Money Isn’t Everything…Unless You Don’t Have It, And Then Yeah, It’s Everything » VSB

Featured, Finances, Theory & Essay

Money Isn’t Everything…Unless You Don’t Have It, And Then Yeah, It’s Everything

In February of 2012, a month after I began working for EBONY.com, they asked if I wanted to go to Milwaukee to witness and write on the unveiling of a Black bikers exhibit at the Harley-Davidson museum. Although I had zero interest in motorcycles, I accepted. It was an all expense paid trip to a city I’d never been to and the Black Biker thing seemed kinda cool. Also, and most importantly, this trip would finally cement my position as a “professional writer” — a status I’d be striving for since making the decision to write full time two years earlier. Although this milestone was completely psychological — and although the angst about my status was self-induced — it was necessary for me.

The year before, I’d received my first sustainable writing gig: a head editor position for a magazine project The August Wilson Center for African American Culture (AWC) was attempting to launch. Starting in April, I’d receive a check for $2,700 once a month; which in Pittsburgh was enough for my then girlfriend and I to rent a townhouse together and for me to comfortably upgrade from the 2008 Mercury Mountaineer I’d just finish paying off to a new Dodge Charger. Unfortunately, the AWC began to run out of money that fall. And by November, I’d stopped receiving checks from them. The EBONY gig, however, came serendipitously. A week before I learned I’d no longer get paid by the AWC, I was in New York city doing a photoshoot with Essence Magazine for a feature on “relationship bloggers.” While headed to Essence’s offices in Manhattan, I happened to run right into Jamilah Lemieux on the street (we actually almost literally bumped into each other) who told me A) she’d just been hired by EBONY to help revamp their digital presence, B) she’d literally just left a meeting where VSB was brought for some mysterious honor (which I’d later learn was us being named to that year’s EBONY 100), and C) she wanted me to call her later that night. And it was during that phone call that I was offered a still yet-to-be-determined position at the new EBONY.

The Milwaukee trip was the culmination of this journey; confirmation that I made it, that I’d finally captured that nerve-wrackingly elusive status. That feeling possessed me as I checked into the Iron Horse hotel — easily the bougiest hotel I’d ever been in — and thought about all the writerly trips I’d be taking going forward. And then, when my bank card was declined for not having enough in it to cover the $250 for incidentals, I was struck back to reality. I was caught in a financial deadzone. The money from the AWC dried up, and I’d just received my first $1,400 bi-weekly paycheck from EBONY the day before I left, but didn’t have time to deposit it. My bank account was on E. I knew I had no cash. But I also assumed that since this was an all-expense paid trip, I wouldn’t need any money. So I called a friend back in Pittsburgh, concocted a lie about accidentally leaving my bank card at home, and he let me use his credit card to check in.

I was reminded of that experience two weeks ago, when checking into a Marriott near the University of Maryland, where I was to appear on a panel the next day. There was a mix-up with the travel agency, and my room hadn’t yet been paid for. But instead of the near-disaster and humiliation of 2012, where I didn’t have enough money to participate in some free shit, I handed the clerk my bank card, and said I had no problem covering the room. I knew I’d be reimbursed. But even if I wasn’t, I still didn’t terribly mind. I had it.

It’s always been ironic that VSB has been considered to be a platform that exists without corporate influence. Whether you agreed with what I wrote or what Panama wrote what one of our contributors happened to write, you could always say that the thought behind the piece, at least, existed without a latent financial agenda. Basically, we weren’t sellouts allowing money to dictate our editorial strategy. This has always been, and will continue to be, a lie. Money — both the possession of it and the lack of it — has influenced every VSB-related decision I’ve made since 2010, and will continue to influence my decisions as long as I’m able to make them. While I wasn’t working and writing to please a specific entity, the work I’ve done since making a conscious effort to grow VSB was intended to make us generally and myself specifically more valuable, even if that value was still an abstraction. The muscle I developed allowing me to write 10 to 15 pieces a week was forged out of a fear of irrelevance and the financial purgatory that comes with no one checking for your shit. I wanted to matter. But not just because I believed I have interesting things to say, but that I needed those interesting things to pay my rent.

