I'm Terrible with Money and It Makes Me Feel Like a Bad Feminist

From the outside, I look every bit like the empowered, self-sufficient, blazer-wearing, feminist I've always wanted to be. Just don't look at my bank account.
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Publish date:
May 4, 2016
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parents, money, feminism, budgeting, saving money, finances, debt, independence

I've been interested in and excited about feminism for as long as I can remember. My parents have always been wildly progressive and supportive of both my sister and me, encouraging us to pursue any whim or passion our hearts desired, whether they were "meant for girls" or not.

I went to an all-girls high school where I read Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Maya Angelou (when I wasn't reading the entire Gossip Girl series). I was taught to never need a man or anyone else to support me. From the time I was 16, I've always had some sort of job. Whether it was working part-time at a grocery store in high school or waiting tables after class in college, my parents always made it clear that I needed to always be able to handle myself financially, and I agreed. Working hard has always been a point of pride for me.

There was never any doubt in my mind I'd grow into the sort of independent, self-sufficient feminist woman I dreamed of becoming. I knew I'd never need a man, that he would be to me, as they say, like a fish is to a bicycle, that I'd maybe even be the breadwinner of any family I hoped to one day start.

Then, at some point in the past few years, it all went to hell.

I mean, I absolutely consider myself a strong, feminist woman. I work hard to support women around me and political causes that help and empower all women. I donate to Planned Parenthood, I read mostly books by women, I make voting decisions based on the candidates I believe have shown the best track record with causes that affect women most, like equal pay, domestic violence, and reproductive health.

And my life is, for the most part, together. I'm very self-sufficient. I have no problem doing things on my own, whether it be going to the movies or the mechanic, or doing my own taxes, or asking a man out instead of waiting for him to approach me. I recently moved from the Deep South to New England all alone. I'm proud of my independence and thankful to have been raised in an environment that fostered and encouraged that spirit.

From the outside, I look every bit like the empowered, self-sufficient, blazer-wearing feminist I've always wanted to be.

Just don't look at my bank account.

I am so bad with money. Like, it's almost impressive how bad I manage to be at it. Although I've been making my own money since I was a teenager, I have never once figured out how to really hold onto that money. I have this weird problem where I spend all my money as soon as I get it, and at this point, I'm terrified I'm never going to change.

There was a year or two when I landed my first job out of college (making, like, $24,000 a year) when I did OK. I kept my spending under control, I paid all my bills on time, my credit score soared, and I even managed to put a good amount of money aside for savings in that time. Those days seem very far away to me now, though.

In late 2014, I spent a night in an ER after my ovaries decided to be total assholes and didn't have health insurance at the time. That's $10,000 in bills right there. In 2015, I had a couple of really shitty things happen right in a row and ended up having to move three times within a three-month span. Moving sucks, and doing it three times in a row left me flailing desperately in a spiral of debt. I was working four or five different part-time jobs and barely keeping it together. Anyone who has ever been broke can tell you how expensive it is to be broke. A lot of the debts and money realities I was facing felt unfair and out of my control.

But when I'm being honest with myself, most of my money woes have been entirely my fault. If I had half a brain or a morsel of self-discipline, I would have still had to deal with breakups and psychotic roommates and ovarian cysts, but I could have handled it better. Most of my financial issues stem from my complete inability to budget, and that's on me. I know.

For me, spending money is a compulsion. It's an addiction. I've done a great job cutting out all the other things I used to do that were bad for me. I don't binge drink, I don't date toxic men, I don't chain smoke. Instead, I spend $250 on bougie produce and gluten-free crackers at Whole Foods, just to watch those untouched eggplants and mangos in my fridge shrivel up and rot while I spend the next week eating takeout pad thai every night.

I'm a smart person. There is a part of my brain that knows what to do. I know that when I'm broke, I should prioritize and only spend my money on essentials. That it's the hidden, sneaky costs that kill me in the end. That if I'm broke, I don't need organic produce, I don't need new books, I don't need to go over my cell phone's data limit AGAIN.

Then there is this other, sick, evil, self-sabotaging part of my brain that sees my checking account balance as a challenge. At this point in my life, I'm making more money than I ever have, which alleviates my financial situation in a lot of ways. There's less panic about where the money is coming from each week than there was when I was freelancing full-time. I'm by no means raking in crazy amounts of cash, but I make more than enough to live.

