I was driving down the road the other day and a snippet of “And I’m Telling You (I’m Not Going)” from Dreamgirls came on the radio and I sang along with all the gusto a person who can’t hit a single note in the song can give. I was transported back to the first time I saw the play: 18 years old, tucked high in the balcony of the Fox Theatre in Atlanta with my equally theatre-obsessed girlfriend, and completely broke because I had spent my entire paycheck and then some on the ticket to the play.
This wasn’t a special event for me. At 18, I was constantly broke. I had a part-time job but as soon as I got paid, I cashed my paycheck and spent the whole thing on plays, concerts, live music, meals out, and clothes (or at least as much of those things as you could get on $45 a week). Eventually, I decided it was smarter to start saving for the future and starting spending my money more wisely, but, looking back now, I’m not so sure it was all that smart to give up the things that made me happy. In fact, I can think of five ways that 18-year-old Katy was smarter than I am now.
1. I spent my money on experiences
As a grown-up, I started saving my money so I could buy substantial things: a house, furniture, a lawnmower, a really nice grill. Eighteen-year-old Katy cared not for these things. I spent my money on experiences: a night at a play, a concert I wanted to see, a great live band, a meal with friends. I knew intuitively then what studies have since shown: experiences make us happier than possessions. The TV armoire I wanted desperately and saved for as a grown-up got kicked to the curb a few years later when styles changed and I couldn’t even give it away. The time I saw Dreamgirls at 18 is still making me smile some 30-plus years later.
2. I read. Anything and Everything. All. The. Time.
I must say, in full disclosure, that a large chunk of my reading came as part of the great southern tradition of laying out – where I would slather myself in various baby oil concoctions and lie on a lawn chair in my backyard for hours at a time. This, I will admit, was not smart. But I read so much while doing it. I also read in bed, in the bathtub, on the sofa, and in the car (not while driving). If I was really into a book, I’d spend the whole day reading it.
I read a lot of total crap, like all of the Flowers in the Attic series. (Note: I just discovered that’s not true. How many books do we really need to cover this issue?) But I also fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read everything he wrote. The same for Mark Twain and John Irving. Even now with the kids out of the house I don’t have the time or the inclination to spend a full day just reading like I would do then. I miss that.
3. I spent a lot of time with my friends
Those experiences I was having? I was having them with my friends. We were together nearly every night. Let’s contrast that to a time in my 30s when I suddenly realized that I couldn’t think of a single time in the previous three months when I had hung out with anyone who wasn’t a relative. You need your friends, even when — especially when — you’re in the thick of the kid-raising part of your life.
4. I ate what I wanted when I wanted and I enjoyed the hell out of everything I ate
Sure, even at 18, I sometimes dieted and thought I was “too fat”, but when I had the pizza with everything or the amazing steak, I ate with guilt-free enjoyment and gusto. I’m sitting here now thinking fondly of loaded nachos with sour cream. When did we stop being friends, nachos? I miss having you in my life. This is one aspect of my 18-year-old self that I’m not sure I can get back. My 54-year-old body seems to require constant vigilance just to maintain the status quo and when I do indulge it’s so hard to turn off the voice in my heading telling me I’m going to pay.
5. I took care of me first
If I was sleepy, I took a nap. If I tried something and didn’t like it, I quit. If I didn’t feel like doing anything, I unapologetically sat around doing nothing. We so often hear the advice to put your own oxygen mask on first, but how many of us really follow it? I sure didn’t when I was raising my kids. And I was frequently grumpy and irritable with them. Even worse, I can look back now and see times when I mishandled situations because I was too busy or tired to see what was really going on. If I had taken better care of myself, I could have been a better parent.
And one area in which I could have used a bit more wisdom
My hair. The mullet. The perm. Why? Why? Why?