In This Episode
Damon unpacks the whiplash of new money with Samantha Irby and Mehrsa Baradaran.
Damon Young: I forget sometimes that my parents and I were homeless when I was growing up. It may be because it never like, it never like felt homeless, you know. Like it wasn’t TV homeless where you come home, all your shit’s in the street. You know, it was some late payments here, and then there’d be this bright red ass sign on the door letting us know that we’ve been evicted. Then we stay at Nana’s for a few months until Mom and Dad’s money got less funny. But that never felt homeless. Just I don’t know, inconvenienced. But I also know we did everything we could to conceal it. I mean, my mom was fly as fuck. She had a job verifying health insurance, but she went to work each day like it was Kennywood Day.
Kennywood advertisement: It’s that time of year again! Kennywood Park kicks off its summer season tomorrow.
Damon: And I stayed with Jordans and Tims and Hilfiger parkas and Karl Kani jeans. And I know there’s people who will hear all that and be like, ‘well, if you invested in stocks or savings accounts instead of sneakers, you wouldn’t have been homeless.’
But that little bit of sneaker money ain’t going to make no difference. When you’re that close to the poverty line, every damn day is a rainy day. And sometimes them irrational seeming purchases are rational as fuck, because sometimes the performance of middle class helps you navigate the world. People with nice clothes are treated better, with more compassion, more empathy and more care than those who look poor. And sometimes it just, I don’t know, it just feels good to have nice things, to wear nice clothes, to have cable TV, to eat a damn steak.
But one thing I couldn’t hide was my parents not having a car and me not having a driver’s license. I mean, it wasn’t really that big of a deal when we lived in the city. But then we moved to the suburbs, and all the other parents had cars and all the other kids at school had driver’s licenses. So I did what any other aggressively self-conscious 18-year-old would do. I lied.
Oh, yeah, I can’t drive because, you know, my parents, my parents let my nana borrow the car because her optometrist was like, yo, she can’t catch the bus anymore because she can’t see. So she was like, you know, we need to let her drive her car to choir practice.
Nah, I mean I know how to drive, but what do I need a license for? Man, that shit racist.
Yeah, you know, I have my license, right, but I was using it as a jitney before and a cop stopped me in like jitneying is illegal on the weekends and was like, ‘yo, we’re going to let you go for a minute this time, but we got to take your license. We ain’t gonna arrest you, but you just can’t be jitneying on the weekends.’
These lies continued through college. Then even after I graduated until the source of shame shifted. I lied because I was ashamed of being a grown ass man without a driver’s license. I eventually got it at 26. But that shame, that shame still lingered. It bubbled up in 2011, when I got a $3,000 check for an editing gig, which at that point was the most money I ever had at one time.
I immediately used it for a down payment on a 2011 spanking new cocaine, white Dodge Charger, which was and still is the cheapest hood rich car you could possibly buy. And then five years later, when the first advance check from my book deal hit my bank account, it bubbled up again. And I did it. Again. But this time… I bought a Maserati. The cheapest one, but yeah, but still.
I mean, it’s funny, like out of all the self-consciousnesses and vulnerabilities, and insecurities I’ve written and talked about, some in this very space, this shit right here like this gives me the most anxiety. I mean, even when I was talking about the Maserati before I felt like this compulsion to qualify it by saying that I bought the cheapest one, because I think there’s like this nebulous convergence of different shames assembling in my head.
So there’s the remnants of the shame of growing up broke. There’s the shame of the obvious as fuck overcompensating for that shame. There’s the anticipated shame from other people for being such a fucking capitalist and a consumer. And also the anticipated shame from other writers for making enough money to even do this shit. And then also shame for even feeling that shame. I mean, would some white boy, tech founder or finance bro feel the same angst for buying himself a nice toy?
And then also, wondering if the shame is, I don’t know, if it’s another performance too. A way of allowing myself to feel bad-ish as a punishment for doing something I know I want to do but know, also know I’m probably not supposed to.
