This post was supposed to be different. I was finally going to write one of those witty, bite-sized posts that everyone else seems so good at yet have utterly eluded me.
I’d dusted off an old money snapshot from my Hotmail account (don’t make fun). This is it, I thought. This time was going to be different–the numbers were already right here. All I had to do was say, hey, when I first got serious about money, here’s how I did money right, and here’s how I did it wrong–OK, bye. This post was practically going to write itself.
Instead I found myself lying awake at 2am with tears streaming down my face, and no closer to a cute, 500-word post.
Who knew that seeing numbers from the past would dredge up all the feelings I thought I had resolutely buried?
The past financial anxiety.
I’d forgotten all about it. Or the dread of how those “low checking account balance” e-mails used to crop up like video-game villains who just won’t die.
No, I’m over all of that, I told myself.
But the other night in bed, as my husband snored beside me, it was like I was 23 all over again, without a steady job, desperately applying to sketchy-sounding research studies on Craigslist, like this:
Female Research Participants Wanted! $$$Make $55!!!$$$
That’s when the tears started to flow. I was brought back to the Bad Place of underemployment. Working sporadic temp jobs and being made to feel like an idiot for not knowing how to make coffee. Doing everything in my power not to drop another tray of glasses at a catering gig, while a red-faced man asks me if I’m having fun. Applying to three-day sleep studies to make money, and being so disappointed I didn’t make the cut. Wondering if this was the month where I couldn’t make my $725 rent.
Even though I’m past that stage now, sometimes you have to go back to the Bad Place to really savor and appreciate what you have now.
Today, instead of sharing just a snapshot of numbers like I had originally planned I’m also going to reflect on an earlier, very imperfect life: one of financial insecurity, stress and uncertainty. Because once upon a time, that’s what my life was like 24/7. Now it’s easy for me to share the inspirational success stories, but those don’t show the full picture. It’s the ugliness–the struggling and the suffering–that made me into who I am.
But who was I back then, when my money life was the opposite of what it is now? I wanted to know, Why did I do the things I did? What was going through my mind? One of my biggest money regrets is that I didn’t start properly tracking my money earlier. If I had, I wouldn’t have dug myself into a rabbit hole trying to figure out Past Luxe’s money story: piecing things together from my decrepit email account, creating a new password to review my student loan payment history, and trying to log into a bank account from a decade ago.
It’s like I was a different person. And in a way, I was.
An Income Problem
Income. I didn’t really have any. I was never driven by money. If so, I probably would have skipped the post-college backpacking and focused on getting a full-time job, like a normal person would. But I was always driven by identity. And my identity at the time was that I didn’t want to be a boring grown-up just yet. For that reason, I wanted to avoid getting a full-time job as long as possible.
You pay a price for those kinds of decisions.
I couldn’t remember how much I made right after college, so I logged into my Social Security account to check out my earnings history. Let’s just say I was surprised at how little I earned:
For four years I made less than $22,000 a year temping, earning an hourly rate of between $7 and $14.85 that entire time. I bet most people reading this are making way more than I was.
How did I live on so little? And in an expensive city like Boston?
It was easy: I didn’t take care of myself, and I didn’t want much. My main focus was on surviving. On days I worked at an office, I bought 99-cent bagels with cream cheese for lunch. At night, I ate ramen and pastas. When you don’t work a steady job, your sleep habits get whack. I’d wander to the 24-hour Walgreens nearby at 3am and buy bags of Hershey’s kisses doubling as dinner for more times than I care to admit. I lived across the street from the library, and I’d fall asleep with stacks of books next to my face, like stand-ins for a stuffed animal. On days I didn’t have a gig, I’d spend all day browsing through thrift stores, because shopping at “real stores” was too expensive. I never went to the doctor, because like hell would I be paying $600 per month for health insurance.
I was paying about $450 in an apartment with roommates, but once the lease was up, the only place I could find was a studio for $725 per month. I had tried so hard to find a cheaper room share, but because I didn’t have a steady job, no one wanted to be my roommate. I remember I had to move on September 1st. I didn’t sign a lease until August 31st. To say that was stressful was an understatement. After that the stress didn’t stop–it came every month. Would I be able to make rent that month? When you don’t have enough income coming in, you do the next logical thing: put all your expenses on a credit card and pay the minimum each month, just to scrape by. Hi, credit card debt.
I’d lay awake at night, wondering if I was a defective human being. How much easier my life would be if I just followed the same path as everyone else. Decked out in a black and white uniform, I’d serve hors d’oeuvres on the top floor of Boston’s ritziest venues, feeling worthless and insignificant around all the guests who were many times richer than me.
But my worst job experience was temping at a hedge fund as an executive assistant. The partners made fun of me because I didn’t make databases as well as the woman I was subbing in for, and I had failed to make the coffee by the time the first partner arrived in the morning. I overheard one of the partners on the phone complaining to the temp agency, asking why I was so expensive. Because I wasn’t “any good.” If I sucked at something seemingly simple like making coffee, then I questioned whether I had any skills that qualified me for any job at all.
