Money, money, money, moneeey…MONEY! Ah the familiar tune from a time where Donald Trump hosted TV shows, and didn’t run a country.
Whenever I see or think of the word money, that tune pops into my head. So now that it’s firmly entrenched in yours, where to even begin talking about this taboo topic amongst millennials. Make a cup of tea – this is a long one.
The nutty misconceptions
Perhaps I should start by saying it’s the one misconception or myth about millennials that used to drive me nuts. Every time I heard someone say that millennials don’t understand the value of money, won’t save towards buying a house, know nothing about retirement annuities and choose to spend their salaries on fine dining and trips around the world, I would roll my eyes and try (not so well) not to sigh. I say used to because a few weeks ago, I booked a six-week Asian Adventure notwithstanding the fact that it has been over a year since I earned a salary and I have no immediate plans to earn any money over December and January. #awkward
No-one was more surprised than I was. I felt completely conflicted between my usually risk adverse self, and really excited about this upcoming spontaneous trip. But, on reflection, I realised that this tug-of-war was simply how I have been feeling this whole past year since making the decision to leave my corporate job as a Senior Associate in one of the world’s largest law firms about 14 months ago.
To be honest, I had been toying with the idea of using this opportunity, of not having to ask anyone for leave, to plan an overseas trip. But, each time the thought popped up, I pushed it into the naughty corner and gave it a stern lecture about being responsible and not using the last bit of our savings to go on a holiday when there were imminent bills to be paid. And so, once this crazy thought had its time out, I would return to my life of plan and order until the stubborn child would act out again. Eventually, I couldn’t ignore it and I was forced to confront what was really the issue. It’s not that I didn’t want to take advantage of not having a boss, or dependents, or leave restrictions because of what anyone else would think, but because I knew that my 24 year old self was sitting on her high horse, looking down, shaking her head, and judging me.
The Saving Compulsion
The thing I have been proudest of my whole life is being really responsible with money. One of my first memories is of my uncle soldering whisky tins together and creating a coin sized gap in the lid. He would then hand them over to my two brothers and me, and we would be told that when they were full, we could bring them back to him to get them opened. Recalling this memory, I realise there were bigger issues at play, like why my uncle had so many whisky tins on hand, but what I choose to focus on is how obsessed I was at putting every coin I found into that tin and trying to fill it faster than my brothers could.
My obsession with saving money might be traced back to the fact that I grew up in a household that gambled. It meant that we either had lots of money, or nothing at all. I remember weeks of staying at expensive resorts, with a casino of course, only to return to school and receive a brown envelope from the bursar’s office, which I knew contained a payment reminder to my parents. I hated the uncertainty of my family’s financial position and I knew that one day I wanted a life of financial security and structure. That may, in many respects, be the reason I went into a legal career: thinking that a well laid out corporate job would pave the road to financial freedom.
So, at every opportunity, I would save. Initially, I would collect copper and brass coins and put them into those tiny plastic bags that the banks used to give out and count them pedantically until I had enough to make my mother take me to the bank and exchange them for silver ones (I knew those were the big bucks). That escalated to me finding ways not to spend money, like insisting on tuckshop money and negotiating annual inflationary increases with my dad, only to pack my own lunch and save the money for something else.
When I started working, I researched as much as I could about what I needed to do to ensure I retired comfortably. I was 23, with no financial background or acumen. I had no clue what I was doing, but I walked into the bank and instead of asking for silver coins, I asked for a retirement annuity to be set up for me. And then I continued with my research.
The next year, it dawned on me that my company provided no provident fund and my measly annuity was just not going to cut it.
I was reminded a few weeks ago about my (probably nauseating) conversation starters amongst my peers.
“Do you have an emergency fund? You need to have at least six months’ worth of salary saved in an easy to access account. No, you don’t have time to save when you’re 30 – you will never catch up to the compound interest. Start now. You should save 15% of your gross salary but I’m trying for around 20% in case there is a recession. Buying a new car? Are you joking – those things depreciate as soon as you drive off the showroom. Clothing accounts at 25% interest! What are you thinking? Please stop buying Woolies desserts on your credit card and justifying it as a legitimate expense.”
Thinking about it now, I am surprised I have retained any of my friendships that were in their foundational phases when I used to shout these lines across the canteen or dinner table, but I am really glad I did.
I had been wired to live this way for most of my life. It meant that I started 2017 in a really great financial position. I was earning well, had bought my first flat the year before (obviously putting in some extra into the bond each month after researching that with an extra R1000 a month I could halve the time it took to pay it off – cue yawn). Most importantly, I was really chuffed to be living the exact opposite kind of financial life that many millennials are stereotyped with living.
And then my year took one tumble after another.
The Sliding Doors Moments
I was accepted into two master degree programs in the UK. This had been my ultimate academic dream, and to top it off, I was shortlisted for a full ride scholarship that would turn that dream into a reality. Then, in April, my mother, an American MBA graduate, died leaving a heap of medical debt behind. I didn’t receive the scholarship to go to the UK, and suddenly the full weight of what an overseas masters program would cost versus my lifelong savings almost sent me into a fit of hysteria. Through a series of unrelated unfortunate events, I realised that I hated what my job was doing to me. I had burned out. I resigned, had my resignation rejected, went on a sabbatical, and then resigned again, leaving behind my very stable income.
Finding myself amongst the anxiety
I had no idea what I was going to do next, but the first task on the list was to get my personality back. I thought I should take some time, and some savings, to figure out my next steps before taking another job. Fourteen months later, and almost no savings left, this is where I am – staring at the reflection of the quintessential millennial.
There have been so many times this year where I have been supremely disappointed in the choices I have made, as they have meant my past diligent saving self will go into 2019 starting out as one of those 30 year olds the 24 year old version of me warned against. But, on the other hand, I also think back to this time a year ago when I was a shell of myself plagued by anxiety.
Anxiety is something I would not wish upon anyone, and yet it’s something many millennials grapple with daily. It is crippling, leaving you in a state of inertia unable to make any decisions. It takes you away from sleep, from socialisation, from an appetite and from any semblance of anyone fun. It rewires your brain to freeze when you hear a particular ringtone, so you just turn your phone to silence, or off completely. It makes the most social person go into a panic standing in a pharmacy queue that doesn’t move fast enough. It drives you to go into the darkest and loneliest places of your mind. It is akin to having two hands constantly holding an iron grip around your heart, and what I have come to realise is that it is certainly not worth all the money in the world.
We hear it all the time: no one dies wishing they had worked more. Yet, we continue to stay in jobs that don’t fulfil us or, worse, take so much away from us as human beings. I have the least amount of money today than I have ever had since I started working full time. But I am happy, and more importantly, I am healthy.
My Best Financial Investment
I know now that there is no price to put on a commodity like health. Mental, physical, and emotional health are things I am grateful to have invested in this year. I know, with full certainty, that they will pay the biggest dividends over the next few years. I hope that this is the investment, the one that I have made in myself this year to be happy and healthy, that will bring with it the compound interest I was chasing so hard in my mid-twenties. If it doesn’t, I will, at best, have a year’s worth of memories of a time that I was brave enough to take a chance on myself and, at worst, I will have six weeks of adventure filled memories from which to start more enjoyable stories across the canteen or dinner table.
Sinal is a Legal Consultant, Speaker and Entrepreneur.
To find out more or contact her for a speaking engagement, visit her website.