Letter From The Editor: Brass Rings

Settled down. Not buying a house.

I had a panic attack at the car dealership the other weekend. A panic attack over money, again. It’s something I’d hoped I’d outgrown as we got more financially settled, but apparently not.

Growing up, we were solidly in the middle for our working class community. As kids, we always knew that the mortgage was going to be paid, that food would be on the table, and that we’d have insurance. Beyond that all important bedrock of security, everything else was up in the air. When one of our tremendously old cars failed, the house would fill with palpable stress, as my mom tried to figure out how to find the money to fix it. I felt guilty when we’d go back to school shopping at Sears or Kmart, because I’d absorbed the visceral knowledge that we couldn’t really afford new clothes. Days we went out to get Happy Meals were rare, saved for, joyful, and still remembered.

It may be that kind of financial volatility never leaves you. That growing up tense about each purchase, knowing that your mom would cry when the car started billowing black smoke at the drive-through, anxiously clutching a sparkly new t-shirt wondering if you should just put it back, stays with you forever. No emergency fund, or responsible retirement savings is ever going to negate that feeling of just hanging on.

The weekend of my panic attack, we caught a Suze Orman lecture on public television. I (of course) find Ms. Orman’s talks calming. Financial lines to color inside of and tasks to cross off to avoid disaster is my idea of music to fall asleep to. That night, she was talking about money as security. She posited that the order of operations is: people, money, and then things. That money is a tool. It’s something to make us feel safe, and if it lets us buy things we want, well, that’s nice too.

Then someone stood up and asked about owning homes. She owned one, she said, and what she really wanted to do was sell it, pay off all her debts, and then use the rest for an emergency fund and go back to renting. Homeownership made her anxious, she said. Homeownership made her feel stuck. As Suze prompted her to think about what financial choices would make her feel secure, and urged her to sell that damn house already, something clicked.

I remember reading once about a Harvard graduate whose friend’s daughter had just gotten into Harvard. She said that what she really wanted to tell her friend’s daughter was to enjoy grabbing the brass ring, but not to put too much stock into it, because it was probably the last brass ring she’d ever feel like she truly got a grip on. We’re sold the idea that if you jump through specific hoops, you’re successful. But as life goes on, those rings get slipperier and slipperier; it becomes less and less clear what to grab, and catching hold of them doesn’t necessarily even make you happy.

In my adult life, I’ve gone through periods of ignoring the brass rings, and trying to grab them. I lived in a borderline dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn with next to no money, worked in the arts, and I was happier than when I took the fancy-sounding job at the investment bank. I wrote a book (and loved it) but am ultimately more fulfilled by the less impressive day-to-day of running a website.

When I wrote a list of big amazing crazy goals for myself in my twenties, it came out looking eerily like my life. “Start a blog,” I said, “Have a baby.” There is only one goal on that list that I haven’t achieved, ten years later, and it’s “Buy a home.” For years, that goal seemed like something that just wasn’t attainable. I lived in big cities, I worked in theatre. Unless you’ve had a decade-long engagement on Broadway (and I know those people), you pretty much don’t own an apartment if you work in the arts in New York. Which is great, because it means the only possible pressure to buy comes from suburban parents, who you obviously ignore. (Have you seen Girls? It’s pretty much a documentary.)

But these days we live something like an urban suburb. We also have a kid, and we know a lot of lawyers and people in the tech industry. Which means there is suddenly social pressure to buy a house. A house that, given the Bay Area’s tech bubble, I’m not totally sure we can afford. Or should afford. Or even want. But if getting into Harvard is one of those unassailable brass rings, buying a home feels like another.

Like so many other brass rings, there are things about this one that trouble me. First, at this moment, in this market, it seems that no one we’ve met is buying a home unassisted (unless they made a tech fortune). Scrape the surface, and you find out that even the dual-income lawyer couple paid for the down payment with family money. Which makes sense, when your standard two bedroom transitional neighborhood is going for around half a million. Second, there is the half a million thing. Remember the last housing bubble? Yeah. We’re not too far off those prices a few short years later, and nothing about it makes me feel good. And third, while no one seems to argue about the fact that a home is obviously something you should buy, I’m just not sure that it makes sense to me. My motto has always been visit the tiger at the zoo, don’t keep him as a pet. (Or: call your landlady when the water heater goes out.)

The other night, watching Suze Orman talk about money as security, it finally made sense. For me, security is not having to depend on anyone else for money. It’s knowing we can pick up and go if a better job opportunity presents itself. It’s knowing that I’m not going to be hit with a bill for the roof I don’t know how we’re going to afford, which then keeps me up at night franticly moving numbers around on paper. It’s knowing we can pay rent, even if there is an unexpected job loss. It’s not feeling pinned down by a mortgage that feels bigger than the house we were able to buy.

In the year since we’ve had a baby, we’ve been asked a few times if we like Oakland, and if we think we’re going to settle down soon. The first few times the question was asked, I was puzzled. What did they mean, settle down? If marriage, plus two jobs, plus a baby wasn’t settling down, what on earth were they looking for? And then, by process of deduction, I realized the subtext: they wanted us to buy a house. Buying a house was the missing piece, the veneer of middle class success that we were lacking.

The unvarnished truth is that we can’t responsibly afford a house. The unvarnished truth is that, under their own steam, not a lot of people in their early thirties in this particular market can afford a house. And for me, financial security is finally not having to pretend. I spent my life pretending: of course these new clothes were no big deal; of course I’d gone out to eat a lot and understood this fancy restaurant menu; of course I didn’t mind that you got to have an awesome unpaid internship over the summer; of course I wasn’t envious of your trip to Europe. I’m tired. And I’m proud of what I (and then we) have slowly been able to build.

I want the day we buy a house to feel like the day I paid off my student loans. Hard earned. A long time coming. Worth it. Simultaneously a huge deal, and not that big a deal at all. Something I’m doing for me, not for how it looks. I want the day we buy a house to not be the same day I have a massive panic attack. So until then I’m practicing. One car dealership at a time.

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