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The Money Diaries: The unemployed web developer who struggles with her desire to give generously as she’s running out of money

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I love hearing how people spend their money. Unfortunately, people lie — they share purchases that are socially acceptable (“organic fruit”), but not the purchases they really make.

So we created The Money Diaries (based off New York Magazine’s Sex Diaries), where we’ve collected stories from real people about their spending habits over seven days and anonymized them. To be featured anonymously in a future Money Diary, click here.

In this week’s post, an out-of-work Web developer is starting over from scratch financially at age 30. Given her financial and professional situation, what advice would you give her?

* * * * *

Day 1

8:00 a.m.: The latest hurricane has left us without power for the past 36 hours. No microwave. No hot leftovers. I convince myself going out for breakfast would be a waste of money and make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

9:00 a.m.: At the library—which has electricity—I spend time writing cover letters and sending out résumés. I also work on my personal project, concluding there’s no possible way I can earn enough money from it before I run out of money in 3.5 months, and I don’t have friends or family to tap for startup funding.

A 30-year-old Web developer living in CA, I’ve been out of work for 4 months, resting and figuring out the next stage of my life. Now almost broke, I’m starting to look seriously for a new job while traveling on the East Coast. Over the previous 2 years, I had paid off all debts (except student loans), saved $17,000 in cash and put $5,000 in an IRA.

Unfortunately, 7 months ago, I had an accident without health insurance and built up $13,000 in medical bills. A month later, I discovered my dog had cancer, and I spent $11,000 for multiple surgeries and chemotherapy. 2 months later, I had become so miserable at my job that I quit. My bills exceeded my liquid assets.

Deciding my IRA was the most important thing, I put $5,000 into that, only to discover the bank posted it for 2011 instead of 2010, causing me to lose $5k from my retirement anyway. I kept $5,000 in cash for myself and paid my bills with $7,000 in cash and $8,500 in credit card debt. I have $8,500 in unpaid bills and am keeping my eye out for when they send me to collections.

My boyfriend owes me money, so he is paying most of my living expenses, while my student loans and credit card payments are coming out of my $5,000 in cash reserves. I was actually ahead on my student loan payments before, so I don’t owe anything for 10 months.

1:00 p.m.: Returning to my friend’s place from the library, I give in to a $5 slice of pizza that turns into a $10 dinner, plus $5 tip—leaving anything less than a $5 tip is almost an insult. I put the $15 on the joint spending account I share with my boyfriend.

6:30 p.m.: The friends I am staying with decide to go out for pizza, and they nearly pay for my fried dough without my noticing! I argued, but they insisted on paying. I hate when people pay for me. I was raised in a poor household, and to me, paying for myself shows I am self reliant. Even though I chose to quit my job, and even though I’ll survive 7 months without income, I’m still self conscious about my economic image.

8:00 p.m.: Back at the library with my friend, I continue looking for jobs. I’m happy I can ignore jobs that don’t interest me. I decide to apply for a part-time job teaching Web development. Hopefully the salary is better than my worst-case estimate.

Day 2  

8:30 a.m.: The owner of a cat sanctuary returns my call about my mother and grandmother adopting a cat.

10:00 a.m.: I’m at the library. It’s the end of the month, and I have to do my finances. I’m a bit scared to see where I am at. What if my projections were wrong? What if I look at my checking account and find it’s overdrawn? These are ridiculous fears, considering my projections for the past 4 months have been accurate.

I handle my finances once a month, paying then any bills not on autopay. I use Quicken because it tracks future expenses and provides a graphical projection of a given account. These projections help assure me I’m safe for the next 6 months and that it’s OK for me to relax. Several years ago, I was so poor I had only $15 a week for groceries. Even after two years of economic comfort, I still have anxiety.

I share my savings account with my grandmother, so she can draw on it in emergencies (which, unfortunately, she has had a lot of lately). I feel awful that I only have the minimum $300 in there, instead of the $5,000 I promised her. I still haven’t told her about my medical bills, because I don’t want her to know I’m barely keeping my head above water.