So this is Stuck with Damon Young, the show where we’re all suffering from p.t.b.d – post traumatic brokeness disorder. And on today’s show, we’re gonna talk about the ways talking about money, and not talking about money, fucks me up.
Samantha Irby: Oh, I mean, my sister had a birthday recently and like playfully floated the idea that I take all of us to Vegas.
Damon: All of us?
Samantha: And I was like, like all, like there are four of us, that I like sponsor a girls trip to Vegas. And I was like, bitch, I’d rather pay a hit man to never talk to you again because that is a ridiculous thing to ask me, a regular person who writes jokes on the Internet.
Damon: So that’s Samantha Irby, author of Meaty, Wow, No, Thank You, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, a New York Times best seller multiple times. She’s from Kalamazoo, which is a city that exists in America somewhere. And like me, she’s a recovering broke motherfucker.
Damon: So we both kind of exist in this in this, like, surreal space where you’re not poor anymore.
Damon: But because people know your name, because you know, you have bylines in New York Times and your book is a New York bestseller, New York Times bestseller, and you’re writing for TV shows, people assume sometimes that you’re rich because they they see a name on TV, they see a name, you know, on the Internet and assume like a certain financial prosperity with it.
Samantha: With writing, especially like, it’s because you get like a lump sum at once. It feels both like a windfall and like a huge burden. But so I’ll tell anybody, like, sure, I sold a book for $70,000 and they paid it to me in thirds over the course of two years. And then chop, you know, 40 percent off of that for the IRS and divided by how many months. And then we’re realistic… and we’re talking about like a realistic amount of money. What we make looks like money. But then like once you give the tax man his part and you pay your bills and you pay off all the things that you put on credit when you didn’t have any money, it doesn’t feel like a lot of money.
Damon: So when you were, when you were growing up, you know, what did it mean to you to be middle class?
Samantha: God, I don’t even know if I thought of that as a kid. I knew there were people doing better than us, but I don’t know, for me, it was just like people who had jobs that they had to go to college to get, and then, like, had two cars and a dog and a nice house like that, in my mind, was what the middle class was.
Damon: For me, it was more specific than that. OK, so I had my closest friend, his parents were both educators, his mom was a teacher and his dad was a school principal. And so that made them just firmly middle, possibly upper, middle, really if you think about it. And they had the house with two cars, had a pool, and one of the like the in-ground pools, too, that they never swam in, but they definitely had a in-ground pool. But the thing that really stood out to me whenever I went over to our house was how much extra food they had, and it wasn’t and it wasn’t like and it wasn’t like we were like starving or hungry or anything like that. I mean, we were poor, but we’re broke or poor or whatever, but we weren’t like that level. But I would go in. These motherfuckers had pantries like multiple pantries and like just –
Samantha: I guess whenever I went to anyone’s house and they had name brand snacks, I was like, oh, you guys really made it.
Damon: Yeah. And so, again, when I thought of the middle class, I thought of, like Costco. I thought of having enough money to be able to do just buy a whole bunch of food that you are, that you’re not going to eat even in that next month, just having enough food again to to wait out a nuclear storm, a nuclear war.
Samantha: I’m a working class person, I don’t, I dropped out of college, I’ve always worked an hourly job like I had a book out and was still punching a clock. I had two books out and I was still punching a clock every day. And truly, the only reason that I can do writing as a job and I don’t even look at it as a job. I feel like this is a hustle. I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I feel like eventually people are going to be like, OK, we’re tired of listening to your shit. And I can go back to what I’m supposed to be doing, which is like bagging groceries at Wal-Mart or whatever. I firmly am like an hourly job kind of person. Everyone we know is moving from publication, from one failing publication to another failing publication, like trying to get what they can until the bottom falls out. And I feel like it’s the same for me. Like, you know, I can’t keep writing about my butthole for 20 years. I mean, are people going to want to read that for 20 more years? Maybe?
