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‘I Have an Excellent Lifestyle, But What If I Lose It?’

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Dear Polly,

My husband and I are both successful, well-paid professionals excelling in our fields. We have a beautiful young child and live a great life. The problem is that this life is expensive and causing my already ever-anxious mind to spiral out of control. We have big plans, including staying in one of the most expensive cities as our home base, private school, vacations, etc. Plans that we can now afford, thankfully, but it’s not without some careful budgeting and foresight. There’s not a ton of room to maneuver, although we do save for our future. We know we are very, very fortunate, but it seems like this good fortune is making me crazy with the risk of losing it.

We are not billionaires and never will be, so while our salaries are high, we depend on them for our needs, and if one of us loses our job, it would be pretty disastrous. We could, of course, get new ones, but it takes time and there are no guarantees. Recently, I have become seemingly all-consumed by anxiety and am close to just asking my husband to reevaluate our life plans entirely to accommodate something safer (cheaper) in case the worst does happen. I know it’s silly to catastrophize now while nothing has changed, but it’s kind of how I live my life: imagining the worst-case scenario and letting myself get used to the possibility in advance, just in case. Now, I know this is wrong and definitely not how I should look at life, but basically it’s where I am and have always been. I had an incredibly wonderful and loving childhood, but it was also turbulent and I think this anxiety of pending future uncertainty or chaos stems from these experiences.

My husband thinks we should reevaluate only if and when we actually need to, but even this unknown is incredibly stressful to me. The thought of having to pull my child out of a private school one day because of losing a job and throwing her life into chaos because I was too much of a striver seems crazily irresponsible and unfair. I know how privileged I am to even have these options available, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful. We have both worked very hard to get here and want to continue to work hard but also want to see the rewards of our success. How do I do this without going out of my mind? Should I just give up now in anticipation? Should I force myself to stop looking at news predictions of an economic downturn and just turn my mind off? I probably don’t need to make this decision now, but I feel like it would give me some sense of peace — like, okay, maybe my life won’t be what I once thought it could, but at least I’d feel more secure in it. Is this giving up too soon? If so, how do I manage in the meantime? Maybe nothing bad ever happens … Highly unlikely, of course. But how can I responsibly plan in preparation for only good things? What do you think?

Panicking in Advance

Dear Panicking in Advance,

There will be another economic downturn, it’s just a question of when. That statement sounds like gloom and doom to younger people, but to older people, it’s the equivalent of saying “It will rain eventually.” The weather changes, the market changes, unexpected negative events occur, and people have to downsize and move and take their kids out of private school all the time.

I’ve been through several market collapses, and I’ve witnessed so many media layoffs that it’s hard to tie them to the economy anymore. They’re more like rolling layoffs; they’re always happening. Whenever conditions seem to improve, I am already bracing myself for the inevitable decline. Even so, my sense is that everything unhinged and unexpected that happened before will occur on a much larger scale moving forward. Thanks to climate change, even talking about the media or private schools or property or expensive cities feels like the foolish prattle of humans who truly, deeply don’t understand what’s happening around them.

But let’s start with the concrete, the here and now: I’ve always been a big fan of the Panicking in Advance lifestyle, personally. I try to save money even when I’m in debt, because saving should be a fundamental habit, not a luxury. I also do this because I need to keep money in places where I can’t withdraw it easily (or I WILL spend it). Even when the interest on my debt is higher than the return on my savings, even when I’m eating dry beans for dinner every night, I need to imagine I have a growing safety net, if only for emotional reassurance. Not everyone agrees with my approach, but it works reasonably well for me.

A big part of financial planning is figuring out what works for you. Now, you might be more like some of the Panickers in Advance that I know, who let their panic eat them alive. Their panic — which is obviously anxiety-related, but here it’s expanded into a worldview — doesn’t help them. They panic whether they’re doing well or doing badly. All their panic does is make them more paralyzed. This leads to bad decisions. They have the savings for a down payment on a house, but they never want to pull the trigger because they’re too afraid. They get married, and the marriage is a wreck, but they don’t want to get divorced because how will they survive on their own? They refuse to leave bad jobs even though they hate them too much to succeed. As they get older, they spend a lot of time saying things like “How am I still in this position?” and “You don’t understand, I can’t change anything, it’s too risky,” because their panic renders them at once stuck and ruled by an overwhelming fear of change.

