As you might already know, this October was one of the toughest months I’ve had since I left the US in 2012.
I was sick. Luna was even more sick. I got fined by the Swiss government (for no good reason). My landlord refused to turn on the heat, despite the fact that it was snowing, and I had to move out with just a week’s notice. And then I arrived in France to the world’s dirtiest holiday rental.
Everything eventually either passed or worked itself out, but it was exhausting and discouraging and horrible. I cried a lot. I wrote very little. And I ended the month feeling beat up and exhausted.
And along with all the physical and mental discomfort, there was also the problem of money.
$1000 in vet bills. $400 in doctor bills (a shockingly high number for Europe). $300 to the government (again, for no reason). And all the little things along the way. The coffees I bought just to be out of my freezing apartment for a few hours. The crepes I bought so that I could use the internet during my quest to fix my France housing woes. And a thousand other little unexpected things that added up.
I watched the bills roll in and felt my heart sink with every one of them.
At the time, I was just under breaking even on my expenses for the year. For a new business, this is a pretty big accomplishment and I was feeling generally good and grateful for how well my first year with the books and magazine focus had gone.
Still, I definitely didn’t have any extra cash laying around.
And so the extras were going to have to come out of my savings account.
(Insert irritated, helpless noise here.)
As you might imagine, I spent a lot of time stewing over my misfortune.
Happily (unhappily?), I’ve been through this before. In fact, it’s my pattern. If the bank account isn’t headed upward, I spiral downward. It’s easy for me to catastrophize when it comes to money. I tend to think the worst.
The happy part is that because I’ve been in this headspace before, I know the geography. I know that it’s my all-or-nothing mindset pushing the panic button inside me. And I know that all-or-nothing isn’t really the way the world works.
You see, each time we face our demons, we get a little better at it.
And in this case, I just needed a reminder—a jolt, if you will—to lead me gently back toward zen.
That jolt, unsurprisingly, started with Luna, who suddenly turned a corner for the better—rolling around, wagging her tail, clearly making her way quickly toward full health.
In that moment, a flood of gratitude washed over me. And gratitude (as I keep having to learn over and over and over again) is the solution to all manner of depression and anxiety and stress. I am grateful—deep-down-in-my-bones grateful—that Luna is still with me. And this was the first step away from the impending panic attack and toward a little sanity.
In that clear moment of gratitude, I also realized something very tangibly true: I was feeling panicked about pulling money from savings, but the reality is that this is what that money is for. I have savings precisely because life is full of missteps and emergencies and sick little Lunas who need me.
The goal isn’t to die with thousands upon thousands in the bank. The goal is to live.
A week or so later, the second step toward sanity and (dare I say) calm arrived, even more comforting and just as simple:
I was listening to a podcast interview with (I think) Ramit Sethi, who is a big financial blogger. He said he started his business because all he kept hearing from financial advisors was that to be financially smart, people should learn to budget, save, cut back. Buy less lattes (we’ve all heard that advice). Skip the wine with dinner. Don’t buy a round for your friends.
And while none of that is bad advice, he realized that his friends didn’t want to follow it. They didn’t want to spend their days toiling away and scrimping to get by in order to save up for retirement, for some nebulous idea of the future.
So he started advising people from a different perspective.
Instead of looking at where you can scrimp and save and scrape by, instead of clipping coupons, instead of pouring your limited energy into trying to save a dollar here and there, pour that energy into things that make a big impact.
What really moves the financial needle, he argues, are things like starting a business, finding a new income stream, paying off your debt. Not saving $100 a year on lattes.
In some ways, I’ve been living like that for years. But when things hit the fan like this, I definitely need the reminder. And something about the way he expressed it made me snap out of my frustration and into a proactive mindset.
Instead of watching my bank balance drop, feeling powerless and angry, and trying to figure out what I could do to save even more money (when you’re already frugal, this can be a useless and stressful exercise), I asked myself a question:
What can you do right now to move that needle back in the right direction? How can you earn some money right now? What can you do today that will make the biggest impact in your finances tomorrow?
After all, I wasn’t actually in a dire situation. Since quitting my job for a full-time freelance career in early 2011, I’ve increased my bank balance by more than 50%. Sure, this year I may not break even. Sure, I won’t be retiring anytime soon. But I am not going to be living in a box or my parents’ basement either.
The bottom line? I had time to make that money back, I had a proven track record of moving that financial needle slowly and surely into my favor, and I was going to be okay.
So after my financial freak-out(s), I made a list of things that I thought could actually move the needle. And I started checking things off that list.
I pitched new stories to my editors and got some more assignments for November. I contacted book reviewers to get more book exposure. And I started, little by little, to feel like at least I was doing something, I was moving forward. I wasn’t really powerless in this situation.
So this is how I’m slowly making my way back to quiet determination, peace, and joy. It’s still hard to be not quite breaking even. I’d be lying if I said I had it all figured out, that I no longer feel stressed about where I’m at. It’s still not my favorite thing to dip into my savings account. But, again, this is why I have savings. To save me, to save Luna, to fund a year or two of building up a new living through travel writing, to support the mistakes and mishaps and unexpected jabs.
Yet again, I remind myself to keep going. Always, always keep going.
What are your strategies for dealing with financial freak-outs?