I'm still fucking up left and right, though.

The immediate and long-lasting consequences of my money mismanagement are serious. My credit score is stupid-low, which makes doing things like renting an apartment or buying a car difficult. My savings account is a joke, which leaves me really vulnerable should an emergency come up. (For what it's worth, knowing I'm too broke for a speeding ticket, let alone a hospital bill, means I'm now a safer driver than I ever was before. Accidents could still happen, though.)

For me, the emotional toll of my money idiocy is the most exhausting part. I've never been a Type A perfectionist by any means. I've always been really okay with being not great at lots of things. I never particularly excelled at sports, and I was fine with it. I can't figure out how to not burn my sweet potato fries. I was never especially gifted in school, but it was OK. I'm good at other things. I'm really good at some things.

Being terrible with money, though, makes me feel like an absolute failure as a person. It makes my life feel out of control and it makes me feel stupid. My dad always tells me, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." In that case, I'm insane, because I cannot figure out how to just stop doing the things I know I need to stop doing.

And I feel like I'm totally failing the part of myself that's devoted to being an empowered, self-sufficient woman. What does it matter if I've read every word bell hooks ever wrote if I overdraft my bank account to donate $5 to Hillary Clinton's campaign? Can I really keep calling myself a strong, independent woman if I had to borrow money from my dad to pay rent? There's nothing aspirational about my financial habits, and it's wearing me down.

It makes me feel like a shitty feminist that I'm really not independent. If I'm standing on my own two feet, I'm not standing there very firmly. There's this voice I resent always whispering from the back of my head, Just find a wealthy man. But I don't want that. I want to be a wealthy woman. Or, at the very least, a woman who can pay all her bills every month and not wake up every 4 a.m. in a panic to check if my cell phone service has been cut off.

The pressure to be "killing it" affects women especially. At 25, I'm arguably doing pretty well. I have a great job, great friends, and my acne finally started clearing up. (Shout-out to chemical exfoliation.) But my shitty money skills make all my other accomplishments feel null. Though I work hard 60 hours a week, I don't exactly feel like a Girl Boss without my finances in order. I don't want overdraft fees and debt. I want a sturdy savings account, an investment portfolio, a credit score I can be proud of.

I'm working on it. In fact, I'm working really hard on it. I work a full-time job in marketing along with several writing gigs on the side to make extra money since I'm paying off so many debts. I'm actively trying to reprogram the part of my brain that sees paychecks as permission slips to buy new things.

Clawing myself out of my debts and out of my wreck of a financial situation is going to be tough, but I'm doing things I should be doing. I'm moving into a new apartment that is much less fancy than the spacious one-bedroom I currently rent, but it's also $850 less per month. I've started saving small amounts of money with Digit, which is helpful for me because those savings go into a separate account I don't look at every day so it's not tempting for me to pull money from it. (Also, Digit sends me my bank balance every day, which doesn't sound like a huge deal, but when you've been broke for a long time, you can start to just ignore your checking account sometimes. Digit forces me to see my own numbers every morning.)

Last month, after over a year of failing, I finally sucked up my stupid pride and swallowed my shame and told my parents I needed help. I didn't ask them to bail me out, because they wouldn't and I wouldn't want that. Rather, I just needed them to help hold me accountable. Now they're tracking my spending and helping me plan my monthly budgets. My parents are real Pull-Yourself-Up-By-The-Bootstraps folks. I got no pity from them, but I don't want pity. I needed help, and I'm finally getting better. When I feel an urge to go to Target and buy stupid shit just because I can, I call my mom instead. Or I go for a run. Or I just take deep breaths and wait it out.

After years of repeating and repeating the same mindless patterns, I'm finally ready to change my ways so I can expect different results. I'm tired of being insane. I'm tired of being disappointed in myself. I'm tired of treating my checking accounts and available credit like a game of Tetris, trying to figure out how I can manage to spend any little bit of money as my debts and late fees stack up.

I'll be 26 in a few weeks and I'm ready to leave the bad habits of my early twenties behind. I don't think I'll ever be the next Suze Orman or anything, but I desperately want to be better with my money so I can feel better about myself. I've worked hard to be where I am. Women before me, for hundreds of years, worked hard so I can be where I am. My parents worked hard so I can be where I am, and I'm ready to become the woman I always wanted to be: a self-sufficient, independent, financially sound, feminist woman with a strong mind and a strong bank account.