1.20.2013

On Money and Privilege and Anxiety


I've been thinking about money and privilege lately, and experiencing the subsequent anxiety that spirates from the two.

(Did I really just drop a reference to the Filioque? That seminary education never stops giving. I feel I must reference arcane theological concepts for at least as long as I am still paying off my student loan debt.)

We live comfortably in a wealthy suburb, about which I have written before. We are, in the paradoxical way of these things, both privileged and broke.

There's the aforementioned student loan debt (his and hers), the car payments, mortgage, the steep property taxes, the grocery bills, the utilities, the big necessities and - if we're honest - the small luxuries. And then there's the medical expenses. The bills are pouring in on a daily basis lately. Take how much you think an appendectomy costs, double it, tack on an extra ten percent for geographical inflation, filter it through the high-deductible insurance policy that eventually pays 80% of most - but not all - charges, and try not to fall off your chair when you open the first statement. Oh, and grit your teeth when you get the notice that your insurance premiums are going up twelve percent.

But even all that doesn't undo the privilege part of the equation. That we have access to medical treatment and live in a safe village and are eligible for credit  and have parents who have helped us in countless ways through the years - we have clear advantages. I read somewhere that the new marker of privilege is this question: did you have an American Girl Doll when you were a kid? I did, and so does Juliette (thanks again to those generous grandparents).

Globally, it's more this question: do you have indoor plumbing? We can stop feeling sorry about our one tiny bathroom that could use a major cosmetic overhaul. Especially since that one tiny bathroom is one of the biggest reasons our little house was a "bargain" in this pricey real estate market.

It is so relative, always so relative.

We could make more money, but it would be hard. There have been less than three years during our ten years of marriage during which we both worked full time. Ben was our sole supporter when I was learning about the Filioque, and it's worked out very well for me to be our sole supporter while the girls are young. If Ben worked, there would be exorbitant childcare costs (again: take how much you think daycare costs, double it, tack on an extra twenty percent for geographical inflation). We bring in a little extra here and there - babysitting and freelance writing assignments and such. I recently considered joining an ad network and seeing if I might make, you know, two bucks a month off of my blog, but it wasn't to be.

So like most people, the answer for us is unlikely to be increasing our income, but decreasing our expenses. Which is, quite possibly, even harder. It's easy to demonize money - two masters, etc. - but the fact of the matter is this: money is a tool, a critical one at that. You have to have money to do just about everything. The best things in life may be free, but houses are not.

(We just saw Les Miserables [See? Small luxuries. We had a gift certificate for the tickets but paid an arm and a leg for the babysitter.], and one of the many things it dramatized so powerfully was how very much people need money to survive and thrive. O, Fantine!)

There are certain things it is easy for me to not spend money on. I don't have a cell phone plan, or get my nails done, or go to Starbucks unless I'm mooching off of one of Ben's gift cards. But there are certain things I would love to do or have, and they are not going to happen, at least not anytime soon.

This morning during worship the special music was extraordinary, offered by the young cellists who study at the school of music that rents the third floor. As much as I would love to enroll Juliette in the school, we can't. She can do one activity, and we're lucky that ballet is a relatively inexpensive one. If she's destined to be a virtuoso cellist, we'll be depending on the public school music programs to make it so.

The trick is to not let the sound of the strings be distorted by envy, to confront one's privileges and limitations with clarity and equanimity, to want good things without greed, to be just a little more generous than your budget should really allow. And to trust that the One who provides for the birds of the air will provide for you, too.

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