My checking account now has $5,684.27. How did I get more money? When I left work 4 months ago, I only had $5,000. Sometimes I think money just magically appears. Even at my poorest, I always seemed to be able to scrape up money. The old me would have spent days figuring out the discrepancy, but to reduce stress, I’m going to let it go.

The interest on the $5,778.28 balance on my primary credit card this month was $62.66. I have been meaning to transfer the balance to a new credit card with a 0% promotional rate, but I don’t want a fifth credit card. My indecision is costing me money.

It turns out I messed up my projections for our primary joint account, so we’ll be overdrawn by $55 by the end of the month. I will contribute $200 for this month to cover the shortfall. I texted my boyfriend a reminder that he needs to put $2,650 into our joint account for the next month’s expenses.

2:45 p.m.: I finally finished doing my finances!

4:30 p.m.: The good news is the electricity turned on a few minutes ago. The bad news is my friend who picked me up at the library might lose her job.

Day 3  

8:45 a.m.: I wake up to crying and run downstairs to find my friend in tears and her mother comforting her. She was fired. Her earned overtime, two weeks of pay, vacation, and severance compensation come to over $4,000—two months of living expenses. I advise her to use that time to rest and build her portfolio.

10:30 a.m.: My friend and I hunt for jobs. I find an incredibly awesome prospect and draft a cover letter.

11:00 a.m.: I decide to create a portfolio website for my friend to help her be more competitive while job hunting and to improve her salary prospects. This 2­-3 week project means dramatically less time for me to work on my own job applications and projects. I try to talk myself out of it, but can’t. I can’t stop giving to others, even at the sacrifice of myself.

11:30 p.m.: I was so excited about going to the cat sanctuary tomorrow that I couldn’t stop thinking about the cats. I am going to buy for my parents all supplies the cats will need.
I shopped on Amazon until 2:30 in the morning! It was a lot of fun. I like “window shopping” on Amazon, building wish lists, putting items in my cart…and then not buying anything! I have no problem walking away from my full shopping cart and coming back to it weeks or months later. I get the satisfaction of shopping without spending money. Win win in my book.

Day 4

9:00 a.m.: I reviewed my selected cat supplies on Amazon. The total is now $147 without shipping. Not bad.

11:00 a.m.: The owner of the cat sanctuary and I decide on two male cats that would be perfect for my grandmother. Next step: get the OK from my parents.

11:45 a.m.: My friend decided to cancel a job interview for a position that’s totally beneath her. Thank goodness!

6:30 p.m.: I finished off the last of my leftovers. Between the two sets of leftovers, I spent around $28 for 5 meals. $5.60 a meal isn’t as much of a deal as I thought it would be.

9:30 p.m.: My boyfriend returned hungry from his visit in New York, so I gave him the other half of my sandwich. At $7.22 for two meals, it comes to $3.61 per meal.

Day 5

9:00 a.m.: The four of us go out for breakfast on main street. My boyfriend insists we pay for everyone. The total comes to $28.24, which we put on our joint account.

10:45 a.m.: I called my grandmother to talk about the cats. She said they sounded great and that she’d love to adopt them!

11:00 a.m.: I called the owner of the cat sanctuary with the good news. She tells me the typical donation requirement is $125 per cat, but since we are taking two cats and neither needed medical care, that I can donate whatever I want. I want to be generous, so I had planned to give $100 more than their asking donation, which would come to $350.

My boyfriend said he would be happy to pitch in on this as a gift, so I should put all the expenses on our joint account. I declined. This was my idea and my responsibility, so I should pay for it.

12:30 p.m.: We arrived in Providence, RI and had sushi for lunch. After tip and taxes, the total came to $34.08.

2:30 p.m.: We stopped by my old favorite pet store on our way to the dog park. I walked in knowing I wanted to buy something, and left having spent $112.84 from our joint account.

Day 6  

1:45 p.m.: Headed to New Hampshire to visit my parents.

