Let’s talk about money. I know it’s not polite conversation. In fact, many Americans would rather discuss politics or religion before opening their mouths about personal finances. In a study done earlier this year, Wells Fargo found that 44% of Americans name personal finances as the most challenging topic to discuss with others.
Wells Fargo also found personal finances harder to discuss than personal health. It is even easier for Americans to converse about death—which requires us to recognize our own mortality—than money. Questions about physical health are questions about survival. But money leads to questions of value. To ask how much someone earns, we ask how much they are worth. More than questions about physical health, asking someone about their financial health feels like asking them how much they matter.
The money taboo is deeply ingrained. When first asking around to find interview contacts, I encountered one extremely resistant response. “I come from a generation that considers talking about money to be rude. So I don’t know how much money my friends or acquaintances have. If I did, I certainly wouldn’t divulge their names to a stranger who wants to interview them about their money. That would violate their privacy as well as my sense of propriety.”
But nothing becomes hard to talk about by being unimportant. Finances are an intimate part of our story, and whether we deal in dollars, euros, or pounds, money weighs on us. So I asked some people about money. In the past month, I have spoken with a rich man, a formerly homeless man, a middle-class couple struggling to get by, and two retired women. I have also reflected on my own financial situation. These stories do not represent all stories. But they do offer varying perspectives on the ways that our finances weigh on us.
I met Dave Fortin in his office at Churches United for the Homeless, where he works in Moorhead, Minnesota. Dave is married with two children, has a masters degree in creative writing, and earns $12.75 an hour. He recognizes money is tight. He wonders whether he and his wife Carmel will ever own the home on which they make payments. He knows the vehicles need repair. But worrying about money is not on his to-do list.
Growing up, Dave’s father was a public school teacher and coach for nearly 30 years, while his mother stayed at home. At the time, working in education was enough to support a comfortable life.
When asked what kind of financial skills he learned growing up, he said,“‘I don’t have to worry.’ That was an attitude, not a skill.” For better or for worse, money was never a concern. He didn’t learn to save or budget or invest, but he also didn’t learn to stress about finances.
In college, Dave studied what was interesting, not what would make him rich. Later, when he got his masters, it was a matter of interest and not financial gain. At 48, his relaxed attitude towards money has followed him into adulthood. Though he knows they are scraping by, his response is, in a word, chill.
Perhaps Dave is at peace because he doesn’t handle the bills and see the money going out; Carmel does that. Perhaps, as he jokes, he is in denial about their circumstances. It could also be that his past struggles with addiction, now a memory he mentioned casually, have left him with a different perspective on what matters.
“I tend to think of myself as pretty lucky. I’m fortunate to be employed. I don’t hate my job. We seem to be staying above water. We have a strong family.” Like in his college years, Dave focuses on what he wants to be doing, and worries about the money later. When I asked about his fulfillment at work, he said he wished he could be using his writing skills. He didn’t say that he wanted to make a lot more money.
“Talking about money, it’s actually about what you have. It’s not the money, it’s what it gets you. And we have basically everything we need.” He squints his eyes as if trying to come up with something that they’re lacking, or have had to give up. But in the end, what weighs heavily on Dave is having a home, transportation, food to eat, interests they enjoy, and a strong family. The money weighs less.
I met with Carmel Froemke, Dave’s wife, in a café in neighboring Fargo, North Dakota. Before we began, she warned me that this would be emotional. Carmel switched jobs a year ago for a better work environment, cutting the family income by about $800 per month. Today, she earns close to $16 per hour helping people in poverty understand the SNAP benefits (or food stamps) available to them. This position provides more satisfaction than it does income.
“I’m 45 years old, I’m in the middle of my life, I should be someplace where I feel really stable…and I’m not.”
Carmel feels like she’s done all the right things. At 16, her mother taught her to keep a checkbook, and she has always known that what’s coming in has to exceed what’s going out. She graduated from high school and went to college. She and her husband are free from credit card debt and student loans. But with two kids, a mortgage, and car payments, she doesn’t see any more corners to cut.
