Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 12, Number 1
Copyright © 2017
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors
Essay by Stephanie Paterson
Let’s say in 2010 you were given $6,000 as a gift. It came unbidden.
It arrived in a beautiful card. Let’s say the giver intended the money to be
used as a down payment for a new car, or a new used car, knowing your
car was at the point where things would start to fail—timing, catalytic
converter, injection pump, cylinder, transmission. Let’s say you spent
$3,000 of the money. You did it slowly. You thought of it as borrowing
against yourself. You overextended the reach of your income and dipped
into this gift money like it was your own savings, but it wasn’t; it was a gift
earmarked for a specific purpose. Let’s say the person who gave you this
money worked hard to earn it and save it. It took time to make the money
that you spent in no time.
You tell a friend about this $3,000 and how it haunts you and how
you imagine replenishing what you spent with money you haven’t earned
yet. The debt makes you feel helpless and powerless. You recall your
father saying, “Like shit through a goose”—his description of spending
Your friend mentions Debtors Anonymous. He says a lot of people
who are together in a lot of areas of living still struggle with money and
learning to live and spend within their means. It helps to hear this.
“Taking care of the spending addiction is like finishing school,” he says.
Your friend has known you for a long time and has watched you get
squared away in most categories of living. This is his way of suggesting
that getting a handle on the spending is the last big work you have to do.
“You’re in trouble, kid,” my mother says.
I am forty-six years old.
“Do you mean globally, or specifically?” I ask.
She is referring to my spending.
I buy yards of fabric to make quilts which I give away. I actually
have a “fabric closet.”
I get a “High Spending” alert from the Mint.com app noting that I
have spent $253.53 on books in this month alone. And in parentheses,
“Usually you (only) spend $51.00.” Ordering books is part of a reading-
across-genres, self-sponsored curriculum that gets transmuted into
knowledge that comes out in my teaching, so in a sense these purchases
I also give away.
Lately, I buy frames for photographs I’ve taken, some of which I
give away. Professional framing is sanctioned highway robbery. It costs
$107 at Michaels with a coupon. Without a discount coupon, one framed
photograph would have cost $320.
I rationalize that giving away things that I have made makes me and
others feel good. I gave the last quilt to a friend who had chemo
treatments lined up for months. It was a quilt made with a hundred shades
of purple and grey. It was the color of my wallpaper when I was a kid, a
color that’s soothing, a color I fell asleep to and woke up to half the days
“You have a book addiction,” my mother says, with the sternness of
a lecture. She has a certain way she speaks to me when she’s trying to
startle me and cut through my denial. It’s really quite effective. She’s
been doing it all my life. She says these words with the same disdain
another mother might use to confront her daughter with, say, a meth
Doris Lessing has a book titled The Prisons We Choose to Live
Inside. The title floats back to me as I consider the choices I have made
that have landed me in the red.
I say matter-of-factly, “I used purchasing power to get me through
the end of the semester and the end of my relationship. It kept me sane.”
“No it didn’t,” my mother says adamantly. “Look at you.”
She is unbending on this point.
During one pay period, I have $78.00 in discretionary income after I
pay off credit cards, and the mortgage, and the new car payment, and bills.
“You have a problem,” my mother says, lowering the boom. At
times, I feel as if I am in a verbal ring with her. Round Two. Ding-ding-
She compares my spending to her savings and it baffles her. She
watches her friend live off of what she calls “a single measly Social
Security” check each month. “That’s all she has,” my mother says,
concern squeezing her voice into a shrill note of alarm. And my mother’s
friend watches my mom travel to Israel and Mexico, because she has
saved frugally, and socked money away, and spent sparingly. She saves
and is able to see the world. My sister is more like me. She works more
to pay debts she has incurred. She picks up a part-time gig as a server at
a new restaurant in Key West to pay off her credit card. Every Thursday
after teaching all day, she waitresses all night. We take turns being
enslaved by our misuse of money.
A Recipe for Financial Distress
1 condo purchased in California at the peak of the market just
before the crash.
12 dutifully paid mortgage payments that equal more than half your
salary for ten years. Remain in the condo that’s underwater.
Have a single income as a professor at a small state university and
leave yourself no margin of error.
