“I’m sorry, can you say that one more time?” That was my response to the recruiter who’d just revealed my new job’s salary. She repeated the offer, and though I wanted to shout my assent from the top of my lungs, I was in the middle of an empty coffee shop, plus I didn’t want to scare her off. Besides, it’s not like I won the lottery. I was simply being offered more money than I’d made at any point in my 11-year career as a journalist.
Four months into my new job, I still don’t know if the money I’m making is good or just decent, but it has changed my life in ways that are both meaningful and terrifying.
My first purchase with this fresh windfall was a plane ticket to Chicago for the funeral of my close friend’s dad. A sympathy card and a night of drinks on me sometime in the future would’ve sufficed, and had this personal tragedy occurred one month sooner than it did, when I was a part-time features reporter making one-third as much as my live-in girlfriend, a card and drinks would’ve been the best I could do. But now, I could afford to do more, and so I did.
Of course, I was proud of myself, but my actions also scared me. To quote 50 Cent, “Whoever said money shouldn’t change you just didn’t make enough.” That popped into my head as I drove to the church in my rental car (another necessary but scary expense for me). Was my in-person visit about being the best friend I could be, or simply being the friend I could afford to be?
My other recent major purchases include a couple of really nice suits, a plane ticket from New York City to California to see my family, and very nice birthday/Christmas gifts for my girlfriend. All those made me feel good, but also triggered a sort of inner turmoil—the kind you get when you’ve spent most of your adult life buying cheap suits one size too small so they look tailored, letting your mom buy your plane ticket home, and flipping the free shit you get as a member of the press into birthday presents for your lover. I had more money to spend, but I didn’t like spending it, which may sound very responsible of me, but the truth my reticence was less about frugality, and more about fear and guilt.
The memories of how even a $40 purchase could hurt me for a week were still fresh, which is why the purchases I was now making that costs hundreds of dollars involved frantic pacing in my apartment and clicking “buy now” buttons with my eyes closed. I felt like this sudden windfall of cash was all part of a weird, elaborate setup: Human Resources would soon be calling me to say they’d made a mistake, and I’d go back to making half as much, and I’d have to return everything I’d bought just to make rent.
Again, I’m not a boss or a manager, nor do I remotely qualify as rich. I’m just getting paid well for the job I’m doing. So while my paycheck finally gives me a sense of relief rather than panic, I still have debts to pay—some of them financial, some of them psychic.
And that’s the part that makes me nervous: taking that first step toward financial freedom. Money is not just math—it’s also psychological. How I perceived it determined how I treated it, so when people would tell me, “It’s not the money you make, it’s the money you save,” I could only laugh. For me, it was always about the money I wasn’t making. Three years of unemployment and sporadic freelance work followed by three years of part-time money does not a savings account make. Some people could afford to put away 10 percent, but I needed every penny I made just to get by. Sure, if I had a particularly good month where my unemployment checks and freelance checks all hit at the same time, I could maybe put something toward a debt I owed, but usually, it was just enough to cover interest, and even that was rare. The rest was entirely subsumed by essentials like my MetroCard, my rent, my gas and electricity bills, and maybe a date or two, because while love may not cost a thing, falling in love has a cover charge.
It was a sick, self-induced cycle of financial irresponsibility that I felt was beyond my control. When you constantly think you don’t have any money to manage, you don’t manage your money. Saving, investing, paying off student loans ... that was something people did if they had full-time jobs or didn’t live in New York City. My problem was the former did not apply to me, and the latter did.
There was something freeing about that struggle, though. One positive aspect: the generosity of others. Everyone in my life knew I was broke, and therefore expectations were never high when it came to spending money. I knew better than to take advantage of anyone’s kindness, but I was never hesitant to take anyone’s offer. If I was invited for drinks or a get-together, I would pass if money was tight, but more often than not, my friends would insist and quietly cover for me anyway. Conversations with bill collectors were short, because there was no money to give them; I was always amused by their stunned reactions when I told them the highest monthly amount I could probably settle on was $20. But that really was all I could afford. That’s the way I lived for so long—I laughed about it to keep from crying. I had nothing to lose, though only because I had so little in the first place.
But the cruel joke life played on me for all those years is over, which also means the fun is over. The new money I’m making makes me happy, but it also means I have no more excuses for coming up short or not having enough money to live properly. Which is why, when I got my first new paycheck, I went from doing a little dance to rocking back and forth on the edge of my bed out of worry. I didn’t want to spend any of it, because for so many years, spending what I made quickly turned into having nothing left to spend. I didn’t know how to manage my money.
Four months later, I’m still figuring it out, but I’m making progress. Yes, I make sure to treat myself from time to time, but I also realize that saving my money and paying my bills on time is treating myself, too. Uber, for example, isn’t for everybody; after I got hit with a surprise $50 fare that wasn’t even part of a price surge, I determined it’s still not for me. Being broke, I never realized the most valuable thing people with money had was options. When I opted for the plane ticket and the rental car over drinks and a condolence card for my best friend, the part that pleased me was not the choice I made, but the fact that I could afford to make a choice at all.
Jozen Cummings is the creator of the blog UntilIGetMarried.com, which is currently in development to be a television series with Warner Bros. He lives in Harlem and currently works as an editorial associate at Twitter. You can follow him at @JozenC.
Lead art by Sam Woolley.