Last month, I was on a trip with a man I was dating. On our trip, I realized that I needed a break for a night. After almost an entire pandemic of sleeping alone, I needed some space. And the forced intimacy of the long trip was making me feel claustrophobic. He didn’t handle the news well. And so, that’s how I found myself stranded on a sidewalk in New York City watching as he drove away.
I opened my phone, booked a hotel, and requested an Uber. Then, once I was settled in my hotel room. I took myself out for a nice cocktail and a shopping spree at a bookstore and made dinner plans with friends.
Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I would have had to either suck it up and stay with him, smiling and appeasing his moods until I could leave, or frantically find a friend with a couch and a generous heart. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the flight out there. Two years ago, I was a broke, newly divorced single mom, living on credit cards and the occasional freelance check. Being broke is hard to talk about simply because it’s all relative. I did have people who could and did help me. But I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed about it all. I’d divorced from a stable life, just so I could find freedom. I’d tell people, “I know what it’s like to be poor, but I don’t know what it’s like to be free.”
What I’ve learned is that in America, money, and freedom are all too often the same thing.
I grew up financially unstable. My dad had a series of good jobs, but he was always losing them or leaving them. I am also one of eight kids and having eight kids is expensive. It was boom and bust. We’d have money and then it would be gone. We’d buy an RV and then it would disappear. One year we’d have new shoes. The next year, hand-me-downs and Goodwill.
I have never trusted money, nor understood it very well. And when I got married at 22, I was more than happy to blissfully hand over the task of handling money to my husband. His theory about money was that we save every single bit of it. I had a very small budget for groceries with even less money for going out to eat. We were “fiscally responsible.” I was buying in bulk, cutting coupons, and shopping sales. I was making household cleaners from vinegar and dish soap to save money and I was unable to hire a babysitter or get any childcare when I needed to work. In sum, we were able to save because I was unpaid labor. And because of that, I did not have the freedom to do the work I wanted.
I’ve been divorced for four years now, and those four years have been a crash course in personal finance, investments, and taxes.
We aren’t good at talking about money in America. Oh, sure, we write takes telling someone to stop going to Starbucks in the name of saving a buck. God forbid you buy $10 avocado toast. But we rarely ever talk honestly about who was able to afford a house because their parents gave them a down payment or paid for their college so they weren’t drowning in debt. Talking about money is very hard because it’s very cringy. We want people to admit to getting help and support because it helps us understand the structural inequalities. But also we want to pretend that all of our success is through hard work. As if hard work itself were enough.
I once attended a lecture given by a writer who had just won a MacArthur Genius Grant and someone in the audience asked him if he’d quit his job, now that he had so much money.
He laughed and very honestly, explained that no. The money was $625,000 paid out over five years. And while it was great, it wasn’t as great as it seemed. He still needed to pay taxes on it and if he quit his job he’d have to pay for health insurance out of pocket and by the way, he was still in debt from years of not making any money as he worked on his writing. He also pointed out that America is a broken system and so he gives a lot of his money to nonprofits that try to help fill those gaps. He clearly broke down all the component parts of what it cost to live and then what it would look like to give himself a salary from that money and how even if he quit, he’d be looking for a job again, in no time.
That honesty about writing and working and money was something I’d never heard before. But it’s something that changed how I saw my career. At that time, I was an adjunct professor at two different schools 75 miles apart. I worked and graded all the time and had no time for my own work. After I heard that talk, I came home, calculated what I earned ($1,800 per class), and tallied how much time it took me to do it (more than 60 hours a week), plus the cost of gas, and I realized I was paying money to be a teacher. I quit my job and began writing full-time. Maybe the internet didn’t pay well, but it would pay better than negative money.
I now think about my time in terms of cost per hour. If I hire someone to help me with a project, can I use that free time to work and make more money? What is the cost of my labor and my time when I learn to value it? How much time will it take me to write that article for that big publication that only pays me $200? What could I do with that time if I said “no” and worked on something else?
I am a millennial. The first generation of people will not out-earn their parents. I live in a state where the cost of living is so low, but I’m unable to find a job, because there are no places here that need the kind of labor I can do. I’m also a single mom and statistically single mothers earn less than single fathers. I had to divorce to be able to do the work I wanted, but it also came at a huge financial cost. One I’m still paying off. Everything is a trade-off, and I’m always working to have multiple revenue streams, because I know how soon they can be cut off and I never ever want to be stuck again.
By the end of my marriage, I’d given up so much freedom that I had no access to our shared accounts. I had to set up a secret bank account and I took on extra work so I could fill it until I had enough that I knew I could live at least for a bit.
So when we talk about money, we also need to talk about how it keeps you in places you don’t want to be just for security. It keeps you in jobs and relationships that are brutal and will break you, but you can’t get out because you cannot find a way to feed yourself without them. Sure, money is a trap. But it is also a freedom. And for women, often that freedom means, a life we never imagined was possible. A life without doing unpaid labor (emotional or otherwise) for men.