Balancing Mental Health and Financial Needs

I didn’t think much about where my life was headed when I started college. I had vague ideas — work, house, family — that I assumed would just happen. But I didn’t expect to be in my mid-30’s, overeducated and swimming in student loans, clocking in at a factory where I operate large-scale print machines for $13 an hour.

How did I get here? After spending most of my 20s chasing academic dreams, I finally came to my senses and entered the working world. Four years into building a new career, I was earning almost $60K in a biotech field, making use of my multiple degrees, and making progress on all the student loans I had taken out to get them. I even got a promotion, moving into a more research-driven position with more responsibilities. What I didn’t count on was my brain revolting.

I had struggled with severe depression before. When it hit the first time just after college, I couldn’t complete basic tasks, became isolated from friends, and stopped taking care of my body. It was only over a long course of therapy that I was able to return to a stable place and feel like a normal, functioning human.

The second time around, depression snuck up on me. At work, I would stare at my computer for an hour, unable to begin a past-due report. I became increasingly anxious about meeting the demands of my position. As I got more anxious, my work got worse, which in turn worsened my anxiety. I felt physically ill in the hours before meetings with my manager. I regularly lost sleep. Stresses from work followed me home and stresses from home followed me to work. Things spiraled and suddenly my job was gone, along with the life I had been trying to build as a late bloomer with student loans.

I was faced with an impossible question: how do you balance mental health and financial needs? After being laid off, I realized my anxiety was due to a major depressive episode and entered therapy right away. Therapy had become a necessity, but a costly one that was hard to afford while unemployed. My savings account slowly drained. I felt trapped. If I didn’t find a job with a decent salary, I knew I would struggle to keep up with all of my bills. But I didn’t (and still don’t) feel ready to return to my previous life and all the stressors that had triggered my anxiety in the first place. When I tried applying for a position similar to the one I had lost, I had a panic attack in the middle of the interview.

To buy myself some time, I found a job as a printer operator at a local company. It was a job that didn’t require all those years of school and didn’t fit a “career track.” That’s when something odd happened.

A holdover job that I never expected to keep long-term suddenly provided the happiest working experience I’ve had in my career. I like my new job. I like working with my hands, I like my coworkers and the company culture, and now I can focus on therapy and work on myself. I don’t bring my work home with me. I’m engaged, I have daily goals to work towards, and I’m feeling the most refreshed I have in years. Plus, there are promotional possibilities within the company, giving me something to look forward to.

The downside is that all progress on my debt has slowed to a halt. I borrowed a lot of money to get a degree that now seems meaningless at my current place in life, and I have to figure out how to pay it back. I’ve developed a budget (below) that has zero wiggle room, in an attempt to control my costs as much as possible, but it leaves me with no space to deal with Murphy’s Law — not to mention nothing left for savings, for retirement, for vacation, or for going to the movies with friends.

Monthly Budget

Car insurance $110
Car loan $225
Rent + utilities (these are split with my partner) $525
Rock-climbing gym (my one splurge) $66
Student loans (now on an income-based repayment plan, otherwise they would have been an impossible $800/month) $300
Food $275
Gas $90
Cell plan $50
Cat food/Pet rent $50
Misc $50

Current income:  ~$1,750/month (includes overtime when available)

Current expenses: $1,741/month

Current savings: $3,800

Current student debt: ~$60,000

You might notice a glaring omission from my budget: one item that, had I been paying it myself, would have broken this delicate balance entirely. My company just so happens to pay its employees’ health insurance. This is a colossal benefit. When I was unemployed, my monthly costs for therapy and medication totaled close to $500. (Try not being depressed when your depression is costing you that much.)

The budget above is my current compromise between solvency and sanity. I’ve learned to squeeze more out of less. I bake my own bread, buy second-hand clothes, and pick up extra shifts.

Some days it’s difficult to keep my brain from spiraling into regret. Regret that I didn’t have a better budget back when I was making a good salary. Regret that I didn’t realize what an impact all those loans would have on my adult life. Regret that I didn’t realize how trapped I would feel by money. But for now I’m taking it one day, and one therapy session, at a time.

Anonymous is a 30-something guy with job confusion. He lives in the South, loves to rock-climb, read, and bake and is just trying his best to figure all this out.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Financial Struggles series.

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