This week’s post coincides with Personal Capital’s idea to think of a personal role model for independence, strength and financial stability—a friend or family member who helped me understand money when I was younger, or someone today who keeps me motivated. In attempting this, I realized that I don’t really have one.
What I have are so-called old-fashioned values from a working class family whose incomes never approached what I’m earning today. My parents were less concerned about independence so much as having enough money to pay the mortgage and buy food. While they encouraged me to contribute to a savings account since I was old enough to pluck change from the sidewalk, we never discussed how my savings might contribute to a larger ecosystem of financial stability or strength. I wasn’t raised with the mindset that I could shape my finances, rather that money was a scarce resource that I would barely have enough of, if I was lucky.
At age thirteen, my parents and I had “the talk:” my father had quit his mechanic job—a physically brutal post in Phoenix where the average daily temperature is 105 degrees in the summer—and now we would have even less money from his new contract job at Honeywell. The bottom line: they wouldn’t be able to buy any of the things I kept begging them for. Despite the new Guess jeans, Chuck Taylors and the Def Leppard and INXS tapes that my friends received regularly from their folks, I would have to stop requesting anything for a good long while.
In addition to normal teenage angst, this twist in our collective finances exploded into an ongoing, fiery debate. In researching an essay, I recently found this snippet from my diary that sums up years of anger and frustration about my family’s resources: Tonight, Dad yelled at me all night, as usual. When I asked him about money for a geometry book he goes, “Oh sure, when you want something, you act civil.” Oh yes, I’m really begging for a geometry book. Can’t you see me on my hands and knees?
I’m sure my parents were frustrated at how their already-thin finances became even thinner despite both of them working, and the despondent nagging of a teenager, frustrated with her inability to keep up with her friends’ acquisitions in the greedy 1980s, made it even harder. Looking back, this frisson is part of what drove my desire to shop, to buy, to own: in reaction to my lack of purchasing power, and thus a feeling of being shut out of the popular kids’ club, I began to associate acquisition with happiness and success.
This is why I ran up tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt during and after college, along with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. This is why I couldn’t stop buying clothes when I felt sad because I always felt a little sad about my finances. I figured, somehow, I’d pay it all off later. This is why, when I got my first job out of college as a receptionist, I couldn’t afford to buy meat with the few actual dollars left after paying rent, student loans and monthly credit card installments. This is also why I kept charging new outfits at high interest rates because I hadn’t yet maxed out my J. Crew and Banana Republic store cards.
No one in my extended family watched over what I was doing, and thus couldn’t offer advice to halt this dangerous cycle; I had been on my own with no parental oversight since leaving home at eighteen. I fell deeper and deeper into debt, and the deeper I fell, the more hopeless my financial future seemed, and the more hopeless it seemed, the more I shopped to make myself feel better in the short-term. At some point, I had to stop catalog shopping because I had no more credit to spend. I could barely afford to pay even the minimum amount on all of the collection stubs that flooded my mailbox, in addition to car payments, rent, groceries and student loans.
In my late twenties, with hopes for a career change, I returned to school for a degree in graphic design at a for-profit institution, which helped me max out my lifetime student loan borrowing capacity. By age thirty, I was swimming beneath an ocean of education and credit card debt and still not making very much to offset it, let alone save for retirement.
Strangely, the one thing that helped me come up to normal was divorce. In my early thirties, my ex-husband and I sold our house and split the proceeds which, while not eliminating all of my burden, helped to lessen it immensely. It would still be years before I could pay off the credit debt I continued to accumulate, thanks to my newfound passion for travel (and, yes, my ongoing passion for fashion) and so, it was not until my late thirties that I began to take a hard look at my habits of spending and saving, and their link to my sense of happiness and freedom. It helped that I was not in a relationship at the time, actually. The physical and mental space of being single allowed me to contemplate what my financial future might look like, particularly if I remained alone. What was really important to me, and what was I willing to trade for it?
Recently, Paulette Perhach, a fellow Seattle writer, wrote about having a Fuck Off Fund—essentially, a savings cushion that, particularly for women, ultimately equals independence. As her article details, having a Fuck Off Fund allows you to stick to your values in the face of bad relationships, economic instability, sexual harassment, workplace dissatisfaction, and other common adult realities that ask a person to determine how much of her body and soul she will exchange for money, food, professional opportunities and shelter. (Oh yes, and perhaps even make space for personal growth, creativity and, heaven forbid, enjoyment.)
