Brandy Jensen, The Outline’s Power editor, has made a lot of mistakes in her life. Has she learned from them and become a wiser person as a result? Hahaha oh gosh no. But it does leave her uniquely qualified to tell you what not to do — because she’s probably done it.
I spent my entire 20s oscillating between low-paying jobs and subsistence-level freelance work, punctuated by the occasional month where I’d randomly make one bajillion dollars (or what felt like it at the time), as well as the sadly more-frequent months where I’d make no money at all. As a result, I am 30 and currently digging my way out of credit-card debt. I don’t necessarily regret how I spent the money I did make — I lived in two major cities and therefore had to spend lots of money on rent/bar tabs/dumb clothes to wear at bars/overpriced weed (one of the major cities was Los Angeles) — but now that I can see the light at the end of my poor credit score I want to change my ways. For the first time in my life I have a well-paying job and live in an affordable locale, but I worry that rather than saving for the future, I’m just going to fall into the same spending patterns I did when I was younger, only with more money burning a hole in my pocket.
Financial Understanding Kinda Egregiously Dumb
Dear clever acronym,
I have no idea what about this column, or my other work, or really anything about me led you to believe that I am the person from whom to seek solid financial advice, but bless you for trying. Let me be upfront about the fact that my current retirement plan is basically “keep smoking so that I can time my early demise with the imminent collapse of our financial institutions, I guess?” I couldn’t for the life of me to tell you what a Roth IRA actually is, but I hear they’re pretty chill. Maybe look into one.
Your question isn’t really about what, precisely, you should do with any money you have left over at the end of each month, though. Rather, you want to know how to reorient your relationship to money after a long period of precariousness and scarcity. This is something I feel much more qualified to talk about, because I have spent many years of my adult life broke as hell.
Most young adults have spent years broke as hell, and while there is a great deal of hand-wringing over what this means for birth rates, the real estate market, or the viability of whatever industry millennials are poised to kill next, what we don’t spend as much time worrying about is what this is doing to the emotional lives of an entire generation. Being broke is exhausting. It is enervating to the spirit to feel constantly behind your imaginary target, or underneath a pile of bills, or stuck between competing demands for your paltry resources. It is mentally taxing to be always, always doing simple math in your head — a program running in the background draining your battery life. It is humiliating to have your purchase declined in public.
There is, of course, a meaningful difference between being poor and being broke (one a structural condition, the other a potentially temporary embarrassment) and “broke” itself is a subjective term that people throw around with far too much ease. But if you are truly broke you know the feeling, and that feeling conditions how you feel about money in powerful ways — when you don’t have any and, more importantly, when you do.
I’m glad you aren’t expressing regret about those bar tabs or dumb clothes. There is enormous cultural pressure to feel guilty about even small indulgences when you are struggling financially and I cannot reject this forcefully enough. Austerity is a garbage worldview that serves only the wealthy and seeks to contaminate every joy we might find for ourselves. Please continue to buy dumb clothes if they provide you with even a moment’s respite from a world telling you to wring something useful or practical or productive out of anything you do.
Because respite is what you deserve, and it’s that insight, more than any plea about responsibility or maturity, that has managed to change how I personally feel about savings. It has always seemed silly to me to save for something like “the future,” but what I realized somewhat recently is that putting a little bit of money aside was actually a purchase I could make in the present — I could buy a small sense of security. I don’t save for a retirement I am wholly unlikely to encounter, but I do buy myself a little peace of mind, a break from the tedium of wondering how I might make the next month’s rent if (and let’s not kid ourselves, I work in media so when) I lose my job, a tiny little air bubble I can use to breathe.
Congratulations on finally reaching a somewhat stable place in life, now treat yourself to something to look at when you wake up from a nightmare that you overdrafted again.
Have a question for A Fuck-up? Email DearFuckup@theoutline.com