How I Knew I’d Made It

In conversation not too long ago, someone asked me when I felt I had “made it.” It’s a fair question; for a writer, there are a lot of milestones that could be the points at which one feels one has made it. Selling that first book is an obvious one (selling the second book, a less obvious but no less relevant one), as is the first time you are nominated for an award, or win one, or hit a bestseller list, or get a starred review in the trades. Getting a movie or TV option is a big one. Seeing someone you don’t know reading a book of yours out in the world. Any of these are perfectly good moments to stop and say, hey, I guess I’ve made it.

My moment isn’t any one of those. My moment came a couple of years ago, when I was driving out of town and noticed my gas tank was almost empty. So I stopped at the gas station, slid my credit card into the pump, filled up my gas tank, replaced the nozzle, got back into my car and drove away. And then realized a couple of miles down the road that at no point did I look to see how much the gas cost per gallon, or how much the whole tank of gas cost me. I didn’t look because I didn’t have to. No matter how much it cost, I knew I had it. I knew I could afford it.

That was my moment.

Some of you, I suspect, are looking a bit puzzled at this. So it’s here that I need to give you a bit of context.

When I wrote “Being Poor” back in 2005, the very first thing I wrote in the piece was “Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.” The reason I wrote that is because when you are poor, you have to know how much everything costs, because you know exactly how little you have to spend, and how much you need to get through your day. You have to strategize how to apply your money.

Like so: You have $10 for the whole day. Gas costs $3.12 a gallon. You have a quarter tank of gas to go somewhere 25 miles away and then get back. Do you need to put in more gas? How much do you have to put in to do what you have to do? Is the gas going to be cheaper ten miles down the road? Will you have enough left over when you’ve put gas in your tank to buy the other things you have to get today? Can they wait? If they can’t wait, how much will you need for them? Will what you have left give you enough for gas? And so on.

I’ve seen people here in town come into the gas station and ask for very specific amounts of gas. I don’t have to ask why they’re asking the cashier for exactly three dollars and twenty five cents worth of gas, or whatever amount they ask for. I know why. It’s exactly the amount they can afford that day, and, hopefully, exactly the amount they need. They’ve thought it out. They’ve made the numbers work as well as they can. I know it because I’ve seen it done it my own life, growing up; the calculus of what you can afford today, what will have to wait for tomorrow and what things can be put off until the absolute last minute.

If you grow up with that sort of resource calculus as part of your daily existence, you almost never get free of it; you’re always checking tallies in your head. And to be sure, in a very real sense this is not a bad thing at all — not knowing what you’re spending on things is a very fine way for anyone to quickly and suddenly go broke. You should be keeping track of your income and outgoes. It’s a basic and laudable life skill.

But I would argue that with folks who do it (or have done it) from a place of poverty, there’s a difference in both degree and kind. Like your grandmother who lived through the Great Depression and never threw out a piece of string because “you never knew when it will come in handy” and therefore had a ratty ball of string no one wanted to touch, much less use, there’s something pathological about poverty accounting — a need to know the precise cost of things and the worry that at the end of the day, no matter what you do, there’s just not going to be enough. You keep track of costs not because it’s a smart thing to do. You keep track of costs because you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I have that sensibility in my head. And again, on one hand, it’s not all bad: we save a lot of the money we have come in, and I have what I think is a realistic sense of what we can afford and what we can’t — and as a full-time writer, whose income is (heh) variable, it’s good to have more than a little ingrained awareness of one’s financial circumstances.

On the other hand, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and for no good reason plan out a strategy for an imminent income apocalypse. What if everything you’ve ever written stops selling? What if you can’t sell the next book? What if Krissy loses her job? What if you can’t get back into marketing and consulting? What then what then WHAT THEN? And then I spend three hours imagining how we downsize to survive on nothing until I finally fall back asleep from mental exhaustion. When I wake up in the morning I’m fine, because rationally I know that I’m doing all right, and my writing career is unlikely to go up in a sudden, inexplicable flash. But the WHAT THEN? voice stays in the background, because it remembers what it was like to have to think about those contingency plans in one’s day-to-day life.

And this is why, a couple miles down the road from the gas station, the sudden realization that I didn’t worry about the price of gas, that I had just gassed up and went, hit me like an electric shock. I had literally never done that before. It wasn’t about the not knowing the exact cost of the gas; I could find that out just by looking at my credit card statement. It was that it finally had gotten into my brain that I could afford things. That I didn’t have to do the mental calculation of the cost of the gas from a place of anxiety. That I had the confidence that I could afford what I just spent — not the confidence intellectually, which I had, but confidence in the part of my brain that wakes me up at 3am in a panic about everything going to hell. For that part of my brain, miraculously, everything checked out.

That’s when I knew I had made it.

The irony is that since then, I can’t not look at the cost of the gas I’m pumping into my car, if only because I remember driving away that one time, not looking. The difference is now, when I look at the amount, it’s not because my brain is having a tiny, muted but still real bit of panic about the cost. It’s because I just need to know how much I spend, like any person should.

It’s a small difference, and unnoticeable from the outside. But on the inside, it means that a lot has changed. It means I made it. I am grateful I have done so.

97 Comments on “How I Knew I’d Made It”

  1. That’s a reasonable milestone, imo. More relevant than the others, which seem more symbolic. Real financial security is meaningful. Congratulations!

  2. I’m having a heck of a lot of Feels about this post and I’m going to go ahead and not feelingsbomb your comment thread with them.

    But thank you for writing this; it is excellent.