Given the lack of financial guidance from my own family other than to “save up if you can,” straightforward counsel like hers would have benefitted my younger self. In my family, finances were on par with illness or death in that no one talked openly about either. For instance, when someone passed away, the hushed reason given was almost always “internal complications.” WTF? Such vagueness does not help establishing one’s family medical history, and it doesn’t help a young girl starting out to establish clear financial goals or weigh the value of her values alongside the long-term consequences of her momentary decisions.
Without someone like Perhach writing publicly as she did, and speaking plainly to the challenges that women wrestle with in particular, it’s easy to go through life without anyone making the point: no dress or pair of shoes, no big-screen TV or expensive meal, no extravagant jewelry or creature comfort, no job or relationship (particularly bad ones) are worth the shackles on one’s financial independence or personal freedom. The more you pile on, the harder it is to move.
For women, this is especially true in that a lack of sustainable personal finances quickly equals dependence on a partner. Yes, there are practical scenarios, such as having children, wherein a short-term imbalance of financial contribution might work out fine, but the reality is, financial dependence limits a person’s options. Financial dependence degrades, even if to a small degree, a person’s voice and impact on the world. If a woman gives away her earning power so that she can devote her time to raising children, so goes her power of choice, even under benevolent conditions. It’s hard not to feel indebted to someone if you are indeed financially indebted to them, and with that goes personal empowerment.
If you do not have a safe place to sleep or a means of feeding yourself, your ability to do anything else is drastically limited. This is the threat that ultimately hangs over us. If we can only make do by combining our finances with another’s, that’s when we start trading: three meals a day or a roof over our heads for the illusion of safety and security, and it goes on from there. Sometimes, it’s not anyone else convincing us that we lack control; the voice telling us that it’s hopeless, that’s it’s too hard, that we cannot create a place for ourselves in the world is often our own.
Last month, I turned a major corner in my financial independence: I paid off my student loans, and a few years early to boot. As I authorized the final payment, I realized that I’ve been paying on my education for 20 years. It’s taken that long to have finally acquired the earning power to buy my freedom, and I’ve had to fight for that power every step of the way. More good news: I am also credit debt-free. In fact, for the first time in my adult life—and I mean, like January 2016—I have nothing hanging over my head. This freedom feels tremendously great…and also eerie. In arriving at this moment, I’ve discovered how little I truly need in order to live and how much more valuable the intangibles are, which goes against everything I believed when I entered the workforce.
Now, as I look forward into the decades leading up to retirement, I am investigating on a deeper level what’s important to me—I mean really important. Is it more important to have experiences or possessions? To travel and see the world or buy a home? Is career advancement or a retirement account more important than my writing practice? What is the more risky trade: my financial security or my dreams? Given a limited number of days, how do I choose to spend them?
I see how having my finances clear gives me the space to contemplate my future. While it would have been nice to have achieved this in my twenties, it’s never too late to start, or start over. Each of us can be a positive model for ourselves, and any time is a good time to establish one’s values. They will and can change over time, and we should give them space to evolve. Though it may take longer for some of us to arrive at a point of empowerment and self-knowledge, the timing matters less than arriving at all. What’s inspiring to me is discovering that each of us has an inner power reserve, an emotional retirement account, and like any living thing, the belief in ourselves must be fed, nurtured and protected.
Maybe I can only say this now because I can finally breathe when it comes to finances. For a long time, I couldn’t see what was weighing me down—my need for acceptance, for love and companionship, for closets full of possessions that I thought would confer on me beauty, success and strength that others would recognize and admire. I thought financial debt was holding me back, but it was actually soul debt. Only when I began to believe in myself did my priorities (and finances) come into focus, the value of my values suddenly clear. The more I know who I am, the more I see what’s important—and can weed out the very many things that appear so, but actually aren’t.
Beneath my desire to spend, which nearly bankrupted me, there was something deeper: a search for acceptance and a fear of my own inner value, namely a lack thereof. In finally finding it—my self-worth, in all its definitions—my personal failures and even my financial missteps have turned out to be just as important as my successes and achievements. For, in the end, it isn’t minuses and plusses or even the zeroes in my bank account so much as accumulated life experience that has brought me to where I am today. What matters most is knowing who I am, believing in (and fighting for) what I’m worth and doing what I can to help someone else, even if it’s just writing a blog post that sparks a positive change in a stranger’s life.
The most inspiring thing is, it’s never, ever, too late for any of us to discover that.