Taking This Step A Decade Ago Allowed Me To Go On An Adult Gap Year Now.
When I was laid off in 2009, I spent the six months between jobs living in absolute fear. I was relying on the money from my unemployment benefits to pay my mortgage and any other bills, because I was not prepared for this emergency.
After all, the law firm I worked for told us that times were getting tougher (this was in the middle of the recession), but they would never do layoffs (about a month or two before they laid off twenty percent of their associates.)
I was like a baby deer on new legs. I’ve had a part-time (or three) + school or full-time job every day since I was twelve (except for when I was studying for the bar). I didn’t know what to do with myself, and how I was going to survive and not lose the house that I had just purchased two years earlier.
Remember, this was the middle of the recession, and no one was hiring for my legal skill set (commercial real estate financing) because no banks were financing commercial real estate. I had never felt so stuck and scared before. Mind you, I hated that job. HATED IT! But with no one hiring in that industry, I felt stuck there. I couldn’t just up and quit without another job, because bills, and that’s not what we do (immigrant work ethic on deck).
After a month of two of wallowing in denial and sulking around, I decided to do things differently. I decided to volunteer part time at an organization I was currently serving on the board of. Being a board member and working the front desk gave me insights into the organization I would never have gotten otherwise and made me a much more prepared and informed board member. It was also hella humbling to go from lawyer to part-time front-desk receptionist, ironically, my exact pre-law school job. But a little humbling is good for the soul, and so was seeing other people every day instead of wallowing in my living room.
I also started ruthlessly cutting all unnecessary expenses out of my life. No cable, no travel (I missed a friend's wedding because of this), no meals with friends. If it wasn’t necessary I wouldn’t do it.
And during those months of sitting at home in sadness and poverty, I took a different approach to my finances. When I was working I went to a financial advisor who told me to prioritize investing (with her) over paying off debt. Specifically student loan and mortgage debt. Not that I shouldn’t be paying them, but I should be paying the bare minimum and investing all my other money (with her). I remember her saying “Everyone has student loan debt, just expect to have it forever.”
Now with no income I was pissed as hell at that advice. Sure I could get a forbearance on my student loans, but that accruing interest made me antsy. And Bank of America wasn’t about to let me live payment free in my house.
AND - did I mention it was the middle of the recession? Those investments weren’t helping in any way.
So I had the least amount of money coming in that I have had in my adult life, and more debt than I ever had. Fortunately I had a mindset shift, and decided I was going to get out of debt ASAP. The thought of the bank taking my house was too much, it created too much fear and I couldn’t handle it. This was a dark time y’all.
My new financial plan was 1. Get a damn job. 2. Pay off your house. 3. Pay off your student loans.
We all have different relationships with money, but being in debt made me extremely uncomfortable, especially when my single income source vanished.
Eventually I got a damn job. And then I paid off my mortgage and my student loans (and those credit cards that had piled up when I wasn’t focused). It was not an easy road, but eventually I got there.
I started by paying double my mortgage to the bank every month (did I mention that my house was super cheap when I purchased it?). Eventually I got a letter from the Bank saying I had paid too far ahead…Shut Up Bank of America. Just take this money and make sure it’s applied correctly to my account. Oh yeah, I checked this all the time. I made sure that my payments were applied at the time I made them and not held in escrow for future months. *Do Not Play With My Money*.
Then when the mortgage was paid off (6-7years after I started doubling up), I applied that money to my student loans. And let me tell y’all - I’ve had multiple six figure student loans (at the same time) since I was 18. This felt absolutely hopeless. But it’s not. I made the sacrifices, and paid Sallie Mae hella money, but a few years after I paid off my mortgage I had paid off my student loans.
When I paid off the student loans and the credit cards, all the money I had been sending to debt payoffs went to savings.
Right about now, or ten minutes ago, you probably asked yourself, what is the point on this damn story. The point is this…Debt feels crippling to me. If I had debt, there is no way I would have taken an adult gap year. I didn’t know that at the time, but I knew my relationship with money. And so I worked really hard for a long time to get the upper hand in my financial life. Haven’t we all been there? Feeling crippled by our finances (Bless you if you haven’t). When I was packing up to leave Ohio I found a binder with old bank statements and found a statement from my early twenties that said I had $23 in my account. Shit, I remember going to the Wells Fargo on Lakeshore and not having enough money in my account to take any out for our Friday night hijinks at Lucky Lounge. At that stage in my life, I didn’t think about my financial health. I just thought about income, and monthly bills and drinks.
When I got out of law school and got my first “real” job I didn’t think about it then either. I took trips and purchased anything I wanted, and used my credit cards like a slot machine - because income, and monthly bills and drinks…
It took being unemployed to get my ass right. It took the fear of losing everything I had to get me to think about tomorrow. But I did it. I made a plan, and I stuck to it.
So when I’m asked how I can afford an adult gap year, or what I’m doing for income, my answer is short, but not really simple. I saved for it. I saved for it for 9 years. I saved for it before I knew it was coming. I paid off debt and saved, because I never wanted to feel controlled by my finances again.
I didn’t know what I was saving for, but I had changed my relationship to my finances. I was saving for whatever came next. And next was getting laid off in 2018.
But in 2018 I was ready.
If you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.