In my post titled From the Ugh Files, I asked the following questions:
How does living paycheck to paycheck happen? (I've never done it, so I honestly don't know.) Is it an ever-increasing lifestyle as salaries increase? Or maybe it's an income hit that takes away all the slack in an otherwise decent budget? Or maybe something else? Anyone have any insights here?
Now since that post, I've detailed a bit more on people who live from paycheck-to-paycheck, but one reader sent me an inside glimpse of how it happened to her. I thought the story was worth sharing with all of you, so here goes:
I knew some basics of money, but I don't remember as a kid ever really having a talk about such things or having money spelled out. My parents did make me pay for my own stuff when I was old enough for a job, including my college and wedding. However I managed it I knew enough to try and not over spend, I also grew up with frugal parents. They did not spoil us with gifts and we needed to do our chores to get an allowance.
When I was in college, I had a little savings and a combination of that, work and scholarships paid my way through College. I went to a state school and lived pretty cheaply. I could have done better on a few fronts but hindsight is 20/20. I would have picked a different university, done better about applying for more financial aid and tried for internships instead of working my summer job all through college. The go to another school option would have involved moving to another state at 18 for a year so get in state residency, probably a bit ambitious for an 18 year old.
Even though I was mostly broke but not in debt in College, I was too trusting. One of the worst things I did was my choice in relationships. I got involved with people who were not good about their money and let it affect me. I would get pulled out of my default good habits. For example, a boyfriend borrowed money from me to buy stuff for his business. I put something on my card for him (He didn't have one) at some online retailer, and for whatever reason they kept letting him buy more stuff from the number on file. Once it got to $800 and no sign of him paying me back, I called my credit card company and told them I lost my card and needed a new number. This behavior was passive aggressive, I suppose I should have talked to him about it. We broke up and most of college was uneventful.
At the end of college, I ended up getting involved with some really bad news. Talk about an 8 year old in a 25 year old body. I was seduced by someone paying attention to me, I was geeky and never attracted men. Anyway, call it whatever you will but I was stupid, I moved in with this guy because "I was in love". He was totally bad news and had the typical abuser personality (I read up on this later). Although he had a good job at the time we met, and treated me nicely he got fired soon after. Somehow things ended up being my fault and I was guilted and abused physically, mentally, verbally you name it. This guy was extremely controlling. Not only that but he sucked me dry on credit and debt. I wasn't able to stand up to him with the person I was at the time. If he wanted something he bought with my money, exactly what you were talking about a possible issue for the lower 15% with an entitlement mentality. Once when I said "I don't have any more money" after he sucked up all my savings, he said something along the lines of "If you have credit and can spend it, that is money." This guy had no credit cards of his own as you can understand from a view like that, he also didn't like to pay credit cards even though he used their credit. I HAD (past tense) perfect credit up until this time and he forced me to buy all sorts of crap.
Eventually my parents were able to help get me away from him. They got him arrested, he had some misdemeanor and they told the police where he was and the nice police people locked him up, just 1 day free from him I packed my stuff and ran off with my parents. After going through everything with him, I was in enormous debt and had a bunch of collectors hounding me. I don't remember how much debt I had, but it was over $150k if I am in the ballpark. Luckily I didn't have any college loan debt and was still able to graduate despite missing the last semester of classes. I didn't know what else to do so I filed for bankruptcy. This was 9 years ago, thankfully it is almost off my credit.
After I got back to normal, I got a job, worked, lived modestly and started saving again. I managed to save up what I thought was a decent nest egg of about 6-7k and had put 4k into a Roth in E-Trade, this was my early to mid 20's. For me, working a 30k a year job I thought I was doing great. I got involved with another guy, ended up marrying him and we bought a house we could barely afford using my savings as the down payment and as a result I was living paycheck to paycheck for years. I felt chained to the house and to my husband towards the end. Although we were not stupid enough to get an ARM, we did leverage ourselves in to a house and all the extra money went to paying the house and living. Because of this, we could not save any money and any little bump could send us over. I suppose we bought into the "you are married, you should have a house" and the thought that our income would only go up over time.
My husband was also irresponsible but not as obviously as the other winners I had picked. I'll admit I was stupid, and I'll give the warning if you want to re-post this (anon please) that who you get involved with definitely has a huge financial impact. The big way my husband was irresponsible was that he decided he hated his job, quit because he thought his boss hated him, was going to fire him anyway and decided to go into business for himself. We talked this over and I said something along the lines of "OK if that is what you feel is best and what you need to do". I also put a but statement in that that he always forgot about, which is "but we need to be able to afford to pay our bills, you need to figure out how to do the self employment and get the bills paid because I can't do it alone on my income." The result is that he sat around at home, poked at selling stuff on E-bay a little, went riding with NASA to try and convince someone to give him a region and to support the house I borrowed money.
