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.
To avoid my crumbling marriage, I threw myself into my work. I was answering emails at two in the morning and working late into the night, eating popcorn for dinner in a dark and empty office. Spending time with my friends and family took a backseat to my job.
Finally, I asked myself: Why was I giving almost the entirety of myself to a career and to a partnership that were failing? Why was I putting things off that I really wanted to do until things became more comfortable or stable?
I wanted to travel more, not just for a vacation or a trip, but really travel where I wasn’t always assured of my destination. I wanted to write more and write for myself. I wanted to live by the sea. I wanted to write songs and record music. But, I realized, I wasn’t doing any of these things.
I started saving 10 years ago in case of an emergency, but my deferred life goals became my emergency.
Because I’d saved, I was able to leave a marriage that was failing. I was able put down money for a security deposit on my own place. I was able to hire movers and buy a blue velvet loveseat. I was able to give myself the space I needed to see if I could stand on my own.
Months afterwards, my dream job turned out to be not so dreamy and we parted ways. I would be lying if I said I did not think about returning to what used to be comfortable. It crossed my mind that if I was still married, someone would take me in and take care of me and help me figure out what steps I should take next. But those thoughts were fleeting. I knew I had the means and, most of all, the desire to forge this stage of life on my own.
I will not say my savings made me self-reliant and resilient. Those were traits I already possessed. If you cannot take care of yourself without substantial savings, you may not be able to take care of yourself with all the holdings in Fort Knox. But having $25,000 in savings makes taking care of yourself a lot easier.
Because of my savings, my unemployment became less of a crisis and more of a gift of time. I do not need to rush to get back on my feet because my own two feet are already on the ground. I have time to look for work I find interesting and fulfilling, instead of settling on the first thing that comes along. I have time to work on my own projects. I have time to write. I have time to learn programming languages and scripting. I have time to bike across France this month.
I have time and therefore, I have freedom.
Saving is for yourself. You don’t need a car or a house or a wedding or a family as incentives to put money in a bucket. Just put money in a bucket for your future, whatever it turns out to be.
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