As I’ve written about before, my dad is the quintessential bootstrap story. He lost his father — the family’s only breadwinner — at a really early age, putting his family in financial hardship overnight. My father and his surviving family were largely dependent on the largesse of extended family to make ends meet. My dad essentially bootstrapped his way from small-town India through a series of prestigious degrees and into a successful engineering career in America that enabled him, in turn, to support his extended family back.
In contrast, my family, growing up, was never poor. But, for as long as I can remember, my family’s approach to money was one of extreme frugality. Because my dad had grown up in a family that had gone from financial security to poverty seemingly overnight, that experience shaped everything about him. I was never privy to my parents’ budgeting choices, but while we never lacked for the basics, I did notice that we lived in modest apartments and then a tiny townhouse while my friends’ parents bought beautiful detached homes. Our idea of a “sit-down” restaurant was our local Jack-in-the-Box. Even as a kid, I sensed that money was the difference between the private pool at my best friend’s house and the lack thereof at mine. I sensed that having money, a lot of it, let you do things, go places, buy things without the perpetual calculation I saw on my mom’s face every time she opened her wallet. Money was a source of unspoken anxiety in my family, rather than a comfort; it was haloed by a fear of not having enough, or having enough and losing it all. Growing up that way, it was easy for me, despite not growing up poor myself, to inherit my parents’ financial fears.
Then, my family moved to India. Our decade abroad placed us firmly in the upper-middle class and all the perks that went with it — more meals out, more vacations, the biggest apartment we’d ever lived in, and private school. It was this strange dichotomy; living in India, I was intensely aware that, by all accounts, my family was extremely financially privileged in comparison to 90% of the country, and our family was likely to stay that way. This should have allayed the financial fears I grew up with.
At the same time, the majority of my new classmates at my private school in India came from extremely wealthy families. It was abundantly clear that I was at the very bottom of the food chain, financially. Being around people for whom money had always been a given, a source of comfort instead of a source of general anxiety, only made it clear to me how differently my upbringing had shaped me. My financial education from my parents had sculpted my outlook, in terms of everything from my politics to the way I approached romantic relationships.
Despite our newfound financial security, my parents made it clear that there was still limited room for error in my own life; they simply couldn’t afford my dream (which at that point, was making it back to America as fast as I could). I knew I would have to fund that dream on my own. Unlike the rest of my classmates, for whom college in America or Europe was a given (with their parents paying full, international-student tuition), my parents could not afford to send me. And the fear of being stuck in an educational system I despised, in a country that still didn’t feel like home, was what ultimately motivated me to study like crazy, win scholarships, and make it back to America on my own terms.
Fear can sometimes be a good thing. There’s no doubt that in my parents’ case, their fears of financial catastrophe are what propelled them to save like crazy, live frugal lives, and accordingly retire early with the comfort of knowing their finances were covered. In my case, though, after I grew up, graduated, and got a job, I started realizing that the fears I had internalized growing up were actually holding me back in many ways. In no order, here are the five financial fears I realized were holding me back — and what I’m doing to overcome them.
1. I feared losing my job.
In some sense, this is a pretty common fear to have. But, in my case, having parents halfway across the world meant that I was on my own for things like health insurance and a place to live following college. Without a job — a full-time, salaried position with benefits — I was screwed. I was so desperately, pathetically grateful that someone (anyone) wanted to hire me out of college that I basically jumped into my first job without a second thought. I didn’t negotiate my salary or take a moment to think things through and decide it if was the right fit. And mostly, my first job was interesting and exciting and directly relevant to my interests.
But, because I was so petrified of messing up and losing my job, I worked all the time, logging overtime hours nearly every week. I found it extremely difficult to set boundaries when I needed them or stand up for myself when I felt I was being unfairly treated. When mistakes happened, they literally sent me into panic attacks. I may have been doing fine at work, but I was also unhappy and unhealthy. I was engaging in a generally unsustainable method of “getting ahead” at work.
Two things helped. First, I kept track of the ways I was doing well at work. I created a separate email folder where I saved congratulatory or otherwise positive emails from the people I worked with. I kept track of the things I’d done well in a Google Doc on my desktop. When I felt the panic coming on, I’d read the nice emails or look at my growing list of accomplishments and remind myself that I was not, by most accounts, bad at my job. This reminded me that it was unlikely that a small mistake was going to end my career.
Second, I made it a priority to build up a really hefty emergency fund. This was something I started doing after I received my very first paycheck, because sometimes, shit happens. You can be the “best ever” at your job and still lose it. The security of an emergency fund with six months’ worth of living expenses meant that, even if I lost my job, I could get my own health insurance and pay my rent until I found another place to work. Having that confidence made it a lot easier for me to speak up when I needed to and draw lines when required.
2. I was petrified of investing.
My parents have always been extremely cautious with their money, erring on the side of savings accounts over stock-market acquisitions. Accordingly, I mostly grew up with the idea that investing was for people with money to lose (making less than 40k a year in Manhattan, I was not one of those people). At some point, though, I realized that it is really, really hard to build wealth without investing because interest rates barely cover inflation. The majority of rich people in the world get that way because they invest their wealth in profitable enterprises, rather than just stashing their money in a shoebox (as I was doing).