7:00 p.m.: Went out to dinner with my parents and my boyfriend, who elected to pay the whole $69.98 from our joint account. I’m a bit nervous; after breakfast ($17.85) and getting gas ($44.50), we only had $100 left, and I’m not sure we have enough money to cover it.

8:30 p.m.: Bought my parents the cat supplies on Amazon. The total had grown to $180, and feeling anxious, I chipped the purchase down to $155 and put it on my personal credit card.

10:00 p.m.: Received an email from my roommate saying our landlords received a lien notice on their house! Ugh. I am so embarrassed. I should have found out exactly why I wasn’t receiving the garbage bills, instead of just waiting around.

Day 7

7:30 a.m.: Sent an email to my landlord profusely apologizing for the lien. I am embarrassed beyond words.

9:30 a.m.: Stopped off at Subway for two sandwiches and water, for $12.54.

10:30 a.m.: We arrived at my friend’s house again. Her boyfriend tells us she’s at her new job! I am astonished and disappointed. Taking the wrong job because she’s anxious about money could seriously jeopardize her long-term career. She was given two months of expenses and yet couldn’t wait a week to polish up her portfolio.

11:00 a.m.: My boyfriend wants to cook lunch for all of us and the dog. $35.50 for groceries and $39.90 for gas, on the joint account.

7:00 p.m.: My friend finally comes home from her job. Fortunately, it’s a contract position, which gives me hope that she will find a good job for herself. We talk a lot about her anxiety and I coach her on how to be more confident in herself. Then my friend and I head to Staples. Fortunately, I resist buying anything.

In Sum

Total expenses: $1714.62
Total income: $0

$222.43 on food, despite my desire to reduce food expenses; from my joint checking account
$222.54 for other expenses; on the joint account
$519.65 added to my overburdened personal credit card
$750 for the cats, replacing a lost dog license, putting money in our joint account, and my credit card

In reading back, I realize just how anxious I really am over money. Regardless of the fact that I am trying to preserve my current cash supply, I still appear to have residual issues. Expenses add up. However, despite that, things always manage to work out, and because of that, I feel it is OK for me to not stress about my finances.

* * * * *

What do you think?

Given her financial and professional situation, what advice would you give the author of today’s Money Diary?

PS — Be nice. Through years of writing this blog, I am hardened against bitter commenters who foam at the mouth, flailing around for something to get offended by. Money Diaries authors are not. Feel free to offer honest feedback, but let’s keep it polite.

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  1. God, this is just sad.

    $11K to prolong the life of a dog. Quitting a job when you’re in financial straits just because you don’t like it. Leaving a $5 tip on a $10 meal. “I’m happy I can ignore jobs that don’t interest me”. Checking your finances monthly. Letting your family ignorantly draw on finances you don’t have. Not taking advantage of 0% rates because you “don’t want another card”. Mixing your finances with someone as fiscally incapable as you. Spending your time building your friend’s portfolio instead of your own. $500+ for cats? Picking up the tab with money you don’t have? $35 lunches.

    Here’s a thought. Stop eating out. Stop paying for other people. Stop sharing your bank account with a SO. Let people know you’re struggling. Spend your time trying to get employment and take what you can get.

    • Can agree in a tough love way about everything except the dog. For me the life of my dog is absolutely the first measure of my honor. WAY before creditors.

    • “Even though I chose to quit my job, and even though I’ll survive 7 months without income, I’m still self conscious about my economic image.”

      I think we’re all reading this wide eyed and flabbergasted that someone can graze through a financial crisis in such a careless manner. But I can’t help but be saddened by how oblivious she seems to be as it’ll have dire consequences for her financial timeline over the next few weeks and months. Her desire to “keep up” is coming at a great cost, one she will soon regret.

      Bill’s comment above comment sums up my thoughts nicely. Sadly, she sounds as though she is in denial and working hard to keep up appearances. And I think to an extent, she believes much of it herself in an effort to avoid the harsh realities of her situation.

