A year ago, I landed my dream job and my husband and I were making plans to buy a house and start a family.
If you’d told me then that I’d be divorced and unemployed within a year, I would have been shocked. But the thing about life is that change can come fast. Fortunately, I had been saving for 10 years when they came. I ended up using those savings to take charge of my life and steer it in a direction I wanted.
When I first started making real money a decade ago, saving for the future was not something I thought about. I lived paycheck to paycheck, even though I did not have to. I spent money on Diesel jeans and iPods. I maxed out a credit card on frivolities. I had no real plan, financial or otherwise. I did not need a car and owning my own place was not even on my radar. What would I need to put money away for if there were no big-ticket items I wanted?
I was living like this for the good part of a year when a very good friend dragged me to a finance workshop. Finance, I thought, how boring! But I learned some basic tools and concepts in this workshop that I still use today:
- Make a budget by subtracting your necessary expenditures and debt payments from your monthly income. Then decide how much you’re going to save each month and subtract that too. Take what’s left of your income and divide by four. That’s the amount of cash you can spend each week on everything else.
- Automatic savings plans are the best way to make sure the money you want to save actually goes into your savings.
- Saving is essentially paying yourself. It isn’t money you’re giving to a landlord or a credit card company or a student loan holder or Isabel Marant. You’re better off with that money in your account.
- Rainy days happen. Maybe you feel secure in your job and life and see the future like a flat line that will continue forever and ever. A life like that is unlikely — and boring.
- Don’t beat yourself up if you break your budget or dip into your savings to do things for yourself. That’s what it’s there for. But remember: You have to actually have savings in order to dip into them.
Soon, I’d paid off that maxed-out credit card. I started to save more and more money the more and more I made. I went on trips and sometimes I bought nice things. I got better jobs and moved up that ladder and fell in love and got married. I landed what looked like an amazing job and was in what looked like a great marriage. My amorphous savings goals turned into chunks of money we were saving together for a down payment on a place of our own. My ambiguous life goals turned into plans for motherhood and getting old with someone.
But once I’d climbed to the top rungs of my projected ladder (of both personal and professional accomplishments), I realized that I had been forgoing my personal dreams and ideals for a marriage and a job that weren’t working out. I was no longer putting that excess money away for myself, but for joint goals and domestic trappings I wasn’t certain I wanted. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be married anymore.