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How I’m Handling Money Differently After Losing Nearly 50% Of My Income

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In this article, writer Savanna Swain-Wilson illustrates how she’s dealing with a major loss of income — something millions of Americans can currently relate to. Read on for the actionable steps she’s taking to handle her income loss in the immediate, and continue planning for a solid financial future even on temporarily shaky ground.

As I type this article on my 2011 Macbook, a device that I originally planned to replace this month with the additional $1,500 I was supposed to have saved by April 2020, I can’t help but think of how important it is to never get too comfortable — especially when it comes to money.

A year ago, my life looked a lot different than it does now. Things were going quite well for me financially. For the first time in my four years of freelancing, I had clients reaching out to me for work instead of the other way around. For the first time ever, the money I made from my writing (sometimes as high as $2,000 per month!) was on par with what I made as a substitute teacher — so much so that I actually left that job to pursue writing full time. I had three months of emergency savings and a regular, “I’m gonna move to New York one day!” savings, along with enough money to cover my taxes. Lizzo’s “Good As Hell” blared from my speakers on a daily basis. I regularly bought bagels from a bakery instead of the kind loaded with preservatives from the grocery store bread aisle.

Fast forward to today. The last check I received from anything remotely related to writing work was approximately $700, and save for my work with TFD, I’m not sure what’s coming next. 

Like millions of other people around the world, I’ve experienced a significant decline in my income, partly due to the economic impacts of COVID-19. Assuming I clear even $1,000 by May 2020, that means I now make less than 50% per month compared to what I made on average this time last year. And although I can’t say this change was a complete surprise — freelancing, after all, is a bit unpredictable — it doesn’t mean I haven’t felt its effects on my life. 

Within the first week of the shelter-in-place mandate going into effect across several U.S. states, I received one email from an editor noting that their publication was temporarily suspending work from freelancers as they focused on figuring out what to do with their internal staff. I could manage, I thought. But soon after that first email, another editor from a different client announced that nearly all content by freelancers was going to temporarily move to the back burner. Shoot. Now what?

Of course, I know I’m not the only writer one dealing with this blowback. The media outlets that rely on advertising revenue are especially getting hit during these times. People with staff jobs, even at senior level, are losing their positions every day. Beloved publications are shutting down their sites with no guarantee they’ll reopen again. And with so much uncertainty on the horizon, it’s no surprise that many of us feel helpless. 

After granting myself permission to process the situation over a few glasses of wine, I decided it was time to recalibrate what I can control, especially when it comes to my finances. I’ve since shifted many priorities in ways I never anticipated before to maintain some semblance of control. Of course, I’m well aware that my finances probably won’t look like my 2019 finances for a while. But for now, here is everything I’ve done to manage the dramatic financial changes in my life.

1. I rewrote my budget from scratch. 

Because I can’t say for certain what my income will be when June hits, I’m playing it safe by planning for the worst — having to live off my emergency savings. $5,000 is enough to get me through three months of living, though I can stretch it to four if needed. 

In truth, I didn’t even bother trying to trim down my former budget. To me, crossing things off a list of spending you can’t have is sort of depressing and adds insult to injury. Instead, I decided to start from square one. I immediately cancelled everything. Netflix. Hulu. Automatic payments. Automatic savings. A new budget means new expenses, even if they look the same as the old ones.  

I took a blank sheet of paper and wrote down what I realistically anticipated to be my freelance earnings for May, based on the guaranteed assignments I had lined up (Right now, that figure is around $1200). Once I had that figure, I worked from the top-down, recalculating how much I could actually save and spend based on this new, lower amount. 

Unsurprisingly, I’ve had to make some hard decisions about what is most important. On a separate page, I wrote (in pencil) a T chart of my needs, based on whether I needed them now, or whether they could wait. 

Things that can’t wait:

  • My share of rent and utilities ($700 – $900)
  • Personal hygiene products, including body wash, sunscreen, face wash, moisturizer, razors, tampons, shaving cream ($40)
  • Vegetables to eat (even if they’re from a can)
  • Paying my internet/phone bill ($120)
  • Saving for the summer in case I lose even more income.

