Over the last few months I haven’t had as much consulting and teaching work as I normally would, and my finances have started to suffer. At first I thought it was a temporary lull, but eventually I found myself not earning enough to make ends meet. It got so bad that at one point last month I had around $10 in my bank account. While I absolutely understand that I’m privileged, and that many people in the world would love to have $10 in the bank (or have a bank account at all), personally, my funds hadn’t been so low in my entire adult life. Even during my years in university when I lived off student loans, I could always afford to pay my rent, with a little left over to buy a cup of coffee or see a movie.
But this time was different.
This time I was 38-years-old, with 10 years of university education and a PhD under my belt, yet unable to afford my basic living expenses.
So what did I do about it?
I’ll tell you what I didn’t do. I didn’t use positive affirmations about being abundant. I didn’t make vision boards with fake checks for thousands of dollars. I didn’t express gratitude for all the other types of abundance in my life.
I didn’t start new joint ventures with cool entrepreneurs, or sign up for affiliate marketing programs with amazing companies. I didn’t launch any new products or services. I didn’t attend networking events or join a mastermind group. I didn’t create a new business plan or hire a life coach. I didn’t launch a kickstarter or patreon campaign.
No, I didn’t do any of these things.
Instead, I freaked out. Like totally fucking freaked out.
I felt depressed, angry, anxious, and ashamed. My inner critic berated me with statements like:
“How could you be so irresponsible? How could you let this happen?”
“You got your PhD so that you can end up broke? You’re a total failure.”
“When are you going to stop all of this personal development nonsense and get a real job?”
“You can’t even pay your bills, what on earth are you going to do for retirement?”
“All of your soul searching and authenticity and blogging are such a waste of time. Grow up.”
I cried a lot. I ended up with a whole host of stress-induced physical symptoms like headaches, stomach pains, and problems sleeping. I felt ashamed when I had to turn down social invitations because I couldn’t afford them. I even felt ashamed asking my husband to pay for things.
I had to take a good hard look at what I truly value in life. I had to consider whether my personal “brand” (if you can call it that) actually wants (or needs) to be monetized. I had to contemplate – and fully experience – how I feel about a capitalist system that “forces” us to work 40 hours per week to make ends meet. I had to think about whether I want to belong to such a system – and whether it’s even possible to escape from it (watch this video by Charles Eisenstein about making a living outside of our societal “matrix” ). I experienced (and am still experiencing) a lot of existential dread. I started to wonder what the point of my work is. Does bethanybutzer.com actually matter? Does the research I do on yoga and mindfulness in schools make any discernible impact? Does anyone even read my blog? Am I making a difference in the world? Why do I feel like I need to make a difference anyway? Is my small, mundane life enough just as it is?
In short, that $10 really messed with my head.
Why am I sharing all of this?
Because the internet is full of people blogging about how to make more money and how to attract abundance – usually by getting you to sign up for their course or join an affiliate program. Heck, I even wrote a blog in 2012 called Three Tips To Attract Abundance.
But very few people write or talk about what it’s actually like to be struggling financially.
Instead, we use our credit cards to pay for new clothes and shoes and dinners to avoid tipping anyone off about our financial issues. We smile and fake it, only to go home and use our line of credit to pay off our credit card and then sweat bullets because we don’t know how we’ll ever get out from under all of our debt.
The truth of the matter is that most of us go through periods of financial difficulty at some point in our lives. So why are we hiding this fact from each other? This wasn’t the first time I’ve struggled financially, but it was the first time I was honest with people about it. When a friend invited me to go shopping, I declined and told her I was broke (that same friend then graciously paid for me to attend a couple of events and even gave me a week’s worth of vegetables that she wasn’t going to use!). When another friend invited me to a weekend workshop, I told her it was too expensive for me, so we went for tea instead.
Being honest about my financial struggles was so hard – and so humbling. But not a single friend reacted negatively. In fact, I was much harder on myself than anyone around me was.
What I’ve realized is that many of the fears that I have around money aren’t actually about money at all. They are about my sense of worth as a human being.
I remember once when I was working in the corporate world and I had around $20,000 cash in the bank. I saw a beautiful beeswax candle that I really wanted to buy. The candle cost $15 – and I agonized over whether or not to buy it, because I didn’t feel like I had enough money. I eventually convinced myself to buy it, only to feel guilt-ridden for the rest of the day.
I realized that whether I have $20 or $20,000 to my name, I tend to worry about money. I needed to get to the point of having next to nothing in the bank so that I could face this fear head on. It forced me to ask questions like:
“Who am I if I don’t have a solid savings account?”
