My heart raced as I scrolled through the “recent activity” shown on my online banking app.
I was alternating between the deposits that had been made into our account and the Excel spreadsheet I use to balance our household budget. Our family of four usually gets up close and personal with the zero balance in our checking account toward the end of the month, so I go over these figures every week before we head out to buy groceries.
Only this week, something wasn’t adding up. There was a $200 hole where the remainder of our grocery budget should have been.
It didn’t take me long to figure out what happened. My husband’s regular paychecks had been deposited like normal, but a large chunk of my income was missing. I am self-employed as a writer, which has many perks for our family. It allows us to save on child care expenses while still giving me the ability to earn a living. It also works with our schedules, since my husband works second shift. I can put in a few hours in the morning before he leaves and then again at night once he is home and everyone is asleep.
The obvious downside is that my paychecks aren’t as reliable, and if a client is late (or doesn’t pay at all), it throws off our entire budget ― sometimes to the point that we don’t have any money left.
Despite the fact that my husband and I are both gainfully employed, our family lives paycheck to paycheck. We earn enough to put food on the table, and our two small children have everything they need, but some months we barely scrape by. We’re always just one emergency expense away from being completely wiped out. And emergencies do happen. It’s how we got here in the first place.
Two years ago, we had a very healthy savings account and little credit card debt to speak of. Then we had a run of bad luck ― a pipe burst in our boiler right before Christmas, then we had an unrelated plumbing issue with our kitchen sink. In the past two years, we’ve needed to make two separate after-hours calls to electricians. And last year, my husband had a medical emergency that required him to take time off work and eventually undergo dental surgery. Our savings dissolved and our credit card debt quickly mounted.
We adjusted our spending as we went, but we had passed the point of no return, and we couldn’t seem to get back on track. We canceled our cable and whittled down our expenses to just the basics. We stopped shopping at name-brand retailers and began buying our food at discount grocery stores, trading our daughters’ boxes of Cheerios for “toasted oat circles.”
With these habits, we’ve managed to scrape by each month, but now, with a portion of my income missing, we were going to need to get extra creative.
I made some hard decisions and decided our best bet was going to be making our credit card payments a few days late during the “grace period” when it wouldn’t impact our credit score. This would give me the wiggle room I needed to keep the lights on and make sure we had enough left for groceries. I combined the remaining available balances on our credit cards, used that to pay the electric bill, and then I crossed my fingers that nothing else would come up that month. Fortunately, nothing else did, and we managed to get by until the next direct deposit hit our bank account.
Then, we started the same cycle all over again ― except we were starting even further in the hole than we had the month before. One thing we don’t talk about enough is how expensive it is to be broke. Our credit card payments all had late fees added onto them. And when one of my client’s handwritten checks didn’t clear before some of the checks I had written to cover our expenses did, our bank account was suddenly overdrawn. Before I knew it, we had accrued over $300 worth of fees and penalties.
Like so many Americans, we struggle to get by each and every month. The compounding interest we rack up by always being a breath away from being broke plays a large role in that. We pay interest on purchases that we can’t afford to pay out of pocket in the moment (like our electric bill when my pay was short last month), and then we pay late fees when we have to take advantage of that grace period. Our monthly payments never go down because we can’t get out in front of any of it.
All of this has a psychological and emotional impact. I’m constantly running our budget through my mind, trying to reassure myself that the numbers will work out this month. I’m never not thinking about money. I dread going to the store or having to buy gas because each purchase moves us closer back down to that zero balance. The anxiety over our finances never goes away.
We’re trying to get back on our feet, though. We account for every dollar we make, and we don’t make any purchases without carefully considering our finances. It is just impossible to get ahead when every month seems to bring us a new setback ― a sewage backup in our basement, a visit to urgent care, our growing children who need new shoes. Every step we take forward is followed by two steps backward and it’s exhausting. There’s no catching up when you’re behind; you just struggle to maintain.
These setbacks also prevent us from staying on top of the things that will eventually turn into more emergencies if we don’t manage them now ― the dental work that I’m putting off until we are more financially stable, the routine maintenance on our boiler that we had to forgo this year. Being unable to stay on top of even these small things just cause our expenses to snowball down the line. Our financial situation also makes me extra aware of the moments that I feel like most other families take for granted ― a night out to eat, renting a movie, an impulse candy bar purchase in the checkout line.
The upcoming holidays are only complicating our situation. While most of the people we know spent Black Friday perusing retail sales or waiting in long lines to buy discounted items, I spent it looking over our budget again to try to see whether we’ll be able to swing a Christmas tree this year. Will there be enough in our account to splurge and hang Christmas lights outside? While I am confident that we will be able to put gifts under the tree for our daughters, I’m less confident about what situation we’ll find ourselves in come January, and every month after that.
I worry about our finances all the time, but the thought that keeps me up at night is, What’s going to happen when the month comes that we can’t make it all work? The month when we can’t pay all of our bills and our credit takes a hit? What if we default on our mortgage? What if I get sick and can’t work? What if my husband loses his job, which provides our health insurance?
What if, what if, what if?
I spent a decade working in the finance industry, so I know exactly what we should be doing to fix our situation. I used to be that person brimming with advice on how to make the “easy fixes” to get back on track. It is so much easier to present solutions when you are on the outside looking in. Unfortunately, what most people don’t understand, what I didn’t understand back then, is that what we should be doing and what we can actually do are two very different things.
I never thought at 37 years old I’d be stretching every dollar each month. I never thought we would have to work this hard to struggle to get by.
I feel frustrated and embarrassed, but I also feel extremely lucky, because we do have a safety net. I have parents who are willing and able to help me out on those months where I just can’t stretch our money any further. We have resources. Our credit cards may be maxed out, but our bills are paid every month.
There are so many people out there who don’t actually know where their next meal will come from, who don’t know where they will sleep tonight, and I am lucky enough to be worrying about whether we’ll be able to afford a Christmas tree. I know how privileged we are. Even in these moments when it feels like we have nothing, I know there are people out there who dream of a day that they can have everything that we do.
I just wish it was a little bit easier for all of us.