The hedge fund gig was only for a week, but I quit by the third day. Which obviously made me feel like an even bigger loser. I couldn’t stick it out at a job for even a week? I’d wonder if I’d ever get a job with a 401k, or if I’d always be stuck making $12 an hour at jobs I was bad at. I’d look around at everyone else with their jobs and a purpose and seemingly without a care in the world. Why didn’t I just know what I wanted to be when I grew up like everyone else? Or, why couldn’t I just do a better job at pretending? No, I wasn’t like them. I didn’t belong and never would.
Finally Feeling Rich…
Then I caught a break.
I got placed answering phones and ordering office supplies at a small company, and made $12 an hour. Unlike the hedge fund, people made their own coffee, so that was a relief. I sometimes accidentally hung up on people when trying to transfer them, and yet, no one yelled at me about it. Sometimes there was too much work and not enough people to do it, so I’d get extra tasks. I found out that the HTML I learned in college was actually a valuable skill.
But six months later the company said I’d have to go, because the owner’s daughter was graduating college and would be replacing me. OK, I shrugged, I’m just going to move onto another temp job, just like I’ve always done. But my supervisor recognized potential in me and encouraged me to apply for a full-time job within the company. With her guidance, I wrote cold letters to 15 people in the company who had previously never expressed interest in my existence. Only one responded. She had just signed on a huge project and needed an extra set of hands. Any hands. If I were a homeless person that could click on a mouse, I would have been hired. And that’s how I got my first salaried job. I was there at the right time and place.
A year or two later, for the first time, I started making more than $40,000. I know it sounds silly, but with that salary I felt absolutely RICH.
I moved in with my best friend into a nice apartment. Work was a 15-minute train ride away, and I had a coworker who I instant-messaged with all day about non-work-related stuff. I’d go out at least twice a week, and buy my own drinks. I realized I could afford most of what I truly wanted. All those years living on less made me understand what was really important, and that I could be happy on very little. What else could I buy that would actually bring happiness?
…But Still a Work in Progress
I saw that having more money made my life easier, and a full-time, stable job was a gift. I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity. No, I’d make a plan for my money.
Here’s the snapshot of what my money looked like when I first started to care:
I took home about $2,270 per month, and I can’t remember what my thinking was, but each pay cycle I kept $400 in my checking and transferred over $800 to my savings account. No, my money would no longer languish in a checking account without a purpose.
I still owed about $10k on my student loans. I originally borrowed $17k, but ended up paying $20k with interest. While I had a little over $4k in cash, with my student loans, my net worth was still in the negatives.
Not everything was perfect yet:
I overdrafted my checking account…twice.
As per the screenshot, I didn’t know how to make a budget yet. Ahem, because allocating yourself $140 to live off per month does not compute.
Starting to invest:
I knew I had to make up for lost time of no savings, so I contributed 20% to my 401k match (with a 3% employer match). Outside of my company’s 401k program, I started to look at where I could invest on my own. I opened up a Roth IRA account at Vanguard, a brokerage company, and saved up the $3,000 minimum to invest in my first mutual fund.
An actual plan for paying off student loans:
The minimum payment for my student loan was $169 per month, which is what I paid when I barely made any money. But once I started making steady money I’d actually skip months and save up $700-$1,000 payments. I think paying larger amounts was a psychological power move that made me feel like I was making faster progress than just paying the minimum.
First job naivety:
I made mistakes at that first job. I thought I was doing well, because the company kept promoting me–three times within two years. In my final role there, I made $48,000, but I didn’t know until later that the market rate for my job was actually in the $60k range. It was my first salaried job and I had no baseline for what was normal. I was just happy to have a job at all. I wish I had known that companies don’t generously give you raises out of nowhere; they award you just enough to keep you from fighting for more later.
Financial Anxiety Stays With You
I might have suppressed my past financial anxiety, but it never went away. It stayed with me. And over time, it turned into something different.
Confidence that I could live on less than I think, and still be content.
Confidence that I can be wrong about money, but what matters is that I dust myself off and try again.
Confidence that the money system I planned out is working, because any plan is better than no plan.
Now my life is different. I bought a $120 trash can that opens! Hands free! I eat luxurious foods, like avocados, all the time. I can’t even remember the last time I felt stressed about about my money–I hardly ever think about it anymore.
Last July I got an all-too-familiar e-mail from Mint. “Low Balance” it said in the subject line. I had only $44.82 in my checking account.
I wouldn’t be getting paid for another week.
I didn’t log into my bank account to check if it was true.
I didn’t transfer more money into my account.
I didn’t go on a spending freeze.
I just let it be. I knew that everything was going to be OK.
Did you ever go through a period of financial instability, or felt lost in life? How would you feel if you only had $40 in your checking account?