I had a very unpleasant experience last month: I ran out of money before my paycheck came.
The main culprit was my planned renovation of the master bathroom. I’ve been gathering all sorts of items to redecorate, plus I got some cool new art for the rest of the house, and a few other items. Even getting some great deals, it all added up to hundreds of dollars. I still might have been okay, but unfortunately my check arrived three days later than usual.
As a result, the last two days of my financial month had me charging everything without any money in the bank to pay my card back.* And it was overwhelming as hell.
*For those not familiar with my budgeting style, I charge everything to my Citi Double Cash Back card to get the rewards, then make payments once a week.
I haven’t run out of monthly funds for ages. Not even the last bit while Tim was still around. There was pretty much always a little left in the account by the time my paycheck arrived.
But not this month.
This month, the last week was nerve-wracking, as I watched my bank balance drop lower and lower, knowing my check was days away. Then as I started scraping the bottom of the bank balance barrel, checking the mail every day and not finding my check.
Every new expense that came up made me more tense. And I despaired as purchases I’d already been putting off from earlier in the month could no longer be put off. I’d stress out each time I bought something I couldn’t pay for immediately.
Granted, I could have stopped that if I’d just taken a hiatus from the auctions. But auctions with low bids wait for no man. Yes, some of the items come up over and over, but some I haven’t seen again. So I didn’t want to miss out.
Thus my balance kept creeping downward and eventually stalled out around $3 with quite a few expenses left to go. And I was thrown back into a sort of inverse nostalgia — an acute and unpleasant reminder of how vulnerable I felt back when I was broke.
A reality check
Of course, I understand that this is semi-hyperbole on my part. My being “broke” was due purely to artificial restrictions I’ve placed on myself.
In reality, I’m fortunate to make enough money to have a healthy savings account. Technically, I could have transferred some of that in to cover my additional spending when things started getting tight.*
So I’m fully aware that this was a far cry from actually being broke. It was a dilettante version of the very real fear, anxiety and danger endured routinely by so many people without the good luck of a financial safety net.
*I didn’t because it would’ve been a headache to sort out how much extra to transfer back out once my check did arrive. And because my check was due any day, so making a transfer from Ally that would take two days seemed pointless.
A time I don’t want to remember
So no, I wasn’t truly broke this past month. Because I have been poor before. (Though not necessarily in poverty.) So this rang a very unpleasant bell for me. Suddenly, I was back to my 20s where chronic fatigue kept me from being able to work.*
So I struggled to have any sort of paycheck in my early to mid-20s, then spent ages 25 to 32 struggling to live on disability. And of course bills don’t stop just because you can’t work.
Thanks to $400 antidepressants — GoodRx wasn’t a thing back then — and private insurance not covering antidepressants back in the day, I watched my credit card balance climb each month, even as I threw every dollar I could into my payments.
Eventually, Mom came to Seattle and paid off my debt for me, then prompted me to apply for disability — which meant I was covered by Medicaid and later Medicare. But until then, I felt depressed and powerless every time I handed over my credit card at the pharmacy and every time I opened my credit card bill.
Sometimes I felt like I was desperately dog-paddling in the middle of the ocean — no end in sight.
*I only have a job now because I found a remote position.
Handling it — badly
So even just being temporarily out of money — as opposed to being truly broke — brought up a lot of old anxiety and stress.
I felt fragile. I felt exposed. I felt raw. And each new expense ratcheted up my stress.
I stopped updating my spending diary or even my spending Excel tracking sheet. (I caught up later, but I just couldn’t handle documenting everything in real time.)
I feel like I also ate more junk food and watched more TV (rather than taking care of things that needed doing) to try to keep my mind off it. A good reminder that being out of money can lead to more unhealthiness than just a stressed out nervous system.
I kept trying to reason with myself — “You have the money to cover these bathroom upgrades; you have money in savings. It’s fine.” — and the logic would work enough for me to not halt all spending. But it didn’t help me feel safe.
Despite knowing that I have healthy balances in multiple bank accounts (for my various savings goals), I kept having to shake myself out of feeling like I was in financial danger — and a bit of a money failure to boot.
But I’m glad it happened
Sure, as a personal finance blogger, I feel a bit like I flunked a test. And it played havoc on my system and mental health.
But I’ve gotten so complacent about money over the years — about always having enough to cover whatever comes my way — that it’s good to have a shake-up every so often and remember that that’s not the reality for so many people. To remember how hard it can be to live like that day-in and day-out. And how many other aspects of life it permeates.
So I think more of us might benefit from occasionally be thrust — even in the most superficial fashion — into the shoes of so many Americans. It’s good for us to experience how much the stress drains your energy and — and often your decision-making ability. How it starts to feel like things are actively working against you as even small expenses come up. “I have to fill up the car again??? Couldn’t this have waited just two more days? It would’ve been okay in two more days!”
We need to be able to at least vaguely empathize with what so many people deal with day in and day out. People who don’t or only briefly get a reprieve from the stress that may nearly break us in just a few days.
A good reminder
It’s so easy to forget what a profound impact money has on people and how it will affect how they act and the decisions they make — in more than just finances. It’s important for those of us with a cushion to remember how it feels to struggle (even if we only experience an ultimately artificial version) and how that struggle (and potentially resulting depression) permeates everything.
We need to remember this to avoid judging people for imperfect money choices. We need to remember it because few of us are truly safe financially, given the right series of bad luck. So most of us aren’t at nearly as large a remove from trouble as we may think.
And even if you don’t agree with all of that, I hope you’ll at least agree that experiencing all of that is good because it reminds us not to take anything for granted. To never forget how fortunate we are to not live crisis to crisis — or even just living in cringing fear of what might happen next.
When you’ve experienced the right combination of luck and hard work to have created a safety net, it can be easy to forget just what life could be like, to not appreciate how easily some of us can (grumblingly) shrug off an unexpected repair bill that would send others reeling — financially and emotionally — for the foreseeable future.
We all need to remember to appreciate our luck (and, yes, hard work that likely accompanied it) that has given us a financial lifeboat, while others may, despite their best efforts, struggle just to keep their heads above water.
Anyone else had an unpleasant but healthy wakeup call?