In the personal finance sphere, there is a lot of talk about getting a second job or getting your hustle on or just doing x, y or z to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
That is all well and good, I suppose, if you have a job already paying the bills, significant savings, a spouse or parents who are able to support you, or any other sort of safety new to take your mind off the impending doom of feeling like you don’t have enough.
I admire those who have been able to start something new and turn it around when they lose their job. At the same time, I knew I would not be able to do that. At least not where I was a few years ago.
It was late summer. Mr. E. and I had gotten together half a year prior, and we had decided that since I was just working odds and ends in Norway without a permanent job, I might as well move with him to London, where he was studying, to try to get a job there.
In retrospect, not our best idea… although moving together was important to our relationship, it wrecked havoc on our finances.
That spring and summer, I worked like any financial independence fan would appreciate, although I was unaware of their existence at the time. I worked hard and spent minimal. I was able to save 50k NOK (about $6k) for rent while I looked for work and the move itself.
It was more money than I had ever had in a savings account at any previous point in my life, and at the same time, I knew it was laughably little considering my student loan payments and the living costs in the big city.
That first year was hard. If I had thought the market was hard during the financial crisis in Norway, it was even harder in London, and I was a foreigner to boot. With no experience to my name as a fresh graduate.
Having no luck with my application, I signed up for temporary agencies, which is what had gotten me through the winter in Norway. In summers I had my awesome gardening team.
But things are very different in London. They have minimum wage, for one, and it’s shit.
My first job actually paid a little over a pound over minimum wage. Working in a shop in a large, well known museum, though I won’t tell you where.
Never in my life have I ever been treated the way I was treated as a shop clerk. My fellow shop clerks were nice, true enough. But management? They treated us almost less than human. They kept talking to us as if we were stupid, lazy and always looking to slack off.
With a MSc with excellent grades and always appreciated for my brains, I cannot tell you what a culture shock that was. And many of my coworkers were in similar, difficult boats financially.
To add insult to injury, working five shifts a week didn’t even cover our living expenses! I got treated like shit and still had to dip into my savings every month to make ends meet. It was difficult emotionally, and we were starting to look very bleakly on the future, indeed.
Of course, the museum only needed help with the holiday rush. Once that settled down, I was once again unemployed.
I spent all my time either applying for jobs or feeling guilty that I was not applying for jobs. It consumed all my waking thoughts.
And then, like lightning from the clear blue sky, I got called up by the agency. A university needed a laboratory technician yesterday, and I was qualified. Would I go in there for a chat?
Would I ever?
It was over 50% increase in salary. I’d get regular hours 9-5, not 9.45-6.15, which was killing anything that might have been left of my day.
I got an office! It was the first time ever I’d had an office space. It was hard work, and I felt lost at times, but having that job lifted such a load off my shoulders that it is hard to explain it in words. I felt swamped in gratitude and privilege.
Suddenly, I had time and space mentally to think about other things.
What was I going to do with it?
Mr. E. loves to write and read. It was just him and me in the big city, so I figured I might as well have a go at it.
It ended up as a tiny novelette I called My Friend Lucy. While I am proud that I managed to finish something, that is not the main purpose of this blog post.
The essence here is that once I had a stable, predictable income that ensured a roof over our head and food in our cupboards, only then was I able to turn my focus onto other things.
There are some incredible stories out there about people who were unemployed so they wrote their heart out and published a ton and now they earn thousands of dollars every month.
I admire their perseverance, but it is a privileged position to be able to write when you’re unemployed, not being overcome by terror for when you’ll get evicted.
While I have known this crippling form of being broke and terrified, I am lucky enough to say that I have never been poor. I grew up in a upper working class family where my parents were either stay at home by choice or working. They never lost their jobs, the house or were unable to feed us.
True, the food might not have been what we wanted all of the time, but there was always something to eat, even if it was just bread with jam. Growing up in a neighbourhood of similar families also meant that I didn’t feel deprived. I didn’t meet nor befriend someone my own age from a middle class background before I was in high school.
I did not have the mental capacity to do anything even close to a side hustle before my life was in order to the point that I did not fear terror related to our finances.
That is why I urge you, be kind. It is hard enough when people are struggling, if we don’t judge them on top of that.
While I don’t believe in guilt-tripping ourselves, I do believe it is healthy to take a step back and to reflect upon our privileges once in a while. It can teach us to be more compassionate in our everyday life.
Please don’t judge someone if they are not able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They might not even have bootstraps.