How Cord Jefferson Does Money
How do you do money, Cord Jefferson, west coast editor of Gawker?
Logan Sachon: Okay let’s start with this: Have you ever collected unemployment?
Cord Jefferson: I have not.
LS: Have you been in the position to?
CMJ: Yeah, just recently. When we got fired from GOOD, I checked and I qualified for unemployment. But we got a pretty decent severance, and I was freelancing regularly, so I had that money coming in, as well. Plus I’d been saving before we got canned. With all that working in concert, I was stable enough that dipping into the bureaucracy of unemployment for extra just didn’t seem necessary. I figured I’d leave it there for people who really, really need that cash.
LS: From what I understand, it doesn’t work quite like that—there’s not a finite pot of money, so if you take what you’re “owed,” you aren’t taking it from anyone. Do you have friends on it? LA was the first place I lived where I knew people whose lifestyle involved being on unemployment half the year. They’d work a show, get laid off, work a show, get laid off.
CMJ: I think you’re right in that it’s not a finite pool of money, but in thinking about it, it just wasn’t worth it to me. Did you ever read that interview with Louis C.K. where he admits that he didn’t go to NYU film school because he couldn’t bring himself to fill out the paperwork?
LS: Ha, yes.
CMJ: Yeah, that’s how I felt about unemployment. Sure, I guess that money was “owed” to me, but the thought of all the hoops I’d have to jump through–the time spent on the phone, faxing things in, putting my name into the system, adding another layer to my taxes next year—really turned me off.
I should note that right after I was fired I got the sense that I wouldn’t be unemployed for long, and so that was a factor also. If it seemed like I wasn’t going to have a full-time job for an indefinite amount of time, I might have pursued unemployment more. But that wasn’t the case, and I feel very fortunate for that.
LS: So getting another full-time job was a priority? After GOOD, were you considering cobbling together freelance work and having a go at a “portfolio career” or whatever it’s being called now?
CMJ: No way. I’m a full-time guy. There are so many things to consider to be a freelancer that, at this point in my life, I just don’t want to deal with. I don’t like pitching busy editors who might get back to you when they work through the hundreds of other emails in their inbox. I don’t like chasing down checks from people.
I don’t need a ton of money, but I like consistency. I like to know I’m going to be getting paid on such-and-such day for such-and-such work. I did the freelance life one time for about six or seven months in 2009, and I hated it. It becomes about so much more than the writing and the editing and the things I love about what I do for a living.
It becomes about wooing editors and faxing office managers and emailing new pitches every day and filling out tax forms and begging for checks and hoping that those checks you’ve begged for actually arrive in time to pay rent and all these other stresses that get in the way of the work itself.
LS: How do you negotiate pay?
CMJ: For freelance pieces?
LS: Yeah. Or even jobs, I guess. Do you feel like you know what you’re worth?
CMJ: Man, that’s something I’m really bad at, I’d say. Because my view is this: I get paid to write for a living, which is seriously what I wanted to do when I was a little kid. Not only do I get to do that, but I get to do that and I’m compensated well enough that I can afford to travel a lot. I feel very fortunate and happy with where I am, and the sad thing is that I think that maybe makes me bad at negotiating? Because I don’t feel this constant need to get paid more money. I’m like, “Fuck, you’re going to pay me to do a job that I like doing and let me go to Brazil every once in a while? Deal!” These days it’s harder, too, because I know there are so many people who want to be writing that don’t have the opportunities I do. That not only makes me feel fortunate, it also reminds me that there is probably always someone who will do my job for less money.
For instance, the day after we were all fired from GOOD, I noticed that a lot of people I know either personally or through the internet were now writing for GOOD. I’m not mad at them, because it’s hard out there, so get yours. But it was definitely a reminder that there is, behind most jobs in this economy, a line of people waiting to replace you once you’re gone.
LS: Have you ever asked for more than you were offered?
CMJ: I haven’t. But I have asked for raises. Actually, I asked for more money immediately once, and they said no and I took the job anyway. What I prefer to do is take a job, do really well at that job to prove my worth, and then ask for a raise. Asking for more money right off the bat is nice, I suppose. But I like going into those situations with the bargaining chip of proven success on the job.
LS: Have you had non-writing and editing jobs? Or did you find work doing what you do right out the gate?
