I got myself into a bit of a pickle recently. When my client at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise was laid off, her team of writers was too. That meant me. I had made the tactical error of allowing myself to settle for work from only one client. As a contractor, I had no protections. No two-week lead time, no warning, no exit strategy, no severance, no options. But, of course, this shouldn’t be a problem because I’m a strong, responsible woman in her late 40s, a single mom with full custody of her two children, a household to run, pets to feed and exercise, a father to care for. Obviously, I had all sorts of savings and safety mechanisms in place.
Not. In fact, I’m rather immature about all of this. For years, I thought I’d meet and marry Prince Charming and not have to worry about the details of any of this stuff. Then, I did meet Prince Charming. And I kicked him in the teeth. Gently. But, kick I did. I pushed him away so hard it would have made any man’s head spin. But, he stayed. He stayed for four years. He was patient, kind, and steady. So, since he wouldn’t listen to reason, I left the country and made like I wasn’t coming back. That’s when he finally receded, found a lovely new woman (at least a decade younger than I), and got married.
Right. But, I’m in charge of my ship. I acknowledge my mistakes. I’m trying to understand them. All of that is another story.
Back to this story. Since I’m flagrantly immature when it comes to acting like a grown up, I didn’t have the requisite slush fund of six to twelve months of savings for eventualities such as losing your job right before the holidays. In fact, to give myself a tiny bit of credit, I had saved money. But since I have little discipline and seem to like risk or at least to be attracted to it, I had saved the money wrong. By that I mean, it has been dawning on me for a while (essentially since losing Price Charming) that I may actually have to take care of myself. And my future. What a shock.
So, I’d been saving whatever I could. We’ve been in a new mode for about three years now. I became a fan of Mr Money Mustache and a passionate convert of Mustachianism. After years of living like I had money (when I didn’t), we became frugal. We embraced frugality. None of us has bought a single lick of new clothes (or shoes for that matter) in years. We dress in threads from Thrift Town, mostly. Salvation Army. Goodwill is a bit expensive. For a special occasion, we might visit an upscale used clothing store.
We stopped eating out. We got a Costco membership. We began paying attention, using nature as our playground. Vacations became a thing of the past.
With the money I saved, I began lining my not very flush 401k and double-paying my mortgage as often as I could. I felt pretty proud about that.
But, the Hewlett-Packard job was faltering. It was hourly, so when work wasn’t needed, I wasn’t paid. I should have aggressively been looking for new clients at that time. Instead, I focused on cooking for my kids, taking care of my dad, hiking, and doing my own (unpaid) writing. The tiny slush fund we did have was petering out at a steady clip.
Three weeks ago, I had no more work with HPE. Our group of writers had a little goodbye party over the phone (how sad is that) and poof! No more work.
I threw myself into looking for new clients and also jobs immediately. One week passed. Nothing. Two weeks passed. Nothing. At the three week mark, I began having serious dry mouth several times a day as panic set in.
I went to my credit union to get a HELOC (home equity line of credit). I hated to do that because it goes against my new Mustachian principles. But I realized I needed to, and that I’d be grateful for the buffer it would afford us to get us through the holidays. The bank seemed to give me the green light, but after a few days, I got a call. They said the second mortgage from Chase a few years back was considered a short sale and that I wasn’t eligible for a HELOC until four years had passed. And four years had not yet passed. Ah, yes. That was the equity line Prince Charming had negotiated with Chase to have me pay considerably less than was due. I remembered.
So, I went to Vanguard. I hated to trample my 401K, but I realized this was the time to do it. We were down to $1300 in the bank. The mortgage was due in a couple of weeks. We literally would have no money for food or gas in a very short time. Of course, I was filled with shame to have let this happen. But, thank God for the 401k.
Which is when I learned that my type of 401k doesn’t let you take a loan from it.