Damon: I would be, I would want to read about your 60 year old butthole. I definitely would want to read about that, Samantha. I mean, I don’t, I don’t think that you’re giving us enough credit as your audience and fans who definitely want to read about 60 year old buttholes.
Samantha: Maybe they would. But I am, I am realistic about my life. I still am like very suspicious of every good thing that happens, and I don’t trust it and I’m always like, you know, an hour away from going to, like, fill out application at Walgreens, which honestly would be fine, because at least it’s a… you know, the thing about writing as a career and why it doesn’t make me feel like I’ve achieved anything is that it’s all based on me and what I could do. I’d much rather have all my money, like, come from a corporation and have it be low stakes for me. Like, all I have to do is show up at Target and put on my red shirt and like, that’s my job. When it’s writing, it’s like, man, all this hinges on my having an idea, that idea feeling marketable to someone and then convincing them to pay me for that idea in the hopes that other people would pay to have access to that. And I understand that it’s like an amazing thing and I’m very grateful. I also am very realistic that sooner or later there will be no market for it.
Damon: So that feeling that you’re that you’re articulating about your talent, not necessarily or having a shelf life, I guess. You can’t help but see the connection between that and even going back to the money thing where, you know, if you grow up in a circumstance where money is tenuous and, you know, whatever money you have today could be gone in an instant. You know, I think back yeah, I think back to your piece that you wrote for The Times, you know, a couple of years ago about when you’re broke, there’s no such thing as a rainy day. Every day is a rainy day.
Samantha: Right, right. Yeah, I, I look at that kind of as a gift, sort of that discomfort because I don’t ever want to be caught off guard. You know, you ever like read stories or see things about like people who are unexpectedly broke or something happens and they you know, they cashed out. I don’t ever want to get so comfortable that I’m not hyper aware that the bottom could fall out at any time, and then I’m like in despair because I don’t know what to do. I never want to get so far away from the feeling of like that childhood poverty and like truly like eating out of the garbage. All your clothes come from Salvation Army. You can’t afford to take the bus, you know what I mean? Like poverty, poverty. But I don’t ever want to get so far away from that feeling that if it were to happen again, I’d be paralyzed with fear.
Damon: I don’t know who or where I would be without that feeling, even as I’ve you know, I’ve been you know, I can’t even pretend that I haven’t been successful because I have been right, you know, but I still feel that way. I still believe that, you know, I still like I remember my car getting repossessed a few years ago and today, I still feel some anxiety when I hear that beep, beep, beep of a large truck backing up in the street because I think it’s someone coming to take my car again. And this car is paid for. But I still feel that, like that fight or flight.
Samantha: Don’t let my card take too long. You know, you put your card in with the chip. Oh, yeah. If my card takes a second too long, my intestines liquify, you know what I mean? And I’m like, oh, there’s a line behind me. I’ve been playing, I’ve been playing fast and loose for too long. I got too comfortable and now I can’t afford, you know, these groceries. And I’m about to shit myself in front of everybody. I once was so broke that I, I took my car to this, like, junkyard that I had seen on TV where they’re like, we’ll give you cash for your car. And like, I drove the car in and I was like thinking I would get a couple thousand dollars. Right. And like, I get there. And the guy offered me 85 bucks and I was like, you know, the feeling I know mad at myself for being so dumb to think that I was going to get $2,000 but also so desperate that the 85 looked good. So I pull into the lot, the guy tells me he’ll give me 85 bucks. I had like a two second crisis of conscience and then I decided like OK, sure. So I’m like cleaning out because I didn’t think to clean out my car beforehand. He gives me a garbage bag. I clean all of my worldly possessions into this garbage bag. And I’m like walking down this long driveway, I’m walking down the driveway with my garbage bag full of stuff, my $85, and then I realize that I am so far out of town and this is like in 1999, there’s no Uber. I would have had to like walk to a payphone to call a cab. So I was walking down the street with a garbage bag full of stuff. I walk into this Home Depot and I was like, could somebody here call me a cab? And they called me in a cab and it cost me $60 to get home. So I essentially sold a whole motherfucking car for $25 profit. And it’s like, I will never forget that feeling every time I get in to our new leased car, I think, you know, 32 miles on it or whatever, I’m always going to think about like selling that car for 25 bucks.
