Buy a New Life With A Fuck Off Fund

Cushion. Padding. Savings.

Photo: Mike Fritcher

Growing up in economically precarious, early 1980s Detroit instilled a deep, early need for a Fuck Off Fund, probably because (especially because) nobody around me had one. Life brought countless times when such a fund might have come in handy. My father worked in machine shops, and the auto industry had a knack for laying people off right before the holidays, and right after they’d bought gifts.

A Fuck Off Fund would have helped when my parents nearly bankrupted themselves paying for COBRA. Back in the good old pre-ACA days, if you couldn’t afford COBRA you got nothing. Even a small Screw This Fund would have saved my dad bicycle trips in the snow, to pay bills in person in order to save money on stamps, and relieved the pressure of price swings on groceries. My parents watched prices on gallons of milk more than they did gallons of gas.

I may not have had a name for a Fuck Off Fund at the time, but I knew we needed it: More. Cushion. Padding. Savings.

By age 20, I behaved like a full-on reincarnated Depression Baby. I worked full time while putting myself through college full time. I had three jobs plus supplemental side gigs like cleaning houses, stuffing envelopes, and folding pizza boxes. But then I hit the jackpot: I got a real job and only needed that one job. It was a technical and customer support role for an early e-commerce site, paid $9/hour, and offered overtime. I made sure to put in overtime every week, just like dad.

Even better, thanks to the 24/7 nature of online shopping, I could work as much as I wanted, when I wanted, late at night and into the wee hours of the morning. I worked all day on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, which — and this was the best part — left me two whole days to spend on campus. I didn’t have to drive anywhere and could just… hang out, on campus. I was passing as a real college student.

After a brief probationary period, I qualified for the company 401(k) plan, which offered a match. If I could put away at least $3,000/year, my employer would match up to $3,000. Free money? In what world? I knew free money when I saw it, or at least thought I did. Nobody in my blue collar family had heard of such a thing, so I hopped onto Motley Fool (the only financial website I could find at the time), learned 401(k) matches were not a scam perpetrated by rich people, and convinced myself I wouldn’t miss the money since it would come out pre-tax and in small amounts, all year long.

Over time, I came to appreciate the power in that little bit of money automatically going into savings, the psychological mastery of never having it to fritter away in the first place. I set up a savings account that worked the same way. That year, I made $25,000, put $3,000 into retirement savings, got another $3,000 free, covered my living expenses and those godforsaken outrageously priced textbooks every few months, and saved $500. (Forget, for the moment, that I was in my third year of college and accumulating student loan debt that would reach $45,000 before interest. Never you mind.)

Two years later (having graduated and gotten a promotion that brought my income to $30,000/year, which — outrageously — was nearing that of my own father), I was hanging out with my boyfriend after work. In a nice Detroit apartment above the river, he watched TV in a farther room as I uncorked a bottle of wine. Mid swivel, he called, “Hey, baby? I think you’d better get in here. I think this is about your job.” The TV said my employer would be announcing massive layoffs the following day (as if they hadn’t just announced them). Well. That explained the mandatory 8 AM all-hands meeting.

By 9:00 AM, 70% of my colleagues had lost their jobs. Somehow, my best friend and I (the one who’d found us these plum gigs at a job fair) had been spared. As we all drank our sorrows away at 10:30 AM, I learned how the other side felt, the side that was not laid off. It sucked. And it was clear as day that when (because it was obviously a matter of when) I lost my job, there was no other like it for me in the state of Michigan, not a decent paying tech job in 1998. If there were, my laid-off colleagues would have found them.

I was not going to wait around for the pink slip to land in my palm. I lived on less and saved more. I applied for jobs in Chicago. I’d leave at 4:00 A.M. for a 9:00 A.Mm interviews, turn around, and drive back in time to work a later shift.

My Fuck Off Fund made me impatient, though. A few thousand dollars was enough for several months’ rent at $500 (heat included!) in a tiny, one-room kitchenette studio apartment in an ostensibly “bad neighborhood” in Chicago. I didn’t need to pay for a car or car insurance. I decided to move right away and, until I found a job, sell vintage coats from estate sales on a then very uncrowded eBay. That brought two more months of rent.

I didn’t have healthcare, I slept on a futon with my toes touching the fridge and my head touching the steam heater, and I lived on $.59 cans of Progresso soup, but so what? I’d bought myself a new life. Fuck off, employer who told C-SPAN about layoffs before telling people in person. Some scruples. Fuck off, home state.

I found a nonprofit job in food banking that paid a few thousand dollars more per year, but I never changed my habits of shopping at Goodwill, getting my hair done at the Aveda school, and going without whatever I could. In fact, I couldn’t change my ways: The financial cushion felt too comfortable. The more I cultivated my Fuck Off Fund, the safer I felt. I made a game of living on 50% of what I made and then, as my income grew, of living on 25% of it.

Spending is a skill. With the exception of a few details (apartment size, cars, and admittedly appealing tropical vacations during peak Chicago winter), I had much the same lifestyle as friends who earned many times more. I hardly suffered. We hung out at the same places and drank the same beer as they freely admitted they had zero savings. I did not know how they slept at night. That old Detroit question gnawed at my bones: “What if you lose your job?”

Now in my late 30s, consistent cultivation of a Fuck Off Fund has bought me a new life a few times over: when I left my baby-demanding boyfriend of four years, with whom I owned a condo; when I moved to California to take a chance on the man who is now my best and sweetest husband; and when I quit two jobs on the spot when piggish men, discriminatory pay, and abusive Silicon Valley work practices simply became too much to bear. I could not recollect items not purchased and lesser pairs of jeans in those glorious moments when I could, without hesitation, say “It’s not me, it’s you. Fuck off. I’m done.”

What’s the endgame of a Fuck Off Fund? It may be telling corporate employment that it can, Lord willing, fuck off for good. About 18 months ago, I realized that the side gigs I kept up over the years paid a decent portion of the bills. My husband and I didn’t have to earn much more than that. The ACA meant we could work for ourselves, have affordable healthcare and, hopefully, continue to save. So far, we have. We’ll see what 2017 brings.

I remain puzzled that high spending is considered not only acceptable but culturally desirable behavior, and that living on less money is equated with a reduction in happiness. I promise: It’s not true. Some of the happiest moments of my life were those when I could afford to leave the most miserable behind, and did. I want you to be able to do the same. Those gently used boots at the consignment shop are made for walking, too.

Stephany Wilkes is a freelance writer and regular contributor at Hobby Farms. Her fiction and nonfiction work has been published in Fine Woodworking online, Midwestern Gothic, various academic publications, and on her blog, West by Midwest. She has recently completed a book of narrative nonfiction about her sheep shearing adventures called Raw Material and is at work on another, about fabric.

This week, we’re celebrating the Fuck Off Fund. This story is part of this series.

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