Have I made my point clear? I think I have. I have spent a lot of my life reading women’s magazines. Not as much as some of my colleagues—those who have been on staff instead of having extended freelance stretches like I have, those who work harder and more intently than I have, those who have simply been in the workforce longer—but I think it’s fair to say I’m in the top 1% of the population as far as taking in women’s magazines goes.
I still work in them in some ways—pinch-hitting in the copy editing department, penning the occasional piece—and I’m generally happy to do so, because as much as I’m critical of the velvet steamroller of women’s magazines, I’m also supportive of them in many ways. My ambivalence on the world of women’s magazines could fill a blog of its own, but suffice to say: I support what they do, and I want them to do with aplomb, and I also know that until we have a societal sea change, there will always be a stopping point in how far they can go toward truly serving their readers in all aspects of their lives.
Anyway. I’ve broadened my copy editing client base in the past couple of years to include publications outside of women’s magazines. One of those clients was a personal finance magazine, which meant I went from proofing columns about the difference between lip balm, lip stain, and lipstick to proofing columns about fixed annuities, variable annuities, and perpetuities. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed it—the copy could be as dry as the Mojave—but certainly it was educational, and I came away from it knowing much more about personal finance than I had when I started.
The first week or so that I worked on this material, it only made sense to apply what I was reading to my own finances. I transferred my short-term savings to an account with a higher interest rate; I double-checked my bank fees; I eventually even rebalanced my IRA portfolio. But the fact is, I’m unmarried, child-free, and lazy; my entire financial empire could fit in a shoebox. There’s only so much I could do to check up on my finances, you know?
Not that that stopped me. I started repeatedly checking the balances of my checking and savings account. Daily. Not because I was going to do anything to them—no transfers, no withdrawals, no deposits—but because I just wanted to make sure that what I thought was there, was there. It wasn’t a conscious decision I made; it just naturally happened that midway through reading an article about saving, I’d have to stop reading immediately and look at the number on my savings account to make sure it hadn’t magically changed in the past, oh, 18 hours.
A brief aside about my temperament: I’ve been blessed with a relative lack of anxiety about money. Part of this is sheer privilege—a largely middle-class upbringing and the accompanying assumption that I’d go to college and land in a field that would allow me comfort, if not wealth. My father grooves on finance stuff—indeed, his lifelong career was in the financial end of health-care systems on Indian reservations—so while I’m lazy in handling my finances, I grew up with the idea that dealing with money matters could be a source of satisfaction (which, in me, mostly manifested itself in a love of filling coin rolls. Better ’n’ Quaaludes! So relaxing). When I’ve been under financial duress, I’ve usually had few problems adjusting my budget; while I’m not the best saver on the planet, neither am I the greatest spender. Basically, while I get the occasional jolt of nerves about money like anyone, overall it’s just not on my worry list.
Yet there I was, checking my balances daily, sometimes more than once a day, almost ritualistically. Seeing the number I expected to see soothed me, allowed me to take a deep breath and remind me that the world was in order, or at least my world was in order.
At a certain point I realized that my “sudden” need to check in on my bank balances was directly correlated to the content I was reading all day. Reading about how to improve my financial life did a little to actually make my financial life better, yes. But the number-one thing it did was instill in me an anxiety about my finances—an anxiety that was either latent or nonexistent before. Surrounding myself with personal finance material for eight hours a day for only a few months, off and on, had done something to me. Nobody else was making withdrawals or deposits to my accounts; nobody else was making transfers. I was the only one whose hands touched my money, but somehow that knowledge was no longer enough. My incessant checking of my bank accounts reflected a loss of trust in myself—a trust I didn’t even recognize I had until it was gone.
And once I’d realized where this sudden compulsion came from—and more importantly, once I’d stopped working for that magazine and quickly went back to checking my account balances monthly instead of daily—well, surely you already know what I wondered next: Maybe what you’ve spent the past 13 years reading has done something to you too.