Last month, I walked away from my career without so much as a thought bubble of a new venture or backup plan. I realized that glorifying my career was anything but a financially and emotionally sound idea for my family.
My husband and I met in college. We loved spending our shoestring paychecks from our jobs on waffle fries, the drive-in movie and vintage cameras I’d spot at the thrift stores that we rode our bikes to on the weekends. When we moved to Dallas, Texas after college and were married, I looked forward to family life of small pleasures and time together.
We packed sandwiches for our lunch every day and made dinner at home every night. We started a savings account with our first tax return and made a monthly deposit program. I read Smart Couples Finish Rich and attached a “values word” to our financial plan: "Freedom".
I loved my time with my husband and that’s what I wanted more than any material item in the world.
I had a job teaching art in underprivileged schools with Mondays off. I would exercise, rest and do laundry on those days while I watched Oprah. Suze Orman would come on and exhausted-looking women would stand up and share that they were living their busy family lives, wanting only happiness for their children, then one day realized they were $40,000 in credit card debt.
What a shame, I thought while sorting socks. If only they had more discipline and communication in their marriage. I’m so grateful that will never happen to me.
Even as our earnings slowly increased, our purchase of our first home and dreams of a family kept us focused on Freedom. We continued to live earnestly and save for tomorrow. While I had never been happier in my home life, I began to feel inferior with my career. Friends, and worse, Facebook friends, were killing it in their career paths. I told myself...
"I bet their parents were so happy to tell everyone what they did for a living".
"I bet they were financially contributing to their families more than I was."
I needed to turn things up.
Freedom later meant hustle now. I’m a hard worker, and soon everything was in place. We adopted our first baby, I started a director of marketing position with a popular company and my husband was chosen for a start up division of one of the fastest-growing firms in our area.
We slept less, sat down less, ate meals together less and read less, but we had everything. We had nearly doubled our income over the course of a year. We were working to keep a balance.
I “simplified” my life: only work and family time - no more writing my blog, improv classes, volunteer projects or other silly things that happened to be my passions and creative outlets.
If 2015 was about opportunity, 2016 was going to be the year I balanced things out. We sat down the first week of January to finally nail down that budget. My husband came clean--he pulled out a sheet of paper with five digits on it in a row.
In the year we had doubled our earnings, those digits represented how much we had also gone into the first consumer debt of our lives.
It was all of our savings and change. It was a just a few hundred dollars over budget some months, and some months more.
Every month there had been a plan to tell me everything and redirect our spending, but there was never a good time with everything we had going on. Plus, I was always on edge and he knew I was unhappy with his inability to keep up with my Superwoman pace. This type of failure would surely be the last straw, and so it was best to keep it to himself one more month until there was a plan, or, in reality, until it was obvious there wasn’t one.
I was furious, and I was devastated. I combed through every statement looking for signs of gambling or drug addiction. It was none of those things or any major spending at all.
The transactions were diary entries of all the times I was too busy for discipline or contentment with small pleasures: new pajamas for our daughter while I took a mental break at lunch wandering Target, picking up the tab at dinner with friends because I felt so guilty about never seeing them anymore, birthday gifts for each other we found on blogs reading our phones after dinner instead of talking to each other. So much damn take-out food, so many Starbucks and snacks trips at the 8 hour mark of an 11-hour work day. Baby sitters, dog walkers and short but semi-frequent weekend trips to put “family first.”
We stopped buying anything, starting immediately.
We went over the budget every week, tracking every purchase. Making ourselves stand in our small kitchen and make dinner at home every night probably saved our family. Even if we both wanted to saw our own leg off rather than walk over to the dinner table and sit down a foot apart from each other, we made it over there and even started managing eye contact and pleasantries.
As holidays passed, gifts were thoughtful and felt like the meaningful ones from when we were first dating, the ones we actually still had and cherished. Our daughter’s disposition only grew more positive and cheerful the more weekends we spent at home banging bongo drums and taking walks around the neighborhood.
Almost every time we reviewed our budget, we realized we were at or under budget without feeling deprived at all. We kept the momentum and each time found just one more monthly expense to take off our list. Before long, things were back in place financially and only grew with the new ways of thought we were bringing to our spending.
We were making strides, but it was hard to keep our footing for long. My job in retail was seasonal and quickly expanding. I was still giving it everything, more than ever now.
Sure, I could use the money, but more importantly I needed the validation I could do something right. The highs were straight dopamine and the lows gutted me.
It was more noticeable as our family life stabilized that my work day greatly affected our ability to be content and simple at home. On a particularly hard week, I drove out to lunch from my office in the middle of an anxiety attack. My body was shaking, and I knew what the addiction in the house was: this.
Not gambling or drugs, but the titles and roles I wore to put a layer of faux accomplishment between my true self and the world. I needed to step out, find the truths and see what Freedom really meant for us. I could find compatible work from there.
For me, hustle wasn’t Freedom, it was prison. Freedom came through grace, forgiveness, humility and contentment. I’m no longer willing to shut down my family’s happiness or mindfulness for short-term opportunities in hopes they earn me more stability down the road.
So now I don’t have business cards to put into fish bowls at restaurants anymore. Performance metrics on how I spend my days or a good description of what I do when someone asks - but I have long hugs, good conversations with my family, and friends who are happy to see me calling to ask how they’re doing and just listen. Nothing’s ever felt so much like Freedom.