“Am I being irresponsible for pursuing a different kind of lifestyle that isn’t so focused on work?”
“What does it say about me as a person if I’m broke?”
“Am I enough?”
“What is my personal definition of success?”
That last question is really important. Because here’s the thing. As I mentioned in my TEDxUNYP talk (video coming soon!), most of us have absorbed the cultural metric of success that tells us we need to have a stacked bank account, big house, and nice car. Many of us buy into this on the most subtle level, without even realizing it. I’ve had to come face-to-face with the shadow side of me that has been using this metric, in one way or another, for much of my adult life. I didn’t think that I needed a big house or nice car or expensive clothes to show that I was successful – but I did feel like I had to have some magical amount of savings in the bank. Otherwise I felt like a failure who didn’t measure up to my peers.
But let’s take another look at my life over the past six months and re-evaluate whether or not I was successful.
Over the past six months I’ve been struggling financially. But I always had enough food to eat, largely through the generosity of my husband and friends. I’m surrounded by friends and family, near and far, who enrich my life in ways that money can’t buy. I’ve been fortunate that my husband’s work is going well, so we’ve been able to keep our basic necessities running. Aside from a few stress-induced symptoms, I’m generally healthy. I have space in my schedule to read books and articles that inspire me, to meditate and do yoga, to cook healthy food, and to enjoy time with loved ones. I got creative about ways to cook and entertain and have fun without having to spend a lot of money. I got creative about alternative ways to earn an income, like helping my husband with some of his work, and reaching out to colleagues to help with their projects. Professionally, I gave a TEDx talk, brought on a new consulting client, and I’m in the process of considering some intriguing future career opportunities.
Yes, I only had $10 in the bank. But I also had a rich social life, support from a variety of sources, a roof over my head in a beautiful European city, lots of laughs, a ton of personal growth, and even some professional advancements.
Why did I end up broke in the first place? There are probably many reasons, but here’s a big one. I’m trying to build a life that isn’t obsessed with “work” (at least not in the traditional sense of a 9 to 5 job). I’m trying to build a life that honors what I value. I value having open space in my calendar, not feeling rushed all the time, and having the opportunity to contemplate topics that interest me. I value doing work that feels personally meaningful. I value quality time with friends and family. I value authenticity and self-expression and feeling alive. I value freedom and flexibility in my schedule. I value getting lots of sleep and eating well and taking care of myself. I value meditating every morning and stretching/dancing/yoga every evening. I value trying to make the world a better place.
Is it naive and irresponsible for me to want such a life? My inner critic says yes. But my soul says no.
I’ll be honest that I haven’t figured out the perfect formula for honoring what I value while maintaining a healthy savings account. But at least I’m courageous enough to give it a try.
And so we can ask, have I been successful over the past six months?
Despite what my inner critic wants to say, my soul says yes.
Yes, I cried and got angry and irrational and ashamed. Yes I fought with my husband over nickels and dimes. Yes I doubted myself and my worth. Yes I worried about my health and my future. But even in all of this angst, there is success. There is the success of simply being human. Of showing up for this life, day in and day out, no matter how difficult it gets, and no matter how pissed off I get. There is success in being honest about my struggles, rather than running away from them or hiding them.
This being human isn’t easy.
And despite the fact that I can put a (sort of) positive spin on my financial challenges, my challenges haven’t gone away. Pasting a fake a smile on my face and pretending everything is ok is not going to put money in the bank. Sometimes help will show up when I need it (like the client who paid an overdue invoice right when my funds were at their lowest). And other times it won’t (like the time I couldn’t afford to pay an overdue bill). But it’s all help, in its own mysterious way.
What I can do is show up fully for the joy and the darkness that always co-exist in my life (and in yours). I can do my best to trust that things will be ok – not in a naive way – but in a way that has faith in my ability to dance with whatever the universe offers me at any given time and find my way through. Even if “finding my way through” means kicking and screaming and crying and dragging myself through the mud of my deepest fears. Because we always manage to find our way through – to the next joy or the next darkness.
This blog isn’t about feeding you platitudes like “it will all work out.” It’s about coming face-to-face with the fact that sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the queen of death sweeps through our lives, tears our heart out or empties our bank account (or does both at the same time), and leaves us crumpled on the floor. Other times we’re so full of ecstatic life force that we can barely contain ourselves. This is the dance. And as long as we’re alive, we will dance it.
So let’s dance, shall we?
Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. is an authenticity advocate, writer, researcher, and dark chocolate lover. Check out her book, The Antidepressant Antidote, follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and join her whole-self health revolution.
Image courtesy of DomAlberts.