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  LIFE AS A LOSER #20: "IT'S ALL ABOUT THE (LACK OF) BENJAMINS."  
   
   
 

 My sister called me the other day. Sheís a sophomore at the University of Illinois, where I also went to college. I asked her how she was doing, how classes were going, whom she was dating. Typical ďget caught up with your confusing siblingĒ stuff. I had actually seen her just the week before. I attended an exhibition basketball game between my beloved Illini and some team called NBC Thunder and had dropped by afterward for a drink at the bar where she works.

Little sisters are a nuisance, you say? Yours have obviously never given you free beer. Because my sisterís a bartender, she kept a steady supply of free Newcastles coming my fatherís and my way, and, between you and me, Iíd never been prouder of her. I asked her how her job was going.

ďOh, itís the bomb,Ē she said. My sister says dumb things like this; it is either an age gap or a brain gap. ďMade 200 bucks in tips last night.Ē

Now, I know Iím out in the corporate world, so Iím supposed to be financially superior to a bartender in an out-of-the-way club in Urbana, Illinois. But I was stunned. 200 bucks? A night? I asked her if she was stripping on the side.

Sheesh. When I was in college, I was lucky if I made 200 bucks in two weeks at the student newspaper. Only friends from journalism school who sold out to become PR people can make 200 bucks a night. I remembered being in college, imagining being 24 years old with a real job, thinking that I would never have any money worries once I got out in the real world.

I realized, listening to my sister say words like ďradĒ and ďmondo cool,Ē that my financial life is never going to get better. Just as in college, Iím living check-to-check, scraping by. I make enough money at my job not to have to do this, but unlike my economically inclined sister, itís still not enough. Whatever I have, I spend. I donít know where it goes, but itís gone. Iím a money moron.

First off, a disclaimer. I donít have a credit card. Iíve never had one. Donít trust myself. If I had a credit card, Iíd be out of control: That Stevie Wonder CD Iíve always thought about buying ... charge it. Walk past a sports store displaying that Randy Moss jersey - heís carried my fantasy team for two years ... charge it. That leather mask Iíve had my eye on for a while ... charge it.

It wouldnít work. My credit-card debt would be more than the GNP of most third-world countries, all on stupid shit. My lifeís hard enough as is.

That said, not having a credit card is a terrible disability. I canít get plane tickets, I canít buy anything over the phone, I canít reserve hotel rooms. The toughest part, however, is that I have no margin for error. If you credit-card people are low on cash but need some frivolous thing such as, say, food, you just charge it and deal with it later. You pay off your little amount now, and just hope youíre not in debt for the rest of your life.

Not me. I canít screw up. I have a certain amount that I can live on, and if I go over that amount, I bounce checks, which, of course, just puts me deeper in the hole.

You credit-card people always tell me that youíre envious that I donít have a credit card, that youíd be better off without one. But you donít mean it.

You guys can spend more than you make, and nobody ever notices. I get nasty phone calls from my realtor or my bounced check posted on some convenience storeís counter. To this day, I think my name is posted on various ďShoot on SightĒ lists at businesses throughout Champaign, Illinois. Nope, one screw-up for me, and Iím fucked.

That said, with the amount of money I make, I should still be able to live comfortably without a credit card. Problem is, money has no value to me. I donít want to accumulate large sums of it, I donít go searching for it, I donít consider it a particularly valuable indicator of how my life is going.

I want enough money to pay rent, buy beer and cigarettes, have a clean litter box and, when the mood hits, eat. The gathering of wealth is not something I have the slightest interest in. This is not meant to sound noble; itís meant to sound dumb. Everybody needs money, whether we like it or not, and the longer I keep my head in the sand about it, the more in debt I will become.

When money has no value to you and you donít go out of your way to get more of it, but you still spend it like an ordinary person, youíre going to end up in the red, every time. Because I donít have a credit card, I always carry a lot of cash with me - potential muggers take note: Iím 5í10,Ē and I have sandy brown hair and a perpetual scared look on my face. The invitation has now been extended.

When youíre like me and you have cash, it tends to mysteriously disappear. Thatís what cash does. It vanishes. Quickly. Quietly. Devastatingly.

I donít even make any big purchases. Iíve had the same stereo for two years. I donít have a television. Iíve bought maybe three CDs in two months. I eat out once a week, and thatís just a ritual trip to a sandwich shop on the way to work. This is the problem; I have no idea where my money goes. Itís just gone.

This frustrates my mother to no end. Sheís happy that Iíve somehow figured out a way to exist under the radar in this world, pleased that the cops arenít after me, but sheís a mom, and itís her job to be consistently disappointed in how fiscally irresponsible I am.

Sheís recently enlisted my grandmother in her quest as well, a fact I realized about five minutes ago, when Grandma called to congratulate me on my new job - more on that in a minute - and then took time out to lecture me on why I will need a credit card and why I need to think more about money and less about, oh, whatever it is that you think about, Will.

I also am not a big fan of balancing my checkbook. Itís not that I donít like math. Itís just, well, thatís dreary grownup stuff, and I donít like to be reminded of just how much in the hole I always am. My logic, which is infallible, is that as long as I keep going to the ATM and thereís money in there, Iím fine, right? If thereís no money in there, Iíll be worried then (Iím worried right now, actually, but letís try not to think about it).

This problem is about to be multiplied tenfold in a couple of months. Last Wednesday, the day my previous column went up - nice touch, eh? - I received a phone call from The New York Times. They decided to offer me a job, a decision Iíd awaited for three months.

I accepted the job, and as long as my Dexatrim doesnít show up as speed on my drug test, Iím starting in January. Itís exciting. Iím pumped; itís a great job with great people at a great organization. It should help solve a lot of problems in my life, and it will help me feel like there is some sort of direction in my career, even if all it actually ends up meaning is a different scope for this column.

But ... the money. Donít get me wrong; I have no problem with the amount I will make, and itís certainly enough for a normal human being to survive on. But as youíre more than aware of, Iím hardly normal. And neither is New York City. Iíll have to deal with apartment brokers, subways, cab rides, nine-dollar movies and five-dollar beers. Itís a recipe for fiscal disaster for me, and I know it. If I donít get my monetary act together quickly, that city will eat me alive.

Maybe Iíll just ask Grandma to move in with me. Sheíll keep my checkbook in line, the place will be clean, and heck, sheíll probably even make cookies. I just hope the New York City bartenders donít expect tips like the ones in Urbana.

 

*BT*

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