With the help of sheer dumb luck, I landed a job as an assistant to a blindingly wealthy financial broker my first year out of college (in fact, one of the top 500 richest people on the planet). By the end of my two and a half years of employment, I was making over six figures between my direct pay, company equity, and benefits. It was the most money I had ever seen in my life.
But despite this massive financial incentive, I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t interested in staying in the financial sector. I wanted to work in theater. I quit my job after two and a half years to jump headfirst into auditioning. I planned on using a combination of babysitting, tutoring, odd jobs, and freelance writing to get by. In my first six months as a freelancer, I made less than $2,000 each month before setting aside money for taxes — hovering right at the maximum New York income of $23,107/year for certain benefits programs.
I want to recognize that I went into this period of jumping from gig to gig with a massive amount of privilege and stability: I had six months of living expenses saved up in an emergency fund from my full-time job, and I knew I always had the option of moving home to the west coast if I got in real trouble. That being said, I had been living independently from my parents since college and knew that them helping me financially during this time wasn’t an option. And my emergency fund felt like it was for, well, emergencies. I never used it during this time, and hope I won’t have to in the future.
So, what changed?
I felt prepared for some of the changes in my life — I knew had to move further away and lower my student loan payments. Other changes, however, felt unexpected. I didn’t realize which parts of my financial life were most important to me until I was unable to access them anymore. Here’s what I noticed change the most when I cut out nearly 80 percent of my income:
My first order of business when I quit was finding an affordable place to live. I traded in my two-bedroom that overlooked Central Park (I didn’t pay for it — my apartment was part of my benefits package) for a room in Brooklyn with two roommates. The new apartment was reasonable, although my bedroom had no windows or AC. My previous commute of two train stops to Midtown (or more often, just walking) switched to 45-60 minutes on the train, depending on the day.
Unexpected: Roommate Challenges
I had lived with roommates through college and didn’t expect that I would find it any different. However, after almost three years of living alone with two bedrooms to myself, adjusting back to living with others was a challenge. Gone were my morning smoothies after the blender woke my roommates up, and gone were my evenings of spontaneous dinner parties with friends when we made a house rule of giving a 24-hour warning for guests.
Expected: Student Loan Payments
When I was working full time, I was paying more than 10 times my minimum on my student loans each month. When I started freelancing, I simply didn’t have the cash flow to make that happen anymore. Paying off debt was a huge priority to me, so I tried to keep my payment at two times my minimum. Every month in the week before my loans were due, I considered switching the payment down again, and sometimes I had to take money out of savings if I was waiting on a check. But I managed to stay on top of it.
Unexpected: Credit Cards
I’ve never carried a balance on a credit card, but my anxiety about doing so grew so strong when I left my job that I changed most of my shopping habits. When I was working full time, I wasn’t concerned about covering a large credit card bill if I had to. I would often pick out multiple sizes and colors of the same item and bring them all home, trying them on in my own time and returning the items that I ended up not wanting. I figured that if my closing day came while I was still using my bedroom as my personal mall, I would be fine to cover the cost until I got money back from making a return.
However, when I was freelancing, I barely had enough cash in my account to make rent each month, let alone cover a hundred dollars of credit for items I didn’t even want to keep. As the difference between my spending and my income shrunk, I found I needed to look through my credit statement almost every day to make sure that I had enough cash to pay off my bill — not to mention the fact that living further away and working multiple jobs made it hard to find time to make returns if I needed them.
Feeling like my money held higher stakes also changed the way that I viewed my credit cards. If I was going to risk getting slammed with 23% interest on a card that I couldn’t make a payment on, I had to think hard about what benefit that card was giving me. Rewards became everything to me — if I wasn’t getting points, miles, or cash back, it wasn’t worth using.
Expected/Unexpected: Eating Out
When I had my job, beyond understanding that I should generally limit spending on food I ate at coffee shops and restaurants, I paid little attention to how much money I spent eating out. I never felt like I was doing anything too expensive — I’d get a coffee if I was sitting in a coffee shop on my laptop for the afternoon, I’d order whatever looked best when I went out to dinner, and most frequently, I’d stop at a bodega or salad bar for lunch instead of taking the time to pack one. Still, I knew that this habit would have to change when I left.
