I could have been ten, perhaps 9 or 11, I was wearing one of my nice dresses, one of the special ones Mama bought at Kmart, purchasing me one or two more extra dresses than my brother’s three pair of pants because, “Kiki’s a girl and can’t wear the same dress and people not notice and talk.” Mama taught my brother there were certain responsibilities, or consequences of being a boy, and me that there were certain rules of being a girl. A week’s worth of clothes, was one of them.
We were poor. A secure sort of poor, the kind of poor where we lived paycheck to paycheck and Mama knew how to creatively manage her paychecks so we had what we needed.
That Saturday afternoon we were at a birthday party of a friend of a friend. There had been a piñata and as I went around helping pick up some cardboard trash and throw it away, I happened upon something quite special. When I opened up the trash can lid to put my trash in, a ten-dollar bill was lying neatly across the top.
It laid on top of all the broken piñata colors, neat and crisp, like a flat bow, a short ribbon.
I picked it up and took it to my Mama, maybe my Aunt, I’m not sure who brought me to the party, but I promptly showed someone what I found.
As if I had won the lottery, a small hoopla broke out amongst us, everybody congratulating me on my find, my win.
I was quite surprised, but no one took the big bill from me. It was considered mine, and I got to fold it up and put it into my shoe, beneath my white stockings. No one claimed it, no one stepped up and said, “Oh, that’s my big bill, I laid that there to catch a sly kid,” or, “Yeah, that’s my big bill, the one I need to pay my lights, my gas, my rent.”
No one claimed it, and so it was mine.
Not too much longer after the party settled down and in between cake and ice cream, and soda, I started receiving life lessons.
Don’t tell nobody you got that money, you hear me?
Soon as somebody get wind, they gone find a use for it.
Better pick something soon to buy with it, cause soon as you gets you some money, something needs money.
Don’t break your bill, cause soon as you do, it’ll all be gone.
Don’t loan nobody nothing, cause ain’t nobody gone pay you back.
Don’t you dare tell nobody what you got in your shoe, now. Learn to keep quiet bout what money you got.
Don’t let that money burn a hole in your hand, now.
They sat, legs crossed, arms folded, dishing what they knew out the side of their mouths, every now and again, chiming in, “Ain’t that the truth,” when somebody said something that hit a nerve.
They were lovingly, intently teaching me about money. Teaching me how to handle my windfall, what to do and what not to do.
When I got home Granma was taken aback, “Now who goes and throws ten-dollars away. I tells you the truth, baby, only you would find ten dollars in the trash. You lucky, baby.”
I’m not sure when, but at some point my big bill begun to feel…well, big. Perhaps somebody said something about what they would do if they lost a bill, or I started to think about all the times Mama struggled to get ten, twenty dollars to pay for something, and I started to feel bad.
I wished the woman, man, or child who laid the bill down had spoken up, over the music, the broken piñata colors, the cake and ice cream, the soda pop and said, “That’s my ten-dollars; I was just going to take it down to pay the phone bill.”
I would have happily, joyfully, even, given my windfall back.
I felt like I didn’t deserve the big bill. I felt guilty and bad for taking someone else’s windfall and claiming it as my own. I found that bill in the trash and it, me, we both begun to feel a bit dirty. Who ever was I to take what didn’t belong to me.
Finders keepers…losers weepers.
Can I tell you how painful that childhood chant was for me? I took it so very personally, even if I wasn’t the loser, the weeper. Who could and would want to brag, to chant and sing about finding something that wasn’t theirs? What ever was the difference between that and stealing; wasn’t it just accidental, passive stealing?
I held onto my big bill until my uncle swindled it out of me. He promised to give it back, explaining that he was borrowing it, and when I gave it to him I felt a wave of relief.