Damon: So a part of me, again, I savor that feeling, that anxiety, you know, I even think back to, OK, when my car got repossessed and I had to, like, lie to get some money. And part of that lie included me joining a church just so I could be a part of the church’s credit union. And I feel like admitting this out loud is good that you’re not in a room with me, because I think I’m going to get struck by lightning right now. But that literally definitely happened. And I did that. I did that. I lied to Jesus for $400.
Samantha: That’s real though.
Damon: It’s, it’s real.
Samantha: I sat through church many times just because there was a dinner after.
Damon: Oh yeah. Yeah.
Samantha: You’ve gotta do what you gotta do. The Lord understands. If no one else understands God understands.
Damon: I’ve spent entire Sunday or Saturday mornings in the Trader Joe’s just going from aisle to aisle for free samples. I have definitely done that. And you know, getting church food is the same thing. And and so so there’s a but and I guess the but here with with, you know, having this anxiety and savoring it for me. OK, so a couple of years ago I found out that I have like an aneurysm. I had this like very like rare condition called Takayasu’s Arteritis. And so because of this, I have to, you know, I have to monitor it. And part of the monitoring is I have to keep my blood pressure down. And I worry I don’t have high blood pressure that so that’s not really like an issue. But I have to take lisinopril to make sure that it stays down. And so that anxiety, though, that we rely on that is a part of my work. That is a part of how I define myself. That raises blood pressure. And so, so and so there’s like this dilemma where again, I want this thing. I want that anxiety, I want that pressure, I want that feeling because it centers me, it keeps me grounded. It keeps me sane, I believe. But I also realize that getting too much of it could hurt me, physically now and, you know, and in in in a way that I kill me, literally.
Samantha: Well, now you’ve made it serious.
Damon: Well, I mean, this is one of the things where, you know. You know, existing while Black, you know, there are all of these, you know, we call them, they’re called micro aggressions, but, you know, that word doesn’t necessarily encapsulate the violence of some of the shit sometimes in how life threatening these feelings can be. You know, where we, you know, sometimes define ourselves by that anxiety or or remembering and being like a part of like a certain struggle, even if you don’t want the struggle, but just recognizing and having a relationship with it. But all of that shit adds up. All of that shit does, and that’s, you know, that that is why I mean, that’s the reason why one of the reasons why, you know, we talk about health outcomes and things of that nature, life expectancy, all that shit contributes to that. And so I asked myself, it’s like, well, would I rather be 15 percent less me if it extends my life by five percent more years?
Samantha: What have you decided?
Damon: I haven’t.
Person’s voice 1: I was a year out of college, I worked for a non-profit, my roommates and I would go out a lot. And we went to a club and I tried to pay the cover in coins. Somehow I got in.
Person’s voice 2: One time I had this girl, she wanted to buy some sexy underwear. So we went downtown Pittsburgh to one of those fancy department stores and old like building with gargoyles on it. And so we went in there and she bought this sexy underwear and it was really cool. And she was sort of like, oh, look, there’s the men’s section. And, you know, I got really nervous. And she was like, oh, check it out. Look, I love these. And they were like these boxer briefs. And I had never seen them. So I had a checkbook on me and this was before I even had a debit card. And so I put the underwear on the counter and the woman looked at my check and she said, I’m going to have to frank this check. And I had no idea who Frank was and what was going on. So she ran through this machine and this underwear was thirteen dollars and my check got rejected. We were on a mission to get her sexy underwear, and I destroyed that mission by not being able to afford the fucking drawers.
