Untethered: I Can’t Stop Talking About Money

It feels like everyone talks and does not talk about money, especially now, especially while we wade knee-deep through inflation that I believe is not so much inflation but rather price-gouging.

I’ve written about wondering whether I should stay in Pittsburgh now that family ties in nearby Buffalo have diminished, and I’ve written about traveling to Thailand and Japan.

There was only one truly shocking thing about Japan for me: the sheer disparity between the economic reality on the ground in Tokyo and the propaganda I’d absorbed over the years. Tokyo’s a major city, so it must be expensive. Also, apparently, people work all the time, constantly, to death. The reality? Food was cheap as hell compared to the US. And the people? Sure, they went to work, but the day seemed to, for many, start a little later to accommodate later nights. I was hard pressed to find a coffee shop open before 9 a.m. And every night, I watched groups of friends as they went out to eat, drink, and otherwise enjoy life. Public services were abundant: easy-to-find bathrooms, frequently running trains, and pedestrian walkways crossing busy intersections and sidewalks threaded across a city larger than Los Angeles. In talking to a former salaryman — who did indeed leave that life and career because it was killing him — he told me he’d worked with people in businesses from countries around the world, but “no one is as hard-working as Americans.” To which, I responded, “because if we lose our jobs, we can die.” Of course, nowhere’s perfect, but it was obvious that everyday entertainment was reasonably accessible for a lot of people, and that even one of Japan’s notoriously overworked ex-salarymen thought Americans might be overdoing it.

When I hear about people moving to Pittsburgh, they often have similar narratives for their why, at least in my circles. It’s too expensive where they were living — no hope of anything but forking over half their paycheck or more on rent, no hope of ever buying a house or saving for something else or finding a cheap room with queer roommates, or where they came from is more or less similarly priced, but a smaller city with much more limited gender affirming healthcare resources. The reasons are almost always economic.

Through a witches’ brew of tax season, multiple deaths, and the constant hum of precarity that rattles the bones of me and everyone around me, money easily worms its way into conversations. I’m writing this from the back of a beater car where a few people are heading up from Providence, RI to see a 29-year-old in hospice in a VA hospital in Boston. We convened at a second-hand comic and record store because one person was putting some old Nintendo games for sale on consignment.

“There’s even tent cities in Providence, now.”

Over coffee with a friend, she tells me how she and her partner got a loan to consolidate credit card debt. I talk with a coworker about partners whom we’ve thanklessly helped pay off student loan debt or supported during their MFA’s. Local signal groups pass around word about ultra-temporary jobs: whether someplace needs someone to work the door that night or to jump in and bar back, when a stadium is putting out a call for people to load out after a big concert. “Recession-core” trends on TikTok and people on there who like to analyze such things mention that neutral and beige colors come back into style during times of economic distress. I clean up renovation debris and take out a loan to cover the cost of electricians and wonder if I should get a roommate when I’ve got the spare bedroom fixed up enough.

Sometimes, I read Refinery29’s money diaries. I marvel at either the thriftiness or the way expenses seem to inflate as the anonymous interviewees disclose their dizzyingly high incomes. I mostly look at the costs of food, of utilities. Groceries, especially, are of interest because a person can only eat so much. Recently, Literary Hub put out their own version. One thing that struck me was the number of writers who were partnered with someone they share expenses with in their money diaries — it was all of them. It brought me back to that viral essay in The Cut about “age-gaps” that was really, actually about marrying rich and heterosexually.

One major aspect of my journey into intentionally stepping off the “relationship escalator” — the impetus for this column — that I don’t think I’ve talked about much has been the way it’s felt to only be financially responsible for myself. Whether it was my ex-husband yelling at me because the wage for a new job I was offered was for ”too little” or trying to budget with my ex-girlfriend in the year before the pandemic started when we both made next to no money and there wasn’t really anything to budget when your “fun money” for the month is $10 each, I always had to negotiate money with someone else. Not doing that is a kind of freedom. It’s not a freedom to take risks in the same way a person can if they have a life partner who can hold them up when they do so, but at the end of the day, if I have to make weird pantry dinners for a while to cover an unexpected bill or if I want to be irresponsible about something, I don’t have to talk to anyone about it.

On the other hand, in all of these articles about marrying rich, about having dual incomes, and in real life examples like the married lesbian couple I know who took turns putting each other through grad school, it’s clear that the systems in place are somewhat set up to punish people going through life on a more solo path. I once watched a coworker rage quit in a toxic work environment, then go home to her boyfriend who worked in tech who then supported her while she started her own consulting business. I was living without a partner at the time (but with roommates) and had to stay in that same job for months longer than her while I looked for another. People who’ve been single for a long time will be like “yeah, Nico, we know,” but there’s no denying that economic realities kept me in a toxic work environment, or, on the flipside, in my abusive marriage and the relationship before it was a marriage. I’ll never forget looking for a room, a space in San Francisco to move out into, one time when I was really trying to leave, and after the last room-in-a-shared apartment showing I went to went so horribly wrong I was actually worried about my physical safety, I just broke down and convinced myself I was being crazy and stayed.