When I told Mama I had loaned my uncle my money she chastised me and made sure I knew I would never get it back. Had I known you was just gonna give it away I would of took and used it for groceries. It was gone and Uncle was not ever going to pay me back, she told me. Though I was upset, I was still relieved. It was no longer mine, and I no longer had to worry about whose light, gas, or phone bill wasn’t getting paid. I didn’t have to worry about it burning a hole in my hand, and any kind of judgment I’d receive when I spent it. I didn’t have to decide if I would share half with my brother, or cousins. I no longer had to worry myself with the big bill. I wasn’t mad at my uncle, in fact, he remained my closest uncle, but I did know never to “loan” him money again. :-)
Today, I struggle with money. I struggle with this heavy, looming feeling of taking money is like passively stealing. And I realize I can trace it back to that day, but much further.
Growing up, everything was “too high,” “too expensive.” The furniture place. Clothes. Food. Car repairs. Everything was too high, and the worst offenders, were always those who we saw, who looked us in the eye, setting their own prices for their stuff and their work, and didn’t budge or give.
“I tell you the truth, they just robbing folks.” Granma would say when something was expensive.
“Ain’t nobody got money for that.” Mama would say when we wanted something she couldn’t afford.
There was always worry about what someone would charge to fix a broke-down car, there was always an issue with how much things cost relative to what we had. In fact, Mama taught me early on how to call and negotiate payment arrangements with the utility companies. While she worked, I made like I was her, and called the utility companies, making arrangements to pay $20 this week, or just enough to keep the lights on. Even as young as ten, my heavy voice that always sounds like my Daddy, as Mama said, was the perfect foil, and allowed Mama (and me) to get things done when she was at work.
And Mama was always at work, and still is. At retirement age she still works a full time job and a part-time job, something she’s done for most of my life.
When Mama couldn’t make it to payday, she knew how long it would take for a check to clear, and would strategically write a check for what we needed. Sometimes she wrote checks for things we didn’t need, things we could take back, say a toaster or fan, and when we took it back, an hour later, we’d have money for food. Mama was the master of post dated checks, and I always knew on picture day or during the school’s book fair I’d have to ask my teacher if the picture people or book people would accept Mama’s posted dated check. I’d quietly pull my teacher aside, when everyone was excited and primping for their pictures, or browsing the book selections, and embarrassingly reveal my post dated check to my teacher. Though I often felt a bit shameful, a bit wishful that I was one of the kids with dollar bills in my envelope, I was always very mindful of the kids sitting off to the side, with no money or checks.
Though I was mostly grateful, if they ever said no, or we couldn’t afford the high cost of something I’d feel resentment. I felt angry with the person; who were they and why did they get to hold the stop and go sign with our lives? Did they not know how hard Mama worked? Didn't they know Daddy died, and left Mama to care for my brother and I all by herself? I never, ever wanted to be one of them. One of those people who looked Mama in the eye and didn’t flinch when they took her money.
I started to believe people who did not give were bad, and those who gave were good.
I started to believe money was a stop and go sign someone else held, deciding on a whim if we could go or not.
I started to believe as soon as you had money, you needed to get rid of it, send it away, in case somebody else needed it more.
I started to believe money hurt people, and that it was a weapon.
I started to believe that there was always something, and soon as money came in, it went out.
I started to hate money.
It would never be for me. No one I knew had money, unless they were a drug dealer or swindler, or had hit it big on the horses. Everyone in my family worked, but it was never, ever enough to cover everything, and I believed we would always live paycheck to paycheck.
It just was the way it was because, as Mama, Granma, Auntie, everybody always said, “If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.” You never save, you never believe you’ll be able to hold onto money, because as fast as it comes in, it goes out.
And of course, I started to believe money was the root of all evil. Isn’t that what everyone says, what’s in the Bible?
When I made handbags and art, I struggled with charging people. I’d often prefer giving my work away than charging people. Especially people I knew. I dreaded when someone I knew, a friend or family member, wanted to buy something from me. They’d be all smiles and inside, inside I’d be drowning in guilt. I was about to take someone’s money, and I couldn’t do that, so I often underpriced and loosened my money boundaries so I could avoid the process of receiving money. I wanted nothing to do with it and felt the whole process was tainted and dirty.
