How Much Money Does It Take To Feel Safe?
by Elite Truong
When I heard the question, “How much money is enough to make you feel safe?” on Open Account, SuChin Pak’s podcast about money and life, it made me wonder how much that number was for my parents, who used to switch to Vietnamese when talking about overdue bills in front of their English-speaking kids. When I then saw a Quora answer advising a new graduate making $100,000 to sock away half their income or more to be financially independent, I thought about what that answer would be for me at this point in my life.
I’m in my mid-twenties and living in Brooklyn, after moving from Chicago in 2013. In New York, as Heidi N. Moore so succinctly put it, money seems to fly away if you don’t keep an eye on it: a Metrocard here, a coffee and breakfast sandwich there, and you’ve spent $20 within the first few minutes of the day just to get to the subway.
For the first year, I hemorrhaged money from my front door all the way to my first contractor job in Chelsea and back, every day. There were many days I’d check my balances until my sessions timed out, look at my Excel sheet of job applications, and resist calling home to ask if I can come back to figure out my next step, feeling embarrassed after striking out on my own and failing so quickly at real life. I had enough to rent a $675/month room in Ridgewood (the most I had ever paid in rent at the time), and could only focus on paying back the credit card collections which I owed from college.
The future in 2013 felt like an ocean I’d been thrown into and struggled to float long enough to find the right direction to swim towards. I had no other goals besides finding stability.
Almost three years later, I’m surprised and happy to find myself still in New York, although next year I’m leaving to travel for a few months and move to DC to live with my partner. I’m finally making more than what I owe to Sallie Mae and the government, which is roughly $50,000 for undergrad. It took a long time to face my initial $65,000 in student loans after graduating college, and even longer to stop applying for forbearance to avoid the dread of an extra $470 per month leaving my paltry checking account.
Now the future I want is retiring early, traveling cheaply and often, supporting charitable causes, and taking care of my parents in their delayed retirement. Setting aside the anxiety-inducing number I would need for my own retirement, the number I’d want in the bank to feel safe in my present life would be the same as my debt: $50,000.
For me, that would be a lot of money to sit on without throwing into my future (retirement) or at my past (student loans). It already takes active control to sit on more than a few hundred dollars in checking without giving it to Sallie Mae and making adjustments in spreadsheets to see how much that moves my payoff date, then feeling too much month at the end of my money.
That number also means that the worst things could happen in my life and I could weather them. Each relationship and source of income in my life could crumble, and I would still be able to live the way I wanted to for a few years — even support a family member or close friend if they needed it. I could pay for long-term healthcare expenses, stay in my apartment in Brooklyn even with exorbitant rent increases, live at the same budget, and take a leap of faith to the next thing.
Though that number is comforting, this contingency plan is terrifying. In personal finance, saving and investing seems to be built on concrete goals: house down payments, vacations, college funds. What about the worst things? My savings and investing accounts are named Safety Net, Future Elite, Fall Back Fund, and F**k You Money. My saving is driven by anxiety, in case something happens, or in the case of the last account, to make things happen: start a company, set up scholarships for women in my field, volunteer in other countries, etc.
Planning to accommodate another long-term stasis in my life, the next time I might be staring at my balances with no idea how to pay them back, is full of anxiety. The end goal of having $50,000 in my savings accounts would require $416 a month, the equivalent of an extra student loan payment a month for the next 10 years. At this point, I’m trying to find the balance between paying student loans and enjoying a life free from guilt for not paying the absolute maximum per month for retirement and debt. When I finish my education tab, I’ll move on to the next thing and figure out what my money will be for when the only person I owe is myself.
What is your safety number? How much would you want in the bank to feel comfortable with your life, whether that’s leaving your job, living the life you want, or being able to handle long-term emergencies?
Elite Truong is a product manager and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She writes a column about innovation in media at Poynter and enjoys exploring the outer boroughs, eating and traveling.
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