On the other hand, the accumulation of the effects of all my long-term relationships has been a complete lack of savings. So, even as I draw up budgets and cut costs and find ways to build that up as best I can, I can’t quite figure out what is actually financially wiser or better or easier — being solo, finding a partner or partners to live with, collective housing or roommates or keeping my only roommate to the one ghost who lives with me. Ultimately, with the way that money is threaded through every choice I’ve ever made and the way it’s clearly inextricable from partnership (to the point where some people are basing how they choose or seek partners on social status or finances), from choice, from freedom, finding the best path is actually starting to look like burning it all down. And until we can do away with the pressures placed on all of us by late stage Capitalism, I’ll keep trying to thread that needle.

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Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 226 articles for us.


    • Rylie, thank you. And also, just to note, I’m not nearly, broadly speaking, as crushed by Capitalism as others. It’s definitely, certainly, uneven in its crushing, and uneven by design. (Probably why this sounds so familiar / like what other queers you know have experienced.)

  1. Loved reading this, as I have also been thinking about it. I am recently single, currently in grad school full time (we split up 3/4 way through my first year), and my ex graduated from grad school 2 months before I quit my job for grad school. We had taken turns on who had disposable income, and I can’t help but wonder how my approach to money would be different if I quit my job for school as a single person. I am very grateful to have had a significant amount of savings before I quit and the immense privilege of family members willing to help financially, which I know is not the case for a lot of people! I would be in a much different position if I had to navigate housing and expenses without any savings or family assistance with no full-time job and a massive tuition bill, so much so that I probably would have had to drop out. There were many huge career/education decisions I made based on the future with my ex that are no longer important; I don’t regret any of it, but that’s the reality of life.

    • Oh Rachel, I’m glad you had savings and support at least, but that’s a crappy situation and I’m sorry! Wishing you tons of luck as you continue with grad school.

  2. Yes, TRUTH! It just sucks that the reality of life in the US is work or die. Literally. If you get injured, sick or can’t pay your bills there is no system to help us. In 150+ other countries all citizens have universal healthcare, and if you go to a hospital ER there are no fees. Here in the US, medical debt must be paid even after you go bankrupt or die. In 29 other countries you can get a free college education.

    Why do we protect and care for corporations and banks, and care nothing for people? Yes, that’s capitalism, but so many other countries do it better than us. Lets do it better please America! Rise up!

    Thanks Nico, for your vulnerability and sharing.

    • Absolute truth. I’m not super in favor of doing Capitalism “better” (noting that commerce and trade are not necessarily Capitalism), but for sure, the US is, as a project, attempting to squeeze us all so tight that we’re forced to work forever is so messed. And with many people (and I’m very lucky here because I’m not among them as someone who likes my job) forced to labor for unfair wages or under unfair contracts and in poor conditions just to survive, things look pretty bleak sometimes. But we have each other!

  3. Fistbump from the UK’s cost-of-living crisis. I strongly agree that there’s a lot of profiteering going on in these so-called inevitable price rises.

    I’m a disabled abuse survivor who bitterly regrets leaving my abuser because now I’m trapped in damp, mouldy social housing (Environmental Health doesn’t care; lord knows many of us neighbours have tried to get something done) with skyrocketing rent, but can’t risk applying for Housing Benefit because then I’d get pushed off disability-specific benefits and onto Universal Credit, the rubbish system all our separate benefits in the UK are slowly being dissolved into, and which would force me into working more than the very limited amount my health allows.

    Meanwhile, the NHS is falling apart (especially in my corner of the UK, where our regional government collapsed for a while so no budgetary decisions could be made) and I worry about the medical testing that’s now two years late. Don’t even ask about people’s access to trans healthcare here.

    So many people are living in precarity because the system sees people who are poor, disabled or both as subhuman – which makes it acceptable to pursue hostile economic policies against us. This whole economic system is defective by design, and someone up there is getting rich off us all.

    • Thank you Danni. Yeah, when people are like “why didn’t you just leave?” so many people could answer “with what money?” I’m sorry that you’re stuck in such tight circumstances right now. And Lordy about the mold and the damp and even working together with your neighbors not helping. I’ll be thinking of you.

      And yes, the very very wealthy are only getting wealthier as all this continues.

      From this article which also links to a report on world wealth inequality “”If there is one lesson to be learnt from the global investigation carried out in this report, it is that inequality is always political choice,” said Lucas Chancel, co-director of the Paris School of Economics’ World Inequality Lab and lead author of the report, in a statement.”

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