Who was I to charge folks money for doing what I loved? Who was I to take money from someone’s light, gas, or phone bill? Who was I? Who was I to think my love affair with creating and using my hands to make things needed to be paid for?
Though I want to say my thoughts are a byproduct of my childhood, I think it goes a bit deeper than that; I believe my thoughts and actions are also a byproduct of my sense of self-worth.
In order to be comfortable charging someone for something you, and only you can do, something as personal and beautiful as art, you have to believe you and what you do is worth it.
Make no mistake, I love myself; I adore who I am, and everyday feel a deep sense of gratitude with the woman I’ve become, am becoming, and what I’ve accomplished. I think quite a bit of Kiandra; she’s someone I’d want to be my friend, someone I’d want in my life, but, I must be honest, I don’t always think Kiandra warrants money. Not because she isn’t worth it, but because money often hurts people. Money makes people sick and evil, it takes things from people, it destroys and ends lives.
I often say to myself silently, I don’t need money. I know how to do without. I can do without. I can go without and be happy. Money, and all it provides doesn’t make me happy, or make me who I am.
I remember some summers we were so poor, my brother and I would share Top Ramen for lunch. They were 10 for a dollar and Mama wanted us to stretch the ten she’d buy over two weeks, from one paycheck to another.
We’d wait until the afternoon, when we couldn’t stand to wait any longer, and we’d painstakingly lay the hard pack of wavy noodles on a plate and saw it in half with a butter knife while the water boiled behind us on the stove. We’d huddle over the dried noodles, sawing and sawing, trying to keep the web of noodles in tack, and trying our hardest to keep things even. If a piece broke off, we’d carefully determine from who’s half, and return it, working always to keep our halves even.
Once the tight, beige web of noodles was split, as evenly as possible, we’d turn our attention to the seasoning packet. Oh, that seasoning packet was so important. That airtight slivery foil bag made our mouths water. Even slower, and steadier than we split the noodles, we split the foil pack. It was careful work, making sure none of the salty spices spilled out, and making sure the seasonings were evenly dispersed throughout the packet before we sawed at it with the butter knife.
We ate butter-drenched toast, dripping with grape jelly for breakfast, and so this salty lunch, was everything. It was rare that we had chips or crackers, or anything extra to add to our meal; I mean there was always Kool-Aid in the fridge, but beyond that, this was it until dinner.
Mama was very clear that if we ate everything up when she filled the house with groceries, we’d be sore about it the rest of the two weeks. She couldn’t buy extra, it was what it was, and if we’d gorged ourselves, we’d starve ourselves, by default, on the back half.
That feeling of self-editing, of being careful and mindful, financially, at such a young age, impressed upon me the belief that money was, truly evil, so to say, and that we would always have to live with some level of less.
It’s easy for me to see, as I reflect on my childhood why I feel so much discomfort with money. I understand why some parts of me feel I don’t deserve it. I understand why it makes me uncomfortable to take, because I am always considering if I am saying Stop! or Go! to someone else.
Over the past week, one of the things I’ve learned from Dave Ramsey’s class is money is amoral. It isn’t good or bad. It isn’t the root of all evil.
Money, as I am struggling to accept and believe, is not the weapon, the hearts and intentions of the money holder is. It is never the money that hurts others, but the person controlling the money. Money is never evil, the heart controlling money is.
I’m finding myself struggling with this idea, not because I don’t believe it to be true, I do, but because changing my idea about money will change my relationship with money. If money is amoral, and is simply a tool, I am free to earn it and do with it what my heart leads me to do.
I’m not worried about being evil, but, I’m slightly worried about what the willingness, the desire to earn money means, for me.
It means I have to change deeply seated beliefs that those who are rich are automatically…one way, and those who are poor are automatically another. Dare I even say there is a belief, this perpetuated notion that going without, being poor, living on less, etc. is pious.
Those people are more conscious, more spiritual, more giving, more good. They are selfless and not selfish. They are kind and not evil. They are the Mother Theresa of our friends, the ones we look at with doting, admiring eyes, either saying or thinking quietly to ourselves, you’re such a good person.
