I am bad at saving money, though I really shouldn’t be. I have been in enough situations in my life where a savings account with anything in it would have been a great help, and while I consider myself excellent at budgeting (or at least having a very clear idea of how much is in my checking account at all times), I generally subscribe to the school of thought made popular by 2 Chainz: It’s mine, I spend it.
For a while, this sustained me. Living paycheck-to-paycheck is a reality that I have accepted, and while I hope that one day I will make enough money where I don’t have to think long and hard a few days before payday about buying something I kind of need like contact lens solution, or paying the internet bill on time. For me, saving money isn’t easy, it’s a skill that I’ve actively worked to develop, but I have come to realize its necessity.
I got laid off in October, a situation that would seem impossible to save money in, but it’s the one thing that made it actually happen. I knew that I would eventually get a new job, one with a steady paycheck and stability. I knew that I didn’t want to feel the panicky, breathless feeling of not knowing where my next paycheck was coming from without a safety net. I’ve been there before. The first time I was laid off in New York, I had no savings and half a paycheck to my name, with what seemed like endless amounts of time stretching before me. I relied heavily on my boyfriend at the time, borrowing money once for rent and generally feeling like a guilty burden. I never want to feel that way again.
This time, I was lucky. I got a large severance check from my former employer which I socked away immediately. When I filed my taxes that year, I got a pretty impressive sum back. Bolstered by these two items, my savings account started to glow with health and well-being, like a sun-kissed friend just back from vacation somewhere tropical that you probably couldn’t afford. I scraped by on unemployment payouts and freelance checks, and made rules for myself, putting checks that were over $50 directly into my savings account and doing everything in my power not to touch it.
For years, a savings account felt like an unattainable goal, something that I knew I should take care of, but could never get my shit together enough to do so. Right now, it exists as the best kind of insurance, a backup if I ever find myself unemployed again. With steady work comes steady money, and I have trained myself to actually put money away with every paycheck. The money that exists tents me with a whisper every time I check my bank account.
“Let’s book a ticket to Europe and then buy some new boots,” it coos. “Why don’t you treat yourself to a new thing? You love new things!”
I had it set up so that $50 or so would fly out of my checking account every month and into my savings. If i didn’t touch this money, there it was—a baby nest egg, better than nothing. If I bought too many things and paid a big bill or two, I’d dip right back into my savings, padding what little I had with a little boost. Knowing about its existence is the worst kind of knowledge. I’ve read about ways to stop using a credit card—freezing it in a block of ice and secreting it away next to frostbitten packages of frozen vegetables and Otter pops, making it accessible only for absolute emergencies. That is something I wish I could have done with the money I set aside, but my inability to access it when I really need it would make me worry.
My sister is an expert saver, someone who makes money and then puts that money away into a giant pit that is full of money, like Scrooge McDuck’s great cavern of wealth. Whenever I ask her about how she does it, she sighs and shakes her head.
“It’s easy,” she says. “Don’t spend all of your money. Put some of your money away.”
I have a job for the moment, and now there are rules about how and when I can spend my money. I have benchmarks for when I feel okay. If there’s less than $200 in my checking account and I am a week out from getting paid, I start to panic. It’s okay to move money from my savings account into my checking account, but it has to be returned. I take loans out against myself all the time. If my savings starts to dip below three months’ rent, I start to worry, envisioning a future when I might be jobless again, living off unemployment and freelance money, budgeting my worth in the flyleaves of books and on the back of receipts.
A savings account is decidedly adult. It is the giant coffer that funds vacations to Hawaii and first, last and security on an apartment all to yourself and the fees for an exterminator and washing all of your belongings in very hot water when you inevitably get bedbugs. It’s what pays for emergency surgery for your cat after it eats a piece of thread and starts vomiting blood. It’s a quiet reassurance that you will be able to stay afloat.
Megan Reynolds lives in New York.