Carmel estimates the couple’s savings at $1,000. They try to put away around $100 a month, but unforeseen or forgotten expenses always prevent their savings from accumulating (while we talked, she made a mental note about license plate tabs, due for renewal in a few days).
A few years ago, Carmel thought about going to nursing school. She cares deeply about working to help people, and nursing would let her keep doing that. It would probably bring in more money too.
“Once I started doing some research into how much money that would cost, I saw there’s no way that we could afford to do that. So I kind of feel like I’m stuck.” In some ways, Carmel is trapped between financial necessities and personal vocation.
“If I were to go work for a for-profit business, I could probably make a lot more money, but I’m not helping people then. And that’s so important to who I am.”
Despite their financial balancing act, Carmel and Dave are privileged with one important source of security: parents. Through the years, both of their parents have come through for them in many small ways. Grandma and Grandpa on both sides help make sure their two children have what they want, and what they need. According to Dave, they also make sure the family doesn’t miss out on vacations.
“Vacations we take with Carmel’s folks because they pretty much foot the bill. Vacations other than those have pretty much been out the window,” Dave explained. But it’s more than just vacations. He recognizes the safety-net provided by their parents.
“Right now they’re buffering our fall in a lot of ways. We would have to be giving up a lot more if we didn’t have that help.”
Even if I hadn’t noticed Carmel’s tears, I could hear the despair in her voice. She pays the bills in the family. This means that she sees what comes in, and how much goes out. She is grateful for their parents’ support, but also ashamed that two adults in their 40’s need the help. She wonders when the tight-rope walk will end. Their immediate concerns are met: they have a roof over their head and food on the table; they even have retirement plans for the long run; but in the meantime she is exhausted by the financial balancing act, and seems uncertain it can go on.
“I feel embarrassed. Money doesn’t buy happiness. I know that. But it does make it easier.”
On his deathbed, Mike Marcil’s grandfather didn’t say he should have worked less. He didn’t mourn over vacations he wished he would have taken. And he didn’t say that he should have had more fun. At 93, Grandpa Max reflected on his life and said:
“I should have saved more money.”
Growing up during the Depression, Mike’s grandfather had seen more than his fair share of poverty, and he spent much of the rest of his life ensuring he would never live that way again.
Today, at 44, Mike is a businessman and entrepreneur living in Fargo, North Dakota. The office where we spoke had a list on the wall of his diverse holdings: a real estate company, a furniture store, an online media company, a restaurant, a bar, and a few others. Mike is a multi-millionaire, owns a private jet, and runs a $50 million per year business. Though he speaks frankly about his wealth, his successes and failures, he is not ostentatious. In the chair across from me, he sported a worn-looking polo shirt and plain khaki shorts.
When Mike was young, Grandpa Max would teach him about saving and investing. While the rest of his family avoided discussing money, it was all that Mike and Max talked about.
In high school, Mike was trading stocks, using a credit card, and building up savings. By junior year he was making $30,000 per year as a professional salesman, and had started two companies by the time he collected his diploma.
While his grandfather taught him the basic financial skills he needed to be successful, it was an uncle who married into a wealthy family that showed Mike what was possible through entrepreneurship.
“I watched my extended family run businesses, and that gave them access to money, or influence, or experiences.” He points at a picture of a younger Mike meeting President Reagan with his uncle.
Behind much of his successes, Mike recognizes a drive that he cannot fully control. He has always had a competitive zeal for financial success. When he talks about his relationship with money, you can tell that on the flip side of his ambition is an addiction.
“I was almost psychotic on trying to achieve wealth and money and enterprise and all that.” He looked for a sense of self-worth in his net worth, expecting money to help build his self-esteem. “Even up to 5, 6, 7 years ago I think a lot of what drove me was trying to prove to people that I was successful; you know, if I didn’t have anything I was a loser. So I was always trying to live up to these self-created expectations that nobody else had for me.” Mike recognizes the addictive nature of his ambition, but he also knows there’s little he can do about it.