I know this is not a unique dynamic, particularly among freelance writers. Many of whom allow who’s paying what and when to determine what and when they write. In a cruel irony, the people who are most equipped to freelance are people who don’t actually need to. Who have other sources of income, and aren’t constricted by the immediacy of digital media — allowing them to devote more care to their work — and don’t need to spend a sizable amount of their working hours chasing and stressing over pay.

This relationship with money and its connection to my work was made even more labyrinthic by the intersection of complex relationships between masculinity and money, and Blackness and money, and writers and money permeating through me and converging inside of me. I never wrote extensively about money before 2016 because of the shame attached to not having as much of it as I believed I should. And also not having as much of it as I assumed other people assumed I should. Even as I’d write about the toxicity of socialized masculinity, I’d allowed that same toxicity to prevent me from addressing a topic that impacted my work more than any other, worried that it would make me appear less masculine.

And now, well, I have a lot of fucking money. There’s no other way to put it. I don’t quite have “fuck you” money, but I have enough now where I no longer have to think about it unless I want to. By the end of 2015, I’d already managed to etch out a decent living; my income from various revenue sources comfortably surpassing the $2,800 a month that delighted me in 2012. But the book deal I signed last November changed my life. So much that, in a two year span, I’ve gone from ashamed that I didn’t have as much as I believed I was supposed to to embarrassed that I have so much.

I’ve retained this belief that both writers AND Black people — and Black writers specifically (and Black writers who write about race even more specifically) — retain some sort of authenticity and community through a shared financial struggle that we’re never, ever, ever, ever to speak of aloud, and the psychic acceptance of this new financial status hasn’t been easy. Even now, as I type this, I’m tempted to delete this paragraph and continue pretending even as I recognize that the money I currently have may have saved my life — and the morass of indecision of not having it could have ended it.

As many of you are aware of, I had a serious health scare a couple months ago. Since then, I’ve learned that the scare was due to a vessel condition I’ve actually had for several years, and its treatable. This condition was discovered after going to the ER for some unrelated chest discomfort. As we all know, emergency room treatment is not cheap. And neither are specialists I’ve seen, or the countless MRIs and x-rays and stress tests and blood work I’ve undergone since. But I was able to see all of these people and conduct all of those tests because I now have enough money where I don’t have to worry about how much it cost. But if this same chest discomfort happened, say, in 2012, I weigh the cost of going to the ER against the relatively minor amount of pain I was feeling, and I probably just go home and continue to go untreated.

This is just one of the decisions I’ve made and indecisions created by the presence (or lack thereof) of money. There are many others. Like for instance the lie I told my friend when needing his credit card instead of just admitting why it was necessary, and other lies I may have either implied or outright told to conceal the truth of my financial status. Also, I’m 38 years old, and I’ve never been on a real vacation. I’ve taken trips, sure. But each time, I’ve interrupted them to work. Once even buying the ridiculously overpriced cruise WiFi on my honeymoon to edit a piece I’d already published a week earlier. It’s romantic to categorize that as me having such a work ethic and such a love for my work that it’s impossible for me to go very long without it. But the less romantic reality is that while that love for what I do is genuine, it exists in concert with a desperation, a fear of writing or doing something (or not writing or not doing something) to topple the eternally tenuous Jenga structure of doubt I called a “writing career.”

Of course, things are different now. Much different. And barring some unforeseen calamity, this will be my new normal. Now, I just look forward to the day where it feels normal. I won’t hold my breath for that though. Especially since I’m finally able to breathe.

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Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • There is so much to unpack in here. It is a great post that spent 500 words leading up to “I’m trying to get paid, niqqa” which was masterful.

    I’m sure I’m not alone in being relieved that you are getting healthy. Niqqas worry. Let’s not make a thing of this.

    Another thing, we gotta get Panama rich, too now. I only say this so you guys can rent the top floor on a Carnival cruise so we can all go to the Bahamas.

    Lastly, What’s with niqqas and getting new wallets? Mine will be a string around my debit card and license before I realize there may be a problem.

    • Diego Duarte

      If you do plan that trip, don’t call Ja.

      • Zil Nabu

        I better be allowed on that damn boat.

