Money Is Hard To Enjoy When You Grew Up Poor

The currency connecting me with my mother, my partner, and Florence and the Machine

Photo: Tony Cordoza/Getty Images

AA year before I was born, my mom left the Comoro Islands — an archipelago northwest of Madagascar — and half my family to start a better life in France. My early childhood memories are hazy, but I know we lived at the bottom of the wealth pyramid and had to rely on charities to get the bare minimum, like accommodation and food.

Growing up poor, I believed we could spend money solely in three ways. First, we needed money for accommodation and food, the bare minimum for us to survive. Second, I knew money could bring comfort. That kind of privilege could go from a new TV, video game console, or a bigger fridge, all the way to new bedsheets, an indulgent bedtime snack, or a memory card for a PlayStation 2 — I still don’t know how my mom acquired that. Third, money could provide experiences. I grew up believing this kind of spending was abstract, intangible, and a waste of money. From traveling the world to going to the cinema, spending money on things you couldn’t keep or hold felt pointless.

As a penniless first-generation immigrant, I convinced myself that the value of currency meant the power to buy. Poverty crippled me with tunnel vision that allowed my brain only one option — survival first. I believed the more stuff we had eventually, the happier we would become.

MyMy partner and I took the train to Paris to watch Florence and the Machine perform their second to last show of the “High as Hope” Tour in Europe. Barefoot in her pale pink lingerie gown, lead singer Florence Welch walked, spun, and leaped across the stage with a fierceness matching that of a spirit possession.

People have many nicknames for Florence, but the one I like the most is “kindred spirit”; it implies that the way she connects with her audience is universal but unique at the same time for every fan. Her soft voice clashes with her formidable range, as she goes from vehemently singing about toxic masculinity to timidly twiddling her fingers when she tells us to hold the hand of someone we don’t know in the crowd and say we love them.

A Florence concert is a ride I wish was endless.

My partner cries in the middle of Florence’s first song. Her tears join the corners of her smile, and I think, If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here. Thank you.

II met my Slovak partner at a French café, where she hosted conversations in English with people from all over Europe. Like me, she didn’t grow up in a wealthy family. Unlike me, she traveled a whole lot.

We bonded over our lack of money, and she assured me that she used every means imaginable to travel at the lowest price for the best experiences. She did it all, from exchange programs to working abroad to voluntary service to sharing a room with an indecent amount of roommates. Still, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that a person of little means could afford to spend any amount of money on something she didn’t necessarily need to survive. Why waste time and money on something you might only get once? To me, the admission to once-in-a-lifetime experiences was simply overpriced.

The relationship my partner has with music is one of a kind. A former flute player in an orchestra, she performed in countless recitals and became a highly praised musical talent. She lives and breathes music festivals, and she’d go to many more concerts if she had the means.

I didn’t understand her thinking. My mindset about live music events was cynical and simple: If you can listen to artists’ songs on Spotify, why blow over 200 bucks on train and concert tickets to hear the same songs?

But Florence and the Machine is her favorite band. And I love her.

HHalfway through “Dog Days Are Over,” Florence warned us that she was about to ask us to do something vulnerable. “Put your phone away,” she playfully said.

I would usually roll my eyes at something like this, but already enamored by her music and ethereal persona, I smiled and watched glowing lights dim out across the arena. For the duration of one song, raw and unrecorded, we lived in a pocket universe just for us and experienced something so special that I still don’t want to give it away. And by the end of the song, I realized that moment transcended money worries.

Then the concert ended, and my partner and I left only to get attacked by men with the official “High as Hope” Tour poster the moment we stepped out of the arena. “Two euros! Two euros for a poster!” they yelled. “You don’t wanna miss it! Buy it for the memories!”

I realized at that moment that we did live in a pocket universe. Outside of it, daily lives were still unfolding, with a handful of people aiming to profit off the ones who could afford to press pause on their daily lives for a live show. (And yes, we bought the poster. It was two euros!)

When I shared our concert experience with my family, my nine-year-old sister asked my mother if they could go to a show, too. “I don’t have that kind of money,” my mom told her. My mother’s money pays for hundreds of euros’ worth of groceries to feed a family of four while calmly overlooking the bank account overdraft halfway through the month. Her budget can pay rent, made affordable only thanks to government financial aid. Yet here I am, telling her about a Florence and the Machine concert.

She told me she knew I’d gained a new outlook on money since I moved out over a year ago. I told her that 100 euros could leave my pocket so quickly I never have time to appreciate the fruits of my labor as a student working 15 to 24 hours a week. She smiled that smile that told me she completely understood.

My sister interjected that although she knew she couldn’t use it for a concert, she had 1,000 euros in her bank account. “Now that is a lot!” she said excitedly. My mom and I smiled at her with love, kindness, and hope that she’ll live better than we do now.

PPeople say when you have sex for the first time, you feel like everyone is staring at you. When you smoke weed and come back to your parents’ house, you can’t shake off the idea that they know you’re high. So the day after the concert, I unconsciously expect everyone to notice I’ve changed. That night, I wrote in my notebook: Hundreds of people pass us by every day. I wonder how many of them had a life-changing experience the day before?

On my way to class, as I listened to “Only If For A Night,” I thought that my mother believes I lead a lavish lifestyle now. She started her life in Paris with nothing and raised me with a little bit more. Two decades later, I got to return to Paris to enjoy a concert.

At the end of that month, my bank account was in overdraft — the first time that had happened. I freaked out about it until I received my paycheck a week later, but the sight of my negative balance also triggered the memory of the experience I lived. For once, happiness became the narrative behind the overdraft, not struggle. The thought helped my guilt take a backseat.

But I can’t fully romanticize my lifestyle yet. I still place immeasurable value on the stuff I buy. I obsessively check my bank account multiple times a day — even when I haven’t spent money on anything — to make sure money is still there. After eating fast food, I sometimes catch myself feeling guilty about wasting three hours’ worth of wages on the meal. And when my account is in overdraft, I spiral and find myself thinking the stupidest things like, If I didn’t buy that video game with the 30 euros my aunt gave me on my 10th birthday, I wouldn’t be in this financial situation right now. It’s funny, and it’s stupid, but I know a lot of people who grew up poor can relate to this thought. Though poverty crippled me with tunnel vision about how I spend my money, I now allow myself to contemplate the peripheral, and it doesn’t feel out of my reach anymore.

The guilt associated with spending money on things I don’t need at the moment sometimes resurfaces when I think about my mom, but the feeling is becoming different. In my heart, I know I will never regret that concert — and the experience it created for me and my girlfriend.

Sometimes, money spent is well worth it.

English graduate student and freelance writer based in France. Words at Level, Elemental, Gen, Human Parts, etc. Email: abderemane.m.assad@gmail.com

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