  3. That’s something so absent from political discussions of economics – how exhausting is the constant tension of being, not even “poor”, but in range of the precarious plummet into financial disaster. It’s so much extra work just mentally cycling it all.

    Glad you burst out of that cloud… even more glad that you can still see it and communicate the experience.

  4. Heh. Thank you.

    Quick story. When I was young, my parents were quite affluent; dad was doing very well as an engineer in the nascent computer industry of the 80s. One divorce and a chain of bad decisions meant that suddenly a quid for a bus-ride was a big deal – so I had that reversal to learn about, where I had to develop those exact habits, as well as getting used to suddenly *not* being able to afford things.

    Last year, when I met my girlfriend and we started getting to know one another, I said (in that throw-away “of course you have” tone of voice) “haven’t you ever had to gather up your quarters to fill your gas-tank for a gig?” As we’re both freelance VFX artists, I assumed the answer was “Yes”.

    “Nope”, she said. Then looked a bit embarrassed and continued “My parents are well off”.

    In short succession, my mind flickered through a reminiscence of having a wealthy family, of awareness that my shirt-collar was showing a little fray, a twinge of jealousy that here was a person who’d never had their arm down behind ratty sofa-cushions trying to afford to work their hide off for someone else, and a moment of pathos that we’re two professionals in our 30s and our industry is so bollixed that asking your parents for gas money is a thing.

    I hope to have a moment like yours at some point.

  5. So, a question: Someone comes up to you at a gas station and asks for some help – they are out of gas, broke, and trying to get to (some place). What do you do?

    I’m curious if how you, with your past experiences, react in a situation like that?


    – yeff

  6. My parents were children of the Depression (they married in ’37 and their friends joked that the newspaper should run a headline: Girl Marries Boy With Job). So I inherited a bit of that fear, and got more of it by direct experience when we had a rough few years when I was in middle school and we had some unexpected additional burdens on the finances. (That was the year we stretched the canned chili with macaroni noodles and the only “new” clothes I got were my adult sister’s hand-me-downs. Middle school is a bad time to be mocked for how you dress.)

    My equivalent of your gas tank experience is being able to buy groceries without worrying about prices. My equivalent of your 3 a.m. panic is “oh God, what do we do if someone gets sick/injured/needs surgery?”

    We’ve gotten all the kids to adulthood now, so a chunk of that panic is gone, but none of them have their own health insurance yet. And my job, in particular, requires that all four limbs and my back be functional.

  7. The first time I ever received a check for my writing was my moment. I had been writing for myself since I was 15, and then one day I got a check in the mail from for an article I wrote on water and for the first time I felt I went from “Amateur enthusiast” to “paid professional.”

    And literally every published piece I have had since then has been just as exciting. It’s still not my career (yet) but the recognition of my peers and the occasional check (or Paypal email) is amazingly gratifying.

  8. Thanks for this. I had a similar moment a few days ago when I realized I was filling my tank with no idea what the price per gallon was. I won’t say I’d never done this before. But I suddenly realized I was doing it.

    But I still lie awake some nights.

  9. I agree that this is a great measurement of having made it. Like many others here, I’m looking forward to such a day. I don’t want “yacht money”. I want “I can cover the cost of gas, food, and shelter” money.

  10. Yeff:

    The only times I’ve been approached at a gas station were by people who clearly didn’t have a car. If I had cash, I’d give them a couple of dollars. If I didn’t, I didn’t.

  11. A common question for politicians is to ask them the price of a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs. It’s a gotcha question, meant to show that the rich politician is out-of-touch with the problems of everyday Americans.

    But I never thought it was entirely fair. Once you have that confidence that you’ll always have enough money for those expenses, it is only natural for the brain to stop focusing on those details and to care about other problems instead. You don’t care if it is $3.75 or $3.25 anymore. It isn’t that you have no worries; you are just worrying about other things instead.

  12. Scary post because I just had a similar moment. It made me curious about whether you had reached one of the next milestones yet. When paying for your own flights do you fly first class ?

  13. I will never not check the price of gas, because my dad is obsessed with it and forever asks me how much we’re paying here in the Big City. ;)

    My sister and I often refer to the time we went, on a lark, to an amusement park we’d never been to, just because we had a long weekend and nothing else going on. We paid $30 apiece to spend half a day there. That was a seismic shift in our lives, which not that many years before had meant scraping up six bucks between us to afford a game of miniature golf.

    It doesn’t matter what you’re spending the money on. The moment that you do it without worrying about the price is what makes the difference.

  14. My wife and I are reasonably well off these days, but it’s largely because we’re frugal, hence we always look to see what something costs before we buy it (gas varies by 20 to 25 cents per gallon around here lately). Also, it would be difficult for me not to be hyper-conscious of gas prices because for nearly 20 years I drove a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville that never yielded more than 16 mpg – and that was on the Ohio Turnpike with a tailwind.

    For me, having “made it” wasn’t a financial thing at all; it was knowledge of my (editing) work going out into the world, on a regular basis.

  15. Bob Lavoie:

    No, because first class is a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a slightly wider seat and free alcohol that I don’t drink anyway. At most I’ll spring for economy plus and the extra six inches of legroom. But honestly, I’m a fairly small dude. I’m generally not unduly cramped in an economy plane seat. If I really wanted space I could buy an entire row of seats in economy for cheaper than a single first class ticket. I’m vaguely surprised more people don’t do that.

    My one flight extravagance is that I have an Amex platinum card so I can get into airlines’ private lounges. For the amount I travel it’s well worth the expense.

  16. I know that constant calculation feeling. I hate it, actually. That whole constantly skating the edge feeling and being scared something will tip you off. I really want to get to the day where I can tell that feeling that it’s being silly, but it’s not here, yet.

