Six Months of Austerity
I run other people’s financial lives for a living: I’m a 29-year-old business manager at a firm that specializes in accounting for entertainment and food industry clients. I oversee the paying of their bills and receipt of their income. I make sure they contribute to their pensions and that they pay quarterly tax estimates. I help them buy homes and adopt children. I solve problems, and am a voice of spending reason. I make $75,000 a year, base salary—the most I’ve ever made—and I practice not what I preach.
I’m completely broke: zero in savings, credit cards maxed, rent late, checking account overdrawn. I feel worse off than I was as a 19-year-old weirdo undergrad, living in New York for the first time, wearing going-out-on-the-town tops to class. I had a come-to-financial-Jesus moment last month when I didn’t have the funds or available credit to travel to attend the funeral of someone I cared about very much. More than my grief, I felt so completely trapped. My debt and its impact on my spending and (lack of) saving has completely paralyzed me and I couldn’t really feel it until now. I know that I have to do something drastic.
So, I decided to give up my great Brooklyn apartment to go live in the suburbs rent-free with my amazing aunt while I get my financial shit together. I mean, even if I don’t learn anything about fixing my finances, moving in with my widowed aunt seems like a great literary move, one that is probably really, really good spinster practice. I’ll be saving on rent, dog-walking, inner-city transportation, and meals out. My commuting costs will go up a bit, and I anticipate that my grocery bill will as well, because the way I contribute to the household is through grocery shopping and cooking, things that my aunt hates but I love.
My goals are simple and lofty:
- Pay off my high-interest credit card debt in full. This is about $8,000.
- Start an emergency savings fund and contribute $1,000.
- Re-work my student loan debt and start repaying principal.
- Begin the long process of repairing my credit score.
So, that’s where I’m going, hustling toward true financial freedom. I’ve spent the better part of a year learning how to actually take care of myself. I had probably the worst year of my life last year, and it took a medical scare for me to really start getting it together. I seriously cut back on drinking, I started swimming, I started working with a nutritionist, I lost 60 pounds, and I stopped dating dummies for sport.
And really, all of that shit seems EASY in comparison to this money business. It is somehow easier to say, “I was a highly functioning alcoholic who was eating my feelings and banging a bunch of grade-A jerks” than to admit that I’ve got deep-down money troubles. I had to sit down and see that I’d spent a rent payment in overdraft fees so far this year and then stop to hold my puke in, to tackle this. I think it took getting really clear headed about myself, my vices, and what I want to realize that I’ve been doing it wrong for quite some time.
I graduated from college at a notoriously expensive private university with zero dollars in student loan debt, thanks to some scholarships and an incredible amount of support from my parents. I think that made me feel free—probably too free; free enough to decline a paying job in publishing to go volunteer on a political campaign in Ohio. A family there was kind enough to put me up in their finished basement and grateful paid organizers gave me gift cards. I made nothing for months. I existed on donated Mid-western cookery (A LOT of chili) and a low-limit credit card. When we won, I left Ohio feeling really high, really hireable, and really free. After job-searching for months to no-avail, I decided that maybe I was still free enough to go live on an organic farm. While there I made $600 a month, plus room and board. The free-wheeling farmer that I was, I kept on racking up credit card debt paying for gas, food, and the occasional trip out West (that’s what a free person does, goes out West).
For the most part, these weren’t luxuries I was buying myself, but I was also never ever living within my super meager means. Yes, there were occasional fancy meals out, but it was stuff like car insurance and non-organic snacks that were going on my credit card. When the farm I was working on went belly-up, I felt free all over again. I also felt like I had a real duty to do something good. So what do you do when you’re feeling free like a goddamned Joan Baez song breezily whistling through a grove of willows, and the willows have long armpit hair? And when you want to change the agri-business world? You go to grad school! So that’s what I did. I earned a graduate degree in food studies at the same ludicrously expensive private school I attended for undergrad.
But I really tried to do it right. I worked full-time, only borrowed what I needed for class, and commuted from New Jersey. I killed myself trying to mitigate the debt burden I’d saddled myself with, but it wasn’t enough. My student loan debt and interest hovers around $89,000 right now. Sometimes, I can’t sleep at night thinking about it. But it didn’t always haunt me. I somehow managed to bury my bullshit money skills, overdrafting my account to buy a metrocard, applying my hard earned bonuses on credit card debt, taking a cab when I was tired, and the shame of having the girl at the coffee shop that my card was declined with all the other crummy parts of myself. This feels like the last big self-improvement hurdle to leap. I feel really lucky and privileged to have the support of my family, that I’ve got an “out” when times get tough. (Full disclosure: sometimes my aunt brings me coffee in bed.) Leaving New York City for a bit feels like admitting defeat, like I couldn’t quite hack it. I’ll tell you, though, I just had my first first-of-the-month without stressing about rent, and I feel a little more like myself, and a little more free.
“Six Months of Austerity” is a new series following Megan as she gets her finances back in order.
Megan W. Moore is a lover of spreadsheets, dim sum, and dad jams. She excels at side projects, Diane Rehm impressions, and high kicking. She’s spending the next six months trying to get her financials shit together. She blogs about snacks, spending, and body positivity over at foodiecantfail.com