“One of the reasons you see so many really insecure, fucked-up rich people is because one of the things that it takes to drive you to that is you’re never satisfied. A normal, well-adjusted person gets to a certain point of wealth creation and they have different priorities. They travel, take it easy, spend time with family. A person like me never thinks about quitting working; we think about achievement. The difference is the money becomes a scoreboard.”
Mike has not always been ahead on that scoreboard. He has bankrupted five companies, seen a half billion dollars disappear, and been within a few signatures of declaring personal bankruptcy. But today, with more money than he knows how to spend on himself, having surpassed all reasonable metrics for a successful life, money gives him a different kind of doubt.
“I actually lied to somebody the other day. They said, ‘what do you do?’ and I just made up a story.” Sometimes Mike longs for a conversation with someone who does not know about his wealth.
While he has reflected a lot recently on the shadow his money casts on his relationships with others, he has also been thinking about ways to use that power to help other people. More and more, Mike sees his money as a tool for creativity and mentorship. He hopes to empower others through entrepreneurship.
As we stood up, preparing to go our separate ways, I asked one last question. Where would he see himself without the money he has today?
“Oh I can’t visualize it.” He searched for a response to a question he had not considered. Maybe he was thinking about his divorce in the past year. He might have been reflecting on the underlying dissatisfaction that is woven through that ambition. Perhaps he was considering his relationships with others whose motives are always in doubt. When he chuckled, his eyes looked resigned.
“If I didn’t have any money, I would probably be a lot freer, happier person. But I just don’t think it’s who I am. As long as I can breathe, I’m gonna be trying to create something.”
On a Saturday in June, I drove to Hastings Minnesota, an industrial town about thirty minutes south of Saint Paul, the state capital. There, I spoke with two women who grew up in another time. Jackie Kane and Elaine Zuzek are longtime friends who met in Hastings while each was raising their family. Today, they live a few blocks apart. It was Jackie’s home that I first visited.
When I arrived at the house where she raised her seven children with her late husband Joe, Jackie seemed uncertain she could help me with a story about money. It’s not something she thinks about often. But when I started asking questions, she gave me a view into another world.
Jackie was born in 1934 to a large Catholic family in rural Minnesota. Though money was tight, there was a lot for which they didn’t need it. On the farm, they ate many of their vegetables from the garden. Eggs didn’t come from the store; they came from chickens. With leftover eggs, they traded for other groceries at the store. Milk and dairy products came from the cows. Canned food wasn’t something they bought; it was something Jackie’s mother made. Her mother also made a lot of their clothes, and most everything else was hand-me-downs. Meat they would butcher themselves, and then bring to the grocery store, which would keep it for a small price.
“You just learned that there wasn’t money to be spent on whatever you wanted. But we never went without.” Jackie was never taught about checking, savings, or investments while she was growing up. Instead, her lessons were in self-sufficiency and simplicity. Later, living in town with her own family, Jackie and Joe kept up the practice of butchering their own chickens in the garage, which was more economical (and more fun for the neighborhood children).
The entertainment was also cheaper when she was young. “You did a lot of things like playing cards,” she remembers. And maybe someone somewhere else was having more fun with more money, but if they were, Jackie didn’t know about it. “I just had a great life. Maybe we didn’t know any better,” she laughs, “but that was a great life. You had your family.”
Today, Jackie is shocked by the excess with which children grow up. Surrounded by electronics and constantly updating media and entertainment, she thinks it’s scary that kids have to have everything. She remembers playing outside, where kids would find creative ways to amuse themselves. Today, she worries about how much money is spent arranging everything for kids who then don’t use their imaginations.
Later when I drove the few blocks to Elaine’s home and sat down to talk at her dining room table, she had similar observations. Elaine was born in 1937, three years after Jackie. Back then, kids didn’t have as much partly because there was less to ask for.