Damon: So I was still feeling kind of self-conscious about the whole Maserati thing, and my plan was to hit up some homies who’d get on this podcast and help me justify the decision. But no one picked up the phone. So instead, I called Mehrsa Baradaran, who’s a law professor at UC Irvine. And also the author of, The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap, which examines… Black banking in the racial wealth gap, like it says right there in the subtitle. But really I called her to unpack what growing up broke, in America, does to us.
Damon: So I have a confession to make to you. Getting you on this show was like a Trojan horse because, yeah, we’re talking about finances or money or whatever. But I need you to justify a purchase that I made. When I get the first check from my book deal in 2016, I bought a Maserati.
Mehrsa Baradaran: Wow. That’s awesome.
Damon: Yeah, I’m glad you responded that way because, yeah, because I, there’s a, there is, I know that I still feel the shame of growing up broke and I know that this is a very, like, obvious overcompensation for that shame I’ve since traded it in because I have two small kids and having two car seats in the back of that just was ridiculous. But basically, I want you to tell me that it was OK, that what I did, didn’t push my people back, you know, 200 years.
Mehrsa: I’m sorry that you felt that, because I think there’s nothing worse than feeling the shame and then feeling the shame after you’re trying to remedy the shame in the first place. I mean, you know, I think our relationship to things and money is very much psychological. You know, about the marshmallow test. It’s a long term study. These kids that were brought into this lab back in the day and the researcher says to the kid, you can have this marshmallow now or you can wait and I’m going to leave and come back. And if you wait until then, then you can have like three marshmallows or something some sort of treat. And it turns out after many, many years, the kids who waited for that second or third marshmallow were just better in life and had better grades and graduated and avoided substance abuse. And just like it’s like a sign of success, like delayed gratification. Turns out that a lot of the kids that get studied are Stanford professor kids. So wealthy, white and there’s this professor at Rochester, I think, who redid the study. I wish I knew here name, it was a woman, she did with poor kids, same test and measured – so one of the things that they do is that they can measure your heart rate so they can know if you’re making like a cool, rational decision versus a hot like I’m just going to take it decision. And and one of the things in the study was that for poor kids, the cool, rational, good decision is to eat that marshmallow because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. You don’t trust the sort of like lab-coated people to not lie to you because you have life experience. Right? You know, there’s a lot of studies like this where people misunderstand, like human reaction and reason, because they’re just measuring people who don’t have these other, like, things going on. So if you’re poor, the right decision is to buy the $300 sneakers.
Damon: Like, you know what? Yeah, you know, maybe we’re struggling a bit. But yeah, I have this thing about this really nice shirt that I wanted and I just feel good today. I feel good today while I’m wearing it. You should be able to be allowed to feel good about these things.
Mehrsa: And these purchases are when we’re talking about the racial wealth gap, these purchases are like drops in the bucket of the difference. So if we’re talking about the equity that white families have versus Black families, we’re now talking about, we’re talking about like 30 Maserati’s here, like per family. It’s not like coming down to sneakers and watches and stuff like that. There is not an amount of material goods that would make up that difference. We are talking about legacies of of privilege and power.
Damon: Yeah, and, you know, and this conversation or I guess this narrative of personal responsibility has existed for for for centuries also, where if we, you know, saved better or if we were more prudent or if we were more responsible, you know, that we would, you know, fare better financially. And the reality is that we could do all that stuff and we’ve been doing all of that stuff.
Mehrsa: I mean, the data shows this actually and poverty heightens your sense of money, inflow and outflow. Ask any poor person how much money they have in their bank account, how much do their groceries cost this month. And they’ve done these studies. And even simple as like outside the grocery store, you ask a middle class or high wealth shopper, how much did you just spend and pick out a few items? How much was this? And they have no idea. And you ask a poor person and they know exactly how much the total was. They know exactly how much these things cost. And so tell me about financial education, like who needs to be educated on money? And the same with payday loans. Well, that’s stupid don’t take out a high interest loan. Well, what what are the options? I could get kicked out. I get evicted. I’ve got kids, right. Their safety and sense of well-being versus I could go take out $500 and stay another month and try to make it up with wages or whatever. So these are rational decisions.