  17. I am somewhat astonished/appalled that some people think it would be a good thing if the American health-care system worked more like a standard free market, such that more consumers would be saying to themselves, “Hmm, I have this chest pain, but it might be nothing? Should I get it checked out? Dr. Smith would charge $500 for an office visit; is it really worth that much when he just might send me back home, or order $1,000 worth of tests that turn out to be negative? Or maybe I should go down the street to Dr. Jones; people say he’s not so competent, but he would only charge me $250… or maybe I should just take some aspirin and see if it gets any worse tomorrow….”

  18. Yeff: I know you were directing that question at Scalzi. But for my part I’ll say that I decided a while ago to make a point of carrying small bills with me. I may be powerless to undo the structural economic violence that leads to poverty and homelessness, but I can damn well afford to buy the people who sleep in my building’s carpark a cup of coffee, and the attendant right to spend a few hours occupying a chair in a heated/air-conditioned coffee shop.

    My moment of recognizing my financial security was the moment I realized that yes, actually–I could spare some change. I can pretty much always spare some change, and that’s not likely to stop being true anytime soon.

    So I try to help other people out, not because it’s noble, but because it’s a little act of rebellion against the voice in the back of my mind–the one that wakes me up in the middle of the night. It’s a way of reminding myself that I don’t need to be jealous of every penny I have. And that peace of mind is worth a few dollars here and there.

  19. That’s a good place to be. I’ve never been properly poor – to the extent that you describe – but there have been some ‘careful’ times in my life and I’m thankful to be out of them.

  20. Answer on the “why don’t people just buy a row” question: Because when the plane takes off, some sensible person is going to think, “Hey, I can just move into that empty row,” and then the purchaser of that row is going to have to explain that they bought the whole row and no, they’re not sharing.

    I’m pretty damn aggressive about defending myself, but I can see that conversation getting really ugly, really fast, if the interloper thinks they’re entitled to “the extra empty seat.”

  21. A relative of mine expressed this as “getting to the point where, when you have strawberries, you don’t have to count them out”.

  22. So spot on. I grew up with those buying habits because my parents had been poor and instilled that kind of frugality in their children. I knew I had made it the day my husband and I decided we wanted to stop for tea and a snack one Saturday afternoon. We opted for a restaurant where we would be seated and served rather than at the Starbucks nearby, without checking the cost first.

  23. Heh. I still fret over daughter and wife not scraping plates clean when eating (too little for leftovers left). My wife has worked hard to break me of the habit and I’m presentable in public but when I’m eating lunch in my office, well, I eat my lunch. Doubt I’ll ever get over the feeling of wasting food. And yeah, the industry and economy could change and… 3 AM voice SUCKS!

  24. I hit that point about 6 months ago. I was unhappy with my job and wasn’t sure how much more I could deal with. I started looking for anything else. The immediate options were about the same caliber of misery. One of the interviewers asked me where I wanted to be in 5 years. A pretty standard question but it just punched me right in the gut. For the first time I realized that I had gotten far enough to be sought after in other areas of my industry and I had… options. It wasn’t a choice between holding desperately to this job or being homeless and starving. Intellectually, I had known that but I’d never really believed it until that moment.

    I held out for something really good and got an incredible job – and I made them court me for it. Realizing you’re okay is a powerful thing.

  25. I generally give people money if they ask. I suspect some of them are trying to scam me. But I figure if they’re desperate enough for money that they’d rather lie to get money than do anything else, I assume they probably really do need it, even if not for the reasons they said.

  26. It was my parents, not grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression, and I’ll probably always hear that little voice, “Don’t throw it out – it’s still good – you might need it someday.” TV shows on hoarders are great allies in shouting down that voice: thankful for modern technology!

    Another plus with modern technology is all the information available online (& free at the library) to help each other stretch those dollars. Not just sites that tell the cheapest places to get gas – it’s all the “frugal moms” and “budget gourmets” and life-hackers and DIYers. So many good-hearted folks who reach out to coach others, and the internet enables them to reach farther than ever before. This was brought home to me during the “SNAP Challenge” last year. I admired that Starbuck’s executive who took the Challenge, and he’d have done even better with advice from some of the bloggers.:-)

    I’ll probably always mentally calculate the cost of things, though like you I don’t need to so much these days. One of the best aspects now is being able to help others.

    A different kind of moment comes to my mind, when I think of moving beyond a childhood of doing-without. I was in my first professional job after college, and finally had the money to get the (badly needed) orthodonture that my family simply couldn’t afford. (We never had any kind of health or dental insurance.) The day my braces came off was a real paradigm shift for me – more so than I’d anticipated.

    Thanks, John, for providing us this opportunity for reflection!

  27. When I’m working, I am very well compensated. I save as much of that money as possible, barring a few meals out and maybe a little family vacation, because I know that when the work ends, it could be several long months before I work again.

    I never feel that I’ve “made it” to the extent of not knowing, and really it’s “not caring about” the cost of anything I buy, but I think that is knowing the value of a dollar.

    I’ve been thankful every day for the work I’ve had, because I’ve been without work and income, and it is a frustrating and enervating, ultimately frightening situation to be in.

    I do believe in giving to local charity, and directly to those in unfortunate circumstances. I’m just glad to be able to be on the giving end rather than the receiving end.

  28. My moment comes every month while paying the bills.

    Paying the bills used to be an extremely stressful time of the month. I’d sort through them, deciding which I had to pay, which I could pay a little, and which I could slide. I comb through every transaction on my credit card, second-guessing every expense. It was awful.

