David Sedaris has always had a thing for money.
In last year’s Theft by Finding, a collection of his diary entries from 1977 through 2002, the author doesn’t spare a detail in describing how poor he was in the ‘80s. As a struggling art school student in Chicago, he spent what little cash he had on drugs and IHOP.
Nowadays, he has plenty of the stuff. A best-selling humorist, Sedaris lives a comfortable life, with properties from Paris to North Carolina and devoted fans who lap up his stories at lucrative live readings. In his latest collection of essays, Calypso, the 61-year-old refers to his wealth as a source of humor and, sometimes, family tension.
Sedaris talked to MONEY about his newfound riches, what he loves to spends them on, and the $8.50/hour job that turned his life around.
The topic of money comes up a lot in your essays. Is money inherently funny to you?
I think a lot of people have a money disorder. I know my father has a money disorder. I’m not talking about being poor — I’m talking about being cheap. And I have a money disorder [too]. Because I made my own money, I can’t shut up about it. If you were to say to me “I like your shirt” I would immediately tell you how much it cost. Some people would say “I got it for $15.” I would say “This shirt, you wouldn’t believe, cost $525.” And I wouldn’t tell you that to make you jealous. I guarantee you, you don’t want to be wearing the shirt I’m wearing right now. I do, but you don’t want to. [So] I have a money disorder and I talk about it all the time.
In the last essay in Calypso, “The Comey Memo,” you discuss your father’s frugality and how it’s a source of tension. At the same time, you’re spending a lot. Is that an act of rebellion? Is this your version of piercing your nose or listening to death metal?
I guess I just feel like I am…I’m rich. I’m rich. And I absolutely love being rich. Love it. I love buying things. And I just don’t buy things for myself; I buy things for other people as well. But it’s just crazy that I can become rich just by being myself. [Laughs.]
Your breakout story “The Santaland Diaries,” which chronicles your stint as an elf at Macy’s, certainly altered your life. If you didn’t take that job, would you still be rich?
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know, maybe it would have taken longer or something. But no, I believe that was the best job I ever had.
How much were you getting paid?
I don’t remember. I think it was like $8.50 or something.
You’ve also recently written about your North Carolina beach house The Sea Section. Is this your favorite purchase in recent memory?
I got it so my family would have a place at the beach. We all get together there. I have brothers and sisters in North Carolina, they can just go there on their own. But the thing is, my boyfriend Hugh, he loves it. And I just don’t get it. He’d be happy to move there full-time. How could you live at the beach full-time? It’s all I can do, really, to stay there for 10 days. I’m so ready to leave. I grew up in North Carolina. I know what’s going on in North Carolina. Plus, it’s super hot and humid. I’m glad he likes it. But if I had known he would have liked it that much, I wouldn’t have bought the house.
But we just bought the house next door. So we’re going to either call it the “Amniotic Shack” or “Canker Shores.” Amniotic Shack goes with Sea Section, but Canker Shores has a better ring to it.
You own several properties though, right?
Yeah, I like buying houses.
You see it as an investment or more of a hobby?
We bought an apartment in Paris in 2000. And it’s insane how much the value has gone up on that apartment. But it wasn’t bought as an investment. We don’t rent the places out.
Is there anything you dreamed of buying as a kid or teenager that you haven’t gotten around to yet?
I recently started buying artwork that you wouldn’t think you would be able to buy. They’d say “You can’t come in here! We have guards to keep you out!” But then you realize that that door is open to you. In the beginning, you feel so flattered that they let you in the door that you make some mistakes. It takes a while to figure that all out. A lot of people hire an art consultant to figure all that stuff out for them.
Did you hire one?
No. I’ve met some. I’ve talked to them. But I guess because I went to art school, I know to trust what I like. I don’t trust my taste when it comes to clothes, but I do trust my taste when it comes to art.
Do you ever look back and think you’ve wasted money?
Not so much. I give things away. I bought a pair of black sequin culottes. Did I say I’m 61? I bought them somewhere in Tokyo. But I already found somebody to give them to who can’t possibly afford them and would actually wear them all the time. I don’t take things to a consignment shop and try to get money. I give them away. And plus, when I do a live show…I can’t tell people how much money you get paid for a thing like that. I don’t know if they could be happy for me. They’d just say “OK, you just lost me.” Then you think, what did those culottes cost me? Twenty seconds on stage? When I no longer can go on tour, then all this will shut down. As long as I do this, there’s no stopping me.
David Sedaris’s new book, Calypso, is out May 29.