CMJ: I did not. My first job was as a communications coordinator for a very small nonprofit in Los Angeles. That was my first real job, which I got about 8 to 10 months after I graduated college.
LS: You post a lot of pictures on your tumblr of fabulous places. Lots of beach shots, blue water. Can we talk about travel and how you do that? Do you save specifically for it, or put it on a card?
CMJ: I actually just applied for my first credit card! I pay for everything with cash or debit. Save for some student loans, I’ve never paid for anything with money I didn’t have.
LS: Why is that?
CMJ: It’s part political and part habit. I think the credit-card companies have taken advantage of a lot of vulnerable people over the years, and I hate that. Also, my parents never gave me a lot of money for things growing up. I never needed for anything, but they also didn’t just fork over cash whenever I wanted to buy some new sneakers or whatever. What they did tend to spend money on were experiences: travel, going to museums and the theater, going to restaurants, etc.
So I’ve never really developed this desire to buy a lot of stuff with money I don’t have. And, in fact, the moment I start to feel like I’m accumulating too much stuff I start to feel a bit sad. I’ve never owned a TV. I sold my car five years ago and never looked back. I only have one table in my apartment. That sort of thing.
I spend most of my money on clothing, rent, nights out with friends, and travel. The rest I try to sock away in savings and maybe invest here and there.
It probably sounds really fucking pretentious, but I think that people’s inability to distinguish between “need” and “want” is a very real problem. And I don’t ever want to be the guy cluttering my apartment with a lot of garbage that makes me happy for only a few days until the next thing comes along. I’ve read all those studies about money and happiness and every one I’ve read says that spending on experiential things rather than material things is the best way to get joy from money, so I try to do that with the money I save.
I tried to be real ascetic for a while and went without gas in my apartment. I could only take cold showers and cook in the microwave. I’ve since stopped doing that.
LS: !!! What spurred that???
CMJ: Yeah, that’s how most people react. I moved into a new place, and it took a few weeks for them to shut off the gas and ask me to transfer it to my name. And the morning I woke up and realized all the water was cold, I thought, “Screw it. I can do this.”
Then I just did it for a while, and it wasn’t a big deal to me. But when people would find out, they’d be aghast, which would only strengthen my resolve. Because I’d be like, “Maybe you’re the insane one for thinking it’s the most offensive and shocking thing in the world to not have a warm shower whenever you want one.”
Does this sound crazy? It’s not that crazy, I don’t think. And I’ve since gotten gas again.
LS: I don’t think it sounds that crazy, especially since it was something that happened and not something you started doing with intent. And yeah, naysayers make you want to do stuff more. This is not on the same level, but I don’t have an AC in my room here, and I probably should, I guess, because it would be a couple hundred bucks and a couple hours of work and I would be considerably less miserable … but I just don’t want to. A lot of is it laziness, but a lot of it is also saying, “Yeah what?” to people who are like, “How do you doooo itttt?” But that’s the only example I have. I spend money on crap all the time.
CMJ: When you tell people that in NYC, they’re like “WHAAAAAT? You don’t have an AC unit? How do you live like that?” And that shit is so off-putting to me, because there is a shitload of people in this world who don’t have AC. I’d say most, probably. It’s not hard to live without AC. It’s certainly uncomfortable, but hard?
And I used to the be a guy who let what other people thought dictate my purchases and what I did with my life, because I was embarrassed and didn’t want to be different or considered crazy, and that just made me feel miserable.
LS: Was that just like, normal kidstuff that you grew out of, or did something happen to make you care less, or not at all?
CMJ: Both, I think. I think a lot of kids fall victim to the trap of obsessing over money, because when you’re young and struggling with identity issues, you’re particularly susceptible to advertising that preys on insecurity to sell you shit you don’t need. Also, I think that if you’ve been paying attention at all over the past several years, you’ve realized that the pursuit of money and the things money can buy have been disastrous for millions and millions of people.
Nowadays I refuse to be made to feel stupid for not buying something. I don’t have an iPhone and people constantly try to make me feel bad about that. I don’t own a car, and literally once a week someone else is telling me that you “have” to have a car to live in LA. Even though they’re talking to someone who’s been living without a car in LA for almost two years now. I wrote a thing for Gawker a few weeks ago in which I said that I ride the bus, and there were a few comments that just said, “I can’t believe you admitted to riding the bus in LA.” And I’m like, “Fuck you. Because the elitist, materialistic snobbery that says you need to have things like a car to be happy or live a good life isn’t too dissimilar from a banker laying waste to everything in his path in order to secure a fatter bonus.” They’re different degrees of terrible, but they’re not totally unalike.