Damon: I mean, I’m just thinking about, you know, and I’ve been fortunate in the last four or five years where my financial circumstances have changed pretty drastically. And I recall, like a couple of years ago, something happened. I put on a pair of pants. And I found two twenty dollar bills. Now, I have I have found money before, like a dollar or a five dollar bill, some change, but I had never been in a circumstance where $40 was missing and I had no idea where it was. And again, as you were saying, that’s a luxury of middle class and that’s one of those invisible luxuries that people, you know, who who experience it, you know, don’t necessarily realize is a privilege, is a luxury. Because when I didn’t have any money, I knew if you were to decide to stop me in the street how much money you have? Um, 38 dollars and 16 cents are in my bank account right now.
Mehrsa: I think when people talk about financial education at the policy level, this is where I think it matters. And this is where I spend a lot of time. There are people who have no sense of what it’s like to be poor. And what I try to explain about poverty and I don’t know what it’s like to be Black and poor. I don’t know what it’s like to be vulnerable to violence. I can imagine because I have had experiences in my life, I can’t explain to you as a woman what it’s like to feel like your body potentially being the site of violence. I can feel that. I think the idea of that sort of knowledge is, is it is an earned knowledge that a lot of policymakers don’t have. It’s what they see as poverty is them with less money. And where poverty is, is a whole ecosystem of worries and stresses and interactions and feelings of self-esteem, like you said, performance that people cannot understand unless you’re in it.
Damon: So I guess this is where I’m supposed to share all that I’ve learned, and that my relationship with money is toxic and ain’t my fault. And since it’s toxic and ain’t my fault, I should be able to fix it. I should want to fix it. But here I am, today, telling y’all about my deepest insecurities and shames.
And yeah, I’m doing it because I’m trying to figure things out about myself and tell a larger story about Black America through a deeply personal one. And sure, I’m hoping that getting to the root of some of these vulnerabilities and contradictions will make me a better writer. (And maybe a better person too, but I don’t really give a shit about that.)
But I can do all of that stuff on my own. Off mic. I’m here, speaking to y’all, because I’m getting paid to. I’m addicted to making money. And not just money to live and eat, but the upcharge money, where I can get shrimp on a salad and not blink, NBA League Pass money, new tattoo money, and, yeah, cheapest Maserati money. Yeah, yeah, yeah I know, it’s not my fault. I know this addiction is a consequence of centuries of plunder, of indoctrination, of socialization, of white supremacy. And I know it could be snatched away as quickly as it came. It’s hard out here right now. Which should make me more into saving money than performing with it. That would be smart. That would be mature. Maybe that would even reduce the stress and the pressure I feel about making it.
The problem is that spending money is a stress reliever. Yeah, I’m killing myself to make it, but buying shit with it keeps me alive. I mean shit, if every day’s a rainy day, and we’re all gonna drown eventually anyway, why not have some fun before the flood?
Damon: Stuck with Damon Young is a Spotify Original Podcast from Gimlet and Crooked Media. It’s hosted and written by me, Damon Young.
Ruben Davis is our Executive Producer. Our producers are Ashley Velez, Morgan Moody, Carlton Gillespie, Priscilla Alabi, Stephen Hoffman, and Corinne Gilliard.
Mixing and Sound Design by Jesse Naus, Charlotte Landes, and Veronica Simonetti.
Theme Music and Score by Open Mike Eagle.
From Crooked Media, our Executive Producers are Tanya Somanader, Sarah Geismer, and Katie Long. From Gimlet, our Executive Producers are Rosie Guerin, Krystal Hawes-Dressler, Collin Campbell, and Lydia Polgreen.