This winter has been the hardest season of my life.
Right before christmas I found something out that broke my heart. In a moment, poof! the snowglobe I was living in broke apart and there I was – flopping like a fish on the ground, everything that used to surround me, gone.
In the weeks since, my world has completely come apart. Then, slowly and awkwardly, started to piece itself back together, feet where ears used to be and arms on backwards – a Salvador Dali painting that faintly resembles my old life.
One day I might write about the details, but not today.
For those of you who have gone through something like this – and who hasn’t? – you’ll understand that in moments like this, money doesn’t fucking matter.
You could have told me that my bank accounts were empty, my rental properties burned down, my credit cards maxed out, and I would have said, “That’s okay. What day is it?”
And several times I found myself thinking, if I could just give all my savings, my career, everything I have, to make this pain stop, I would.
The bargains you try to make in the worst moments of your life can be embarrassing to admit.
I learned some hardcore lessons during this experience and at a great cost.
Here they are just in case you find them helpful. I hope when you’re going through your own life-shattering moment, you will remember this and feel a teensy bit of solidarity.
Life gets shitty so save your money
When my life got shitty, money didn’t matter to me. It no longer had any value compared with what I wanted most – my old life back.
But see, that’s a luxury that I have because I’ve spent years saving money: I didn’t have to worry. On the days where I woke up and couldn’t go to work, I thought well, if I get fired, I could still survive for a while without a paycheck. Andrew and I were able to see doctors and therapists without any regard to the cost or being limited to providers within our insurance network.
In my darkest, weakest moments, I didn’t have to go to work, I didn’t have to worry about paying bills, I didn’t have to pick the cheapest therapist or skip therapy altogether. To wake up and feel like I could take a vacation if I needed, I could move houses if I needed, that we had resources to take care of ourselves however we needed – it was priceless.
The lesson here is save money because life gets shitty sometimes. And when it does, money stops mattering or you might find yourself spending a lot of it. Saving your own sanity becomes the only priority and that could require excess funds. Not having to worry about paying rent or cancelling vacations or losing your job is the most significant gift you can give yourself.
Keep your receipts
Grief brought out the shopaholic in me.
In the midst of all this – when I’d stopped eating, turned off my phone, stayed up all night smoking cigarettes on the living room floor – I learned how powerful of a drug shopping is.
In the span of 48 hours, I bought a new jacket with a fur collar, a printer, artisan peanut sauce (WTF?), journals with stupid cliche sayings about being happy, designer shoes, rolls and rolls of Star Wars wrapping paper, every light fixture at Ikea, mascara, a wok (for the peanut sauce, duh), six gallons of grey paint, a christmas tree, winter boots, groupons to (no joke) trap shooting, mini golf and a vodka tour, my first pair of spanx – oh, and a dog.
It made me feel good to buy whimsical, expensive, pretty things. And then it made me sad. The joy I got from shopping soured as the bags piled up in our (tiny) living room and I watched my credit card bill climb up up up up as if it was trying to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in record time.
The lesson? Keep your receipts. The flush of new purchases wears off fast.
(and get a wonderfully kind partner who will return everything for you when you’re too embarrassed to do it yourself – thank you Andrew)
Money will not make you happy
Another sad truth: I have always thought that money would make me happy. I’ve never said it out loud or even written it down (until now) but I secretly thought that if I could stockpile enough money, I would be happy.
I wouldn’t have to work. I wouldn’t have to worry. I’d have enough money for any emergency – apocalypse, zombies, cancer, blackmail, unemployment, infertility. There was no bad luck that I couldn’t buy myself (or my family, friends and neighbors) out of.
This secret belief has driven a big portion of my life – working obsessively through college, living in gross rooms in unsafe neighborhoods to save money, rarely taking vacations, mastering the $1/day food budget, wearing clothes I bought when I was 11, bullying boyfriends to become more frugal, and saying no to a long list of things I really wanted to have / try / do / stop doing.
It makes me sad to remember the things I’ve said no to – bachelorette parties, vacations with friends, exciting classes, a writer’s retreat, a beautiful apartment in downtown Portland with wood floors, happy hours, massages, charity, and so much more. I’ve spent many many years with a big bank account, feeling alone. Working two or three jobs trying to save money even faster, but also because I had empty evenings and weekends to fill. I’ve hidden behind frugality.
It took something terrible happening to see what is now so obvious – money won’t make me happy. It hasn’t yet and I don’t think it’s ever going to. I don’t want to spend my life rich and alone. What is the point of retiring at 30 if I don’t have a community, friends and a partner to spend all that extra time with?
Lesson learned: If the cost of saving money is being alone and/or unhappy, the price is too high.
I advocate spending your money on what you truly value, and vice versa; learning what you truly value by watching how you spend your money.
The results are painfully clear. I’ve spent my life so far valuing financial security over connection and community, and it’s not making me happy. It’s time to change my life.