Essays & Confessions

Everything I Had To Get Rid Of Before I Could Get My Finances Together

By | Wednesday, April 15, 2015

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I have always been a financial disaster. I had no idea how money was made, or what it meant to spend it. I spent my childhood willfully ignorant of finances despite the best efforts of my incredibly patient and prudent parents (sorry Mom and Dad!). I have always defined myself by the clothes I could purchase or the ability to go and get a nice bottle of wine, and the stubborn idea that the only way I would look cool was if I ordered the top shelf bourbon at the bar. I like all of these things, of course. Fashion and good drinks are delightful. However, being consumed by the need to define yourself with these cultural symbols — in spite of the fact that you are financially unable to support them — is madness.

I made it through undergrad and graduate school followed by internships and a low-paying job (in my field!) in DC until last summer. I lost my job (through a combination of finally standing up to my boss and a terrible HR team) and was given a “don’t sue us” package that consisted of pay for the remainder of the summer. I was terrified and suddenly, the little I’d been able to save was on the line in the most real way I’d ever experienced. To top off my predicament, my roommate was moving out of our apartment at the end of the summer to live with her fiancé. I thought I would have to leave DC, and after two years, I was unprepared for that possibility. But I got a scholarship to take yoga teacher training that I will forever credit with helping me not have a two-month-long panic attack and hit the ground running on the job hunting front.

I got a new job in the nick of time, found an apartment the same week, and all of a sudden things were moving way too quickly. I spent my savings, all of the stipend I’d received, and maxed out my credit card. When I finally looked around, I had a new apartment full of boxes, no money, and an abandoned cat in the new place I called home. A (beautiful, intelligent, put-together — shout out Natalie) friend recommended TFD, and I started to devour it.

Money finally started to “click”: saving was not the deprivation of things I wanted, it was to the mechanism I needed to use to reward myself with the things I most wanted and cared to have in my life. I got a Mint account and started getting serious about the rest of my student loans, my emergency fund, and taking care of my financial health. It took me six months to get myself back on track, and by then it was December, and while the panic had subsided and I felt more confident about my ability to take care of my bank account, I still felt the desire to purchase things I didn’t need or necessarily want. I can best describe it as a desire to make myself feel like I was put together. A grownup with good taste.

Walking in to my cluttered apartment with armfuls of extra gifts, I realized that the problem was all around me. You cannot grow into the person you want to be if you have so much “stuff” in your way. I initiated what became “The Great Apartment Purge.” I started with my closets, and things that a teenager shouldn’t be caught dead in were finally put into the donation box (I’m 27…), shoes no one has business wearing were gone, purses I hadn’t used in three years were shoved into a pile, scarves I hadn’t touched for four years were stuffed into bags.

I looked around, proud of the accomplishment, and realized I’d caught a bug. I couldn’t help myself. I started throwing out old papers, notebooks from undergrad, knick knacks that were solely dust collection devices sent by the devil to make my cleaning days suck, scrap paper that I’d long forgotten the reason for keeping, cups that I’d collected, all my old race tags, five year old coffee tumblers (I had so many!!), extra mugs, mismatched Tupperware, photos and paintings from thrift stores that had lost all meaning, gifts my beautiful mother had given me in bulk because she herself couldn’t throw them out, hats from my Zooey Deschanel phase when I was 21, gross Ikea furniture that had been moved too many times, and finally my books. My precious books, my most prized possessions. I discarded duplicates first, then the unopened cookbooks, then all the ridiculous books that I’d read and not particularly enjoyed.

As I continued to work through all of these things, I realized I was only keeping the parts of my life that meant something important to me. When I looked around to see two-thirds of my possessions gone, I realized I’d uncovered the woman I had strived so long to be. I have the clothes that make me feel put together and the books that make me disappear in other worlds, and even with so much furniture gone, I have space for the things that mean so much to me. The greatest lessons that TFD has given me are the confidence to face my finances head-on, and the ability to choose to live in my space as the woman I was always trying to be — the space that money couldn’t buy.

CJ is a 27 year-old, recently put-together woman, living and working in Washington DC, running on coffee and tech policy issues. She is on Twitter and Instagram.

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