When you have a job that pays a salary and gives you the same amount each paycheck, it can feel like a wonderful and stable thing. But that comfort and security can also make you very lazy and irresponsible with your money.
Take it from me.
When I started working as a teacher, it didn’t take long for me to take every dollar I made and allocate it to a bunch of stuff I never needed. On top of that, I was lured into the idea of quick, easy money and started taking a lot of risks with money, including investing in things I didn’t understand, and in people I shouldn’t have trusted.
All this resulted in me losing a lot of money, and going into a ton of debt. So what does a smart guy do when he has a regular income but he’s in debt? Obviously, he scales back his spending, starts to live on a responsible budget, and works slowly to get himself out of that hole.
But I wasn’t a smart guy, so guess what I did? I quit my job to chase a recording contract promised by a producer I had just met.
“The deal went through and all my problems were solved, right? Wrong. The deal fell through – well, actually, it never existed.”
I believe this deal would get rid of my debt in one fell swoop and so, while I waited for that magical deal to go through, I ended up spending even more money on my credit cards and accruing even more debt. More spending, combined with the fact that I now had no regular job meant I was trying to dig myself out of a hole, but ended up only deeper in it.
But of course the deal went through and all my problems were solved, right? Wrong. The deal fell through – well, actually, it never existed. I was lied to. And not caught in some elaborate, complicated web of lies that got the best of me, no – it was a simple lie that I tried my hardest to believe was true.
So not only was I unemployed with no record deal, I had a broken heart from being betrayed by people I thought were my friends. At this point, my debt ballooned to the tune of £60,000. To the outside world, I had left my job to chase my dreams of being Humble the Poet. According to social media, I was winning! In reality, I was having hourly anxiety attacks and avoiding my friends and my family.
I finally understood why people don’t like talking about their money troubles: the feelings of shame, insecurity, and fear that bubble up inside you. I was ashamed of the decisions I made, insecure about my ability to fix my problems, and afraid things would only get worse. I was a failure, an embarrassment to myself, my friends, my family, and everyone around me – including my fans. And I didn’t want to face that.
“I had to face those fears. I had to tell people what happened. I had to ask for help.”
When we encounter an ongoing and growing problem, we have three options. We can ignore it and hope it goes away and suffer the consequences; which I tried, and things got worse. We can pray and search for a miracle to fix it; which I also tried, and things got worse. Or we can face it and look our problem in the eye, figure out what we’re doing to feed that problem, and figure out what we need to do to start feeding a solution.
The last option meant I needed to be honest with myself, and that required admitting a lot of uncomfortable truths and making a lot of uncomfortable choices. That list of uncomfortable choices, coincidentally, was the same list that made me feel insecure, afraid, and ashamed in the first place. I had to face those fears. I had to tell people what happened. I had to ask for help. I had to admit to myself and others that I made a lot of irresponsible and short-sighted decisions. And, personally, I had to remind myself that even though I made some bad choices, that didn’t make me a bad person. I realised there’s a difference between you and your choices, and you can change your choices to improve your life.
The years that follow I refer to as my ‘struggling artist’ years. It was hard! But those years turned out to be the years that made me grow the most: I learned what was really important to me and how many of my fears simply only existed in my head. It took a few years, a lot of hard work, a lot of pride-swallowing, and a lot of sacrifice. But I got myself to a zero bank balance.
I resolved to move back in with my parents (they welcomed me back with open arms) but that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to be grilled about the choices I made to get into this situation. There was many an “I told you so” – but I deserve to hear that. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have family they can fall back on, and I’m eternally grateful to my parents for giving me space to start over. They also served as a safe environment for me to regain myself after feeling betrayed by so many.
“As well as finding ways to earn money, I had to re-evaluate how I spent. I cut up my credit cards, and only spent cash.”
I sold all my assets and started fresh. I embraced the business side of the art world: designing and selling merchandise, applying for grants, doing any live show I was invited to do, and finding new, niche streams of income that slowly added up.
As well as finding ways to earn money, I had to re-evaluate how I spent. I cut up my credit cards, and only spent cash. I stopped eating out, only ate at home. I didn’t buy any new clothes or take any trips for years.
Most importantly, I was open with telling people about my financial challenges. So often we spend money just to keep up, but saying to your friends you can’t afford to go out with them saves you a lot of headache later. Most people were understanding. People I owed money to were spoken to directly, and I made it a priority to pay them back first. They needed to know I appreciated their help and patience and I wasn’t going to run away or avoid them because I was in their debt.
Once I got my head above water again, I knew it was important not to go back to my old ways. The fear of losing what I had gained kept me in line. I became aware of how many things I was buying just to keep up and impress others. Losing all my money liberated me from such a frivolous and expensive path. If I spend money now, it’s on experiences instead of stuff – the joy lasts much longer. I also pay myself first, and make space to spend freely with that money, ensuring everything else goes to sustain and grow my business. I’m mindful of the people I hang out with, as I don’t want their spending habits to rub off on me. That meant hanging out less, but making it count when I did.
“When we change our attitudes and remember that we have complete control over our the effort we put in, we’re empowered to better our situations.”
I’m only wiser because I was able to learn from the mistakes I made from the past. I’m in a much better situation now but it took a lot of time and a lot of work to get here. And I don’t plan on going back, and live modestly to ensure that.
What I’ve learned, and what I want you to take away, is this: as hopeless as our situations seem, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel... as long as you’re willing to claw, dig, and fight to get to it.
The new habits I developed during that difficult time have now set me up to be in the best position I’ve ever been in – financially, but also mentally, physically and spiritually. I’m also at the point where if I can say if I could go back in time and change anything, I wouldn’t. That’s what I promised myself when I was at my lowest point.
I really hope sharing my story can help you with whatever you’re struggling with right now. Fortunately, and unfortunately, nothing lasts forever – and that applies to both our triumphs and failures. When we change our attitudes and remember that we have complete control over our the effort we put in, we’re empowered to better our situations.
It won’t happen overnight, but it doesn’t need to. I want to remind you that taking baby steps in the right direction will slowly add up, and things will, slowly, get better. Don’t focus on building the whole castle, just focus on one brick at a time.
Humble the Poet is a poet and author of Unlearn: 101 Simple Truths For a Better Life and Things No One Else Can Teach Us, published by HarperOne
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