Time Poor, Cash Poor

Working late has trashed my finances

Photo: Pedro Szekely

My mental countdown to Monday morning usually begins to tick around dusk on Sunday. The shops are closing (meaning I’ve missed my chance to run errands for another week), it’s too late to make new plans, and brunch is a distant memory. By 8pm, my stomach is starting to knot, and by 9pm, all I can think about is unread emails. I hide my work laptop under my bed in the hope that out of sight will mean out of mind. My alarm is set for 7am and from then, it will be thirteen long hours before I am back home trying to fend off hunger long enough to boil pasta, assuming I haven’t cracked and scarfed down something quick and nutrition-less on the way home.

It feels like I’ve done nothing this weekend, but my bank account says differently. A £9 (($11) Uber to arrive only slightly late for dinner and drinks in central London. £22 ($27) on an extra round of drinks I absolutely didn’t need, but felt like I deserved after a week of working my socks off. A £12 ($15) Uber at 1am because I missed the last tube home. And that’s only Friday. Half of Saturday and Sunday are gone before I even open my eyes, as I sleep in to try and catch up on the hours I’ve missed throughout the week. And because I’m too decision-fatigued to organize a day out to any of the thousands of free and wonderful museums and public spaces in London, I immediately agree to brunches, dinners and, of course, more drinks.

To be clear, I love what I do. I help companies communicate their corporate responsibility strategies, which is the dream for someone who grew up wanting nothing more than to be one of Captain Planet’s Planeteers (Linka, to be exact — no 90s kid worth their slap bracelets would disagree with that). It’s fulfilling, but also deadline driven, and there are certain weeks when leaving at 6pm becomes impossible. Working long hours makes me regress to the mindset of a teenage overachiever in my scarce free time, trying to cram in as much experience as possible and feeling horribly guilty that I often want nothing more than to flop in exhaustion in front of Netflix for six hours straight. As a rule, anyone who writes that they “work hard, play hard” in their Tinder profile is an automatic left swipe, but I can’t deny that my own work-life balance is rarely in equilibrium; it swings to erratic extremes or hangs dead still when the exhaustion becomes just too much.

It wasn’t always like this. When I started work at 21 as an intern (in New York — possibly one of the only cities in the world more expensive than London), I earned a princely sum of $900 a month. And yet — I travelled more in that year than I have in any year since. Ten, fifteen, twenty of us piled into hostels and slept three to a bed (and four on the floor) in rented houses. We found every bar in the city that sold $3 PBRs and then prioritized the ones that also gave you a free pizza. That kind of thing is easy enough when you can take a proper lunch break to browse travel deals, and you leave work at 6 on the dot with enough energy to change subways three times to get to a cool bar with a ridiculous happy hour.

But to give my younger self credit, it was also only possible because I kept meticulous track of what I earned — particularly during the notorious second “poor” week of the pay period. Now I earn ‘enough’ it doesn’t feel as urgent to stay on top of these things. I mainly check my online balance toward the end of the month to transfer back a little of my over-ambitious savings into my current account. Because I no longer hold my breath to see if a £5 purchase will go through, I’ve grown slack. So this week I took a leaf out of the book of 2010 Lucy and took a long hard look at how I’ve been paying for burnout this month.

Convenience costs: £48.
Mostly on avoidable Ubers because of poor time management and buying lunch — either because I was too tired to prep the night before, or quite frankly I wanted an excuse to leave the damn office and walk to Pret in the fresh air.

Benefit costs: £60 ($75)
For me, this is purely the gym membership I pay a great corporate rate for but never seem to find to use. I’m not including it in this figure, but I know that this could stretch to hundreds if I take into account things like preventative care appointments through my health insurance that I don’t always take up. As a result of writing this article, I’ve booked my first dental check-up in over a year — so fingers crossed all goes well!

FOMO costs: £22 ($27)

When I have a window of free time, I certainly don’t want to spend it doing life admin or compiling a frugal grocery list. This figure is part of a recent night out with a friend I hadn’t seen in months. I would have spent a certain amount of money on the night out regardless, but the last round of pricey cocktails were definitely something I justified because I wanted to be having the best night out possible and my Facebook feed was looking a little less than aspirational at the time.

Burnout costs: Potentially my whole salary…

This is where things get tricky. I work in a very detail-oriented and demanding role, and when I am trying to juggle too much, I — like any other human — can make mistakes. While thankfully, these have been relatively few and minor in nature, it is something I am acutely aware of. Because what’s the point of slogging through all those hours of overtime, just to lose a huge client over an avoidable mistake that wasn’t spotted by tired eyes? I try to remind myself of this every time I find my naturally people-pleasing instincts bubbling up on a call where timelines are being discussed. And this leads me nicely on to the final cost…

Career development costs: $1,000s+ over a lifetime

This is the biggie. By being stuck in the day-to-day drama of urgent deadlines and tasks, I am losing out on quiet time to reflect on my career goals and take steps towards achieving them. It’s an entirely different mind-set from completing small and specific deliverables, and one that I personally cannot switch easily to, even when I do find myself with the odd half hour of time on hands. And while the kid inside me who loves positive feedback and was delighted by the prospect of parents’ evening still stubbornly insists that by doing a consistently good job no matter how many hours of overtime that means will be rewarded, the truth is that good execution alone won’t get me where I want to eventually go in terms of my career. I need to be thinking strategically, and I need to be learning about things beyond the comfort zone of my day-to-day client work. Right now I am not allowing myself the time to do either.

Total: £130 — £1,000s+

Yikes. That’s a scary number at both ends of the scale. On the low end, it shocked me how quickly what I considered to be small one-off expenses racked up, and on the high end, it terrified me how I was limiting my long-term prospects by letting myself get overwhelmed by the short-term. To counteract this, here are the three things I am resolving to do to work smarter instead of harder and spend without regret in 2017:

1. Decide my personal pay rate: How much do I value my time? Is it actually worth it to me to spend £10 on a cab to get to a destination 20 minutes quicker than a £1.50 bus? What about cleaning — do I loathe spending two hours scrubbing down floors and surfaces enough to ‘buy’ it back by paying £30 for a cleaner? Once I figure this out, it will take a lot of the guilt out of my relationship with my bank balance.

2. Take control of my deadlines: I am actually the person that often sets, or contributes to, my own work schedule. I am also guilty of optimistically over-committing without considering other holds on my time. Yes, I probably could write that proposal in two days — if I wasn’t also compiling 5 data templates, reconciling a budget and managing another shift in a project timeline that impacts all the week’s design resourcing. No one is going to thank me for under-delivering.

3. Plan my life like I plan my projects: Conversely, I think I need to start thinking about my personal commitments like I think about my work commitments. Would I turn up to a client meeting twenty minutes late with a risibly transparent excuse about tube delays? No! So why do I do it to my friends? This last resolution doubles as an open apology to everyone who has ever sat at a bar in Central London cursing my name.

In the meantime, my office will be closed between Christmas and New Year. I’m going to use that glorious week to see my family (net profit on 2010 Lucy, as I will be paying £40 [$50] for a train ticket instead of £600 [$750] for a plane ticket), and think about what I really want to be doing this time next year — both personally and professionally. And I won’t be checking my emails once.

Lucy lives in London and works in sustainability communications, which is the closest job she could find to ‘Planeteer’.

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