    But once I could afford to pay my bills, without worry, without negotiation, and without second-guessing, a weight lifted off my shoulders. Now, every month I pay my bills without stress, I pause and remember how lucky I’ve become.

  29. @matthewmccaffrey – I tend to think those questions are perfectly fair when that politician is duty bound to represent people who do have to worry about those things.
    The price of buying healthy groceries, gas, the school supplies on a kid’s classroom list, a routine dentist’s visit, a typical area rent, the typical utility bill- all things that are going to have a huge impact on whether your constituents can handle it if you slash funding or raise taxes.

    And if you cause people already having a hard time to have a harder time because you couldn’t be arsed to find out what their lives cost, you really don’t deserve to have any decision-making power over their lives.

  30. ERose, everything you says is true, but does that imply that politicians have a responsibility to know that data off the top of their head? Are you confident Obama could give good answers to those questions? Highly unlikely that man has had to buy a gallon of milk in some time.

  31. @MattewCaffrey That isn’t data to be researched, that is basic information required to do their job. For Republican and Democrat alike.

  32. Love this post.

    My husband and I both come from backgrounds where our families had to pinch and save growing up. I don’t know if anyone else has encountered this in the workplace, but we both have good jobs now, and often feel out of place because our peers regularly spend far more than we feel comfortable doing on… everything.

    As in, even if we can technically afford to spend the money, we don’t see why anyone would want to because it feels so wasteful (e.g., I still don’t understand the point of regularly spending $10-15 to eat lunch out when I can bring in a meal or buy one for a third of that. Flying first class is another cringe-worthy never ever; it’s not that we can’t afford the ticket but WHY would we spend that much when a perfectly serviceable seat can be obtained for so much less?).

    We’ve learned to conceal our gut reactions and play along in social situations, because frankly, you don’t want to be that cheapskate, but I’m not sure that feeling of needing to save where we can will ever go away. We don’t worry about paying monthly bills or mortgage, and but will we ever be people that can spend money so freely? I’m not so sure…

  33. “If I really wanted space I could buy an entire row of seats in economy for cheaper than a single first class ticket. I’m vaguely surprised more people don’t do that.”

    That would probably backfire on you; if there’s no-one checked in to those seats a few minutes before takeoff, they can re-sell them to standby passengers.

  34. I’m reading this while staring at a giant pile of things I need to pack so I can move into a cheaper apartment this weekend.

    I was the kid who the parents sent out the front door to tell the repo man that they weren’t at home so the beds would stay in the house for one more week. Through a lot of luck and hard work, I “made it.” I’ve got an excellent job in IT, living near DC and getting fatter mostly because it feels so good to know exactly when the next meal is coming.

    At least that’s what I’ve been doing. Unlike John, my money is coming from a field far from where I wanted to be. And now that I’ve been sitting comfortably, sending money home, and mostly carefree I’ve realized how unsatisfying my hard earned financial success is. So, in my mid-thirties and past my prime, I’m leaving the cooshy IT job to try to make it as an actor. Which is as dumb a move as a man can make, really.

    I’m not terrified of failing. But god do I dread letting that paranoid fear of poverty back into my head.

  35. I admit, when I buy one of your books, part of my brain thinks of it as contributing to the “Athena college fund”.

  36. I think my moment was when a roomie passed along a slightly small wool sweater with only a little hole at a cuff and a monogram that didn’t belong to any of our circle of friends. I remember trying it on and thinking, I should give this to Goodwill, then realizing I didn’t have to consider how I could mend the hole, pick out the monogram, and make it work.

  37. But even if politicians knowing how close income and buying essentials are for the least well off is important, they don’t need to hold the price of every item in their heads. My husband almost certainly doesn’t know how much milk costs: the food shop is one of my chores. He knows roughly how much we spend on food each month though.

    Of course asking a politician what their personal budgets are would be rather rude.

  38. Oh, this is lovely and true. When at a restaurant, I no longer scan the menu for the most cost-effective item. I don’t think I noticed the first time, but I did notice.

  39. I’ve heard some say that you’ve “made it” when you make more money than your parents.

  40. My kids used to make fun of me because I would ‘close my books’ every day. I accounted for every penny I spent & how much I still had to get through the week along with some idea what I would be spending over that time. It angered me because I felt I had to do it but my kids could not see the point. Now that they are grown & on their own they understand even if they are not so poor as to HAVE to keep that close an account. My kids have never known poverty and I have mixed emotions about that. While I am sure they are healthier for it I wonder if a short dip into that pool might not have made them ‘better’ people. None lack empathy but still.

    Tchemgrrl – I hope some day to fully break the menu thing. I no longer obsess over getting the cheaper stuff but cannot bring myself to include appetizers or a second glass of wine. I still have the estimated total in my head before we order. I never realized how insidious that is – or why I do it for that matter – until John brought it up.

  41. –E writes:

    Answer on the “why don’t people just buy a row” question: Because when the plane takes off, some sensible person is going to think, “Hey, I can just move into that empty row,” and then the purchaser of that row is going to have to explain that they bought the whole row and no, they’re not sharing.

    Not being a small dude like John, I have bought a 2nd seat. One day a woman with a tight connection turned up just a couple minutes before “fasten seat belts for landing” and asked me if she could sit in it so should could get out sooner. I informed her that I had bought the seat and she asked me if she could use it anyway. I was satisfied that she was asking and not demanding so I did let her use it. Fortunately she didn’t complain.