Things that totally can wait:

  • Spontaneous trips to the grocery store, takeout, and random Trader Joe’s items that just sound intriguing
  • A wardrobe designed specifically for the summer
  • Makeup that goes beyond my tinted BB cream/mascara combo
  • Netflix, Hulu, and paying for movie rentals
  • Putting money into my sinking funds for travel
  • Buying a new MacBook 

It’s worth noting that I am in the privileged position of living with family, so my rent is quite low compared to what most people throughout my state pay. I also received the $1,200 economic stimulus check in April, which I set aside into a separate savings.

But once I figured out what I could realistically put on hold when it came to my purchases, I gave myself full permission to add things back into my budget again, one line at a time. It’s vastly different from the way I normally do money, but it’s a necessary step to take during these times.

2. I reevaluated my long-term savings goals.

Some time within the last few weeks, I saw a tweet from someone who joked about how they regret buying a super cute 2020 planner. It prompted me to take a look at my calendar, which was decorated with the following notes:

Spring goals:

  • April 2020: Set aside additional $200 for new summer clothes (You need pants that aren’t jeans and a new pair of loafers.) Start paying $200 to student loans. Start passive 30th birthday fund for 2021. 
  • May 2020: Buy the $1400 Macbook to replace the 2011 dinosaur you currently use.
  • June 2020: Halfway point for the year! Have an additional $1,000 saved by now for your moving fund. Start saving an additional $100 per month for possible Disneyland trips in October. 

December 2020: 

Have at least $7,500 in savings!

Allow me to update you on the status of each of these as of May 2020: I have now deferred my loans, once again. I stopped saving for said new computer in March because I needed the money for my bills. I’ve come very close to dipping into my $5,000 emergency savings to live.

Long story short, I had to make some modifications to my plan. And sure, at first it sucked having to acknowledge that I likely won’t be able to make some of the big purchases I wanted to make in 2020 or meet some of the money milestones I had in mind. But it’s not like I’m giving up on them completely. I’ve just modified the amounts and pushed back the dates for some of them a little further. 

Now, my priority is almost exclusively focusing on the emergency funds. I increased my automatic transfer amount from $150 to $200, and temporarily stopped saving for the non essentials. I also modified the goal date for my $7,500 savings to 2021-2023. It’s not what I originally had in mind for this year, but it’s what I need to ensure I get through the year without going into serious debt again.

3. I’m exploring new opportunities to build more income.

Five years ago, I never imagined that I could ever make money from writing alone. At one point, I was quite the multi-hyphenate — part-time freelance writer, substitute teacher, tutor, and dog sitter. In other words, I was a one-stop shop for the average suburban family’s basic needs. 

Unfortunately, social distancing guidelines have limited many of the potential side gigs I would normally take on had this pay cut happened any other time. I can’t exactly sub for teachers who are at home giving lessons to their students via Zoom, and dog-sitting is pretty much off the table because no one’s going on vacation. As a result, I’ve had to be a little more open-minded about the different ways I can earn more money. For instance, I recently started applying for social media-centric jobs and technical writing gigs that go beyond the standard editorial writing I normally do. I’ve also made $60 this month from helping a few friends and revamp their cover letters. It doesn’t sound like much, but for me, that can easily stretch into more than a week’s worth of groceries. 

4. I let go of my shame and accepted that it’s okay to ask for help.

My ego wants me to be the person that fixes everything rather than asks for help, even though reality has shown me countless times that’s rarely how life works. 

In the weeks that followed the emails from my editors stating that they would be taking less stories, I spent hours locked in my room, aggressively trying to fine-tune pitches that were, in my mind, “not good enough,” all while trying to distract myself from the fact that I had with almost total certainty lost more than half my income. Colleagues who were well aware of my status as a freelancer reached out to me having heard about media layoffs, and yet, I played it totally cool. Why? I didn’t want to be seen as a burden, or worse, that I had failed at being a writer. 

