Any of you who know me personally, and have known me for quite some time, know that I’ve never, ever been good with money. I usually am broke, and usually am struggling to make ends meet. For years, especially during my twenties, I maxed out and over-extended myself time and time again in order to acquire things, and what I thought was status, among my peers. I used money as a means of escape through spending way too much at the bars and clubs, or on clothing and dining out, in order to add meaning and value to my life.
When I was with Nathaniel, I basically turned over all of my income into his hands, and relied on him to pay the bills and tend to the responsibility of making on-time payments to all of our mutual debts, including rent and the utilities, along with groceries and everyday living costs. I used to just ask him, “Can we afford it?” and he’d tell me yes or no. I never questioned him or his judgement, but in doing so, I actively removed myself from any fiscal acuity in our relationship, and simply assumed everything was going along smoothly. For the most part, it did, though I recognize that this meant I lost touch with the cost of things, and how much it really took to sustain a life that was worth living.
After he and I split, suddenly, I was left holding the reins to my own fiscal life. I had no checking account. I had no debit card or credit card. I didn’t even have a phone. I had a paycheck, but nowhere to put it. At first, I turned to check-cashing store fronts to convert my income into a form of money accepted everywhere. It turned out that I had some old bank accounts that had gone into overdraft years ago, and until those were paid off, I couldn’t open another account. I managed to do that, and for the first time in years, marched my butt into a local bank and opened my first account. It was a basic checking account. I got my first debit card, set up my direct deposit from work, and suddenly found myself staring at the requirement to keep myself in check. It was up to me to pay my own bills, buy my own groceries, keep a roof over my head, and obtain and activate a means of communication. At the time, it felt like learning to ride a bike again.
Along those first few months, I had a few hiccups. I overdrew a couple of checks due to my bad math, and quickly learned that $32 in fees per check added up quickly. I had to come up with a means of organizing my finances that would work for me, and it was then that I first learned the art of creating a budget. For me, after the debilitating crush of a destroyed relationship, a relocation, and having to find my feet again, gaining some sort of control over an aspect of my life back meant the world to me. Once I’d set up a plan and could see both how my money was being spent, and how I should be spending it going forward, that rush of adrenaline from a surge of confidence became addictive. I wasn’t perfect, but I made it work, and over time, it all became natural to me again.
When I moved to Denver, though, it all fell apart. Suddenly, I was back to my old habits of spending too much on going out and keeping myself distracted, that bills began to pile up again. I was borrowing – this time, from payday loan lenders – at a rate that was unsustainable. I fell into the trap of having to borrow from one place to pay off the debts of another. This went on for a few months, and all I can really recall from that period of my life was a never-ending surge of anxiety that wouldn’t go away. While, at the time, I saw the necessity of having access to quick money to pay the rent so that I could have a roof over my head, the amount of time – some up to six months – it took to pay off that small debt, was insufferable. It got to the point where I had to finally just stop, say no more, and reel myself back in. Phone calls from collectors, setting up payment plans, and the like, was something that became a constant problem in my life, but eventually, I managed to find my way out of that hole, with a vow never to return. It was ugly, and it was dark, and it was not how I wanted to define myself.
It was a move in with my bestie, Amanda, that helped me come to terms with a lot of that anxiousness. With her, I was comfortable in the home we shared, and didn’t feel the pressures to go out as much and spend money I really didn’t have just to escape the darkness that was at my previous home. I also got to have grown-up conversations with her about finances, and it was with her as a guide, that I managed to get back on a budget and get myself back in order. My credit score had been obliterated, but I still had a bank account, I still had my cell phone, and I still had an income. I had a means to move forward, and that is what I did.
Being jobless for eight months upon landing here in Portland, Oregon was almost a complete setback for me and my finances. I’d cashed in a retirement plan from my previous employer, and even though it seemed like more than enough to sustain me, inevitably, it wasn’t. This time, though, money wasn’t being spent on going out and being dumb. It was spent on groceries, on home improvement projects that my ex-boyfriend and I were working on. I bought a bike. I spent money on some workout clothing. I did take myself out from time to time for a drink, though rarely, and I did spent an inordinate amount of money on coffee in cafes as a means to not have to be tied to the house so much. It was a slow drain that, by the time I landed my current job, had wiped me dry. Somehow, and through the generosity of others around me, I managed to pay my bills, and keep up with most things. Still, some things slipped, and once again, my credit score took a pummeling.
When I finally did start work again, and secured a very reasonable place to live with Bil and his partner Brandon, things finally were able to turn around again. Though I was making very little to start (and had just met Ray at that same time), I still was able to pay the rent, and pay my student loans. Slowly, and over time, I was able to start to feel those glowing embers of satisfaction one gets when stuff gets paid on time. I relished making payments to my debts, and once again, was able to set up a budget that worked, and that I could see grow and change over time. I secured a credit card in order to help me rebuild my credit, which has been helping immensely. Occasionally, I can take Ray out on a date and drop a few coins in that fountain, but not often. He, for his part, has been super supportive and really patient, as I get my finances back in order. Now that I’m almost two years into my job, my pay has reached a level where the budget is really starting to look very rosy.
I’m terrible at spreadsheets, but being able to build one that helps me see into the future, including when things get paid off, how much my savings will be able to grow, and how a “snowball” payment plan towards the debts I do have is working, makes me feel insurmountable. Confidence is oozing through the columns and rows, and for the first time in my life, really, I feel like I have this. Like, totally, utterly, have this. I’ve figured it out, and I’m making progress. I recognize where I’m spending silly still, but I also know how to prioritize my spending in a way that at least ensures all of my obligations are tended to. It feels good. It feels grown-up. It feels like I can trust myself to make the right decision and stick to a promise to myself (at least in the fiscal arena). It feels like pride and increased self-worth. By the end of the year, my two credit cards will be paid off. By the end of the year, I will have a savings account for us that should contain at least $1,500 (downpayment on a new apartment). By the middle of next year, I should be sitting quite nicely on a sum of money that will help me buy something that I’ve always wanted (more on that later). I’m really, really excited to see this all unfolding before me.