In 2012, when I was 23 and still very stupid with money, I sold a book. It was a humble deal by any standards, but still by far the most money I’d seen at once at that point in my life. The first two things I did with that money were take a small group of my closest friends out to a nice dinner, and buy myself the only designer bag I’d ever owned to that point (or ever would own since — I’m still very much not the type to spend hundreds of dollars on a purse).
The next thing I should have done was, clearly, invested some of that money in a smart and productive way (if nowhere else but in an emergency fund, which was something I did not have at the time). I can say, with a certain amount of pride, that I had the foresight to pay off the defaulted credit card from when I was 18, but that’s about the only smart money move I made with that (relatively) big windfall. Though I was still earning my normal income, and could have done a lot of smart things with those two advance checks, I didn’t.
Since then, I have come into chunks of money, and have generally seen my earnings increase as time has gone on. I can say, safely, that I have a much smarter game plan about windfalls, and know the basics of what I need to do with my money each month. With the advantage of hindsight and a bit more maturity, there are a lot of things I regret about that money I spent, but I can’t lie: I don’t regret that dinner, or that bag. Perhaps the bag I’d buy today would be different in color or design — bright purple was a bold choice — but the experience of walking into that wonderfully chic Parisian department store, spending an afternoon luxuriating with my boyfriend over all the things I could get, and lovingly picking one thing out to treasure forever: that was an incredible feeling. And when I took my friends out, the experience of celebrating with the people who had been closest and most supportive of my then-extremely-fledgling writing career was an immensely satisfying one. I will always remember every bit of that dinner, and I think they will, too.
The thing is, the ideas of regretting some of my money decisions from that time, and feeling wholly un-guilty about others, are not mutually exclusive. And while this seems obvious to me now, it has taken me some time (particularly since starting this site) to come to that conclusion. When I first started writing and thinking critically about money, and really assessing a lot of my habits, I felt this overwhelming need to stop all spending on things that didn’t seem to have an immediate “purpose.” I knew that I had always been irresponsible about my spending on “extras” — fast fashion, knick-knacks I quickly hated, $12 desk lunches I didn’t enjoy — so I felt that the solution was to eliminate it all, and become “pure” with money in a way I hadn’t been. I wanted every purchase to serve a very specific need, because something as silly as flowers or a meal with a friend would only lead to regret. I needed to be radical, I thought.
And it would be a lie to say that a lot of this wasn’t gendered. Women, by necessity, have to do a lot of investing in things that the world at large tends to deem frivolous. We are punished for showing up to the office makeup-free, but are chastised for draining our wallets at Sephora. We need a robust wardrobe to be perceived as professional and “serious,” but are reminded that our Carrie Bradshaw love of good shoes might mean we’ll never own property. We deeply value our human relationships and spend on our friends and family, but that can never be measured in a way that appreciates, numerically, over time. If we’d only put that $1,000 into an IRA instead of a trip to visit a beloved friend in another country, we’d be so much better off. We’d be doing things the smart way. The right way.
This desire to become good, in a very quantifiable way, led me to radically change some habits. As a perfect example, I went from always having fresh-cut flowers on my dining table — the weekly walk from my studio by Notre Dame to the florist to pick my bouquet remains a deeply cherished memory — to swearing only by the artificial kind. Fake flowers were just as good, I told myself, and wouldn’t die in a matter of days. So I went out and filled my apartment with what now totals about six different faux bouquets from Michael’s. And while I do love them, and love the fact that I can change them out once per year to allow a different color scheme to mark the new seasons, I missed my fresh-cut dining table bloom. So I began to allow myself that one fresh bouquet, surrounded by the more practical ones in other parts of my house. And yes, there is something not perfectly-rational about it, but seeing those happy little buds by the window, and getting the exciting moment of choosing a new theme every week, has brought an enormous amount of simple joy to my life.
I have learned that there is a delicate balance when it comes to the money we spend in “smart” ways, and the money we spend in “beautiful” ways. And I think the ultimate distinction comes down to that very word: beautiful. There are things that we hemorrhage our checking accounts on, which we buy mindlessly and never really enjoy. But there are other expenses — and they are not so neatly divided into “experiences” and “things,” because both can bring us deep meaning in context — which lead to a richer, happier, more balanced life. And while many of these expenses might feel gendered, and therefore lead to an increased sense of shame or guilt about not being as perfect with money as we should, we are allowed to feel good about investing in our own joy.
When I look at the way I handled my book money, I am allowed to learn from my mistakes in terms of investments and savings, and vow to be better on many fronts. But I can also cherish the memories of the very special moments I allowed myself in celebration, and vow to do the same in the future there, too. I will always dedicate some money that could be “perfectly” spent in other ways to beautiful moments, and I don’t feel guilty about that. Just like my apartment can be 80% artificial flowers and 20% fresh, my life can contain bursts of beauty and irrationality that ultimately make me much more fulfilled.
As long as we are thoughtful about what we’re really getting out of each purchase, and allow ourselves to identify what feels “beautiful” in the long term, we can feel good about these decisions. So much about money and finance feels defined by extremes, and this overwhelming pressure to make every “correct” decision today so that your future-self can be perfectly taken care of. But while your future self will need smartly-managed finances, she will also need wonderful memories to cherish, and routines or adventures that make her life worth living. Life can and should be comprised of both.
So when that check hits, transfer a bunch to whichever savings or investment account you’re building, or pay off some debt. Do something smart with the majority of it. But also let yourself have that wonderful experience, or indulge in that wonderful thing, and don’t feel guilty about it. Because you earned both, you deserve both, and they are both very much worth having.
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