That’s when I got really scared. Now, we had no wiggle room. I told my oldest, dearest friend. I didn’t say much. I provided few details. But, she must have heard something new in my voice because lo and behold, without my asking, she sent a check. Unexpected, unrequested. When that happened, I made a mental note to myself to never wait for a friend in distress to ask for help. Just send them money, if you can. Don’t wait. Don’t even ask them. Because, if they’re like me, they will say no for as long as possible, beyond the time when they should have said yes. They will wait until the rafters are crashing down around them.
I learned a great deal from my friend’s action. First, I want to be the one in a position to help others. Not the one with a reluctant handout. Second, I want very much to help others. I know what this kind of fear tastes like, and it’s bitter indeed. Third, as I said, Don’t wait. Fourth, don’t call it a loan. If you can give at all, just give. The money will come back, and it may even come back in spades. I have a feeling this act of generosity from my friend will be more than repaid. The gratitude I feel is palpable and urgent — and incredibly motivating. I will make sure she is repaid, and beyond cash. I will actually never forget this. How could I? What I mean is, I will keep it front and center for a long time.
So, that gave us a little time. On the side, I also went to another friend and asked for a personal loan. I figured I needed six to eight weeks’ coverage to get through the holidays and not scare my kids half to death. I approached a friend who had no kids, no dependents, and was living with his brother, so he also had no mortgage or rent to pay. He’s a frugal person too. I figured a personal loan to me might not hurt him too much. He was good. He said yes, and for that, I’m exceedingly grateful. But, he also asked me to sign an IOU and then he used the leverage a bit to make me feel indebted. I won’t go into the details here. Suffice to say, I will repay this loan quickly.
The next fortuitous event that occurred was that my friend and former colleague, a man I call “B,” reached out to see if I could edit his foundation’s annual report. I said yes, by all means. The pay was low, but the job got me into the city (San Francisco) every day for three days running. That alone shifted my perspective in an important way. After working from home for years, I was on the subway, forced to confront the way most of the world is working. How hard they are working, how much time they spend commuting, what they are enduring for the almighty dollar.
For the first time in a long while, I was trudging along Montgomery Street in the press of the working population, shoulder to shoulder, being carried along on this river of commerce, seeing how things are going out there, what these optimistic young things are wearing, how cafes work these days (apps to check in and out of to use their WIFI, for example), how there seems to be a Starbucks on every block now.
It was eye-opening, and I had to admit a little fun. Okay, it was really fun. It was social. I felt energized, and I felt a tender part of myself activated. I felt my heart bloom for many of the people I observed, the incredible strata of society, the hurting and the well-heeled. I saw them all. I saw my place in the crush: where I was doing okay, where I could do better. Much better.
Then, pow. After two days copy-editing the foundation annual report, I began getting hits on the three weeks of job hunting. One — a contract with a technology firm — was particularly shiny, and I tackled it. I had three interviews. Interspersed with that, I interviewed with two ad agencies, one of which wanted to proceed to a writing test.
The tech firm was on a fast track. I had two phone interviews and one in-person interview, and boom. I was offered a temporary to permanent position as a senior content strategist. I accepted it, breathlessly (while trying not to appear too excited).
The truth is, it came in the nick of time. I have much to be grateful for, and this Thanksgiving, I am counting my blessings. Once again, the universe took care of me. I need to see that with clear eyes and acknowledge it fully. This Thanksgiving, I give thanks to the universe for taking care of us.
I will repay the universe by worshipping at the altar of the benevolent force in the world. I will meditate on the meaning of this. I will be humble and take better care of myself and my children. I will re-pay the loans and build the slush fund.
I will understand that this will not always be the case. I will not always be saved by the bell. One day, my luck will run out. No matter what happens, there is still sickness, old age, and death. There will be physical and emotional trauma. There will be scares, plenty of them. I pledge on this day, however, to protect myself and my children as best I can from the blows and vicissitudes of life. To be more in control. To be more careful and less arrogant.
Thank you, God, universe, life force. Thank you.