Have you ever felt that you’re on the verge of greatness…if you could only land that perfect job, figure out your career, move out of your parents’ house, or find time outside of three minimum-wage jobs to start your business?
It feels like your life has been put on hold, and it’s a frustrating place to be, isn’t it? There was a time in my life when everything hinged on gainful employment. I had been living in Chicago for four years and in that time never bothered to build a sustainable life for myself. Consequently, there came a point when I had no choice but to move back in with my parents until I could fix that. This was my plan:
Step 1: Find full-time employment that isn’t soul-crushing and is somehow related to your interests.
Step 2: Do all the other things: move back to Chicago, meet awesome people and befriend them, start traveling, build a bar cart, learn how to cook nice meals and generally live proudly and with dignity as an independent young adult.
It was a terrible plan. Step 1 took far longer than I imagined it would, so I wasted a lot of time twiddling my thumbs while feeling incredibly needy, desperate and full of rage over the knowledge that I was missing out on an awesome, intention-filled life. It was not a very dignified time for me, to say the least.
So what could I have done better? I could have had little money and not let it be a problem. I could have found ways to do most of the things in Step 2 anyway and despite my circumstances.
I learned that while it may be comforting to think that life will wait around while you get your ducks in a row, the truth is that you cannot stop life any more than you can stop time; life is happening now whether you feel ready for it or not, and it will pass you by if you don’t fight for all it’s worth to keep moving. Attack with fierce and fearless enthusiasm all the time, despite everything. Financial strain is frustrating and disheartening, but there’s no reason why you can’t say “Screw, it!” and live with an impressive amount of dignity and panache anyway.
Accept it. Accept your circumstances for what they are right now, and be brave enough to live without complaint. It’s difficult to live well when you can’t get past your frustration. Worse, the more you dwell on your circumstances, the more difficulty you and the people around you will have ignoring them, and consequently the more you will be defined by them.
Instead, have gratitude. What’s going well in your life? Always, always think on what you already have instead of what you’ve been missing. I highly recommend the simple therapy of sitting down to write a “grateful for” list and revisiting it to read–or better yet add to–every day. Reminding yourself that there’s more to your life than its current shortcomings can buoy your happiness to an extraordinary degree.
Defy excuses; do things anyway. Your finances are an obstacle–not an excuse. Find a way to do all the things you want to do anyway. You may not be able to do them exactly as planned, but there’s another time for that. If you imagined inviting a new group of friends over for cocktails and board games, ask your friends to provide some of the drinks in exchange for your hospitality. If you want to meet up with a networking group at a bar, you can go and simply forgo the part where you drink. I write about why booze is not always necessary for a fun, productive time in “Why A Month Without Alcohol Is Actually Something You Should Consider.”
Use the opportunity to narrow your focus. With the inability to spend much money come fewer distractions. When you can’t afford to indulge regularly in restaurant and bar outings, for instance, you’re well poised to focus on your health and fitness goals. If you can’t be routinely tempted by happy hour and overly indulgent dinners, you’re left to focus on eating healthy, basic foods with a side of exercise habits that don’t require gym access. You could start running around the neighborhood every morning, or you could try bodyweight strength-training. Or maybe your goal is to improve one of your job-related skills, like writing or coding, to land more fulfilling (and better-paid) work. You’ll have an easier time carving out a good chunk of time every day to work on honing a skill when there are fewer distractions.
Get resourceful. There’s usually more than one way to solve a problem, and there are always more options than you initially see. Practice finding them. If you’re a voracious reader used to buying all the books you read, maybe it’s time to renew your library card. Can’t afford a bottle of wine to bring to your friend’s party tonight? Everyone brings booze to these shindigs anyway–why not contribute something to snack on instead? Spring the flour and sugar from the pantry and whip up a batch of irresistible cookies. Or perhaps you want to start your own niche consulting business for entrepreneurial, hipster dinosaurs. Starting a business can be costly, but there are ways to work around most business problems without throwing much money into them.
Be kind to yourself. Have something frivolous in your life that is not about self-improvement or money-making. It should be something that’s just for you, that might be practical, but definitely not necessary. Are there any classes you’ve been wanting to take that might be offered for free or at a discounted price on some days? Or perhaps you can allow yourself to spend money only on your favorite coffee beans, or finally go get that new haircut you’ve been contemplating forever.
Be kind to others. When you’re in financial crisis mode it’s hard not to obsess over your own needs and very easy to feel as if you have nothing to offer others–after all, you’re barely keeping yourself afloat. But working with what you’ve got to do something thoughtful for someone else can help you combat that feeling of burdensome neediness, while serving another awesome human in the process. You could make it a rule to never show up empty-handed at a friend’s place for a party. (Recall cookies instead of wine–something delicious and homemade and very inexpensive.) Or leave random notes for the important people in your life to let them know how much they’re appreciated.
I hope this serves a set of principles that are easy to adopt for anyone who feels frustrated or stifled by financial strain. Obviously there are some things you really should hold off on until your finances are more stable, like living in an apartment nice enough to justify having a buffet table that does not also serve as a desk. But until then, please enjoy some dignity and awesome living.