And since we as humans look for dichotomies, with knee-jerk, unwarranted intentions, we attach money, abundance, riches to the opposite sort of people. Those with nice cars, nice houses, nice things must be a bit unsavory. They are greedy and selfish. They take, they don’t give. They are the Donald Trumps of our friends, the ones we look at with side eyes, either saying or thinking quietly to ourselves, you’re not a nice person.
Raise your hand if you have ever thought, must be nice.
I’ve felt that way, slightly envious, slightly annoyed, slightly confused and put-off by another’s abundance. I’ve never wanted another person’s life, or even felt jealous, but I have wanted more and felt confused that I never felt deserving of more. My feelings were never truly directed to the person, per say, but more so directed at my own inability to believe I could and should have the same nice things.
It was easier to think, to hold onto the idea that I don’t have, and somehow, that is okay because I was and am, a good person.
But, here’s the thing, there are evil poor people and good poor people, and evil rich people and good rich people. Having or not having means nothing about a person’s character; poor doesn’t mean lazy or dumb, or good and pious, and rich doesn’t mean hard-working or smart, or bad and evil. The most hard-working women I know are my mother’s, my mother by birth and my mother by marriage. They are both smart with money, but they use their intelligence differently. They are both big givers, but they give differently.
I’ve come to see the differences in my financial situation and others as often times a difference in priorities. My family’s priorities are such that money, material things, etc. are much lower on our list of wants/needs, than some other family’s priorities. Professionally, my husband and I’s goals are different. We don’t place a high value on certain things, and as a result, we don’t go after or seek them. It doesn’t mean we are better or less, that the other families are wrong or right, it just is. And I’ve settled on feeling happy and joyful when I see others live the life they want, just like I feel joyful that I live the life I want.
In the end I’ve decided I do want abundance and money, not because I aspire to high riches, but because I have learned it is my responsibility, my spiritual responsibility to build wealth that can be used to help others, including my family and myself.
If I don’t build my own wealth, how ever can I do good work? It takes money to stay at home and homeschool my children—we have to be financially stable to be able to live off one income. It takes money to volunteer my time and talents to organizations that I believe in—I have to be financially stable to be able to afford not to work. It takes money to secure my children’s education, and ensure they do not drown in school debt.
Though I will continue to talk about saving money, living on less, being frugal and meaningful and conscientious with money it isn’t because I am taunting an idea of a pious life, a life where I believe I do not deserve to have money. My goal will be to redefine what wealth is and isn’t (it isn’t all about money), and building wealth for greater good.
You see, money is a tool. I can’t bake a cake without heat; the heat is not good or bad, it is a tool to help me bake the cake. What I do with that cake is not a reflection of the heat. If I use the cake to gorge myself and make myself sick, or poison someone, that doesn’t make the heat evil, it makes me evil. Likewise, if I give the cake to someone hungry, or take it to a wake where a family is mourning, my actions have not made the heat good, it makes my heart compassionate.
It will be hard, I’m already feeling resistance to this new way of thinking, but instead of focusing on my discomfort, I’m focusing on my own power and good will. I’m deciding to abandon those old ways of thinking, and choosing to change my thinking to change my life and the lives around me.
Instead of thinking about what I can buy with greater wealth, I’m thinking about who and how I can help others with greater wealth.
I pray for myself, and for you, that we’ll both learn to build a healthy relationship and attitude about money. Of course, maybe your relationship is healthy, along with your attitude, and if so, I ask of you, pray for me and others, and help us develop the same financial health. If you are uncomfortable with money, too, if you too feel there is something wrong or dirty with money, or you use money to hurt others, wherever you are, I pray that you’ll plant new money seeds and develop a healthy, fruitful relationship with wealth.
We cannot do good for others, be a blessing to someone else, or be a rainbow in someone's cloud if we are raging a storm of our own. If we are not well, we cannot help others become well. And that, my friends, is what it is all about, how we extend ourselves to others. How we build our own family, community, and world. Money is an amoral tool, capable of changing lives and doing good. Let's decided together to be that good.
Full and Deep Blessings to You,