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My First Big Paycheck: Why I Spent It On A Moby Dick Tattoo

How a frivolous purchase taught me to ignore my financial anxiety

Our first paychecks are often the most memorable. In this GOOD Money series, people share the details of their first career splurge—the first time they made real money and how they spent it.

When I was a teenager, saving money was easy. I grew up in the Wales countryside, in a small town of around 2000 people. Frankly, there wasn’t much of anything to spend your money on. We weren’t poor, I don’t think (though I imagine we had our fair share of credit cards), but we weren’t rich either. The kind of high-price things that people I knew spent their money on—video games, nice trainers, new phones—I never thought were within my own financial reach, so I never developed an interest in them. The money I made from a weekend job washing dishes or from a birthday, or even from the loose change I squirrelled away, I deposited into a post office bank account routinely. At one point, I had upwards of £1000 put away.

Whatever savings I had, I always put into music. This was the profession I had decided I wanted to pursue, so I used my money to lay the groundwork: £300 on a Tascam 8-track; £200 on two decent microphones; £600 on a Fender Telecaster; £300 on a nice amp; plus £10 here and there on cables, microphone stands, and other associated recording detritus—totaling about $1,900 in American dollars. The only thing that was free was the recording software, a Dorling Kindersley package called The Hit Kit that I got for Christmas one year. Buoyed by the birth of Myspace, and the kind of American lo-fi indie folk that sounded like it had been specifically made with as little money as possible, I felt as if I had the tools to start building something. The money I spent I treated as an investment in myself.

While this was a pretty luxurious way to spend adolescence, it wasn’t the best prep for the real world—and by real world, I mean, the financial black hole that is London, where I moved for university at age 18. I went from money quietly stacking up well into the hundreds, to the total opposite, accruing debt—and all the anxieties associated with it. This period in my life coincided with the first time I’d started making semiregular money from music—an album sale here, some door money there—but it was so minimal that it immediately got swallowed up by the city. I slogged it out for several years, playing small London shows here and there, with no suggestion that it would ever be a financially viable career.

Slowly, I began to associate financial anxiety with music and, over time, this passion stopped being fun. I remember playing a small gig in South Wales, and throughout my whole set, I couldn’t muster any kind of enthusiasm whatsoever. When I returned to London from that tour, I left my guitar in my case, canceled my upcoming shows, and went back to the drawing board for a while. I’d self-defined as a musician for most of my life—that’s what everyone knew me as—but it still felt like the right thing to do. Not an early retirement, more a fallow year to let the land regrow.

In that time, I didn’t play a lot of music, but instead listened to more than I had in years in an attempt to try and remember why I enjoyed doing it in the first place. The following year, I got signed by an independent record label. I needed to create a music video, so some friends and I scrabbled together a tiny budget, somewhere in the region of £500, and made a 9-minute monologue-come-music video based on one of my songs. We entered the video in a filmmaking competition run by the London School of English—it was not that prestigious, nor well advertised, but we thought maybe we could win a cash prize to make up for what we’d spent. We came in second.

After everything had been split, I went home with £400 (roughly $514) the biggest payday I’d ever had from something I’d done musically. It was also the first time since I’d moved away from home that I had a surplus of cash that I didn’t immediately have to hand over to the city.

That’s the thing about London. It’s full of artists who give so much to it, but get very little in return. And yet, they do it anyway, because there’s something in them telling them it’s important, or it’s part of them, or something. I think I lost that, but with that money—a small vindication that there was maybe a future in these creative pursuits after all—I felt it coming back. I needed to bottle that feeling.

I’ve always liked the idea of tattoos as milestones, but that financial anxiety had prevented me from adding more to the one I got as a teenager. This fleeting moment of financial freedom seemed like the perfect time to go back under the needle again.

I’d wanted a whale on my arm ever since reading Moby Dick. That book kept me sane during one of the shittier jobs I worked while in London. Another creative friend, a beautiful illustrator and artist, and one with a similar fascination for sea-beasts, drew me a couple of designs, and I took them into The Family Business on Exmouth Market one Saturday morning to get inked up. It sounds odd, but spending that amount of money on something frivolous, something just for me, felt like a real test. Knowing that I wasn’t going to have that surplus of money again for a while. Knowing that it could have been invested, or saved, or gone to something more practical. Knowing that I might look at it and regret that money being wasted.

I’ve had this whale for a few years now and I don’t regret it for one second. Every day, it’s a reminder to ignore that financial anxiety and be frivolous once in a while, that the world won’t end because I want a new coat. It’s also a reminder that a song I wrote paid off in a meaningful way, and that this musical thing I’ve been doing since I was a teenager is still worth doing. It’s a reminder that I’m not alone when I do feel that creative anxiety or pressure—and that the best thing I can do is just keep going.

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