On Mental Health and Personal Finance

When an $8-an-hour job feels like a miracle.

Photo credit: Rusty Clark, CC BY 2.0.

In 2009, I found myself jobless, homeless, and without any idea of how to fix it. My first year of college was over, and my inability to pay the outstanding tuition fees from that year meant I couldn’t return the next fall. With my promise of a degree went my work-study job—which didn’t pay well, of course, but was enough for me to eat and put gas in my car. The latter of those would soon not be an issue, since banks don’t take kindly to recurring missed car payments.

I crashed with friends for a while, with my parents sending me $20 here and there when they could manage. My tuition fees went to a collections agency, as did some medical bills I’d racked up that same year. No car meant finding a job was increasingly difficult. My town didn’t have any public transportation, and I was a college dropout with no permanent address or dependable way to work. I wasn’t exactly a “catch” for any HR team.

During this time, my depression, which had lain dormant for a few years, came roaring back with a vengeance. I felt hopeless and out of control in my own life. I spent my days starving, sleeping, and drinking, since alcohol is always more prevalent than food in a college-aged household. I was sad that I couldn’t make any progress and anxious every time the phone rang. What more could they take from me? I didn’t know, but I was scared. It became more and more difficult to apply for jobs, as every rejection sent me on a new downward spiral, and each time I didn’t know if I’d make it out alive. It’s odd to think now that there was ever a time I could go more than a day without eating. My spoiled body demands a snack every two hours now, but I used to make a single $0.49 cheeseburger from McDonald’s last several days. It’s amazing to watch survival instincts kick in like that.

In February of 2010, I found a job. A full-time one! Within walking distance! It was the closest thing to a miracle I’d seen at that point. Making $8 an hour in a call center is hardly the start of an empire of wealth, but I was determined to pull myself out of this. Little by little, I paid off my collections and started saving for a car. Almost a year later, I ended up with a $2,500 silver Kia Optima that looked like it had been in a head-on collision with a dump truck. The hood was closed with zip-ties, and the steering wheel was worn down to the rim. But it was mine, and I thought it was beautiful.

The sneaky thing about mental health issues is that, while they may be influenced by external circumstances, they certainly can’t be defeated by them. Having a job and a car didn’t make me feel better. It just meant that my brain was going to find something new to focus on since the previous mantra of “I might starve to death” didn’t hold as much weight anymore.

I channeled all the mental energy I had into mastering personal finance. I went to workshops; I read through 20-plus pages of responses on every FICO Forum post; I treated my credit score like the stock market, celebrating when it was up and losing my cool when it was down. My previous routine of opening my computer and going straight to Facebook morphed into opening my computer and pulling up my budget spreadsheet to enter the day’s expenses. I tracked every expense, going on weekly spend bans. I saved every dollar, raising my annual goal each year. This year, I paid off my student loans, bought a new car (an actual new car, not a new-to-me car), and I inched slowly towards that elusive 800 credit score. I feel good about where I am, and my brain does too, no matter how negative it tries to be.

I won’t say that developing a budget has eliminated all my stress. My mental health issues are still alive and kicking, but now money just isn’t something that triggers them. And, while it may seem like I’m depriving myself, there’s something very comforting about simply saying “I can’t spend money until next Friday.” I’ve learned to get very creative in the kitchen. I’ve learned that saying no to work lunches won’t make anyone dislike me. I’ve learned to find joy in my library books and those puzzles I bought five years ago and stuffed in a closet.

It hurts when I see people who have never struggled financially and certainly never struggled with mental health issues say things like “just save money,” “don’t spend so much,” or “get a better job” as if these aren’t the three things spinning around in our heads incessantly. You have to make money to save money, and it’s tough to spend intelligently when the most common financial advice doesn’t apply to you. You can’t afford to buy food in bulk, knowing it would save money in the long run, when you only have $4 to spend on dinner that night.

My parents weren’t poor because they wanted to be; they were poor because they didn’t have a choice. I’ve done my best to break that cycle, but I’ve also been very lucky to have things work out as they have. No matter what, I’ll keep building that emergency fund and meticulously managing that spreadsheet, because I just can’t turn off the part of my brain always warning me things can and will get bad again—and when they do, I’ll at least be a little more prepared than I was before.

Stephanie Ashe is a freelance writer, cat mom, and pop culture devotee. She’s probably talking about a 90’s movie on Twitter right now.

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