      As a therapist myself I realize how hard it is to keep it together in front of an employer when struggling with mental health issues (sounds depressed and anxious) but it’s important to recognize this early on- ie, the consequences of such careless actions. The clock is surely ticking and she is only removing time from the clock by allowing her anxiety to drive her decisions.

      She should cut all extraneous ties, tell her family about her situation and only spend money on absolute necessities. This is what we call safe mode-there are no tips or picking up the tab or expenses on pets. She may not have a job now but she should make finding a job her primary job.

      Sadly, I don’t think she is “ready” for a job, nor is she ready to face the harsh realities of her situation. The sooner she gets honest with herself about how this anxiety seems to be driving her decisions, the sooner she can get over this hump and find a job.

    • Agree with Bill 100%. And this: “I want to be generous, so I had planned to give $100 more than their asking donation, which would come to $350.”

      Why? She wants to be generous, but WHY? So the lady at the cat shelter will think she really loves cats? So she can feel good about herself? She’s unemployed, but wants to give $100 above what’s being asked? WHY?! (Not trying to “yell,” I’m just mind-boggled.)

  2. I see a lot of invisible scripts at play here. Well, one is not invisible, but explicitly stated: “paying for myself shows I am self reliant.” But the author takes it further than that, with the notion that she should pay for other people, and she should pay for anything that is her idea. I would ask, first, is this a personal thing (I just feel too bad letting others pay for me) or is it an image thing (what will people think of me if I let them pay for me)? If it’s a personal thing, then it may be a matter of realizing that being anxious about money all the time is probably causing more long-term stress than momentary guilt over letting yourself be treated by someone. If it’s an image thing — Are you friends actually going to judge you? How do you know? Is it possible they are already judging you for your money management abilities, and that they would actually think more highly of you for asking for help?

    Another invisible script is that going out to eat is an important part of spending time with people. This is tough because if everyone in the group has this expectation, then it may not be possible to break this habit without saying out loud that you can’t afford to go out. And that’s another thing I’m seeing here, that this person really doesn’t want anyone to know that she’s struggling financially, which goes back to the larger issue of feeling guilty for accepting help from others.

    What’s interesting is that she is so generous with others, whether with money or with her time. I wonder if she’s thought about why she does that. For example, if you say, “They are my friends/family; I just feel right knowing I’m helping to take care of them,” then why prevent your friends and family from having that same feeling of taking care of you? Why make all these relationships one-sided, where instead of a mutual give-and-take, people take from you and give nothing in return? That doesn’t make you look like a strong, self-reliant person; that just makes you look like a doormat who’s being used. Perhaps that is harsh, but if you are so concerned with how other people perceive you, maybe it would help to know how they are already perceiving you now, and whether that’s the image you really want.

    Best of luck to you — hopefully others have some helpful advice as well.

  3. Don’t get a pet when you have no money. Pets are expensive, and lets face it, for many people once they bond with a pet they are going to spend money on it where they deem necessary. If her grandmother needs to dip into her savings for regular life expenses and emergencies, then she will surely dip in when the cats get sick. And they will get sick eventually. When you don’t have enough money to take care of the cats, they are either going to end up at a shelter, euthanized, or suffering. The humans suffer, too, for putting their pets down. Its a bad, bad, bad idea to get a pet when you’re broke–not only will your wallet suffer, but you will suffer emotionally when your backed into a corner and can’t afford to care for your pets.

  4. Reading this just made me sad.

    The worst part was her summary at the end. She is still upbeat after having laid that catastrophe out in front of her – oblivious even.

    I am stressed out for her, and hope she sees the light and starts making better decisions.

  5. Your behavior, decisions, and goal doesn’t add up. Your goal is to find a *good* job, get out of debt and be financially self sufficient, yet you mentioned job search 3 days out of 7. Your week sounds like a vacation.

    “Window shopping” means not buying anything, not buying them a few days later. You traveled and donated in addition to what’s already a donation. Your spending is as if you have income.