Yelling at him about the money flow issue didn't work, telling him we needed to sell the house because of cash flow issues didn't work, begging him to get a job, do consulting, do anything didn't work. In general talking to him rationally about this didn't work, there was always an excuse. I still don't entirely understand what was going on in his head, to me numbers are numbers, if there is less coming in than going out it is a problem. Perhaps because he didn't feel it till the end the money problem wasn't real. I ended up taking the hit on borrowing to keep the house from being foreclosed but even when I was borrowing and had "money" I felt it, the debt and obligation felt like walking around with 100 lbs on my back. Some of my favorite excuses were "working a low paying job isn't worth my time", "but I thought you would make a lot of money at a better job after you finished your Masters and we would be OK." and something along the lines of "You said I could do this" in regards to quitting his job, forgetting my but about being able to afford him jobless. He also said something along the lines of I was a looser because I couldn't get a better job.
Yes, I could have done better getting a job, but as a recent college graduate I didn't know a lot of the things you need to do to separate yourself from the pack, also I was tied to a narrow location due to him and the house. I did better with a wider search, I'm in a different state than the one my former husband and house occupy. Hopefully I'll do better next time I have a job search, more self confidence and better presentation of why I'm such a hot cookie you would be lucky to have me working for you. I also realized after going through the third guy with these types of traits that I needed to do better at picking a relationship next time, I went to a therapist to help with that issue.
Although it really does not matter at this point, I derive some satisfaction from knowing I was right and he was wrong about the money part. It is cold comfort as I don't see why he couldn't do the math, we were spending more than we earned and this was bad. Honestly, living with him unemployed and dragging me down financially was the most sustained stress I've had in my life. I was constantly stressed and felt trapped by the house, that my husband was not working, and I couldn't sell the thing by myself (two to sell!). If we had sold the house when I wanted it would have been near the peak and I would have been able to afford to support us both in a small apartment. My best guess is he felt entitled to what he wanted. At this point I am truly thankful I'm divorced and without children and probably lucky he didn't listen to me. If he had, and we had sold the house when I first wanted after he quit his job in 2006 I would probably still be married to bad news.
Long story short, I ended up with a lot of debt that I have been repaying from my marriage. I divorced him after I made it abundantly clear to myself that he loved himself more than us or me, and he wasn't willing to be what I considered to be a responsible adult. After getting divorced I got my finances into high gear, I was determined to save for retirement and get an emergency fund. Two years later I have 10k in an emergency fund (liquid, once I get it o 6 mo worth I plan rolling 6 mo CD's with 1 mo at a time), 25k in my 401k from work and my poor old E-Trade account is about 2.5k after he took his cut from it. I have approximately 5.5k of the debt remaining giving me a net worth of about 33k. I could pay off the rest of the debt in one fell swoop to avoid paying the interest on the loan, but I think it is more important to have the emergency fund as a cushion. I also track my expenses in a worksheet. I bought Quicken and tried it a few times to try and automate expense tracking and will see how that works instead of the spreadsheet. I also donate some money from every pay check to charity directly through work and I donate to a local women's shelter. I have been matched up with a single woman and will be getting her gifts for Christmas. Honestly, I probably don't donate enough, I am lucky not to be in a terrible situation personally and financially.
In summary, I got into trouble because of relationships and lifestyle inflation. When left to my own devices I am fine so I get back on track OK, meaning in my normal financial habits I don't spend more than I earn.
I think I've learned from this, I live in a 2 BR apartment now that I share to try and keep costs down although I can afford a 1 BR by myself, where I live it would likely be at least $300-600 more a month for a 1BR or more depending on how good of a deal I got. I spend some of the extra money on myself and have fun, but save some of it also and use a 401k contribution to force a minimum savings every month. I also save by having $600 come out of my paycheck to the emergency fund every month. I could always do better cutting expenses, but I don't feel the need to frugal the fun out of my life. This is different than before where I felt guilty whenever I bought something plus feeling angry at my husband when I was living paycheck to paycheck. Truly, the learning that I was making me unhappy and I was letting him was great. Once I decided to take control of my life I was and have been much happier.