Leading a double life

Still, I felt guilty.There were clues, of course, that I had something unusual going on in my bank account. Editorial assistants are notoriously low-paid (which is probably why it attracts so many entitled white girls). At work one day, I kicked off my shoes and a co-worker sang, “Caroline is wearing Prada sandals!” “They were on sale,” I retorted. (True, but they were still $350.) I felt like I was secretly being judged.

When friends embarked on apartment hunts, they’d email and ask how much mine cost, leaving me no choice but to break the news that, no, they couldn’t afford something in my neighborhood. The few vacation days I had I spent in Europe and the Caribbean. After dating a guy for a month, I would invariably blurt out, “I’m a trust fund baby!” I was sure he’d figured it out already.

Being a trust fund baby felt like a core part of my identity, like my sexual orientation or being a writer. You just couldn’t understand me fully without understanding that -- but I still didn’t want people to know. When I told close friends, I did it in the hushed tones of an ex-convict. Every time she got jealous, my very best friend told me, she’d remind herself that my dad was dead and hers was alive.

My sister had blown through her account on one-and-a-half graduate degrees and five career starts. But she gave me excellent advice: Don’t pay for other people’s stuff. It can ruin a friendship. So when a friend would say she couldn’t afford dinner and just wanted to drink some wine at the apartment, I bit my tongue and agreed.

A double-edged sword

I was spending $1,000 more per month than I was taking in, but it didn’t register; my investments were appreciating as the stock market recovered. I wanted to live within my means, to “live like a normal 25-year-old,” but when I wanted to buy something, I couldn’t tell myself no.

There were never any consequences. I could pay off any credit card bill with a click of a button. I knew that I wanted to keep my trust fund intact, but for what? I didn’t want to buy a home yet. I could start a business, but doing what? The only thing I really wanted to do was enjoy my life while I was still young and cute.

But I was also besieged by self-doubt. Would I be a better person if I had to struggle? Would I actually go out and get freelance assignments (instead of partying on the weekends) if I needed them to pay the bills? Should I just donate it all to charity?

Every time I had a hard day at work, I would think, “I could just quit. It doesn’t matter.” What saved me was my inherent love of writing, along with the recognition that quitting would make me an insufferable brat that even I wouldn’t want to live with.

Having that money sitting there gave me license to do anything. I would always be able to bail myself out of jail, pay off a hospital bill, hire a fancy lawyer. The only thing stopping me was a sense of propriety and concern for my reputation.

Hitting (spiritual) bottom

Still, I knew this couldn’t be the point of life. I began studying Buddhism, with its emphasis on non-attachment to worldly things. I read nonfiction books that told me that having strong relationship bonds, not money, was the best predictor of happiness. And I discovered that there is a peculiar emptiness that comes with leaving a snobby boutique loaded down with $1,500 worth of clothes and nowhere to wear them.

Then, one day, I woke up. Literally.

I was staring at the ceiling in my apartment, remembering the fight I’d had the night before with my friend (something about her offering coke to my straight-edge sister and me complaining about it to a mutual friend). She’d stomped out and left me at the club, alone, as  the lights came on. My heart was still racing from too many uppers, and suddenly I was having a panic attack. I was sobbing, barely able to breathe. I felt hollow. Were these real friends? Was this real life? Money, I realized, had bought me a well-lined, suffocating nest.

It was my 25th birthday when I realized the rules applied to me too. By that, I mean the rules of personal finance, like budgets and savings accounts, but also the rules of life, like choosing good friends and treating your body well. Money, I had discovered, was not a magic bullet. A combination of working hard, a little bit of self-denial and being nice just might be, though.

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