Last week, I posted my story of how I moved to New York with less than $1000. While this was undoubtedly one of the least responsible decisions I’ve ever made, I learned and grew a lot. I wanted to get this post up last week, but there was honestly just so much to reflect on. Here is what I learned:
You Can Still Save Without Steady Income, Just Start
There was really no reason I couldn’t be saving. I was spending a lot of extra money on shoes from my second job as well as money at thrift stores. While the 40% employee discount at Nine West on top of already existing store discounts was an amazing deal, saving on a purchase was not a priority compared to saving from not purchasing at all.
I spent so much time completely focused on the savings from the deal. Some of the shoes I ended up buying because of a sale I didn’t even wear more than 5 times. Who cares that it was $30 marked down from $120? Not making use of an item on sale makes it a bad deal. That’s why I now believe we should really consider purchasing consumer goods when we want something badly enough to buy it in spite of it not being on sale, rather than purchasing because it’s on sale.
Looking back at an old monthly credit card statement from this time, I spent about $200 purchasing fashion items. $120 was spent on my Metrocard. $60 was spent on a storage unit. And about $150 was spent on a combination of groceries and (rarely) eating out. We all have those 1 or 2 categories that are weaknesses for us. The ones we want so badly to spend in regardless of money coming in. Mine was shopping. For some it’s groceries, for others it’s cable.
All my friends were salaried at this time, and they were all super responsible. All 4 of them saved diligently. From their examples, I started believing you could only really start saving if you were salaried and had steady income. In my mind, this had somehow become the prerequisite to starting. In reality, there was no “when x, y, z conditions are met”, I could have started by…just starting. I just needed to admit my priorities weren’t shoes, my priorities were saving for an emergency. Instead, I treated my income like an allowance.
Considering my rent was $350 during this time, if I had just not purchased the shoes I did, I probably could have saved an extra 2-4 month’s rent (or more). I’ll never know now how much I ended up spending, but there was plenty that was unnecessary.
You Still Need A Budget Without Steady Income
At the time I was working 70 hours between jobs and dropping money on shoes, I didn’t have anything close to a budget unless you counted “don’t spend your account to $0”. Or more realistically, don’t spend it below $500. I did have some spending tactics in mind where I came up with a checking account balance that felt secure to stop at. As long as I didn’t go below that number after all my expenses, I was “good”. The issue with this method of saving was that the savings never grew beyond that fixed number.
In my mind, an itemized budget was another one of those things that was for people who already had a salary. In reality, this was THE time to have a budget because every dollar counted so much for my survival.
I wasn’t tracking my money, but I needed to be. I had no idea how much I spent in each category a month. I approached every purchase as a one off. I would evaluate a purchase based on how affordable it was compared to some baseline I had in my own head. I also had a vague threshold of time that I felt should elapse since the last purchase (between 1-2 weeks).
This was obviously a terrible metric because it was completely independent of money that was coming in, especially because my second job didn’t have regular, promised hours so weekly salary fluctuated quite a bit. If I had been tracking my money, I could at least see how much I was spending per week or per month in the category.
Then I could have set a hard rule like “I will stop shopping once I spend $100”. Limits are good. It’s much easier setting a hard rule and saying “This action directly violates my rule, it’s clear I shouldn’t spend this money”. In fact, I did have the hard rule for my checking account balance, but there was so much more potential in my budgeting system! Hard rules are black and white. We don’t get caught up questioning whether an action violates the rule and being wishy washy.
Look Into Ways To Get Free Money
I was grabbing dinner with a new friend a couple of years after the giant NYC move happened. My friend knew a ton about programs that I could have signed up for to get things like food stamps and other free benefits! If only I had known him back then!
I wish I had taken the time to look these programs up when I was really struggling financially because even during the time I held 2 jobs, I was within the limit to get food stamps. I was even MORE qualified for food stamps when I lost my internship and lost all the hours I was working at Nine West. The thought just never occurred to me to even look.
Instability Makes Prioritizing and Planning Difficult
The weird thing is I consider myself a natural saver. I spent all my years before college saving all my red envelope money and other money for good grades. I once “budgeted” a pack of crispy M&Ms eating only 1-2 M&Ms a day because I didn’t think my parents would ever buy me another pack. But in these situations, I could plan according because I knew the fixed amount I was starting with, and I had the stability of my parents taking care of me. Money was a resource but I didn’t really need to spend it to get by.
When I moved to NYC on my own, there was so much instability in my life. I actually had things competing for my financial resources for the first time (rent, food, commute, wants). I also had things competing for my personal resources (time spent working 2 jobs, mental load worrying whether my internship would convert to a full time job, wondering constantly whether I should keep sending out apps for other full time jobs and wondering where that time would come from). I didn’t really know how to prioritize any of this.
Mental load is a real thing. Worries that are both insignificant and significant are always on in the background consuming our mental resources. It may seem like we only discreetly worry out loud about them every now and again, but they’re always present. Our worries consume so much time and energy that we hardly have time to actually plan or take action.