“There was a Christmas catalogue and you probably got a doll every year. We weren’t exposed to commercials or anything other than that catalogue. Everybody had one small closet, and we didn’t have a lot of clothes.” There was no television, and nothing like a cable bill, internet bill or cell phone bills.
Jackie and Elaine, grew up when the luxuries were fewer and the necessities cheaper. In fact Elaine, who retired in 1996 from a career as a nurse, paid for nursing school by saving quarters.
“This was war bond time when I was a child. We could buy savings stamps for 25 cents. Then when you got a bookfull, that would buy you a $25 war bond for maybe $18. And that was what sent me to Gustavus.” Her first semester of college cost $500, and the following two and a half years in a nursing program in the city came out to $300. (For perspective, Gustavus Adolphus College also happens to be my alma mater. My student loan debt is currently over $50,000.)
Elaine’s worst financial fears came when she confronted her husband Jerry about his alcoholism, telling him to stop drinking or leave. “I was worried if I would be able to support the kids if Jerry left.” With seven children it would have been much harder alone, but he went to treatment and stayed with the family.
Neither Jackie nor Elaine have ever seen money as a scoreboard the way Mike has. For them it was just one ingredient in the recipe for a comfortable life. I had to coax Jackie to think of something she gave up or lived without. She shrugged and said she would have liked to go to college. But she smiles contentedly. There wasn’t money for it, so she couldn’t have it.
Though Jackie and Elaine know how to live simply, they are also very lucky. Both of their husbands had good benefits and decent pay, compared to modern compensation for manual labor. Working in a plant at 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing), Jackie’s husband had a pension that continues to pay out to her as a widow. When Elaine’s husband’s health went into decline (due in part to his asbestos exposure at the factory where he worked), his excellent health insurance was invaluable. After paying for nursing school with quarters, Elaine continued to work as a nurse until 1996, by which time she made $40 per hour.
Elaine also benefited tremendously from government medical care as a young woman. Not long after her wedding, and before she had started her first nursing job, she spent 4 months in a tuberculosis sanatorium. Today, anyone who received four months of round-the-clock medical care would likely face financial ruin. At the time, such facilities were owned by area counties, and provided free care. She didn’t have to pay a cent.
Between years of rising wages and good workplace benefits, both Jackie and Elaine enjoy a comfortable life. Elaine’s monthly income in retirement is around $2,800, while Jackie’s comes to about $2,400.
Both women are content. They have what they need, and have the time and money to travel. Jackie told me that if anything keeps her up at night, it is never money. Her daughter is beginning a struggle with breast cancer, and that is her main worry.
For my final interview, I returned to Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead. There, I met Douglas Herman Ludwig, or Bubba, whose story sounds like it came right out of a novel.
“We were a working hillbilly family.”
This is how Bubba describes his upbringing on a Kentucky farm in the 1960’s and ’70’s. He had 16 brothers and sisters, with a father away in the Marine Corps and a mother left to run the entire operation herself. To make sure the family business was profitable, they diversified.
“We sold boot when we first started because you know, Mamma didn’t know how much money she was gonna make,” Bubba told me, explaining the bootlegging business they ran on top of a 24-hour dairy farm with 800 Swiss Jerseys.
Bubba remembers driving around in a 1959 Cadillac Fleetwood with a 250 gallon tank in the trunk for moonshine. “People would come up to you and give you an empty quart bottle and you’d just fill that up.Twenty bucks.” When the family started running low on food they got creative.
“Sometimes mamma turn around and go, ‘Well, we’re a little short on meat, so we’re gonna go out to the national forest.’ She’d call the parks department and they’d say, ‘Yeah, you can go ahead. I know you got kids to feed.’ And we’d go deer hunting out of season.”
Bubba has seen his share of hard times. At the age of 20, he had been in trouble for drunk driving so many times that a judge told him to get out of the state and never drive again. He left home and moved to Venice Beach, Florida where he slept under a bridge and worked on long-line fishing boats.
