My ‘Real Life’ May Be On Hold, But My Financial Goals Aren’t
For the past few years, I’ve been living what I fondly describe as a “temp-to-perm” life in New York City. Since moving to the U.S. from the U.K. in 2010, I’ve spent five years with one foot in each country. Even my visa can’t make up its mind—if you scroll through all the legal paperwork, you will find the phrase “dual intent.” While temporary visitors can be turned away at the border for divulging the slightest hint that they might want to make the land of the free their permanent home, my particular class of (non)immigrant has been given the federal thumbs up to spend months and even years testing the water before committing to a green card application and a lifetime of being mocked for the way we pronounce “tomato.”
For a long time—too long, if I’m honest—New York didn’t feel real or permanent. For three years, I kept half of my meager belongings in a suitcase under my bed because what was the point in properly unpacking when I might be buying a one-way ticket in a month or two?
My suitcase wasn’t the only thing I was putting to one side. I also shelved all thought of budgeting, and all planning for a future any less immediate than the next summer. I came here on a short internship that I thought was a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to enjoy New York and travel across the U.S. Even if I were able to save anything from my stingy stipend, that certainly wasn’t my first priority. At the end of the year, I was offered a job. That first year soon rolled into a second and then a third, but I still couldn’t shake that transient feeling. When I blew hundreds of dollars I couldn’t really afford on trying out hot new restaurants or drinking at rooftop bars, I justified it by telling myself that I didn’t know how long I would be here, and that I would only be young once. When I returned “home” I would be sensible. That’s when I would mature. That’s when I would swap takeout and boozy nights stumbling across neighborhoods I had once only known from films for big Sunday shops at Tesco and quiet evenings in watching BBC2. That hasn’t happened.
It shouldn’t shock you to find out that I felt the same way about retirement savings as I did about budgeting. In fact, when my manager at the time kindly told me in my annual review that I should really consider taking advantage of the company’s 401(k), I am fairly sure I said something cringeworthy in response like: “Oh, but you know, I don’t know where I’ll be in forty years and I’m not sure if I want my money tied up over here.” What I somehow failed to understand was that the alternative was to have no money tied up anywhere.
If it hadn’t been for my manager planting that first seed, I am sure that’s where I would be now, three years on. As it happened, her words stuck with me, and I began to research crazy American financial terms like “Roth IRA” and “HSA” on websites like the Billfold. And I thank my stars (and my manager) every day that I did, because now I have a small chunk of change set aside for whatever the future brings. I check my Mint account more often than I should just to watch it grow and shrink in tiny, thrilling increments.
I’m also trying to pay it forward by talking honestly about money with my friends. Not everyone is in my exact situation, but I have heard similar gripes. It’s overwhelming to start saving for retirement while they’re still catching up on student debt repayments, they complain. Or they tell me that there’s no point setting up a 401(k) with their current employer because this job is just a temporary stepping stone to their real career. The funny thing is that everyone speaks with the same certainty with which I predicted that I would be ensconced in a cosy London flat by this point, rather than the New York apartment I’m currently in. Everyone’s sure that at some nebulous but inevitable future point when their lives are “sorted,” that’s when they’ll get their financial houses in order. And then I show them charts showing compound interest over time, and people become a little more interested in the here and now.
What I’ve realized is that uncertainty scares me. That might seem strange considering that I’ve moved apartments, cities, countries and even continents almost every year for over a decade. But it’s true. I can deal with the future when I think of it as an endpoint—a vague “some day” where I will eventually find myself—but I can’t picture the journey. That’s what I’m trying to change. Even though I don’t know where I’ll be when I retire, I will be somewhere, and I need to prepare myself financially for that. We all have to start somewhere, but the important thing is that we start.
Lucy Power is a British girl living in New York and working in corporate social responsibility. Which is exactly what Captain Planet would be doing, if he were a millennial (and not a superhero).