    When my wife & I went on our honeymoon, we flew first class. It was definitely a special occasion. The food was good, and I had a couple drinks, but on the way home we concluded that we could have bought three coach seats for a third of the money, been more comfortable, and bought enough booze to pickle an elephant and still we would have been vastly ahead of the game.

    At one time Spirit Airlines offered business class. This turned out to be what was a first class seat on the MD80 when it was built. The neat deal was that they priced it exactly proportionately to coach, in the sense that they were getting the same amount of money per row of seats. The only extra amenity was a non-alcoholic drink before take-off. I considered that an excellent deal. They don’t seem to offer it anymore. It seemed fair to me. Occupy 1.5 seats, pay 1.5 times the fare and not have to pay a couple grand for first class. I am an enthusiast for the extra leg room offerings as well.

  42. Yeff writes:

    So, a question: Someone comes up to you at a gas station and asks for some help – they are out of gas, broke, and trying to get to (some place). What do you do?

    When I don’t give, I obsess on the way home that I should have helped. When I do give, I obsess on the way home that I’ve very likely been scammed.

  43. @Greg: Just an FYI, the “more money than your parents” metric is pretty straight-cis-WASP-male. Institutionalized income disparities due to race, gender, etc, combined w/ the collapse of unions and our depressed minimum wage (two things which once were a free-market “affirmative action” corrective to socio-economic injustice,) means that the majority of Americans, at this moment, have no hope of exceeding parental (adjusted real) income.

    I’m not sure which Greg you are, so I’m not sure if you are the Greg who will look at the above and go “obviously,” or if you are the Greg that my comment will drive into a Randian screed. If the former, I apologize for being pedantic; if the latter, I apologize to the other commenters for any resulting Galtisms.

  44. @mintwitch:
    You may well be right about the majority of Americans not having a hope of exceeding parental real income, but a significant minority of that majority consists of straight-cis-WASP-males. Are we are talking about parents who are still earning? If that is the case, then how does a change to minimum wage cause one to earn more than one’s parents?

  45. @Erik Harrison:

    Good on you, man!

    I did a career change about 15 years back – less secure work, but more creative – turned out to be a great decision for me.

    Hope you find the same & even more so!

    Be sure to stop back by the Whatever when you make it big on the stage/screen … hey, maybe you’ll land a role in OMW!

  46. I’m lucky in that I’ve never really been poor – my parents went through various tight spots and we didn’t have a lot of extras as kids, but in other ways we were privileged – we all went to private (catholic) schools and we got to keep the spending money from our part time jobs. My parents helped me as much as they could to pay for college, and I knew that if I ever actually got in financial trouble my parents or my siblings would do their best to help me out so I had a real safety net (and that did happen – Mom helped me out when I accidentally overdrew my bank account my first year of grad school and got hit with the endless fee cycle, and I was the one to help my sister out when she was short on the rent and I was still a teenager with a part time job and no major expenses).

    That said, Dad was that guy who drove three miles out of the way to save $0.01 per gallon on gas, and we rarely had leftovers because Mom was really good at making just enough for dinner and no more. It never occurred to me to live extravagantly but I also always knew that if I wasn’t careful I would be counting every penny and worrying about the difference between $1.00 and $1.15 for a pound of pasta, and I HATED the very thought. I hated going out with friends and having to always order the cheapest thing on the menu. And I’ve had a few years where I had to do it (that first year of grad school when I got in trouble – AKA the year of pancakes since Hungry Man just add water pancake mix made up most of my diet – was probably the low point). So ever since I got a real job and paid down my debt (I was a student for a reeeeely long time) I’ve always tried to live without some of the things other people in my circle spent money on (eg. a car when I was living in a big city with bike lanes and public transit, or a smart phone now) specifically so that I won’t have to make those calculations. Because it’s always in the back of my mind that all it will take is one or two big hits and I’ll have to.

  47. My parents’ mortgage was $100/month. My monthly rent is more than they paid for mortgage in a year. I had to make more than they did, you can’t live on that any more.

    When I was poor, I used to keep a running total in my head of everything I was spending at the grocery store. I got really good at it, was accurate to within a dollar usually. I wish I could still do that — I no longer have to, so I stopped, but I’m sorry to have lost that skill.

  48. @matthewcaffrey (sorry for the typo last time) and @bristolbookworm- I do feel like I need to be clear that my personal dividing line on who is more or less likely to know these things is not Ds and Rs so much as “politicians who are really wealthy” and “politicians who are not really wealthy.” That said, I’m not comfortable with any politician who doesn’t make a point to become well-acquainted with his constituents’ reality.
    I don’t believe a politician should be a walking price gun or off with his head.
    I do believe that a reasonably accurate working knowledge of how much things cost is a basic requirement of a good politician in a representative democracy, whether they know it from personal experience or not.

  49. I’m with ERose – not so much that politicians ought to know off the top of their heads which store in town has the cheapest eggs, but more that they ought to have *some* idea how much breakfast costs, as calculated in hours worked at minimum wage, and at median wage.

  50. No matter how much liquidity I have, I will never stop keeping a ledger in my head. I sleep soundly knowing my cash flow. Even when I was barely scraping by, I could sleep at night as long as I knew precisely how broke I was. If I didn’t know, that kept me up, or would’ve if I ever let it happen. I typically don’t panic about things outside my control. I panic if I’m flying blind. Just my inflation-adjusted 5¢.

  51. I saw some thing Terry Pratchett wrote about the day he was in the video store trying to decide which of the two videos he’d shortlisted to rent. And then he realized he could rent *both*.

  52. I am probably older than all of you. I am also self-employed. My “made it” moment was a retirement number; that if all my clients left, if I never worked again (and I love my work), it would work out. It would be hard, but doable. That was such a relief.