When the fishing was good, there were times he made $2,800 weekly. But he still spent years under the bridge, spending the money at bars and restaurants. “I was drinking myself to oblivion and eating myself to diabetes.”
Bubba has struggled with alcohol for much of his life. It is one reason why today, he is not interested in a lot of money. “Money, you need it, but it’s also a temptation. Especially if you’re a recovering alcoholic. I mean, you have a lot of money and idle time, that’s a problem.”
In his 54 years, nearly half of them without a permanent home, Bubba has also seen it become more and more difficult for the homeless to find work. “The same people that won’t give you a job because you don’t have an address are the ones who complain about homelessness.” He remembers another time, looking for work at the docks in Florida, when people were not interested in an employee’s address. Now, he laments that day labor is the only place to find work without an address.
But alcoholism and homelessness are just two parts of his story. Though he hasn’t always had a place to sleep, Bubba has learned the skills and had the experiences of several people combined. He told me about going to the docks and finding work with different boat captains, eating delicious meals prepared by coworkers from Haiti, fooling a crowd of people into buying 600 pounds of frozen fish (in Florida!), and riding a motorcycle from Kentucky to Idaho at the age of 14. It’s hard to get a whole narrative from Bubba because one experience branches into another fascinating tale, and every story is so interesting that you don’t care whether or not he finishes the one you asked about. And through ups and downs, nothing fazes him.
When a woman asked him to accompany her and her child to Fargo in 2002, so they wouldn’t have to travel alone, he said yes. Just like that, he left Florida and spent two weeks on the road, pouring transmission fluid into an old beater every day until they reached Fargo.
Recently, Bubba moved into an apartment in Moorhead with the help of Group Residential Housing, a Minnesota state program that supplements living costs for low-income adults. He spends his time volunteering in the kitchen at Churches United, and drawing. Bubba is a talented singer and artist, and most of his earnings come from his drawings. He is also about to celebrate a year of sobriety, after his last drink on July 11, 2013.
“I am at peace. I’ve had all that money.” He shakes his head, disinterested. “Today I just make money enough to buy groceries, buy some smokes. People tell me all the time how much money I could make from artwork. It’s like, you know what? Not a big deal.”
These are the stories of six people who spoke to me about their money. The way they spend, earn, and save says a lot about who they are. Our personal financial narratives are not report cards of personal value. Instead, they are records of our priorities, experiences, privileges and skills. Jackie’s experience growing up on the farm is still visible today, written between the lines of her checkbook. She replaces and updates her possessions only when necessary, and lives quite happily without a computer. Mike and Bubba are both highly creative people. Mike builds companies and tries to fill market spaces where there is unmet demand. Bubba can survive and find a job almost anywhere. One is creative with his money, the other is creative without any. Dave could never be rich like Mike. Their priorities are too different, and at the point where their professional ambitions diverge, their finances do as well.
Sharing our experiences with money can reveal fundamental differences in our priorities, experiences, privileges and skills. It can also help us find similarities. No one should struggle alone in a crowd of people who all share the same fears. No one should go without hearing the wisdom of those who live with less, or the insights of those who live with more. And no one should leave their financial questions unasked.
During my research, I called someone who talks about money professionally. Keith Burck is a financial planner and investment consultant with Alerus Financial in Fargo. He believes people can benefit simply by making it a priority to discuss finances.
“There are many people who cannot do this on their own,” he told me. Like the ability to read a book, we’re not born financially literate. “It’s ok to go to the health club and pay someone to help you get in shape,” he points out, but many people never ask for help with their finances.
Whether we ask or not, our questions are still there. Even if we are silent about our financial struggles and triumphs, they are a part of our story. And so much of what we do on a day-to-day basis stems from how we have learned to interact with money. That’s why we should be more comfortable talking about money. Because I know we are already thinking about it.
Photo: Jackie Kane looking over her checkbook.