Is Keeping Up with Trends Worth a Life of Debt?


Perhaps it was when I moved out of the penthouse I shared with my best friend and into my own place in the Mission. Or when she married a handsome, good-natured investment adviser while I continued to date impoverished writers. Or when I gave up that nice advertising job to become a full-time writer myself. Actually, I’ll never be able to pinpoint when it was that Gretl and I stepped into different economic realities, but it has happened. She is rich, and I am scraping by.

We have known each other a long time, Gretl and I. We have similar educations. We both love Patty Griffin and Tami Taylor (a character from Friday Night Lights) and Wise Sons’ pastrami. We once seamlessly picked up a conversation we’d left off three months earlier in a grocery line. We also are both hopelessly in love with SF, which is where the growing chasm gets truly painful. One of us will be able to remain here while the other, probably, will not.

The bottom line is I can no longer afford the stuff my best friend can. I ignored it for a long time, particularly before I had a family. San Francisco, after all, is a city that often embraces fun over reality. Why balance my budget when I can go for a sunny hike and steins of beer? Gretl and her entourage are big-hearted, active folks who enjoy weekends in Tahoe and brunch at the newest restaurants. Hanging out with them is like stepping into a sitcom about hilarious 30-somethings living in a beautiful city. How could I not want to keep up with that?

So I did—for a while. I cashed in retirement funds and opened new lines of credit. Yes, it was stupid, but frankly, I’ve never been good with money. Growing up as a 99 percenter, my family took yearly vacations and participated in disgusting displays of consumerism at Christmas, with no lessons in financial planning. It’s a dangerous thing to grow up this way. Maeve Brennan of The New Yorker once wrote to her editor William Maxwell, “Any money I get is spending money, and the grown-ups ought to pay the big ugly bills.” This was my philosophy exactly—until debt’s cold fingers curled around my $350 Frye boots.

With $13,000 in debt, banks would no longer give me credit cards. And one night, during a particularly raucous dinner party, a very large man knocked on the door to repossess my car. Why hadn’t I stayed in more and just read books? Why couldn’t I find poorer friends? For some ghastly reason, it had seemed necessary to partake in this lifestyle that I clearly could not afford. But hello, this is San Francisco! The sirens are ever-singing to us to open our wallets, so we too can experience the hottest, newest $12 deviled egg. (That’s one egg, thank you.)

Gretl is graceful and humorous about our changing situation, which makes me love her even more. When I complain about the gnawing sound my car makes as it tries to climb her hill, she pats me on the back for being green. “Your car is the best,” she says. “Thriftiness is a sign of true intelligence.” Bolstered by my dearest friend’s affirmations, I think it is green to sparingly drive an old low-emission car until it dies. Never mind that when it does give out, I will have to collect my groceries via dog-powered rickshaw until I sell another book.

All this is doable, and having little doesn’t bother me. I have health care. I’m able to buy organic turkey every once in a while now that I’ve paid off my most extreme bills with book sales over the course of the last four years. Compared to the majority of people in this country, I’m really doing OK.

But as we age, my lack of security compared to Gretl’s is unsettling. All our friends used to rent their homes. Now I’m one of the last. From the look of things, I may be a renter until I die. And forget about heat. Apart from a loud, ineffective gas grid that spits at me from an unused hallway, my apartment doesn’t have any. On cold nights, my family sometimes goes over to Gretl’s just to warm up—my kid hugs the air vent there. It makes me think: Should we live like Dickens characters just because I like Northern California? And what about retirement? Every dollar I have is spoken for, so unless they cut off my fingers, I’ll be typing until the end.

Everyone has rosy cheeks when they are 25. Yet as I creep up on 40, I think I can actually see the difference between those who have money and those who don’t. Rich people have better hair. Their purses are shinier. They look relaxed because they aren’t worrying about the extra $20 they will have to pay the sitter if they get home late.

I don’t know what the future holds for me. My new financial planner says I need to “change for the future”—move to a cheaper suburb or pick up more work. If I lived in Des Moines, he says, I’d be rolling in it. I could buy a real house. Like Gretl’s. He’s smart, this guy.

So I’ve thought about his plan. I’ve gone to real estate site Zillow and looked at schools and Craftsman bungalows. The problem is there’s no Gretl in Des Moines. And for now, no matter how great central heat sounds, giving up my best friend is not a budget I can live with.

For more from the author, check out her best seller Girls in Trucks and the upcoming novel Men and Dogs.

This story was published in 7x7's April issue. Click here to subscribe.

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