living with money

The Year I Destroyed My Finances

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo: Getty

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want. In Living With Money, we talk to people about the stories behind their bank balances. Here’s what happened when a 34-year-old woman quit her job, cashed out her retirement savings, took a break from her bills, and stopped living by the “rules.”

About two years ago, my life looked great on paper. I ran an arts education program at a nonprofit and I lived with my long-term boyfriend in a great apartment in Brooklyn. I had health insurance and a 401(k). My paycheck was pretty small, but my partner made enough money that he was able to support a nice lifestyle that included vacations and shopping and going out to eat. It was all very comfortable and stable. And I was also really, really miserable.

I felt trapped. Work was a nightmare because I was basically doing two jobs at once, and the organization just kept piling more stuff on my plate. At home, things with my partner were not good, and hadn’t been for a while. I didn’t want to do any of it anymore, but I didn’t know how things could look otherwise. I grew up in a pretty conventional home — my parents got married and had kids and held stable, middle-class jobs in education. They never pressured me to make the same choices that they did, but it was what I knew: Go to good schools, get a good job, find a good partner, pay your bills, save for retirement, be a responsible human. But I was following that model and it wasn’t working for me at all.

I needed to take some time to think, so I went to visit my aunt in California. She’s in her 70s and she lives by herself and does whatever she wants all the time. She was married once, like 50 years ago, but it didn’t work out and she’s been on her own ever since. She’s made a pretty great life for herself. Sitting in her backyard next to her tomato plants and talking to her made me realize that I had options. My life could look different. I didn’t have to keep doing these things I hated, under the guise of accountability.

When I came home, I broke up with my partner. I didn’t have enough money to move someplace new on my own, so I was just sleeping on various friends’ couches for a few months. I still hated my job but I felt like I had to keep it to preserve some semblance of stability in my life — plus, I still had to support myself. Then I realized that I didn’t have a lot to lose. So I quit and cashed out my 401(k) and HSA, which gave me enough money to pay a couple months’ rent for a room in an apartment in Brooklyn.

I know you’re not supposed to cash out your retirement savings in your mid-30s. But I have an MFA in dance, and owing that much in student loans makes me feel like money isn’t quite real. Like, my loans will never be repaid, ever. When I had a full-time job, I was on an income-based repayment plan. After I quit, I called Sallie Mae and told them I had to defer my loan payments for a while. The whole system feels like a scam sometimes. Like, who made these rules and what’s really going to happen if I don’t follow them?

I had zero plan for making money after I quit my job, so I had to get scrappy. I started TaskRabbiting, which is pretty easy, as it turns out. You just sign up on the website and then people pay you to do things like go to the Garment District to buy an incredibly specific type of string and then tie tags onto things. I worked at a fashion start-up to put together packages that they sent to Instagram bloggers so those bloggers would post about them. I’ve also met some fascinating people whom I love and have continued to work for. One is a photographer who needed help organizing her archive in her studio. I’ve also helped her with other personal-assistant-type stuff.

Meanwhile, not having that job or that relationship suddenly created all this space in my brain where I could think more about art and dance again. I’d done some independent projects while I had my full-time job, but it’s hard to work all day and then go to a four-hour rehearsal at night. Having more flexibility made a big difference in what I was producing. After I left my relationship, I created the best piece I’ve ever made. Then I got the largest grant that I’ve ever gotten to make something else. In the midst of that, I was offered a position to dance for a pretty high-profile choreographer. My creative work has skyrocketed, and it’s getting way more support than ever before.

Now, the things I do for money are very clear. There’s something liberating about a job that’s just about survival, not part of an amorphous system that’s supposed to look good on a résumé. There’s no illusion that my co-workers are my family. I appreciate the clarity of capitalism now in a way I never did when I had a salary.

There was definitely a moment when I was like, Okay, I’m really doing this. I’m well-fed and living indoors. I don’t need anything from anyone. I figured out that I don’t require much money to live, which is incredibly empowering. I can take care of myself. I don’t need to have a partner. I don’t need to ask family members for help. I can do this. If I need money, I can just go make it.

I work fewer hours than I did as a salaried employee, but if I do the math, my hourly rate is technically higher. I could be making way more, but I don’t care. Instead, the hard work is on my artistic projects. And now, I’m getting paid to be in rehearsal, so that’s also a bonus.

I’m not that interested in a long-term plan or sustainability at the moment. I probably should be, but I’m just not. I am starting to get interested in being stimulated in more useful ways. When people pay you money to go buy them string, that doesn’t really stretch your brain. But sometimes your brain needs a break, and if you can get paid for it, then great.

In five years, I think I’ll look back on this as a year when I figured out something important. My work is growing and I want more and more funding for it. I want to teach more, probably in a collegiate setting. I feel like I’m on my way to those things happening. I’ve been calling this my “fuck-off year,” but now, I’m realizing that it hasn’t been a fuck-off year at all. I may be constantly almost broke, but I feel more in control of my life than ever before. People say that money gives you choices, and maybe it does, but I think it can also narrow your vision because it makes you think you have to keep living a certain way when you don’t.

I don’t regret blowing up my finances completely, but there have been moments when I’m like, Oh shit. I’ve had a few close calls when I had to work really hard for a couple of days to make rent, and that sucks. But I don’t feel like I’ve screwed myself for the future. That’s just not where my head is at. Instead, my head is in this liberated space and I’m okay with the choices I’ve made. I’ve been on tour for the last few weeks, dancing for seven hours every day, and I’m exhausted and my body hurts. But it’s a good kind of tired. This is what I wanted, and I got it.

The Year I Destroyed My Finances