This week, we’re exploring economic inequality and poverty here on TFD. To see the whole series, click here.
Until last year, I had never quit a job in my life — not even the worst ones. At one point between semesters in college, I worked as a restaurant hostess and was constantly abused by my manager. I was sexually harassed, and often had pay confiscated for speaking up about my manager’s behaviors, among other things. For many people — those who have a supportive family, or are financially stable, or have something else to fall back on — this would be a totally unacceptable situation to be in. They would quit.
But I couldn’t, and I didn’t. I continued working in toxic situations because I was young, and had to put myself through college without a family. No kind of abuse was unacceptable. Quitting any job was never an option, because quitting would mean being totally homeless — again — with no degree and nothing to show for everything I had already done to keep myself afloat.
Growing up in poverty teaches you that most forms of degradation and abuse are just the price you have to pay to stay alive. The tunnel vision that comes with poverty makes you think, feel, and believe whatever hardships you must suffer for a paycheck are justifiable — that there’s just no other option. And for many who live in poverty and put themselves through work situations even worse than those I’ve experienced, there really is no other choice. Poverty strips us of our free will — our humanity. Nothing has become clearer to me over the years than that poverty is violence, forcing us to put ourselves through hell just to afford the basics.
If I had to do it all over again, I would still probably work every minimum-wage job. Working myself into the ground made it possible for me to eat, graduate college, and begin to build a life for myself. Yet the mindset that struggle left in me is dangerous. I learned that I had no option but to stay in difficult situations. When you’ve experienced extreme poverty, once you finally find some sense of stability, it’s easy to convince yourself that enduring hell for a paycheck is still better than nothing.
After working multiple jobs at once for years (sometimes five simultaneously, while still attending class full-time), I decided I never wanted to do that again. It made me feel like a shell myself, someone who existed merely to become a piggy bank. So in my last semester of college, I applied for nearly 300 jobs. I traveled into New York constantly, spending money I didn’t have to interview. I ended up taking the first full-time offer I got, even though it didn’t pay as well as other jobs I could have gotten if I’d waited, and wasn’t something I felt passionate about. It paid only slightly more yearly than I’d made while working four jobs at once during summers, but working one stable nine-to-five instead of multiple jobs felt like a dream come true. At the time, I was more scared of graduating without a full-time job and having to continue to juggle jobs to make rent than I was of enduring one job that wasn’t what I’d hoped for. Compared to what I’d been through, that sounded easy.
After a while, I realized that wasn’t sustainable. I was doing hard work I didn’t like, and I was still barely able to make rent. My mental health was the worst it had ever been. Still, instead of quitting, I justified it to myself, just like I had before. My excuses? I needed the money. Other people have it so much worse. I had it so much worse only a few years ago. The same old spiel. Plus, I was terrified of leaving one bad situation and being thrust into another one more time. I couldn’t go back to total poverty again.
At the time, I had a modest savings account with enough saved to pay for a few months of rent and all of my basic bills. It had taken me nearly six years to build, and I had already drained it completely several times to pay for school. Now that I had any savings at all, I told myself I couldn’t touch it at all. Ever. That money was supposed to be for emergencies — for hospital visits, or losing a job. Conditioned by years of poverty, I’ve always been hardwired not to spend money on anything but bills. I constantly had panic attacks over having to buy shampoo, and even spending money on groceries felt frivolous. If I spent a dollar on a bagel for breakfast, I felt like a horrible person, wondering what hospital bill that dollar could have been saved for.
I couldn’t explain exactly why I let my emergency savings sit while I suffered, other than that poverty teaches you that tragedy might strike at any moment, and you need to be ready. It wasn’t there for me to quit my job because I didn’t like it. The very idea made me feel privileged. I didn’t go through everything I had to find an opportunity to get out of poverty and then kill that chance so easily. It wasn’t until I finally went back to therapy and heard how dire my situation was from an outside perspective that I realized my tunnel vision had tricked me.
When it came down to it, my therapist told me in those sessions, I had two options: I could save my money and spend all my emotional and mental energy on a job that actively hurt me. Or I could spend my money and save my emotional and mental energy to use it for something I cared about that would also pay the bills. I knew she was right. I also didn’t know if the latter situation was even possible. She threw me another cheesy line at the end of our session, telling me that the only thing I needed to ask myself at the end of the day was: “Is this situation adding value to my life, or taking value away?”
