Confession: I Have No Safety Net

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ast Friday, I was driving home from a (socially distanced) visit with friends when my brakes suddenly lost pressure as I coasted to a stop at a red light.

The sensation was startling . It felt like I’d momentarily accelerated because my brain is so programmed to expect an immediate response when I hit the brake pedal. A second later, the brakes kicked in as if nothing had happened. They worked fine for the rest of the ride home, but they still felt off.

The car I’d been driving was my “beater” — an older car that my husband and I rarely use these days. It’s a 2007 Toyota Matrix with 130,000 miles on it. It needed an inspection back in March, but New York State abruptly shut down many state agencies (including the DMV) because of the virus, so we never got it done.

Instead, we let the car fester in our driveway, mostly undriven and untouched, until last week when a tree came crashing down in the yard, taking out a side mirror on the “good” car (a 2013 Toyota RAV4, fully inspected, with roughly 140,000 miles on it).

The RAV4 was in the shop waiting for its new mirror, which was taking longer than expected to find, so we’d cleared the cobwebs from the Matrix (literally) and began driving it again. In New York, there’s still a moratorium on annual inspections through November 3rd (Thanks, Governor Cuomo).

I planned to get the Matrix inspected once the RAV4 was fixed, but when I stepped out of the car after that harrowing drive home, I knew it needed to be looked at immediately.

First of all, it smelled like something was burning. There was also a trail of what I assumed was brake fluid leading from the street to where Old Bessie was idling (I would later learn that this was transmission fluid).

“Great,” I thought, wondering how much new brakes + an inspection and anything else they might find would cost. My husband had already charged nearly $300 to our one and only credit card so we could replace the mirror and tune up the RAV4.

Also, and this is neither here nor there, pieces of that downed tree are still strewn all over my yard. That’s because we can’t afford to get it removed properly, so people have been coming by and sawing off bits of it for their wood burning stoves. I fully expect at least a third of it to still be in my yard come spring.

I have no safety net.

It should be painfully obvious by now that I’m among the 38% of Americans that cannot come up with as little as $500 cash without selling something. At least, not today.

Next week I’ll get my Medium payment of $650, which will briefly make me richer than nearly 40% of of my fellow (broke) Americans. But, only briefly. The cost of fixing my brakes, a transmission fluid leak, and finally getting the ancient Matrix inspected is, you guessed it, $650. Thank goodness for side hustles.

I got lucky this month. I rarely make this much money on Medium, but I had a few pieces do well and that will translate to being able to cover the cost of October’s emergency. But what about November? The entire ordeal clarified how dependant I am on an unreliable source of income that currently serves as my safety net.

I was balanced on a precarious financial edge even before the pandemic hit, with precious little money in the bank and no way to cover a sudden, unexpected expense. Then my income went (way) down in March and, while it rebounded a bit, I’m still making about 40% less as a freelance writer this year than I did as a search marketer last year. (I switched careers right before COVID ground everything to a halt, but that’s a tale for another day).

Writing was my side hustle before it became my main source of income. The money I earned from Medium is certainly nothing I’m used to counting on. The work that pays my bills (consistently) is content writing for clients who commission a certain number of pieces from me each month and pay a flat fee per piece.

Is the side hustle America’s backup plan?

When I realized that my Medium payout for October would just about equal the amount I needed to fix my car, I felt a mix of emotions, but the biggest one was gratitude for being able to pay for this particular emergency without begging or borrowing. Long live the side hustle!

But, I also felt shame, because as a grown woman, I should know better, right? I should have the money available in savings already. The thing is, it’s hard to plan for an emergency when you barely have enough money to cover the basics, plus debt, plus you’re recovering from some pretty significant and long-lasting emergencies.

When you’re down to your last $100 (which is basically the fourth week of every month for me), everything becomes an emergency. This is why I haven’t been able to put more than $500 in my emergency fund before immediately having to take it out again.

Financial hardship is cumulative. My daughter was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 11 and, well, I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, cancer is expensive, especially pediatric cancer.

Ana died in 2017. Her death derailed me (and my accompanying ability to work) for years. It’s why I had to shift what I do for a living. Writing is gentler on my mind than managing digital marketing accounts for needy clients. Losing my daughter permanently changed the way my brain functions and that’s had a big impact on how much money I’m able to make.

I was still trying to climb out of the financial hole that cancer and its subsequent fallout created when the pandemic hit.

I was side hustling for nearly two years as a freelance writer before I turned writing into my permanent gig. My husband’s income, thankfully, has been stable. He’s king of the side hustle. He has three streams of income, each of which could realistically be defined as a side hustle, except they’re not — they collectively define his job as a modern musician. Even so, one of the gigs — teaching drums from his home studio — has nearly evaporated because of our good friend COVID.

I’m starting to wonder if we need to rethink the way we define work in this country.

My husband and I aren’t the only ones being sustained by what we once thought of as our side hustles. Most of my friends are working some kind of extra gig (or have had to turn the hustle into their main source of income).

Dollar Sprout, a website that’s all about helping people earn extra money, reports that 27% of people rely on side hustles to pay monthly bills. Also interesting — about a third of side hustlers are over 54 (at 49, I’m getting there). Maybe the side hustle is also the cure for job-related agism.

But is it wise for me to use Medium (or any other side hustle) as a safety net? At this point, I have no choice.

The uphill battle for financial security.

The shame and anxiety I feel about my financial situation is like a solid, tangible thing sitting on my chest, keeping me up at night. It makes me feel hopeless, worthless, and afraid.

I rarely write about it. I never talk about it. But at this point in my life, I’m starting to realize (with a big, deep sigh of exhaustion), that no good comes from dwelling on blame and guilt. I’m not great with money. This is true, but I’m also not awful with it either. The main problem is that I’ve never had a real safety net, so the line between safety and disaster is an extremely thin one for me.

Any unanticipated expense is an instant emergency and it’s these multiple emergencies, plus rising living expenses, plus the constant, unremitting cost of healthcare, that have deposited me where I am today — broke and vulnerable.

At this point, I need to forgive myself for my past financial sins and hardships, get through this year (and next) and try to build up some savings before the next tree falls. And it will fall. It always does.

The good news is that I now have two fully functioning, fully inspected, and fully paid for cars. I’m grateful to Medium, and all side hustles out there, for the bit of security they afford. It’s not ideal, but at least it’s something.

Written by

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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