There is never a good time to find out you’ve lost your job.
But a Saturday afternoon at the start of your vacation, as your plane touches down on the runway, is a little bit worse than, oh, any other time.
We’re letting go of our freelancers, the email said. I’m so sorry, it said. I looked over at my boyfriend and pursed my lips into a smile, wondering if I should ruin our vacation now or later.
“I think I just lost my job,” I whispered. No sense in putting it off.
When you lose a job, you worry about two things: losing your sense of purpose and losing your financial stability. I could handle an existential crisis — college philosophy courses and Wes Anderson movies prepared me for that. But the money? No one really talks about the psychology of money the way they dissect the psychology of everything else.
For me, though, there was always something extra scary about losing a job. I like to brag about my family’s money story. They went from rags to middle class fancy in one generation, and I’m proud of them for that. Both my parents busted their asses so that my brother and I could have nicer things, like a secondary education and the Skillet Queso at Chili’s. In college, I was your textbook Broke Millennial. Barely scraping by, but still having the time of my life.
It’s a great story, but it’s all predicated on one thing: having a job. Losing one felt like walking a tightrope without a safety net.
As we waited to claim our luggage, my boyfriend (now husband) put his hand on my back. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I can take care of things until you find another job.” A sweet thought coming from a sweet man. But it was the most terrifying thing I could imagine. Growing up, my parents warned me: never, ever depend on a man for money. You don’t want to end up like my sisters, my step-dad said, trapped in bad relationships all because they depended on men for money.
I made many mistakes during my broke college days, the way you do when you’re in your 20s, teetering between adult responsibilities and juvenile freedom. I drove to Austin with a guy I knew for a week. I showed up to work hungover. I had an adolescent illusion of immortality that led me to self-destruct in ways I never thought possible.
One thing I did right during that time, however, was follow some basic money advice I’d read in an old personal finance book: build an emergency fund. Save a few month’s worth of living expenses, the advice said, in case of, y’know, an emergency. I come from a long line of people whose entire lives are emergencies, so this seemed like a good idea. And while it took me years to build the fund, it was a way to insulate myself from all the headaches of being broke or depending on anyone else for money.
For a while, my emergency fund was cash that was just sitting there. To avoid blowing it all on a nicer car or nicer clothes, I convinced myself this fund was untouchable. And the longer I went without dipping into it, the less tempted I was to do so. Its existence gave me a sense of security. It wasn’t until I lost my job, however, that I really appreciated what this money represented to me: Control.
With that fund, I didn’t have to take out a payday loan or ask my boyfriend to borrow money I wasn’t sure I could pay back. I didn’t have to take the writing gig at the content mill that wanted to pay me $10 an article. I didn’t have to leave California and move back home. I was fired, but I still had control. With my bills taken care of, my rent still paid, I had the freedom and flexibility to stay focused on my career, my next move. And it was all thanks to a dusty old piece of simple, but powerful advice: Build an emergency fund.
“Thank you,” I told my boyfriend as our luggage came. “But I think I’ll be okay.”
This was my broke-no-more moment. It was the moment in which I realized money could indeed solve your problems, at least some of them, despite what people like to tell you. I was privileged. Yes, that email had effectively ruined my vacation, but I had the privilege of being able to work through my existential crisis without the added worry of a financial one. Growing up, this was a luxury my family did not have. It was progress.
For me, money has never been about the things you can buy. I don’t care about driving nice cars or flying first class. Don’t get me wrong, those things make you happy in the short-term (so much more leg room!) but they have no real effect on your long-term happiness. You can be just as miserable in a brand new Tesla as you are in a ‘92 Taurus.
Money can buy long-term happiness, however, when it affords you security, freedom, and control over your own life. It can pay for the knowledge that, even when your worst financial fears come to fruition, you are still okay. When you’re broke, there is an anxiety about money that constantly hums in the background, like a light bulb on a bad current. It hums when you go to class. It hums when you ask your kids how their day was. It’s there when you’re a bridesmaid at your best friend’s wedding. It’s there when you decide to treat yourself and go shopping for new clothes.
Growing up, I never wanted to be filthy, stinking rich. I just wanted enough money to quiet that humming, to make life a little less complicated. To me, that’s the ultimate luxury: having enough money that you don’t have to think about money. Everything else is gravy.
Kristin Wong is the author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. She is a freelance writer who has contributed to the New York Times, New York magazine’s The Cut, and Glamour.
Written by Kristin Wong
Image from Kristin Wong
Edited by Erin Lowry