While I expected to have to cut back on my coffees and bagels, what I didn’t expect was how difficult I would find doing so. I worked significantly more hours when I was freelancing and often spent 12 or 14 hours out of my house at a time — sitting at an audition in the morning, then babysitting in the afternoon, then tutoring in the evening. Needing to plan and pack three meals every day and haul them around the city with me felt burdensome and annoying. I hated eating sad, been-out-of-the-fridge-for-five-hours salads and then having empty, dirty Tupperware floating around in my backpack. Still, it felt necessary.
Unexpected: Eating Out With friends
When I was working, I was making more money than virtually all of my friends, who all worked in theater. Covering the bill if we got coffee or getting an appetizer that everyone could share at a restaurant felt like my way of paying it forward — I certainly didn’t have a way to spend all of the money I was making, and I didn’t want my friends to feel stressed about us hanging out together.
When I started freelancing, I became the one worried about coffee dates that I wasn’t sure I could afford. I didn’t realize how much I had been using money to compensate for my anxiety that I didn’t have close friends or that my friends didn’t like me. I got people coffee and didn’t bother asking for Venmo at restaurants because I thought I was trying to make their lives easier, but I realized I was also trying to give people a reason to spend time with me. I felt attractive and fun when I could pull out my card and say, “Don’t worry about it, I got it this time,” and treat people to a meal. Not being able to offer friends anything but my company forced me to examine my friendships closely and unpack a lot of the anxiety I had surrounding them.
It took me three months of generating essentially no income before I switched my $40 facial cleanser to a drugstore brand, but other brand switches came much more easily. I started using a bare-bones all-purpose cleaner around the house instead of an environmentally-friendly (and expensive) set of sprays, switched my favorite coffee beans out for the grocery store brand, and canceled my well-loved gym membership for at-home workouts with YouTube videos. I learned quickly which brands actually mattered to me and which ones I didn’t even miss. (One brand I couldn’t give up — Diet Coke. Store-brand soda just doesn’t taste the same!)
More than making switches, I also just stopped buying things. It no longer felt worth it to buy a new color of lipstick or a pair of sandals when I already had something that worked.
Besides where I lived, my food intake was the most noticeable change in my life when I had to cut the majority of my spending. When I had the money to do so, I felt like it was my responsibility to buy sustainable products like locally sourced, organic produce. I tried to keep up the habit when my income dropped, but it soon became impossible. Not only did I laugh at the idea of spending $8 on a pint of farmer’s market blueberries, I simply didn’t have the time or mental energy to shop anywhere except the grocery store a few blocks from my new apartment. Buying produce at all became difficult when I rarely had time or energy to prepare it — and I noticed myself slowly replacing my usual grocery list of greens, fresh fruit, and vegetables with pre-prepared meals that I found in the frozen food section.
My local grocery store was more expensive and had less variety than the Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods I used to shop at, and it didn’t stock organic foods at all. In my hardest months, I couldn’t even afford full grocery hauls at the beginning of each week and took to buying just enough food for the next few days — the cheapest of which was often boxed pasta, microwave pizza, and oatmeal. One month when a gig switched from a weekly pay schedule to a bi-monthly schedule, I ate oatmeal for every meal for four days until my next check came in.
I knew I’d have to work more hours than I had been, since my hourly wage was going to be so much lower. I went from working 40-60 hours a week as a personal assistant to a minimum of 60, often more like 75. Since I was freelancing and could often set my own schedule, every free hour felt like an opportunity to make money, and I found myself working whole months of 7-day workweeks to get by.
The gig economy served me well in a lot of ways — it gave me multiple streams of income to rely on and the ability to set my own schedule around auditions and rehearsals. However, it also meant that in a given day, I would work three different jobs that required me to prepare different things, wear different clothing, and be in vastly different places.
For every hour that I was working and actually making money, I spent at least thirty minutes stressing the night before about making sure I had enough time to take the subway between babysitting jobs, had prepared the right material for students I was tutoring, and had all of my writing deadlines straight. It became a job in and of itself to just coordinate my schedule and make sure I was making the minimum amount of money I needed to get by each week.
Was it Worth It?
For me, yes. Every time I think about something that I miss from my “old life,” I remember how miserable I was every day working in a job that didn’t feel aligned with my skills and values. It’s worth it to me to work harder, have less, and feel like I’m using the degree I went to college for (in theater!) rather than make more money in a field that I hate.
Tessa prefers to write under a pen name.
Image via Unsplash