  53. @matthewmccaffrey – everyone I know who does their own grocery shopping on a regular basis knows at least the correct order-of-magnitude of most items. I don’t expect politicians to know whether something is $3.50 vs. $3.75. I do expect people to know whether it’s $3.50 or $10.50 when they’re deciding how much people need to live on (decisions about minimum wage, SNAP, etc.)

  54. Americans savings rate is way too low. As soon as people make more money they spend it. I work in IT in the DC area. This is a high paying profession. They often have spouses and each spouse is pulling down 6 figures. They have little to no savings. As soon as they get more they spend it.

    I look at saving money as freedom. The more I save and put in moderate risk investments(i use low cost index funds) the less stress I have. The less I have to worry about the fear of what if I cant work anymore? I dont feel sorry for people who make the kind of income my profession pays and are unprepared for a loss of income.

    This is entirely different from poor people just getting by. I have pity for people with good incomes who dont save and then get laid off.

    Johns approach is better. We need more of that approach. Chinas per capita GDP is a fraction of ours yet their savings rate is much higher.

  55. I have the proverbial good pay/good benefits job where the spouse and I, for the first time in 20-odd years together, do not have to watch every dollar, which is nice…but knowing that in this economy, that could chnage overnight, is nerve-wracking in its own way.

  56. I’m not that kind of successful and I’m not internet-famous, but since I was just thinking about this:

    My most recent “made it” moment was when I was read some cooking directions that gave the oven time as 25-30 minutes and I knew our stove runs efficient and hot and that it’d take closer to 25 minutes to cook than 30. This is in contrast to old homes with other stoves where 25-30 minutes on a package means 40-45 minutes in real life.

    The thing that gets me is, it’s a meaningless signifier – stoves can be (and frequently are) mis-calibrated regardless of how new or expensive they are. It was all in my head from the get-go.

  57. @Seth Gordon. I am 78 years old, and I wonder sometimes, is the Doctor ordering that test because I need it or because he makes more money that way?

  58. This is an excellent post. What I think would be helpful, and I know you’ve posted about this in the past, is how much of your income is coming from the fiction pieces and how much comes from other writing work. And do you love doing all of it, or do you do some of it because it pays well and you’re not so thrilled with doing it? In other words, do you get to choose everything you do and reject things you don’t want to do for either all the work or just a good portion of it? I think you’ve also noted that your wife works, is this still the case? And is it because she loves her work and wants to do it? Does the ACA help any with thoughts of her not working?

  59. So now I know what it feels like to be slapped in the face with my privilege.It hurts, but if you pay attention you can learn things.

    I have had my hard times, but there was always the parental safety net (that I was too proud to use). I don’t always recognize how far I’ve come, so thank you for this.

    Shortened: lots of feels. Like, I cried, but it’s too complicated to articulate.

  60. Flying is a thing for me. I used to go north of 250,000 miles for a cheap company and at 6’4″ anything less than economy plus is brutal.

    Over night transatlantic flights where I’d need to be functional, or the same trans pacific would have me hunti around for deals. There are catches with trying to get a row and that doesn’t work if you need to spend the flight working through the night.

    I’d never spring for 1st domestic US though, but when planing for the London WorldCon I was snoopy happy dance happy to find that I could get a Business Class flight for only 20% more than some of the coach tickets I was looking at and that’s in my hell yes bracket.

    I’d never, no matter what money I had be able to justify 1st over international business class, but having been bumped to it once it is rather nice. But I do drink, and sipping a really expensive cognac from a full size brandy glass while you skirt the hymalalian plateau is a thing that will stick with me.

    The other thing with First tickets, that you can get as a frequent flyer is skipping the security lines at airports. That’s golden if you’re tight for time.

  61. mintwitch: the “more money than your parents” metric is pretty straight-cis-WASP-male.

    Well, I’m straight, have my oriignal plumbing, and am white. Probably anglo-saxxon(western europe?). Not currently protestent, though. So, ya know, 4 out of 5.

    I “made it” by that standard fairly soon, if only because we were poor pretty much my entire childhood.

    the Greg that my comment will drive into a Randian screed.

    Not me. I am disappointed that I haven’t noticed this Greg-who-is-a-Randroid person though. hm.

  62. I’ve had a pretty easy life (middle class parental safety net) but my moment was when I realised that I had enough in savings to live for more than a year if something catastrophic happened.

  63. You so eloquently describe what kind of stress and tension is created by CONSTANTLY having to know how much money you have available vs. what you need to spend for necessities everyday. Everyday, not just sometimes, but every single day. Working hard and knowing you still can’t bridge the gap -that is what our Congress needs to take into account when making cuts to social programs or when making decisions about the minimum wage.

  64. Reblogged this on Misty Midwest Mossiness and commented:
    While I’ve never been poverty stricken I did grow up in a very frugal environment and raised both our kids on a fairly tight budget. It’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve felt less worried about finances and more concerned with health issues and aging.

  65. John – I used to be a guy who was in the elite 100k+ miles a year club and I can tell you why 1st class is better than a whole row. The additional leg room is nice but not the big factor. the real reason would be that coach class seats have gotten thin, with little padding or support. If you are going long distance, more than an hour or two, you will be much more comfortable & relaxed when you arrive if you are in 1st. Now I have never paid to sit up there so I can’t say for a fact its a value proposition but if given a choice I would not fly any other way.

