why you should save your tax refund.

As featured on The Billfold.

When I was much younger (and much stupider), I dated a guy who was twenty years older than me.

I was eighteen. I worked at a gelato shop. I drove a Volvo that was born the same year I was. It had been my mom’s and then my brother’s and then mine. It would overheat every 50 miles, so I had to keep a gallon of water in the backseat. As soon as I saw the smoke, I would pull over, grab the gallon of water, pop the hood and pour the water a hole in the engine to cool it down.

My dad even put a little sticker near it: “Pour water here.”

My boyfriend was a pilot in his thirties who lived alone in a beautiful two-bedroom condo. He shopped at Nordstrom’s and drove a BMW and bought a caramel latte from Starbucks every day on his way to work. Some days I would wake up alone at his house. On his dining room table, there would be few twenties with a note that said, “Sorry I can’t spend the day with you. Go have some fun.” (If you’re wondering – and I don’t blame you – I always left it there).

One day in April I went to his house after school to find him with a giant grin on his face.

“Come here,” he said. “I want to show you something.”

His entire bed was covered in twenty dollar bills. He had just gotten his tax refund. He had gone to the bank, deposited the check, and withdrawn all seven thousand dollars in twenties. And then spread it all over his bed and waited for his child-girlfriend to come over after school.

Somewhere out there is a picture of eighteen-year-old me, in love, lying under a blanket of cash like a kid buried in the sand.

Here’s what we did – we gathered up every one of those twenties and we took that money out for a night on the town.

We bought a flat screen TV ($1999) and had a nice dinner ($130), then headed to Ikea for a new leather sectional ($2800), a new bed ($650), a coffee table ($389) and a sheepskin rug ($450). He paid for delivery ($250). On the way home, we bought a $100 bottle of tequila, a pair of Prada sunglasses for me ($200), and, I kid you not, men’s jeans with sparkly decals on the pockets ($299).

Six hours later, all the money was gone.

We drank tequila on his new sheepskin rug and watched reality TV on his giant flat screen. I thought: So this is adulthood. I thought: I could get used to this. 

A few months later, talking about our July 4th plans, I asked him to drive to the coast to meet me and my friends.

“I can’t,” he said. “I don’t have the money.”

He didn’t have $100 for gas. His car payment and rent had caught up with him, and his credit cards were maxed out. 

“Why have you been spending all this money on clothes and eating out and furniture if you didn’t have enough to pay your bills?” I asked.

He said that I had no idea about money. That I was just a kid with no fucking clue about the real world. “You can’t have everything you want, Emma,” he said. “Your mommy and daddy won't give you money forever. You’ll learn that when you’re an adult.” 

This was nearly ten years ago but I remember it exactly. We were driving in his BMW and the leather seats were burning hot. I stared out the open window and thought: I know more about money than this man ever will.

I lent him the $100. I had been working all along at the gelato shop, saving my paychecks. Driving my Volvo with the water jug.

He broke up with me over email a week later. I was heartbroken at the time, but the past decade has given me a little perspective. When you’re in your late thirties and your teenage girlfriend is lecturing you about money, you’ve pretty much hit rock bottom. 

No problem, I emailed him back. You can send me a cashier's check for the gas money I lent you. I sold the Prada sunglasses the next day on eBay. Put the money into my Roth IRA. 

Ten years later and It's tax season again. Everyone around me is bubbling with excitement about how to spend their refunds. Home improvement, vacations, a new car. Maybe you are, too. Or maybe you want to withdraw all that cash, spread it over your bed, and roll in it.

I think about my ex-boyfriend every year, around tax time. In the past ten years, has he saved any money? Does he still have that couch and that rug? Is he driving home from the bank right now, stacks of twenties in the passenger seat, ready to be spread across the bed?