this essay was published by the Billfold.
When I was much younger (and much stupider), I dated a guy who was twenty years older than me.
I was eighteen. I worked at a gelato shop. I drove a Volvo that was born the same year I was. It had been my mom’s and then my brother’s and then mine. It would overheat every 50 miles, so I had to keep a gallon of water in the backseat. As soon as I saw the smoke, I would pull over, grab the gallon of water, pop the hood and pour the water a hole in the engine to cool it down.
My dad even put a little sticker near it: “Pour water here.”
My boyfriend was a pilot in his thirties who lived alone in a beautiful two-bedroom condo. He shopped at Nordstrom’s and drove a BMW and bought a caramel latte from Starbucks every day on his way to work. Some days I would wake up alone at his house. On his dining room table, there would be few twenties with a note that said, “Sorry I can’t spend the day with you. Go have some fun.” (If you’re wondering – and I don’t blame you – I always left it there).
One day in April I went to his house after school to find him with a giant grin on his face.
“Come here,” he said. “I want to show you something.”
His entire bed was covered in twenty dollar bills. He had just gotten his tax refund. He had gone to the bank, deposited the check, and withdrawn all seven thousand dollars in twenties. And then spread it all over his bed and waited for his child-girlfriend to come over after school.
Somewhere out there is a picture of eighteen-year-old me, in love, lying under a blanket of cash like a kid buried in the sand.
Here’s what we did – we gathered up every one of those twenties and we took that money out for a night on the town.
We bought a flat screen TV ($1999) and had a nice dinner ($130), then headed to Ikea for a new leather sectional ($2800), a new bed ($650), a coffee table ($389) and a sheepskin rug ($450). He paid for delivery ($250). On the way home, we bought a $100 bottle of tequila, a pair of Prada sunglasses for me ($200), and, I kid you not, men’s jeans with sparkly decals on the pockets ($299).
Six hours later, all the money was gone.
We drank tequila on his new sheepskin rug and watched reality TV on his giant flat screen. I thought: So this is adulthood.
A few months later, talking over our July 4th plans, I asked him to drive to the coast to meet me and my friends.
“I can’t,” he said. “I don’t have the money.”
He didn’t have $100 for gas. His car payment and rent had caught up with him, and his credit cards were maxed out.
“Why have you been spending all this money on clothes and eating out and furniture if you didn’t have enough?” I asked.
He said that I had no idea about money. That I was just a kid with no fucking clue about the real world. “You can’t have everything you want, Emma,” he said. “You’ll learn that when you’re an adult.”
This was nearly ten years ago but I remember it exactly. We were driving in his BMW and the leather seats were burning hot. I stared out the open window and thought: I know more about money than he ever will.
I lent him the $100. I had been working all along at the gelato shop, saving my paychecks. Driving my Volvo with the water jug.
He broke up with me over email a week later. I was heartbroken at the time, but the past decade has given me a little perspective. When you’re in your late thirties and your teenage girlfriend is lecturing you about money, you’ve pretty much hit rock bottom.
I think about him every year when my tax refund arrives. Everyone around me is bubbling with excitement about how to spend their refunds. Home improvement, vacations, a new car.
Maybe you are, too. Or maybe you want to withdraw all that cash, spread it over your bed, and roll in it.
I think about my ex-boyfriend and those jeans with the sparkly pockets. I think, don’t. I think, put it in your retirement fund. I think, pay off your debt.
I think, save your tax refund.