by JIM KNIPFEL
September 20, 2015
So What the Fuck Happened, Smart Guy?
When I was a kid, and I mean a little kid, I was mercenary about saving money. I’d set my weekly fifty cent allowance aside in a coffee cup in a cabinet next to the ashtrays and the envelopes. When I had enough quarters I’d cash them in with my parents for folding money. When I’d gathered a respectable enough wad, I’d march it down to the bank and deposit it in my savings account. Before I was ten I was working odd jobs around the neighborhood in the summers, and in the winters I’d find seasonal work (which was out there for an eight-year-old in the early seventies if you looked hard enough), and put everything I earned into the bank as well. Only rarely would I siphon a little out to buy a book or model kit or movie ticket, and then only when I knew I could easily afford it. I denied myself so many fundamental kid things—my bike was a hand-me down from my sister (and a girl’s bike to boot) which I rode until high school, and I bought my skateboard at a rummage sale for a dime. Later I kicked myself for wasting that dime, given I never learned to ride the damn thing.
Sick thing is, all this frugality had nothing at all to do with the money itself, with looking toward the future. No, it was nothing but an obsessive numbers game with me. I was consumed with the idea of seeing that bottom entry in my bank book roll over $100, then over $500, then over $1000. I wasn’t planning for anything, wasn’t saving for anything, just watching the numbers and calculating that accrued interest.
When I was twelve, I started putting my savings into two and a half year CDs, and I remember the banker telling my mom (who had to co-sign the paperwork), “He’s going to be a very wealthy man one day.”
I had regular part-time jobs all through high school, and during the summers worked twelve hours a day, six days a week at a video store. I didn’t have the time to spend any money, so by the time I headed off to college I was in mighty fine shape.
Yeah, well. All that money I’d been squirrelling away beginning when I was seven started to dwindle a bit once I landed in college. Suddenly I had to buy my own books and supplies, pay for my own food and rent, pay my own bills and cover most anything else that came up. It wasn’t that bad though—I was in a cheap town paying only two eighty-five a month for a shabby room with a mattress on the floor and a serious ant infestation. Plus I started picking up some part-time jobs here and there (porn shop, another video store), and my vices hadn’t really taken firm hold yet. Not those that cost money anyway. So while the savings I started with had diminished slightly, it was never something that bothered me much, since I figured I’d build it right back up again once I got out of school and slid into that cushy high-paying academic job.
Things started looking up in grad school as I drew ever closer to that goal. The school was covering my tuition and giving me an extra eight thousand dollars a year on top of it for teaching a couple of classes. I was paying three sixty-five a month for a nice place just off the freeway with a view of an alley. I was also able to supplement what seemed to me a fairly lavish income thanks to the crazy old lady in the apartment next to mine, who was in the dementia-fueled habit of leaving envelopes full of cash under her door in the hallway two or three times a week. Add to that I was stealing damn near everything I wanted or needed, from food to books, and I was doing fine. I had all the money I needed in the bank, but barely touched any of it.
After grad school lost its charm though (and I became less charming to grad school) I made the move to Philly. Overnight it seems that slight dwindling I’d noticed during my earlier college years quickly became a precipitous decline. Guess the joke was on me, since I had told people I was leaving school and moving to Philly to become a bum.
Suddenly the rent had more than doubled, stealing became much more difficult now that I’d left the trusting Midwest, and my philosophy degree and porn shop experience weren’t really opening a whole lotta doors, employment-wise.
I think the real death-knell to that early savings bug came when I found myself, quite accidentally, having fallen into the writing trap with no clear and obvious way out into some kind of normal, rational existence. For the next six and a half years, the writing brought in a steady thirty-five dollars a week.
Oh, I had a few jobs here and there, making slightly over minimum wage as a bill collector and clerk in a used bookstore, but even if the bookstore job allowed me to skim off the till, the money was still slipping away at three times the rate I was bringing it in. I may have been treading water, but someone was draining the pool.
Four decades later let’s just say the numbers game of my youth lost its charm somewhere along the line. Today I have slightly over two hundred dollars in my checking account, and I haven’t had the means to reopen a savings account in twenty years. I have no investments, no IRA, no 401(k), no nothing beyond that two hundred dollars.
When I was a kid of course, I didn’t have to worry about landlords, groceries, utilities, changing technologies, lawyers, hospital bills, long stretches of unemployment, disastrous career choices, or a slew of increasingly expensive vices. Take all that out of the equation, and it’s very easy to be a damned little smarty pants who can sock every fucking penny away.
Still, having lived in New York as long as I have, and having spent so much of that time living not just below the accepted poverty level, but way, way, WAY under the poverty level, I can’t say as I’ve ever wanted for anything. There’s always beer in the fridge and smokes on the table. And for that I think I can thank that smug little bastard of my nine-year-old self. Not that obsessive numbers crunching part, but the part that learned to live with nothing without complaint. Because truth is, if you have nothing, you learn to live with nothing.
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