Of course, it didn’t take very long for me to realize that pretending like everything was okay when it was not did absolutely nothing to make my finances any better. And when I did decide to be totally honest about my pay cut with my friends, family, bill collectors, colleagues, and even strangers on the internet, I noticed that I felt relieved. The worst thing that can happen when asking another person for help is receiving no response at all. I’m not saying that trolls don’t exist. At any given moment, there’s some jerk commenting “Get a job, you loser!” on someone’s GoFundMe. But contrary to the self-deprecating, “people are trash,” narrative that clouds most of Twitter these days, I’ve found most human beings actually do have each other’s best interests at heart. You just have to be willing to ask for it.

I also want to clarify that when I say I’m learning to “ask for help,” I mean all forms of it, from asking a credit card company if they can chill on the interest charges for a few months, to sharing a story about your struggles on social media, and dropping a Cash App tag in your Twitter bio so that friends are at least subtly clued into the fact that you’ll take any assistance you can get. These are all things I’ve done over the past month, and I’m okay with admitting to them because there’s really no place for shame in my life right now. 

5. I’m reminding myself everyday that this too, shall pass.

Lately, my mind has been inundated with far more questions than answers about my future. Will I actually generate enough writing income to meet my bottom line for the month of May? Will I actually qualify for unemployment? How much of my emergency fund will I have to dip into next month if I don’t get unemployment? How long will it take me to rebuild those savings once that does happen? Will I actually be able to continue writing for the remainder of 2020?

With each passing day, the big picture that I once imagined to be my future looks more and more like a preschooler’s abstract finger painting.

And I’ll be real with you for a moment: After five years of reading TFD and absorbing as much financial knowledge as possible, I cannot think of anything more anxiety-inducing than thinking about having to start from zero with my $5,000 emergency savings again. But as the distant summer creeps closer to now, I’m realizing that I will likely have to start using this fund to cover basic expenses as soon as next month if I don’t qualify for unemployment.

At the same time, I can acknowledge what a privilege it is to even have emergency savings to use in the first place. With the economy on the verge of total collapse and many Americans $400 away from homelessness, many people don’t have even the slightest safety net. But rather than stress over the fact that it may take me another four years before I fully financially recover from this, I’ve decided to temporarily shift my focus toward tackling smaller goals when it comes to my finances

I’m not the best at routines, but I’ve made it a point every day to look at myself to start my days by looking in the mirror (much like Issa Dee from HBO’s “Insecure” does) and stating out loud one thing I know I can and will realistically accomplish that day. One thing only. One thing I know I can get done given my current financial circumstances. Each time I complete that task successfully, I write it down in my journal. It’s a lot less daunting than pressuring myself to be constantly #striving for #productivity with a neverending to-do list, and it makes me feel like I have some semblance of control over my life.

Some examples of things I’ve said include, “Today, I’m going to apply for three jobs.” I’ve also said “Today I’m not going to spend any money at all and transfer $5 to my savings.” But by far, my favorite one I actually wrote down on paper. It said the following:

“I’m going to make it through today. And that is enough.”

Over the past week, I’ve accepted that there are going to be some days where I’m more optimistic, and others where I feel like total shit. And that’s completely okay. 

Even though that statement doesn’t explicitly mention anything about money, saying it out loud it has had a massive impact on my attitude for the day, and particularly how I feel about my financial future. I have a tendency to downplay my accomplishments (hello impostor syndrome) and combating negativity often starts with verbally reminding myself that I am still capable of doing good things.

And who knows. I’m slightly more hopeful these days because I know that 28-year-old Savanna is equipped with far more financial know-how and to be frank, behaves with less recklessness than 23-year-old Savanna. 

Maybe if I am lucky enough to land something full-time in the next few months, rebuilding won’t take very long at all. But in the meantime, I’m focused on achieving what I can with what I already have, even if all I have is me.

*****

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