        • Diego Duarte

          The trick won’t be getting in the boat, it will be getting back to it after they leave people to fend off feral dogs on the Bahamas.

          • Zil Nabu

            You will not Fyre Festival me. Are you Ja’s proxy?

            • Diego Duarte

              Would you believe me if I said no?

              • Zil Nabu

                Absolutely not.

    • Glo

      A VSB Carnival cruise would be amaaaaaazing.

      • MsCee

        VSBabies!!!

      • Brooklyn_Bruin

        *commissions linen short set*
        *gets gator sandals back from pawn shop*

      • GenevaGirl

        My thought exactly! Or, a meet up at a resort. That would be fun!

      • Mr. Mooggyy

        There’s always a DC takeover weekend in Miami in the summer. There should be a VSB takeover weekend! One of the meetup spots will be KOD! Just my special request!

      • BrothasKeeper

        (No pictures, please.)

    • Question

      Yooo…

      I’m sitting in a car financing office as we speak waiting to hear about the financing oaxkackes they’re going to offer me. This car is a purchase I will be making with the money I made from MY company. Not a paycheck but my company.

      But just 4 years ago I got off the plane for a business trip, picked up my rental car and drove to my hotel. Went to check in and couldn’t for the same reasons Damon mentioned. My two credit cards were beyond maxed because my first lucrative client was 90 days late on paying my outstanding invoices. And I didn’t have enough on my check card to over the room.

      • Zil Nabu

        Started from the bottom now you’re here! Mama, you made it.

      • Congrats on the come up.

      • Spicy Kas

        I keep threatening to try and organize a socal meet up. Any interest?

        • Question

          I’m in. I often wonder how many of us LA folks are ’round these parts…

          • Spicy Kas

            You, me, Fedup, CollinsT, Cyanic that I’m sure of

            • You’re in LA? That explains a lot :)

              • Spicy Kas

                What does it explain?

                • Your talent for ish stirring. You got at least a Master’s degree in it.

            • Spicy Kas

              Also Mochasister

        • Hammster

          I’m late but since we’re on the subject of SoCal, I’ve been trying to relocate there for about 3 years. I’ve applied everywhere and even had an interview with UCLA but no go. What’s the best route for a tech guy that lives allll the way on the southern east coast?

          • Spicy Kas

            I’m a real estate/finance guy so Im not the one to ask. I assume you have already tried the friends and friend of friends route?

            • Hammster

              Yep. Tried that but don’t know many people there. I’ll keep trying but maybe Cali dreams aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

    • blueevey

      I thought that was a book! Lol

    • Cersei

      Trust me, he’s doing aight. That negro has a full time (federal) job AND is getting VSB coins. He’s also massive hater…

      • Val

        Hater?

        • Cersei

          Lol. Yes ma’am. He’s also super sensitive

        • Janelle Doe

          Right? Like what gives?
          *maybe I’m just a stan

        • L8Comer

          ????

    • why all the old men i know have a rubberband around their wallets? why is that a thing?

      • You can’t have your VA card falling out every time you pull out the bill fold. They are just being practical.

  • Diego Duarte

    “Basically, we weren’t sellouts allowing money to dictate our editorial strategy. This has always been, and will continue to be, a lie. Money — both the possession of it and the lack of it — has influenced every VSB-related decision I’ve made since 2010, and will continue to influence my decisions as long as I’m able to make them.”

    There’s absolutely no shame in doing what you can to make ends meet. It’s true than when you are a teenager or a young adult you think you’ve got the world figured out. You go and study a career and think you’ll make the world a better place.

    Reality is bills need to get paid and to get that “dream job” you need to be willing to crawl through a river of mud. Because good intentions don’t land you good jobs, only good connections do (especially in this economy). Glad you’ve finally achieved a degree of independence and financial stability.

  • Wild Cougar

    I really wish not having money wasn’t such a source of shame for people. It fucks up a lot of relationships. Shame us such a useless emotion. Most people don’t have enough. Why front? You’re in good company.

    • I watched a video with an Aboriginal dude describing how things were before money. People shared everything and his language didn’t have please or thank you because sharing was expected. Money creates a false sense of scarcity and panic.

