I worked retail, selling art supplies, when Friends was insanely popular. I lived in a tiny studio — they’d call it micro-housing now — and I got by. I quit when I was hired as a caption writer. It paid three times what my retail job paid, though it was still not a lot of money. I moved into a two bedroom duplex with a friend, and I continued to get by. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I didn’t have a lot of expenses, either.
But it was not New York City, it was Seattle on the front edge of the tech boom, and it was still cheap. It always bothered me that Monica, a line cook, and Rachel, a barista — and not, I think, a very good one — had that spectacular apartment. Joey and Chandler’s place seemed a bit more believable, though I imagine Chandler was always having to front Joey at least part of his rent.
And now I’m on about Friends, when I mean to be on about Girls, which has the same maddening practical issue. How do they pay their rent?
Dunham has never been a struggling artist. She has played one on TV. This may be one reason that Girls is not remotely realistic about the earnings of a freelance writer — no one involved in the making of the show has ever been, or even bothered to talk to, one. The real Dunham has published frequently in the New Yorker, and got a multimillion-dollar book deal in her mid-twenties. Still, she imagines a different existence.
In the episode in which Hannah decides to have the baby, we see her type on her computer a list of reasons not to do it, among them the fact that she earns “$24K” a year.” I publish with a frequency similar to Hannah’s, in similar publications. I would be thrilled to earn twenty-four thousand dollars a year from my writing, but I earn barely a tenth of that. Like most writers, I support my writing by doing another job. (Over 90% of my income comes from a tutoring business I have run since I was twenty-one.)
I’m notoriously grumpy while grocery shopping. Once, my partner and I got into a fight in the Aldi parking lot because one of the eggs in our carton broke. He does his best to keep us supplied in soups and noodles–simple things I can heat up when I’m anxious and depressed — but I find myself yearning for expensive, fresh produce. As much as cooking intimidates me, I eat constantly — popcorn, apples, Toblerone, peanut butter and crackers — whatever I can find. I scry for news of the downtown market that was promised two years ago. I grow hungry and impatient. The world of food seems impenetrable, a place for people with money and time, and I never feel as though I have either. Read more…
I suppose it’s fitting to begin a piece about personal finance by talking about my own situation: I owe the IRS and the Comptroller of Maryland a substantial part of my tenuous savings. This is the first year I’ve owed more than I’ve expected.
When I first learned how much money I owed, I had a panic attack and vowed to never leave my apartment again. I eventually emerged, sodden and pathetic, from my blanket cocoon. I discovered no one was judging me for my unfortunate situation. One friend admitted that she, too, owed an inordinate, unforeseen amount to the IRS and turned to her parents for help.
This summer, I turned 26, which means—in the good ol’ US-of-A—I’m off my parents’ health insurance. Luckily, I qualify for free coverage. It’s a huge relief. I’m proud of myself for overcoming my anxiety about signing up in the first place. This is the sort of task that feels insurmountable when I’m deep in that generalized anxiety. Again, I have to thank my dad for staying on the phone with me for 45 minutes, while I sat in the foyer of the public library, swearing about the confusing wording on the health care website.
Taxes and health insurance—what could be worse? I also owe about thirty grand in student loans; those I’ve accepted as part of life. My dad (who, I’m realizing, is basically my financial advisor), has been on my case to consolidate those puppies, but, oh my God, I don’t even really know what that means because none of us learned this in school?! Where is the manual?!
I think all of us, on some level, harbor an obsession with money—it shapes our habits, opportunities, social and familial interactions, and futures. Honest discussions about income, rent, budgets, taxes—all that stuff—force us to reckon with our privilege. For so long, conversations about money were considered gauche. With every essay and podcast episode, that taboo is broken down. Read more…
This week, we return to your regularly scheduled Longreads programming. The theme? Food: queering food, eating Pokemon, the potential of Soylent, tasting curly fries for a living, and Canadian food trucks.
“It’s food that takes pleasure seriously, as an end in itself, an assertion of politics or a human birthright, the product of culture—this is the legacy of gay food writers who shaped modern American food.”
“I can’t shake the feeling that the 9-to-5 grind carries the one hallmark of adulthood—obligation. The work of the modern office employee is finely tuned drudgery, a daily exercise in doing stuff that you don’t necessarily want to do, but know you have to.”
A man with $90,000 in debt makes some hard decisions about his life—starting with a trip to Kosovo for an IT job:
Of course, all I understood at the time was JOB INTERVIEW and VIENNA. Prior to my application, I had never heard of the OSCE, and I knew next to nothing about Kosovo. My IT skills were rudimentary and my management experience nonexistent. I was mystified why I got a call. I was so completely unqualified for this job, I might have treated this like a mini-vacation but for one significant fact: the salary. The job paid $85,000 a year, tax-free (due to the glorious Foreign Earned Income Exclusion). This was an incomprehensible amount of money. It would fix everything. The pressure to do well in this interview, just for this one small chance at a dream life and the magical solution to all of my problems, was intense.
I flew to Vienna two weeks later and interviewed the next morning in a small yellow room. It was 10 a.m.—4 a.m. EST. There was a panel, chaired by my would-be boss, a taciturn Austrian man. I was dressed in a garish blue Hugo Boss sport coat that I picked up at Century 21 a week earlier. I was over caffeinated, jet lagged, and clammy. I made nervous self-deprecating jokes, which translated poorly between our cultures. It was a disaster from start to finish. I left the interview thinking, ‘Thanks for the free trip to Vienna.’ I spent the rest of the day squandering my remaining per diem on beer and meat, refusing to think about what might have been. The next morning I flew home.
A writer, out of money, is forced to part ways with his dream guitar:
The first hospital bill arrived in late June. My eyes roamed its surface: “If paying by check…” “YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR BILL. PLEASE PAY THE BALANCE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.” “Please pay this amount…” Along came the dizzying despondency of the Amount Due, four figures comprising the deductibles left over from a six-day stay and ER consultations and minor surgery and X-rays and everything else a troop of professionals provides to keep patients alive and well at Lenox Hill Hospital. More bills followed—consultations here, outpatient follow-ups there. As sure as I felt my preexisting vortex of personal financial ruin gather strength around me, its waves tickling and willing the bills into whispering tremors in my hand, I knew how all of this would end: I would sell the Bean.