  66. On “why people don’t just buy a row”, my experience is that people who buy “extra” seats are given a ticket or other piece of paper showing that, yes, they bought those seats, and when they check in, they are checked in for all the seats they bought. I was once in the aisle seat on a completely packed Southwest flight where a goddess-sized woman asked if she could have the window seat. Sure, no problem. Then she put a piece of paper on the middle seat between us. Several people who walked by asked if that seat was taken and she told them it was. I thought that was pretty bold, and then I glanced at the paper, which was some kind of official This Seat Is Taken notice. Apparently if you are a large person who purchases two seats, they give you this for the second seat precisely so that you can indicate to other people that yes, you BOUGHT that seat, you’re not just trying to keep them out of it.

    @matthewcaffrey – if it’s a “common gotcha question”, what does that say about a politician who’s not prepared to for it?

    That aside, as mgwa and several others have pointed out, the problem isn’t that bread is $3 and dude thought it was $3.12. The problem is when you have somebody who thinks “managing money” means “quarterly meetings with your broker”, or who last actually had to worry about the food budget in 1973 and therefore doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about minimum wage because $5 an hour ought to be plenty to feed a family.

    Also, let’s be honest, the reason a lot of these dudes don’t know the price of staples is that they have wives for that stuff.

  67. Being poor also teaches you that you can make it when poor. I lived on less than 25 cents a day and was homeless for a few months and I now know how to do that — I also know I really never want to do it again. At this point I’m doing fairly well but I still keep my expenses low and know that I will survive if I lose my job, have a crisis, etc… It also makes saving and being debt free a big priority since I remember when it would have meant I had food that wasn’t uncooked ramen noodles.

  68. Oh gosh yes. Before we moved in together my boyfriend (now husband) and I were both living paycheck to paycheck. It took me almost a year to start filling my gas tank instead of calculating out the bare minimum I needed to get through the week, because even though I knew the money was in the account I kept thinking, “What if you need that $10 tomorrow, what if you need it?”

    Up until high school my family was decently well off. There were five of us kids so we never ate out or got much in the way of treats other than birthdays and Christmas (and books, we were always allowed to ask for books). But we also never questioned the fact that we had plenty of money for groceries, school clothes and supplies, and so on. It was just… there.

    A messy divorce split us into two households and it became startlingly apparent that the ability to feed five kids was its own luxury. The last couple years of high school I learned how to budget down to my spare change. We watched our mom doing the dance of middle-to-lower class– a transition period in which you still have nice things in the house that you can sell to make ends meet, but soon they are going to run out so you have to learn how to scale down QUICK before they do. Unplug everything while it isn’t in use. Hang dry your clothes instead of using the dryer. I hope you like pasta because we’re having pasta again. No more buying books, but the library is only a mile and a half walk away.

    I still feel a guilty thrill whenever I buy a book right after it’s released.

  69. Well, for a change of pace, I can say that being poor saved my marriage.

    Way, way back in the first months of our marriage, when we were scraping by (s-s-s-scraping, I say), we had our worst argument ever. The only time I ever stalked out of the house, got in the car, and drove off with the intent of NOT returning.

    I figured I’d drive over to my oldest brother’s place and crash there until I could figure out what to do next. But the gas gauge was bumping hard against EMPTY. Low enough I couldn’t have made it to my brother’s place. So I pulled into a gas station and checked to see how much gas I could afford to put in.

    I had nine cents in change. That was it. And I already had a couple of kited checks flying, hoping the bank wouldn’t process them until payday a few days away. Nine cents of gas, even back then, wasn’t enough gas to get me where I needed to go.

    So, no gas. What to do? The gas station was close to the Howard Johnson’s restaurant by Arizona State University. That particular HoJo’s was popular in the fannish community back then; a lot of serious discussions and thinking took place there, as all the variously screwed-up (to lesser or greater extents) people in Phoenix fandom tried to make sense of life.

    So I drove the couple of blocks there, parked, and got out thinking “I’ll just get a table and a cup of coffee—” and then remembered that I only had nine cents in my pocket.

    I ended up crossing the street and walking back and forth across the ASU campus for hours, thinking and thinking and thinking. And finally I went home. Where Hilde and I worked things out. That was in 1977, so I think it’s safe to say by now that it was resolved successfully.

    But if I’d had a few more bucks in my pocket, if I’d made it to my brother’s that night, I’m not sure I’d have backed away from that initial angry, despairing decision to leave. So, yeah, at least on that one particular night, being poor saved me from a colossal mistake.

  70. John’s gas-station moment-of-recognition reminds me of a parallel story that I recall Mel Brooks (unless it was Carl Reiner) telling: He was walking down the street when it started to rain and he’d left his umbrella behind. Then he realized that he could afford to pop into the nearest appropriate store and buy a new one. At that point, he said, he knew that he was “rich.”

  71. @brucearthurs Having once lived on 5th street in Tempe, your story reminds me of a strange episode in my student-poverty (as opposed to qualitatively different things like single-parent-poverty) days. I discovered that the prepackaged Carl Buddig Deli Turkey packages had coupons for a free one. It went on for months and months. So I spent $1.40 for a ticket on the free turkey merry-go-round… that and $.40 baker’s reject bread kept me fed for that year.

    I still vividly recall the delighted relief I felt every time I found another pack with the free coupon even though it’s 20 years later.

  72. In my own irresponsible and lazy youth, when I walked into a gas station and asked for $3.25 worth of gas, it was because I had in my pocket …

    …let’s see … just a minute … here it is … $3.25.

    My point is, you’re making an assumption when you say that every person who asks for $3.25 in gas is doing it because they’re in dire straits. They could be doing it because they are irresponsible and lazy, like I was.