It worked. I knew the answer: if I stayed, I might not have any energy or talent left to do anything I actually wanted to do. The cycle of panic attacks, Sunday night anxiety, and Monday morning depression was not worth the measly paycheck. That was it. Soon, I walked into my boss’s office and told her the job wasn’t right for me.
Leaving that job was one of the most freeing things I’ve ever done. It marked one of the first times I ever felt empowered to take control of my own life in spite of uncertain consequences. I immediately got a seasonal retail job to help me pay for groceries over winter so I wouldn’t feel so stressed about practically emptying my savings just to pay rent and my student loans. Then, I continued my job hunt. I also devoted half a year to thinking about what I really wanted, how much money I needed to make, and figuring out who I am and what I’m passionate about.
Don’t get me wrong. Not getting a single paycheck other than small retail checks during a month and a half of holiday work, and then nothing for four months stressed me out daily. There was never a time when I wasn’t worried that I had just completely screwed myself over. I was constantly panicking that I was one surprise expense away from being on the street. But I never regretted quitting.
After about six months of scraping together freelance work to make ends meet, many jobs applications and interviews later, and mostly depleting my savings account, I finally got a job offer. It was a temporary contract position for several months at a prestigious consulting firm. The pay wasn’t ideal, but it was the kind of work I thought I wanted to be doing, and it felt like an amazing opportunity that I didn’t want to turn down. After talking to my therapist about the pros and cons, I took it.
The first week was rough, but the second and third weeks nearly broke me. I found that I wasn’t allowed to set reasonable boundaries between my work and personal lives, or set a flexible schedule that allowed me to have time for myself. I was back in a position where I wasn’t sleeping, was too anxious to eat, and barely had any time to breathe. So much of the work I had spent months putting into bettering my mental health was headed down the drain. It wasn’t what I wanted. And this time, I was able to recognize that immediately and honor that boundary. I felt the same anxiety I’d felt before quitting the last job, but I knew what I had to do.
After only three weeks of working there, I quit a job for the second time in my life — only six months after I had quit the last one—and it was empowering as hell. My therapist was proud of me. Everyone in my life was proud of me. Most importantly, I was proud of myself for learning what my boundaries were and having faith that if I honored them, I would be able to find something else. Since then, I’ve gone back to freelance writing and communications work, which allows me to pay my bills. It isn’t necessarily helping me to rebuild my savings, but it does give me the ability to focus on myself. After years of putting myself through awful work situations just to survive, I’ve finally started valuing myself.
I’ve experienced a lot of anxiety during the last eight months over whether my ability to quit two jobs in succession comes from privilege or the opposite of it. Now, I realize that it lies somewhere in the middle. Many people living in poverty who experience degrading or traumatic work situations can’t just quit. I certainly couldn’t have before. But a majority of people experiencing extreme poverty in this country are black people and people of color. They experience even more violent forms of poverty than I ever have — poverty wrapped in systemic racism, housing inequity, and more. They often have entire families to support, and less privilege than I do as a white woman living alone in New York. I have rarely felt secure over the past eight months. But I was able to choose to my situation, because I had scrimped, saved, and built connections…And having that choice is a privilege that many simply don’t and can’t have.
Now that I’m freelancing again, I don’t necessarily feel stable or secure, but I do feel more in control. And because I gave myself time to figure out where I want to go in life and what I want to do, I realize that my relationship to budgeting, spending, and saving money has almost totally changed.
Looking at my spending habits in the last month or so, I realized that I no longer force myself to put everything toward the bare necessities. I no longer berate myself if I buy takeout after a long day, or skimp on groceries and in case I need the money for student loans. My emergency savings account is no longer more important than my sanity or my overall health. These might all seem like normal spending habits. But for me, they’re hard-won, and sometimes I still have to convince myself they’re okay. I’ve learned that it’s fine to break my budget a little as long as I’m being smart about what I’m investing in.
Last week, I got my first paycheck in a long time, and depositing it felt incredible — but buying myself a meal without feeling guilty for not putting it away felt even better. If I’ve learned anything from poverty, it’s that your life doesn’t really belong to you. But if I’ve learned anything from quitting those jobs, it’s that if you have the choice to invest in yourself, you owe it to yourself to try.
Elly is a New York-based writer and communications strategist who works very hard to feel worthy of eating lox bagels for breakfast. Primarily, she’s Brooklyn’s resident pun enthusiast. Read more of her writing here, or follow her on Twitter.
Image via Unsplash