      • raul

        I was reading this anthropology article a while back that pointed out that accounting didn’t exist until society moved away from hunting and gathering because it wasn’t needed. There was no value in hoarding property so there was no need to account for it.

    • Hadassah

      Especially in this day and age of doing it for the gram.

      If you don’t have enough to eat next week I’ll WU you-real talk.

      • Wild Cougar

        Thanks. I’m pretty sure it will work out. I have rice and a bag of dry beans. We gon make it!

        • Hadassah

          Cool.

    • Brass Tacks

      Because money isn’t everything, its the only thing.

      You don’t want to be the broke boy in a room full of ballers, anymore than you want to be the uneducated in a room full of scholars.

      I don’t know if it’s shame per se.

      Just the fear of going back to ramen and hot links.

      At least that’s what it is for me.

      • Wild Cougar

        Ain’t no room full of ballers.. that’s the trick……

      • TCB

        Hot links baller af tho n*gga

        • Brass Tacks

          lol agreed. I just always ate them things growing up. Hot links for breakfast lunch and dinner…

          It became too much.

    • Hadassah

      Especially in this day and age of doing it for the gram.

      If you don’t have enough to eat next week I’ll WU you-real talk. Reach out.

      • Kim

        Awww, just melt my heart. I have also have chase quick pay if you need anything.

        • Wild Cougar

          This is why I will never stop loving my people. Black folks frustrate me sometimes but y’all are the very best. I’m gonna make it on my struggle food and I can stand to miss a meal with my fat azz. Lol

          • Kim

            We love you too. Just let me know…you never have to do without.

      • CheGueverraWitBlingOn

        Really though. Reach out. I’ve been hungry before and ashamed. It’s nothing that a community should allow.

    • blueevey

      Want me to buy you food? I got ebt.

      • Wild Cougar

        Omg y’all are SO SWEET. I almost wanna delete that part. Y’all making me cry. I was exaggerating a little bit. I can eat what I got in the kitchen till I get paid next Friday. I’m sure it will stretch

        • cakes_and_pies

          If you right another book, I’ll be sure to purchase it. Every bit helps.

          • Wild Cougar

            *busts out laughing* I think a total of 3 people bought my last one. It’s OK. I got two businesses that are about to get birthed onto the world. Then I’m gonna be a baller

        • LMNOP

          A few weeks ago I needed groceries and had -$9 in the bank. I luckily have an emergency stash of cash in a lock box at home, so I could get a few things, but it was such a hungry and sad week, until I took a bite of an american cheese sandwich and thought to myself “people pay $10,000 for a sandwich like this.”

          • AzucarNegra

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nf0ZQAaI9vI
            This sandwich ellemennno? Dang girl that money will only exit your body as waste.

            • LMNOP

              Lol, not at all. 99 cent bread and generic cheese food product. Like the $10,000 fyre festival sandwiches.

              • AzucarNegra

                Lol. I forgot about that ish. When you have too much money at your disposal.

          • BrothasKeeper

            Last week I was – $128.00 in the hole, and all I had were three packets of instant mashed potatoes, chicken broth, jelly, and saltines. Best dinner I ever had, because I took comfort in the knowledge that all my bills were current.

            • AzucarNegra

              I remember one of the best meals i had was a broke meal. Was in undergrad and nearing end of semester, so you know no money. Food was also low but was hungry. When it got desperate went digging, found some peas in the freezer, some trotters in the fridge and some flour in the cupboard. It was among the best tasting soup I ever had. I try to pay my bills first when I get paid, because the next end of mth is so far away.

              • LMNOP

                Last year when I got my taxes I got a lot of spices, so even when I’m broke I know I can make my cheap food taste good, which is wonderful.

            • LMNOP

              I admire your positive attitude and doubt I could make myself have it. The only thing that made me feel better about having to get a week’s worth of food for $20 was knowing that if this keeps up I’ll get food stamps. That and all the $1 boxes of cookies and cheese puffs.

              This was actually probably a great week in food for my kid, ramen and cookies is like her dream meal.

