The Wolf at the Door

A while back I wrote a piece for a website that was just launching and, sadly, it appears that it went under before they ever got a chance to run this essay. Rather than leave it sitting, all lonely like, in my email, I’ve decided to shake the dust off and post it here instead.

*****

I gather my receipts first, separating them into categories: gas, eating out, groceries, household care, and so on. The piles spread across the surface of my desk at work, a month of spending representing in crumpled paper, and I methodically begin adding each stack. When I’m done I’ll balance my checkbook, pay the bills for the next month and then update the spreadsheet where I track our spending month to month, year to year. Finally I update the chart with our savings balance,hoping to see that it grew that month. I save the file, print a copy, email it to my husband. The same steps, in the same order, every month.

And then, finally, I take a deep breath and relax for a few minutes, knowing I won’t worry about money for the rest of this day. Tomorrow? Well, tomorrow the job of worrying enough to keep my family financially afloat begins anew.

This worry about money is, largely, unnecessary. I am fortunate to have a stable job that I generally enjoy and that pays me well enough that we can afford for my husband to stay home with our young children. We don’t have an extravagant lifestyle but we can afford our weekend trips to Target and occasional nights of Chinese takeout for dinner without actually needing to worry. I’m not spendthrift, not a tightwad, though I sometimes wish I were. When I wander the aisles at Target with a Starbucks in my hand, I probably don’t look like I’m worrying about money.

But I am. I think about my childhood, which was marked in many ways by want and financial chaos.I think about my early twenties when I did my very best to singlehandedly support the credit card industry by carrying debt that nearly equaled my yearly salary. I think about my children and if I’ll have enough money to say “yes” to the things they’ll want someday: camps and sports and lessons and Legos.

I worry that I’ll slip and my children will worry like I did as a child, will know the feeling of there never quite being enough to go around. I worry about retirement and about being able to pay off our house someday. I feel the weight of being the sole breadwinner bearing down on me on when I hear whispers about budget cuts or when I daydream about trying to, for real, be a writer someday.

I used to think there was a magic number, a salary or a savings amount at which I’d stop worrying about money, but if there is I haven’t found it yet.

And so I tend to the monthly bills with a ritual as sacred to me as church. I keep the wolves of poverty and hunger and want from the door with my calculator and my neatly kept checkbook register and my five year financial plan. Sometimes I find myself thinking “I hope this is enough. I hope we have enough” but I’m not sure that is the real question. Maybe the real question is something more fundamental, something, well, far scarier.

Am I enough?

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