First published by The Pool on 18 March 2017
I’ve been working as a writer for a decade, and I own a flat in London. If you have an idea of what writers earn and what London property costs, it won’t come as a surprise to you that my flat was not purchased with my earnings. It’s a product of a few chunks of money that my mum and dad have inherited over the years; of their own careers and savings; of the lucky timing of their lives as the prosperous baby-boomer generation.
The first thing to say is: I’m deeply grateful that I have my flat. I’m aware of what an enormous advantage that is, and how unfair it is that some people get these breaks and others don’t. To say that my mum and dad helped me buy a place is an understatement: they did the bulk of the financial work, with my just-about-affordable mortgage contributions making up the rest. If they hadn’t been able and willing to do that for me, I would not be living in London or working as a freelance journalist; I would have had to pursue better paid work, whether I liked it or not.
But besides the gratitude, another emotion that this situation has always stirred in me is shame. I’m 33 and a graduate, but I am not a high earner. My rates have varied wildly over the years: some publications pay well, while others pay little but offer interesting work. There are occasions when I’m not paid on time, and I begin to do panicky sums, wondering how much I can afford to borrow from the account earmarked for my tax bill in order to pay urgent household bills. I dearly love my job, but during these periods I feel like I’ve failed to launch myself into adulthood. I confess to friends that I’m short on cash, because there’s no other way to explain why sometimes I’ll come for a beer but not for a cocktail or dinner – and sometimes I can’t come at all. I know this is a textbook #firstworldproblem, but in any case, it can feel humiliating. The parental help I’ve had has been life-changingly fortunate, but it also – to me – underlines my failure to be entirely self-reliant.
“I think the thing that’s so interesting is that at its base, money is so black and white,” points out Anna Sale, host of the excellent WNYC Studios podcast Death, Sex & Money, which is “about the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more”, as the show’s intro goes. “You can’t argue with what the balance is on that credit-card bill or that savings account, but at the same time the ways that you can feel about that are so unpredictable, complicated and sometimes irrational.” Money tangles itself inextricably with more emotionally uneasy subjects: your value to others; your resilience; your ability to be a provider.
Ask how your friends feel about their finances – a question that in our culture is generally considered rude – and you’ll find the dynamics are fascinatingly complex. “I’m curious about whether people feel safe or vulnerable around money,” says Sale. She interviews Americans from all walks of life for her podcast. “You can hear a sense of insecurity from someone who’s been a Wall Street executive, even though they’ve got more than most people in the world – so the way we feel about money is not necessarily at all related to how much we have in our bank accounts. It’s so tied up into what kind of family you grew up in, how you were taught about money, whether you feel comfortable relying on other people, or whether you feel like you have to take care of yourself – and all of that is very particular to our personal histories.”
Mary, now an executive producer in the TV industry, grew up in a single-parent family in east London; her mother earned little and worked hard to make ends meet. As a child, Mary was oblivious to their financial situation – until she got into a comprehensive school in a much richer neighbourhood. “At the end of the school day, people who I’d thought were exactly like me would be picked up by chauffeurs,” she recalls. “One of my friends was part of the Saudi royal family; another girl’s dad was a record producer, so he had celebrities coming to the house. It opened my eyes – that’s when I realised that there was a massive difference between people that have money and people that don’t.”
She’s had a difficult relationship with wealth ever since, seeing it as something to aspire to, but also finding it deeply uncomfortable. By the age of 18, she was earning more than her mother; she worked throughout her studies, and in her early twenties paid for her little brother to attend a private school. In the first few years of having her own cash, she rebelled against her mother’s thriftiness, spending extravagantly and not paying income tax – which, when the HMRC caught up with her, knocked her back into frightening debt for a while.
Now her finances are in order, but they have continued to be a source of stress. “It feels a bit awkward to say this, but I’m pretty sure I earn more money than all of my friends,” she says. On nights out, she has often insisted on paying for everyone; in her spare time, she has not one, but five volunteering jobs. “I definitely feel like it’s always good to share, so that’s part of it – but I know there’s also a massive part of me that feels guilty that I earn a lot.”
Whether you feel like a have or a have-not, confronting your economic reality can be a touchpaper for anxiety and self-doubt – so we tend not to discuss it. I have a vague idea of my friends’ financial situations: some are doctors or teachers, and have the kind of jobs where salaries rise according to across-the-board rules, not the whims of their employers. I understand that outside of media and creative jobs, there may be more transparency in earnings – but that still leaves a lot of room for mystery. How many of us, in any industry, discuss how much cash we’ve received from family, or share the histories of our debt, or the financial mistakes we’re still recovering from?
“As a generalisation, British people are comfortable discussing what something costs but they’re less comfortable discussing how they relate to that cost,” says Charlotte Fox Weber, head of psychotherapy at the School of Life. “So there’ll be an assessment of something being a rip-off, but when it comes to what that means for you, it’s incredibly hard to talk about.” Peeing in front of each other so that you can continue a toilet-break chat: fine, among my friends. Talking in specifics about money: a bit too intimate.
Sometimes, the sad and unintended result of this discretion is a kind of loneliness. “It can be incredibly isolating when you have this sense that other people are on top of things and you don’t know how to talk about it,” says Fox Weber.
Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild, is one of dozens of writers who speak about their financial experiences in the new book Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. Strayed’s account of the economic aspect of her career is impressively candid: “We almost lost our house before I sold Wild. I think we had about $85,000 in credit-card debt by the time I sold that book. I can say that now because I don’t have any debt, but I was so ashamed of that.”
As I read her story, I felt a profound relief wash over me. Here is a woman who produces widely valued work, and she spent years juggling bills and worrying about bouncing cheques: there is hope for all of us. “I think it’s so important to talk about it,” says Manjula Martin, editor of Scratch. “It shouldn’t be something that we’re afraid to bring up or that we feel self-conscious about in this deeply personal way. Everybody has issues with money.”
And many of us are longing for more of that honesty. Laura, a journalist, tells me she has watched in confusion in recent years as friends have started to buy properties. “I’m always like, ‘But… how?’” she says. “Not in an accusatory way – just ‘You’re my peer and you’ve done this seemingly impossible thing, so how can I do that?’ But it always turns out that there’s a large amount of money slipped in from the parents.”
I tell her that I’m one of those people, and that I feel awkward saying so because the money is undeserved. “But I don’t think it should be awkward to talk about,” she says. “I think it’s really important that people do talk about that, because that demystification highlights the issues with housing.” She’s right: in a time when so many people are struggling, there is a larger need for clarity.
So here I am: I’m ready to talk and I think others are too. I suspect we can chip away at our collective angst by taking, when they arise in conversation, the chances to acknowledge out loud our lucky breaks and our financial fears. And I’m willing to be rude and unBritish, if that’s what it means to talk frankly about money – because this interminable polite silence is getting us nowhere.