I wish I had made a list. A giant brain dump of everything I was worried about and all the teeny tiny seemingly insignificant steps that were options to me:
- I’ll run out of money
- My internship won’t turn into a full time job
- No one will ever want to hire me for a career job
- I don’t know how to stop being someone unworthy of being hired
Take #4. That was the biggest worry that I was constantly wrestling. Of course, I hardly expressed this out loud to anyone, not even my closest friends. But this was the major thing that so much of the other lack of planning revolved around:
Small worries of “I don’t know how to stop being someone unworthy of being hired”:
- I need to develop skills that employers want of me, but I don’t have them
- These skills employers want take a long time to develop
- I have to “trick” them into believing I have these skills when I don’t have them because they’ll take too long to develop
- People are going to see through my “trick”
- I don’t know how to talk in a professional environment
- I don’t know how to ask for what I want (a full time offer at my internship)
- The GPA on my resume is not employable
- I don’t know what people want to see on my resume, but I don’t think people care about the skills I currently have on my resume
- I don’t know what people want to hear in an interview
And these smaller worries were all part of only one of my major worries! It was overwhelming because I was subconsciously thinking these things ALL THE TIME. It felt like I had an insurmountable list of things I needed to fix about myself and if I didn’t fix them all, no one would ever employ me. I felt desperate to fix these things because I couldn’t picture trudging through the next year with more dead end internships.
But by writing these out, I could have targeted at least something. Like, “I don’t know what people want to hear in an interview”. Well, I could have practiced interviews with friends who had jobs…they were accessible examples of people who knew what to say in an interview! It took me months to do an interview role play with my friend because it hadn’t occurred to me.
Stressors Increase Spending Impulses
The thing about having stability and security is that the scarcity mindset is significantly reduced as well as the stressors that come with it. I don’t feel on a daily basis like I need to take what I can get. Therefore, this actually reduces my need to impulsively shop (having a budget also helps). Stress in general can increase spending just to construct a reward system for suffering.
But when you’re stressed about money and how much is going to come in the next paycheck, you constantly feel you have to take what you can get. You simply don’t know when you’ll next have an opportunity. And I also felt this way about my stuff. So much of my desire to cling on to my belongings was because I was worried what if I can never buy this again and I need it? I also felt this about sales, sales on things I could never otherwise afford if it weren’t on sale. And by afford, I mean, literally have enough money in checking to cover it.
It’s so important to be aware of this factor and account for that when thinking about spending when you’re stressed. In the moment, it doesn’t feel intuitive to deny a deal when you see one. When you’re in the take what you can get mindset, you’re really trying to plan for the future without having much information about when your situation will be alleviated–you may even feel it will NEVER end. When you lack information about when stability will come, you’re calculating is this something I may need that I might not be able to afford later? Sales are happening all the time so it becomes a near constant barrage of deals you have to take advantage of.
When you’re stressed about money, it’s hard to see long term. Some of these moment to moment worries like “what if I can’t get this thing later because I have so little money” could actually be resolved by having savings. What if I might not be able to afford that later? Well, I would have the choice to afford it if I had savings.
Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Basket
I was stressed out wondering whether my internship would turn into a full time offer. Yet I didn’t put in any work to make another offer happen. I just sat back wondering and being nervous about it. I spent the whole time hoping that it would happen. Hope is a great thing! But it’s also not an actionable thing. In my mind, I think I needed to believe that something would work itself out.
I guess something did work itself out, just not in the way I thought it would. Things worked out by me dropping resumes to other jobs and interviewing and passing! I could have been dropping apps the entire time!
Of course, it wasn’t just as easy as dropping my resume because I hadn’t updated my resume. I think it’s pretty common to update our resumes when we’re at our current job, but if I had, I would have been in a better position to just jump at job listings I felt were interesting. I had no semblance of a cover letter template, in fact, I had no idea what cover letters were supposed to look like. I felt each needed to be meticulously tailored. While a certain degree of tailoring to show you know and care about a company, you really don’t need to rewrite a brand new, inspired piece every time (which is what I thought I was supposed to be doing).
Even applying with a lack luster cover letter and an updated resume during this time would have been better than doing nothing.
Second Jobs Are Sometimes Necessary
For me, the purpose of the first job was to sustain the basic necessities of life. Had I responsibly used the funds from my second job, I could have used it to push through and secure a better financial position. I don’t want to say it didn’t end up bringing me any extra life security because it definitely did. When I was let go from my internship, I didn’t have to go out and look for more temporary work. I already had a second stream of money coming in.
But it could have been so much more than that. I treated that second job’s income like an allowance to be spent on fun things. The second pay check wasn’t ever completely spent, but if it were more diligently managed, I could have held out much longer and in greater comfort while combatting the stress of looking for jobs.
Support Systems Can Get You Through When There’s Nothing Else
I leaned on my support system. A lot. I realize not everyone has that system in place when they’re trying to make it. I’m lucky I did. Even so, it still took being vulnerable. The natural instinct during these times is to hide and pretend you’re “normal”. If you have people in your life you can reach out to, open up to them! It is worth it.
Sometimes we undervalue our support system thinking it’s up to us alone to fix our problems. Of course, it is up to us to actually take the action steps to create change. But with action often comes failure. The moments leading up to action usually concern uncertainty. And it is beyond helpful to have people who have your back telling you their honest opinion in an encouraging way.
A really important thing about my support system was they were all friends I respected immensely. They weren’t the types of college friends you only call up to party with. They were responsibly adulting good influence type friends. Now is not the time to ignore your problems even more and get deeper in the hole.
What did I learn? Manage your money. There are things you can’t control, but there are also things you can’t control only because you think you can’t. Take pre-emptive action for things that scare you. If you put off dealing with it now, it’ll only lead to more fear and pain later. Every step forward is better than nothing.
What were some lessons you learned from a mistake you made? Does the answer to your problems seem obvious in retrospect?