  73. Megansdad:

    “you’re making an assumption when you say that every person who asks for $3.25 in gas is doing it because they’re in dire straits.”

    You’re making the assumption that I apply that determination to every person. The text, interestingly enough, does not support that assertion.

  74. The time I really knew I made it was when my son was born, and we decided my wife would stay home for a year. Realizing that this was achievable was a milestone.

  75. @mythago

    Apparently if you are a large person who purchases two seats, they give you this for the second seat precisely so that you can indicate to other people that yes, you BOUGHT that seat, you’re not just trying to keep them out of it.

    Seems fair. The more seats get bought, the more flights airlines can run. From what you said, your aisle-buddy sounds a heck of a lot more considerate than many I’ve had who will simply take what they want. I prefer to book aisle seats. I’ll usually give mine up if someone asks nicely, but more often I’ve arrived to find someone already camping in mine and acting indignant like I’m putting them out for even bringing it up.

  76. Regarding airline rows, Air New Zealand something like this on short-haul international (long-haul have Economy+ and Business options instead). “Works Deluxe” gives you a bunch of perks, including an empty adjacent seat

  77. Sorry John, that’s the way I read “I don’t have to ask why … I know why” but after your note, I understand I was mistaken. You’ve made it clear that you believe you can read people on a case by case basis – right? It’s a great skill, a really a useful shortcut, but when I do it, I draw fire from people who think I shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

    I knew there was a reason I liked you (seriously again), and now I understand you better. I understand .why. better.


  78. Sometimes being aware of your money means knowing – to the penny – which items to buy in which store, and which stores to avoid altogether.
    My sister had been married for 6 months when she went into the closer, more expensive, grocery store to buy a few apples.

    Me: You went into *Name of store*!!!
    Her, defensively: It was just for a few apples.
    Me: But it was *Store*! We never shop there!
    Her: I’m not buying for a family with lots of kids. It’s just for the 2 of us.
    Me: but but but!
    Her: I know! It felt so weird!

    Since then she got a raise or three, still has no kids, and still feels weird shopping in *name* store.

  79. You’ve made it clear that you believe you can read people on a case by case basis – right?

    From the text, it’s pretty clear that he already knows the people who are buying that much gas, knows their background, and thus knows why they’re spending that much. Not reading them, but knowing them.

  80. I’d just like to say this, as someone who works as a cashier in a gas station. I see a lot of the “I’ll take $3.83 in gas.” types and most of them, that’s not the result of careful calculation, it’s what they have in their pockets. However, I must add this observation, if all you have for gas is a couple of bucks plus change in your pocket, you may not be in dire straights, but you almost certainly haven’t “made it” either.

    I also see some who clearly are in dire straights and carrying the whole putting as little as possible in the tank thing to extreme ends, like the guy who always bought less than a dollar worth of gas at a time, two or three times a day. I’ve since transferred to a store in a more affluent area and don’t see that as much, but it still happens.

  81. I still have those moments, because even though I have money at the moment, it’s savings rather than income (trying to find a job = the bane of us all). And yeah, mine is ’30-something trying to make it’ worry with a decent parental safety net, but let’s be honest–while that is great and I’m grateful my parents are both willing and able to help me out of things go too far south, I don’t think wanting to be reasonably self-sufficient by your 30s should be that muchof a stretch, and it sucks that our world has got to that point. But anyway. I wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, and have to hunt down some job ads to apply for before I can sleep, even though I actually keep quite good track of the ads and apply for a lot of things already. It’s just that feeling of doing something to control your fate, even if job hunting these days is about as effective as throwing a note in a bottle and hoping it gets to outer space.

    As far as people in gas stations–well, I really don’t have money to spare at the moment (or a car, so it’s less a gas station story than a street corner one), though I’ve given people my lunch sometimes. Once, a long time ago when my sister and I were kids, her friends made fun of her for giving some money to a homeless guy because he was just going to spend it on booze or whatever. She came home upset, and my parents told her not to worry, because if you can help someone out, it’s better to give to somebody who doesn’t really need it than not give to someone who does. It’s stuck with me, and in our case yes, it’s a religious thing, but I don’t think it has to be.

    Anyway, good post! I haven’t quite had a ‘made it’ moment, but things have changed a lot and at least now I still have a bit of a safety net.

  82. Chiming in late, but with respect to the price of milk question, there is a complication in America: the price of milk is based on your distance from Michigan and prevents lower-cost milk suppliers from “invading” your area. The reason for that is that during the Depression, the politicians were worried about a shortage of dairy products and so divided the country up into local districts that would have a uniform “minimum dairy price”; since most of the nation’s milk at that time came form Michigan, the distance from Michigan became the default setting as transportation costs at the time were huge.

    So here we are nearly a century later and the effect of the law has been to move dairy production from Michigan to California (which was about as far as you could get and still keep a cow in those days) because the costs of transportation have dropped as have the costs of raising and keeping cattle but the price controls are still in effect. Net result? lots and lots of profit for the California dairy farmers, not so much for the others.

    And that’s why a politician in America might not know the price of milk. If he lives in DC, the price of milk can be radically different than if he lives in Ohio or California. It isn’t ignorance; it is a simple unintended consequence of the law.

  83. My father defined “rich” as “not having to ask the price before you buy something”. When I read this post, I thought of him and his definition, so thank you for that.

  84. “My one flight extravagance is that I have an Amex platinum card so I can get into airlines’ private lounges.”

    Well that’d be nice when stuck in an airport (Polar Vortex) with a baby who needs to nurse.

    Also, as Annalee and others said, thank you for writing this.

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