Up until October of 2011, I lived a privileged life. My father was an attorney in private practice making six figures, while my mom worked only because her job provided us with good health coverage. I grew up in a wealthy Detroit suburb, went to excellent public schools and was a member of not one, but two private clubs; one with a golf course, the other with a private bowling alley. I never had to work and I drove a new car that my parents paid for. Life was good.


James Brennan

In October of 2011, things changed.

My father, battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, suddenly passed away at the age of 58. As wealthy as we were, we hadn’t planned for this. Very quickly, my family’s finances collapsed and we were smacked across the face with reality. Money had never been a real point of worry, but all of the sudden we had lost our house to foreclosure and the cash available to pay for school, housing and even food started to dry up.

Money has turned into a constant worry for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive large grants and scholarships to pay for school, as well as work-study opportunities to help subsidize further costs. This is great, and I’m incredibly thankful for it, but I still live in constant fear. I’m afraid that my family’s status for need-based aid will be revoked, and I’m nervous that every time state support to the University is cut, it’s my tuition money going out the window.

When in the past I never had to worry about having a job, I now feel a need to maintain multiple sources of income to save up, especially in case my mom or my sister needs an emergency loan. I’m disgustingly frugal when buying food and filling my gas tank, and every time I eat out, go to a bar, or buy something I don’t absolutely need to survive, I’m overcome by guilt.

As I begin planning a career of practicing law, it’s become increasingly apparent that the mantra “it’s not about money” isn’t quite so simple. My goal since I was 17 was to become a civil rights lawyer, brushing away notions I had as a kid that I wanted to be extremely rich one day. Now, it’s hard not to notice my mouth water as I read about associates at the top firms who pull in upwards of $200,000 their first year. Having that kind of money would certainly be nice. While the younger me would see a six figure paycheck as a path to bespoke suits and driving a Mercedes, I now have much less exciting ideas about using my money.

Former banker Sam Polk wrote an article last month about his time in finance, coming from a family that lived paycheck to paycheck. Upon receiving his first bonus of $40,000, he remarked that he was thrilled, writing, “For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to check my balance before I withdrew money.” Forget the expensive shoes, the nice apartment and the lavish meals — that’s what I crave.

With that kind of money, I could eat out and fill my gas tank without justifying it to myself. I could afford to visit friends and family or go on vacation without saving up for months on end. Maybe I would even buy a nice watch for myself just to remember what I had before my dad died. But in all honesty, the thing I fantasize about most of all is the day when I’m “financially secure.” When my loans are paid off, I have a place to live, and my savings account is big enough to pay for any trouble my family may run into. I want to be able to eat Chipotle without feeling guilty, and I want to be able to afford health insurance and a house for my mom.

As challenging and stressful as life has been the past few years, it has made me realize I will never be unappreciative of what I have. The lessons I’ve learned have been worth more than any paycheck, and I still live a great life with much to be thankful for. I may very well return the 1 percent one day, accepting a short stint as a corporate lawyer before trying to save the world. It kills me a little inside because I feel like I’m chasing money, but as my sister always reminds me, I’m not; I’m chasing a sense of security.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.

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