It took a lot of small steps to overcome this fear, starting with the tiny step of setting up a 401K at work (literally just signing a form) for the employer match. Once I got comfortable with that, I took steps towards investing on my own. It’s taken a couple years to get to a place where I feel like I know what I’m doing; I’m still learning more every day.
3. I was terrified of taking risks.
In my immigrant community, it was pretty common for our parents to push us towards the “safe” careers — law, medicine, engineering. Our parents reminded us repeatedly that these were the careers that had brought them security and stability in America. My parents tended to eschew the potential benefits (and the much larger risks) of dropping out of college in pursuit of entrepreneurship, Zuckerberg-style. They thought it best to choose a career path that guaranteed a stable income and societal respect.
The dirty little secret of entrepreneurship is that it’s almost impossible to be an entrepreneur, or set off on your own, or take those career risks, without someone paying the bills at home (whether it’s parents who subsidize your rent, or a partner taking care of the living costs). For my parents, just one generation removed from relative financial insecurity, I — as their child — didn’t have that luxury of support for entrepreneurial risk-taking.
But as I got older, I started to realize that very little in life is certain. When I was little, getting a Ph.D. was a “surefire” way to get a tenure-track position (and a lifetime of job security). Pursuing a Ph.D. was therefore way up there on my parents’ list of preferred careers for me. Today, the un-employment and under-employment rate for Ph.D. candidates — both in STEM and non-STEM fields — is the highest it’s ever been. Careers that were “stable” in one decade are obsolete by the next. Unless you open yourself up to risks, adapting to the times, being resilient against that sudden job loss or that company failure — you might find yourself unemployed anyway.
The only real workaround I’ve found to this fundamental unpredictability of life is to build up my privilege as best I can. I’ve invested in both an emergency fund and a “me-fund.” The “me-fund” allows me to invest in myself and build skills I think are useful, even if they don’t relate to what I’m currently doing. I’ve done everything from taking coding classes to building up my language skills.
My only other solution to financial unpredictability is to make “risk-taking” my side-hustle rather than my full-time job. For example: I’ve always loved writing, and over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of nights and weekends freelancing. I’m at the point where my writing is making me (some) money — not enough to support me on its own, but where I do have regular contacts and income from it. This means that, if I ever did need to expand my writing career in a big way, I’d stand a way better chance for success.
4. I worried about touching my emergency fund.
Though I built up a solid emergency fund fairly quickly after starting my job, the first couple years of my post-college life also required using up a big chunk of this fund, on multiple occasions. First, it was an emergency wisdom-tooth removal that my insurance didn’t cover. Then, it was needing a new laptop when my old one died abruptly in the middle of law school application season. Each time, even though I had the money to cover it comfortably, I agonized over doing so. It took me weeks beyond my laptop’s death to pull the trigger on buying a new one, even though I’d been aware for months that mine was on its last legs. All I could think was: “What if I buy this laptop and then get laid off? I can’t afford both.”
Honestly, this fear of using my emergency savings is still something I’m working to overcome. The truth is, I know that I’m a thousand times more productive on a new machine than my half-functional, aging laptop (making good use of my time by getting shit done instead of frustratedly re-starting my laptop for the 10th time in a day is actually better for my finances). The expense was worth dipping into my emergency fund. But I’m not going to lie — I’m still extremely anxious about needing to use my emergency fund, especially now that I’m back in school and unable to contribute to it regularly. But, the more unexpected crises I deal with, the smarter I get about paying for said crises. Whether it’s liaising with doctors to haggle down a medical bill or couponing like crazy to afford the laptop I need, I don’t lose my cool. I’m making peace with the fact that these little financial emergencies are likely to continue happening (such is life), and each bump in the road is less of a shock, each time it arises.
5. I was afraid to ask for help when I needed it.
My parents raised me to be financially-independent and live within my means. Those lessons have generally served me well over time. The downside is that there have been times where, despite my best efforts, things have gone wrong. Really wrong. And even though there have been people in my life — friends, significant others, family members — who were in a position to offer help, monetary or otherwise, I felt like asking for help was an implicit admission of failure. I refused to acknowledge that I couldn’t do everything on my own.
Honestly, I’ll probably never be at a point where asking for money from someone — even a close someone — will feel anywhere close to okay. But being honest about my money and my financial circumstances with the people around me has opened the door to other non-financial help. Friends happily bring over wine instead of going out for brunch because they know that things are tight for me, financially; my SO and I find the fun in thinking up more creative (and cheap) date nights when he knows that I can’t afford dinner out. Talking honestly about finances and money (or the relative lack thereof) with people in my social circle has made me aware of how many of us struggle in similar ways. Having a sense of financial solidarity with these friends and loved ones makes it much easier for me to open up during difficult situations that I’d previously tried to suffer through alone.
Fear can sometimes be a good motivator to do better, whether it’s working harder at a job you’re afraid of losing or being cautious with your brokerage account for fear of losing everything you’ve invested. But, at some point, your fears will hold you back: not standing up for yourself at work, struggling more than you should with emergency expenses because you worry what others might think of you if you ask for help. It becomes counter-productive to be afraid. And though I still have to work every day to prevent my fears from holding me back, I now understand the legitimate place these fears come from. This insight has helped me to work through my fears and begin the process of taking healthy risks for financial and professional growth — even when it feels terrifying to make those leaps of faith in myself.
Meghan Koushik is a cheese enthusiast and law student in California. You can find her on Instagram.
Image via Unsplash