    You’re anxious and stressed and it sounds like your wallet’s paying for it. Maybe you should consider contracting like your friend did, it will build your own portfolio and resume and only take up the time you’d spend eating out and window shopping, leaving you plenty of time to look for a good, stable job.

  6. You do realize if you kept at this pace you would be spending close to $7,000 a month! I don’t even bring home that amount every month and I make a very decent salary. If I spent money like you I’d be in debt within months. Time to start giving yourself a daily budget.

    • “Time to start giving yourself a daily budget.”
      “a daily budget”

  7. Jessica’s comments above about invisible scripts are right on – it seems like there’s a combination of real generosity coupled with huge concerns about being self-reliant. Self-reliance is cool, but this person is actually really, really entangled with the boyfriend, who’s paying her living expenses because he owes her money (apparently quite a bit), which means she must have given him a loan back when she was working/saving. Now she feels that somehow money will turn up, but she has that feeling because she built up a cushion of savings while she was working, and also built up this large debt owed to her by the boyfriend. So it’s not a stable, indefinite situation: eventually there will not be any more money, and she’ll need to be regularly employed.

    So, advice:

    1. Get regular employment, even if it’s a contract position or not quite what you hoped to be doing, because having money coming in the door buys breathing room.

    2. Get on the same page with your boyfriend about what your monthly budget is for dining out, and agree in advance whether you’ll pay for the whole group (like he did with the family breakfast) or just yourselves.

    3. You don’t have to complain or give anyone the full details of your finances, but allow your close friends to know that you’re trying to save some cash and need to limit your dining out. I don’t think they’ll judge you harshly, especially since you’ll sound like a sensible person trying to think ahead, rather than an irresponsible person hoping/wishing/imagining that money will just continue to show up in your spending account.

    4. You don’t have to stress about finances, but you do have to take action to get onto a sustainable, stable income/expense budget. Money coming in > or = money going out: treat it like the laws of thermodynamics – you might be able to deviate from it in the short term, but ultimately you can’t win at that game.

    • I have to agree with Jessica, these are action steps that you need to handle right now. And please, just STOP with the over tipping and gifting. You do not have the money to do that and if you truly want to be there for your grandmother, stop spending money that you don’t have because she will continue to use your money and eventually you won’t have any. You are overspending and it’s making ME anxious.

  8. There’s nothing wrong with giving to help others, even when you’re struggling, but that doesn’t give you a free pass to turn a blind eye to very real problems in your financial world.
    This is a small snippet of your financial world, and there are people here writing honest comments that I think you should internalize and not be defensive about. You may also benefit from someone looking at your overall financial health and getting honest feedback about. Not because they’re necessarily going to give you the keys to how to fix everything, but rather, because they would have a more sober judgment on your true health, and give you some tips that you should consider on getting your ship righted.

    One thing I will say, generosity is a good thing. But don’t let it be your achilles heel. You need to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself, and you can be generous in other ways besides 750 for cats.

  9. You’re a web developer in CA – how do you not have several web companies and 10x recruiters falling all over themselves to hire you? Seriously its impossible to find talented developers these days.

    • I know! I’m totally baffled by this. She could probably easily pick up some freelance projects for at least $125/hr. I think there are other “invisible scripts” that are keeping her from getting a job.

    • Exactly. This is where I’m getting stuck. Doesn’t make sense – EXCEPT the whole part about “advising” her friend to not take a job that’s “below” her. It’s possible that nothing is good enough for this woman.

    • After reading this, I think this person doesn’t really want a job. If she is really a Web Developer, there are lot of jobs out there. Go to any big social website, look at the jobs. They always need Web Developers. Another question I might ask. Can she really do the Web Developers job?

  10. $1,700 for a week’s worth of expenses? I think that’s close to my monthly expenses, and I live in an expensive part of Southern California and have all the costs you do – rent, gas, food, student loans. I also don’t understand not taking up a job because it’s beneath you – take the job, then use it to leverage yourself into the next good one. Why would you give up a chance to get a positive cash flow?