LS: I think a lot of that is people—either consciously or not—trying to justify their own lifestyles.
CMJ:Oh, absolutely. I agree. Because I think people know they don’t need half or three quarters of the nonsense they buy. I think people buy things they maybe know they don’t even want! I used to do that when I was younger. I’d buy clothes I knew I wasn’t really into in the store and then it would just hang in my closet forever until I gave it to Goodwill. And I’d have no clue as to why I bought it. There are omnipresent forces like fashion trends and peer pressure and advertising that guide our spending in ways we don’t even know until it’s too late.
LS: It’s complicated, right? I had a car payment for years that I couldn’t afford because my idea of who I was was someone who could afford to have a car. Like, my concept of myself didn’t work unless I had this car to drive everyone to the beach in or lend to friends or whatever. I have no car now and: I am still myself.
LS: I know you said your parents didn’t hand you money whenever you wanted it, but did you grow up with money?
CMJ: I grew up in what I think was probably a very solid middle to upper middle class background. I got a car when I turned 16, but it was an ’89 Volkswagen Rabbit that cost $3,000. I never needed for anything and my parents helped me pay for a healthy chunk of my college education. But I was raised in Tucson, Arizona. So I’d imagine my parents’ money went further.
LS: So you said you were just getting your first credit card. Are you primarily a cash dude? Debit?
CMJ: Yeah, because I don’t buy much of anything, I’ll generally have a lot of cash on hand. I’ve got a big savings, and I have probably a lot more money in my checking account than I should. I’ll use that account to pay for big plane tickets and hotel stays and the like. I know that’s what a lot of people use their credit cards for. For me, mentally, I really like the idea of using money I already have to pay for things like that.
I suppose it’s a minor difference, but I’d rather pay for something than pay something off.
LS: How do you not spend all of your money going out or eating?
CMJ: I’m a vegetarian, and I try to keep vegan as much as my willpower can possibly stand it, which means I make a lot of my food at home. When I do eat out, most of the fancier things on menu—Kobe beef, foie gras—aren’t for me anyway. I get the pasta and salad.
LS: You make it sound so sensible. I’m a vegetarian, too, and still spend all my money on food. And booze. Do you drink?
CMJ: Definitely, and that’s probably one of my biggest expenses, because I’m a huge believer in buying rounds. And when I go out with friends who make less than me or have more expenses than me or whatever, I’d rather leave the bar with a $100 tab than have them not get a beer when they feel like it. That goes for meals, too. If I go out to a nice meal with friends, I’ll allow myself to order whatever I want. My view is that if I’m out at a nice meal at an expensive restaurant and very concerned about how much everything costs and making sure I don’t spend too much, I probably should be at home cooking instead of eating at an expensive restaurant.
LS: We have the same attitudes about these things, but it sounds like you can afford your generosity, with yourself and others. Doing it right. I know you give experiences a pass as something you feel good spending money on—when you do have to buy THINGS, does it pain you? Like, clothes. When do you buy new clothes, what’s that like?
CMJ: I must admit that I really do like new clothes and shoes, but I temper that by buying hardly anything new. The vast majority of my clothes are second-hand, and I’ll often pay for those by selling clothes I don’t wear anymore at Buffalo Exchange or Wasteland. On occasion I’ll buy something new, but it’s never some $800 shirt or anything like that. It’ll be like an $80 sweater around wintertime. Because finding used sweaters that haven’t been stretched to hell is hard.
I’m also thinking I’m going to have to buy a new computer here soon, and that’s causing me a bit of distress, because I really don’t like the business practices of any electronics companies. But I’m also nervous about buying a used computer. With things like that, I justify buying them by telling myself over and over again I’m going to use this thing every day for my job.
LS: Do you research the business practices of most products you buy?
CMJ: I try to be a conscious consumer as much as possible. The problem is that finding a 100% ethical corporation is near impossible. Once you realize that, the job is to find the least bad corporation, and it all becomes a lot of gray area that’s sometimes difficult to parse. That’s why I also think buying as little as possible is good: Because if you dig deep enough, nearly every company is doing at least one disgusting thing to make a profit.
Previously: How Natasha Vargas-Cooper Does Money