              • AzucarNegra

                I tell people, one of the lessons I learnt when I returned to being a broke student was how to not to waste too much money on food. I used to spend a lot of money at the grocery and then turn around and buy lunch everyday. These days I carry lunch almost every day.

            • TCB

              Let’s make it plain for people BK. I’ve had to make the choice to sacrifice my decent credit in order to maintain my financial responsibility in my house, and even then it wasn’t enough at times. But I take comfort in the fact that the truth is most people have to scratch to get by at times and there should be no shame or embarrassment in that.

          • Spicy Kas

            Cackle

    • Madam CJ_Skywalker

      “Struggle is the author of excellence.”

      ^THIS!!

      • TheUnsungStoryteller

        I know! I’m about to Facebook that! I really want to credit you Wild Cougar, but idk how

  • Zil Nabu

    A few weeks ago my grad school roommate informed me that I’m no longer middle class. I told her that is true because I’m a were paid poor person.
    I think that we view our socioeconomic status by what we’ve always known, not necessarily where we actually are. I rarely check my bank account and tend to buy what I want when I want it. Doesn’t matter. I still feel like I’m one check away from ruin.

  • theaythmonth

    Confession time: I have such a strange relationship with money. To be honest, I have equated having more money with being happier/having a better life. Makes me envious sometimes. I have to work on that.

    • Diego Duarte

      That’s not a “stange relationship with money”. That’s just being down to Earth.

      • theaythmonth

        Thanks, but it’s weird. I was unemployed and broke a few years ago, and while watching all my friends begin their careers with decent jobs, I think it affected me and my views on money. Even now, though I have a great job, I sometimes wonder “why couldn’t I have been on this track earlier?”

        • Diego Duarte

          Cuz it didn’t depend on you. Education might have some influence towards determining which job you will get, but if you don’t have any connections and little experience, all you’re going to get are leftover jobs. I know dumbazzes from school who landed the best jobs in the world. Glad you’re making it now.

    • Because it’s true. Rich people live better and longer.

    • cakes_and_pies

      I think there’s a saturation point with the amount of money you can have that can lead to being unhappy. Look at all the lotto winners who won big and their lives fell apart due to drug use, gambling, trying to support the leeches, stupid investments, corrupt accountants, and worrying if anyone actually loves you instead of your money.

      • miss t-lee

        Yup.
        It can make you happy, yet miserable, at the same dayum time.

        However, I’d like to at least say I did it…lol

    • NonyaB?

      Factual, not strange. Sure, sh*t may happen even to the rich but misery is better contemplated betwixt satin sheets than on the street.

  • Mr. Mooggyy

    This is all well and good! Congrats on your financial freedom and whatnot! I just want to know…..can I borrow $20?

    For real though, congrats on that financial freedom! I still consider myself a work in progress, but I can see the light!

  • MsCee

    I’m just here for the comments. I know this is about to spark some interesting discussion. I’m glad to see you didn’t fall into the “savior” role like I did when becoming new money. First few years out of college, feeling like the one who “made it out.” I can’t recall how many car notes, rent payments, misc money, etc I gave away. Smh

  • “relationship bloggers.”

    I remember when the Internet was filthy with “relationship bloggers” .

    Props to being secure, Champ! It can actually help you sleep better at night.

  • DCFem

    It takes a long time to get comfortable in the middle class. Money doesn’t keep me awake at night but i still clip coupons and use every last drop of soap/lotion/hair gel, etc. because in the back of my mind I always think the money could dry up. And I’ve saved most of it for that exact reason — fear of not having it when I need it.

    Don’t apologize or think you’re inauthentic because you’ve got a few dollars. Make that money! You will still be treated like a black man in America regardless of what’s in your bank account. See Obama, Barack.

    • My motto is “why live life at full price?” I am ALWAYS searching for a deal. Quick to jump on a Groupon, Scoutmob, or Travelzoo experience. I’ve dealt with the fact that people call me cheap. I’m just frugal as fuck. No apologies.

      • miss t-lee

        I prefer thrifty.
        Never pay retail.

  • Zil Nabu

    Damn. I wish I would have kept writing. So great to see Black bloggers make the jump to successful professional writer while keeping that writing about us.

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