Last week my husband and I received a statement from Discover claiming we owed them just over $1400, which came as quite a shock since neither of us has ever had a Discover card. The first customer service rep I spoke with clearly felt sorry for me. “Is there any chance your husband might have opened the account without telling you?” I tried to stay calm. No, there was no chance of that.
She insisted their records had my husband as the primary account holder and me as an authorized borrower, and for several tense minutes I didn’t think I would be able to prove otherwise. I could feel myself edging closer and closer to panic. What if we have to pay it? I wondered. We only just paid off the debt we accumulated in grad school. What if the mysterious charges just keep coming and we have to pay all of them? What if we are victims of identity theft and we can’t prove it and this ruins our credit and we’re never able to rent a house or buy a car again? What will happen to our kids?
The rational part of me knew all of this was ridiculous. The card wasn’t ours, no matter what the statement said — of course they couldn’t make us pay $1400 plus interest if we hadn’t spent it. But I’ve never been good with money. I don’t mean I can’t earn it, or hold onto it, or value it; I mean just thinking about it makes me feel terrible, uncertain and small and afraid. I never expect good things to happen, financially speaking, and even when things are going well I expect to lose what I have.
Growing up I often had two working parents, but long periods of unemployment and medical bills meant we were only kept afloat thanks to generous relatives, and eventually they were no longer in a position to help us. Like many people, my father was denied the disability benefits he needed for years. Bills would get paid down, slowly, agonizingly, and then something else would break or someone else would get sick or someone would lose their job, and everything had to go back on yet another credit card.
My parents didn’t like to talk with me about our money problems — what parent wants to have that conversation with their child? — but our house was small, and I overheard many of their anxious conversations. Sometimes they tried to portray our situation as a cautionary tale: That’s why you’re going to college. Never mind that we didn’t know exactly how I would get there.
Being a student on full financial aid at a very expensive school meant I was statistically likely to date someone with a lot more money than me, and my college boyfriend — who became my husband — grew up with the kind of economic security I couldn’t imagine. In so many ways, our points of reference simply didn’t overlap. He was meeting expectations by going to a good university and had two parents with advanced degrees to guide him; I would be the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college. He’d had the freedom to turn down an almost-full ride at a less prestigious school, whereas my decision was entirely ruled by competing financial aid offers. While we both worked part-time in high school, he was able to save far more, because my high school job had to cover so many expenses (clothes, car insurance and gas, school activities, music lessons, AP/SAT exams and college application fees) that his parents had paid for him. If his account was getting low, funds were always just a phone call away. His number of trips home weren’t limited by the cost of plane tickets.
He was also extremely responsible — more frugal than me, and I was not a big spender — so even though he had access to more money than I did, I didn’t feel self-conscious about it when it was just the two of us; I mostly felt it when I went home with him to see his family. But our respective backgrounds clearly influenced our decisions, our feelings about money in both lean and comfortable times, after we graduated. I didn’t expect I would feel so guilty the first time I had a job — just an entry-level position with a modest salary and benefits — that paid more per year than my parents made put together. When I eventually went to grad school, it was part-time, while I worked part-time and cared for our kids full-time; he spent six years as a full-time PhD candidate on a stipend. When I was laid off while on maternity leave, of course we were both worried, but ultimately he thought we’d be fine and I nearly had a breakdown.
I still think of economic stability as something that primarily exists for other people, and I don’t know if I’ll ever grow out of it.
While we’re usually on the same page about what and how to spend, my hangups and attitudes regarding money persist to this day. I’m very good at spending when I really want something, but then I’ll choose little, unimportant things to be flinty about — not because they’re make-or-break for us, but because I feel a need to impose iron control over arbitrary spending that isn’t even out-of-control. If we’re going away for the weekend, we shouldn’t also exchange anniversary gifts. Yes, technically we can afford it, but I don’t want to pay for both Netflix and Hulu! We’ve never bought ourselves real nightstands, though I think about it a few times a year. It’s ridiculous — of course we have lots of other furniture, and nightstands would be useful — but every time it comes up I think of ten other things we could do with that money, and meanwhile the cheap folding table I currently use, the one my aunt bought for me in college, is working just fine.
Some people note that my husband is the “optimist” and I’m the “pessimist,” and it’s true that I worry more and spend more time pondering frightening worst-case scenarios than he does. But when it comes to money matters, the “optimist vs. pessimist” framework is severely lacking. It makes it sound as though my money-related anxiety is nothing more than an unfortunate personality quirk, when in fact there’s an excellent reason why my husband generally believes things will work out, while I tend to imagine we are just one crisis away from financial ruin: he comes from a family for whom things do work out, and I do not.
While it’s been a source of frustration at times, I’m glad we are not much alike in this. I’m also glad he can talk me down when I’m most anxious — God knows we don’t both need to be wrecks over money, expecting the worst all the time. But I do envy him at times. I envy his faith that everything will be okay.
He is far less prone to blaming himself when things are tight, whereas I spend a lot of time staring up at the ceiling at three in the morning, interrogating every decision I’ve ever made. Why wasn’t my primary goal always to earn as much money as I possibly could? Would we have been better positioned for the hundreds of dollars a month we now spend in medical copays? Would we have healthy college funds going for both our kids? Would I be able to write my parents a check every month, fully support them after everything they’ve done for me? Is the money-related stress we experience my fault? Shouldn’t I — with my upbringing, and all of the attendant worry and my worst-case imaginings — have known somehow, and planned better?
I was talking to my third Discover representative by the time my husband got home the other night. None of them had been able to tell me anything because he was the primary account holder, supposedly, but even though we were just talking in circles I couldn’t bring myself to hang up. I just wanted someone on the other end of the line to understand how big of a problem this had become for me, and promise to fix it.
My husband took the phone. Inside of fifteen minutes he was able to verify that we had, in fact, received the statement in error. The company had no idea why or how our information had been associated with the account, which really did belong to someone, just not us. They promised to send us something in writing verifying that we don’t owe them anything. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”
I was almost surprised the matter had been resolved without us becoming $1400 poorer. My husband agreed the whole thing had been unsettling and bizarre, but, as he pointed out, “They can’t make you pay back money you never spent.” I knew that, yet I still hadn’t been able to stop myself from imagining identity theft and fraud and ruined credit and the rapid unraveling of our lives. Days later, I’m still watching the mail for written confirmation that we’re in the clear; if we don’t receive it soon I will call again.
I hate that I still slide into doubt and fear so easily when it comes to money. I hate the fact that, despite my age and everything I’ve supposedly learned and all the reasons I have to be grateful, my mind can still leap from one huge unexplained bill to the total collapse of everything we’ve worked for in ten seconds flat. I don’t feel as though my fear makes me careful, or wise, or more responsible than anyone else — even in the moment, it just seems rather silly and embarrassing. But by now that alarming whisper in my head is also an old companion, a permanent fixture; I just expect it to be there, day in and day out, whenever I have to make a plan or a big decision about money. And every time something like this happens, certainly every time we have a real setback, it hits me anew: I still think of economic stability as something that primarily exists for other people, and I don’t know if I’ll ever grow out of it.
Nicole Chung is the Managing Editor of The Toast.