am greatly aware that it is not just the wealthy who fall prey to this love. But we should be sympathetic and tenderhearted toward one another because, as much as we would like to think otherwise, we do not know what other people's lives are like just because we have glanced at them. So, let us love one another as Christ loves us. And as part of this, let's not be afraid to talk about money.