Buy presents with abandon for everyone you love and a lot of
people you like as though you are the wife of a brain surgeon with a six-
Make 135 purchases at Amazon.com from January 1st-November
Bookend your year with travel: Go to Mexico in January. Go to
Rome in November.
Spend over $1,000 on fabric.
Keep a budget book. Save all your receipts. Observe your
patterns. Use the Mint.com app.
Ask for help.
After the meeting, we all stand around talking about money.
“My plan for retirement has always been to marry a rich woman,”
my friend says.
There is laughter.
One guy zooms away in a little red car that an onlooker calls his
midlife crisis car.
The doctor standing next to me says he went into debt to buy his
Mercedes (his midlife crisis car).
We all laugh at our shared goal of trying to make enough money so
we don’t have to budget.
You get an email update from Alewives Fabric in Nobleboro, Maine.
“It’s that time of year again. . . . At our Late Riser’s Sale on November
5th save 25% off on all fabric merchandise.”
In the new year, a few condos in your complex sell at a price that
indicates your place may have equity for the first time in ten years. You
learn that you only need 5% equity to refinance. It’s a gamble though.
You need to pay an appraiser $500 whether he is the bearer of good
news or not. You barely have an extra $500. You pay a 6.5% interest
rate on your underwater condo. The current market interest rate is 3.5%.
You roll the dice. You talk to a lender in Kansas City who ends one
conversation with a “You betcha.” You take a leap and pay the appraiser.
You set in motion all the little pieces that lead to a refinanced mortgage
and in a month’s time the whole thing comes together at your kitchen table
with a Notary and a two-inch stack of paperwork. You get a new fifteen-
year mortgage (same monthly payments), but half the interest. You feel
this heavy weight in your chest and back lift ever-so-slightly.
In the new year, you also try something called a Reverse 52-Week
Money Challenge. You’re drawn to the word “challenge.” You like that
this challenge is in your favor, part of an effort to be more like your
Depression-era parents: frugal. You want the sense of satisfaction and
peace of mind that comes with building a cushion. Since you only get paid
once a month, you set aside money for the whole month: 52 + 51 + 50 +
49 + 48 = $250. By December, you will need to set aside only $15.00,
and if all goes well, you will have a final savings of $1,378.
In the new year, you import what you are learning into your freshman
writing classes. A large percentage of your students are the first in their
families to attend college. They are new to college loans and escalating
debt, but not new to work. They want to understand. You view this
portion of the curriculum as a bridge—financial literacy every bit as
important as other literacies for college success. You assign a “Money
Autobiography” assignment. You do your own assignment to show your
students how you tackle it. You title it “Money Matters” and begin in this
“My father saves money, and plans ahead, and invests. My dad
survived one of the most turbulent industries out there—commercial
airlines. Maybe that’s why he is so careful about money. He had a thirty-
five-and-a-half-year career in aviation starting with the Air Force and then
flying commercially for TWA. He was laid off three times. He started out
as a flight engineer, low man on the totem pole or ‘tail-end Charlie,’ as he
calls it, code for ‘lost in history’ in pilot talk. That’s how I learned about
seniority as a kid. Last to get hired equals first to get laid off. It was an
equation that played itself out several times in my childhood. Each time
we felt the pinch. My mother would say, ‘We don’t have the money for
that. . . .’”
Each student is given a one-page assignment with fifteen prompts
related to money. “Choose four or five of these and see where they take
you. . . .”
You distribute huge play bills from The Party Store in every
denomination: $5, $10, $20, $100. There is an electric current in the
classroom, a tangible buzz. Students laugh and compare bills and this sets
the stage for a conversation about money that opens up a lot of mixed
reactions—elation and envy and curiosity and disappointment (namely the
recipients of the $1.00 bills). You devote a week to “managing money,”
and you gather readings and invite a guest speaker, someone you know
who had to sell five homes in the California housing crash. He speaks
with humor and candor about money mistakes and lessons learned the
hard way and how our relationship to money often goes way back to
early lessons. In short, you teach what you’re still trying to learn—how
to live wisely across the board, how to be smart about money, how to
spend within your means, how to reflect on where the money goes, how
to plan for the bright future you hope for your students and for yourself.
Stephanie Paterson was born and raised in Portland, Maine. She
earned her Ph.D. from the University of New Hampshire. She is a full
professor at California State University, Stanislaus in Turlock,
California, where she also co-directs the Great Valley Writing Project.
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