It sounds like Panicking in Advance is NOT working for you, partially because you aren’t making smart adjustments to your spending, you’re just worrying more and more about all of the negative possibilities that might come up in the future. You’re taking the worst part of Panicking in Advance (the panic itself) and ignoring the best part (reducing your spending and making a backup plan).

You should read The Two-Income Trap, by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi. So should your husband, who sounds like a very familiar “We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Come to It, So Chill Out!” style of non-planner. (HA HA, RECKLESS FOOL!) As Warren and Tyagi argue, it’s not just rational but downright wise to consider what will happen if your spouse becomes unemployed. Many married couples back themselves into a financial corner by adding their two incomes together and then behaving like rich people. They buy expensive houses in good school districts or they send their kids to private schools. They spend money as if neither of them will ever lose a job or get sick or slow down or change their minds about their careers. Warren’s recommendation is that you live on one salary and save the other one. This is practically impossible these days, given the cost of living in most cities, but it’s still extremely helpful to resist seeing your incomes as expanding steadily (or even remaining dependable). Taking your combined income and building a lifestyle around that number is arguably a pretty reckless choice.

Also, capitalism and the laws of supply and demand are basically predicated on the idea that people will change their behavior as market conditions change. Of course, this is not how people tend to operate. Few people want to turn on a dime. But given that the market is inherently volatile and conditions often shift dramatically, it’s never remotely out of the scope of possibility that a person may have to change careers, pick up and move to another state, and yes, pull their kids out of private school. I’m not trying to panic you even more — I’m just amazed at how many people these days treat such changes as unexpected and tragic.

I know it sucks to feel anxious. You need to see a therapist about your anxiety, for sure. But you also need to adjust your perspective. You’re telling me that it would be a terrible, traumatic thing if you had to pull your kid out of private school or move to a different city. And the truth is that unless you’re a billionaire, you might just have to do one or several of these things. And as a parent, it’s your responsibility not to blow these kinds of situations out of proportion. Going to public school or moving will not create lasting trauma in your kid’s life. You need to learn to see yourself and your child and your husband as flexible and resilient. You need to think about what it means to survive and to thrive. Your attitude matters, a lot.

Likewise, moving to a smaller house and not being able to afford the same kinds of vacations is not something that crushes the spirits of children, big or small. It’s not the kind of change that ruins marriages or makes people depressed if they weren’t already in trouble. If your turbulent childhood seems to indicate otherwise, then you’re confusing preexisting emotional turbulence with outside conditions. As someone whose parents fought constantly when they were still married, I can tell you that everything in my world seemed dangerous when I was a small child — breathing oxygen, taking a walk outside, getting in a car, etc. Even after my parents divorced, it took a long time for me to stop imagining that death and destruction loomed around every corner. My fears created more fears until it was tough to link any fear to its source.

I think your childhood has led you to fixate on financial ruin so much that it’s rendered you impractical. The smallest lifestyle change — like switching from private to public school or downsizing your life in any other way — starts to seem huge and depressing. These possibilities loom in the future, and they look catastrophic to you, when really, if they happened, you’d learn pretty quickly how naturally happy and durable your kid is. You also might learn how healthy (or unhealthy) you and your husband are regardless of the particular outside forces pressing on you.

So part of your planning for the future needs to include a very rational, calm process of looking at your worst fears and then forcibly adjusting them in order to render them more realistic. My kids go to public school. It is not the most incredible, stimulating, perfect environment I can imagine, but they’re exposed to a wide range of human beings. They’re bored sometimes, but they’re also realistic about just how boring the real world can be. They don’t expect everyone they meet to treat them like precious little rainbow unicorns, and I guess sometimes that seems like a shame since they are precious little rainbow unicorns (you’re just going to have to trust me on that). But it’s also good for them. I want them to feel miraculous and also average. I want them to feel incredibly lucky and also, sometimes, slightly neglected. Because that’s how it is to be a person who lives in reality.

Life isn’t fair. You aren’t guaranteed any particular quality of a future just by dint of having had some money before or now or later. Part of enjoying what I have now includes the realization that I might not always have it. Even if I own the same shit, my life will be different, my kids will grow up, I will get older. I can’t re-create the conditions of the current moment. I can’t be sure that I will grow more and more glorious and talented and rich and happy as time goes on. The opposite is just as likely.

It’s deeply reassuring to me that I could downsize and still be fine. I know I would be fine because it’s important to me not to BELIEVE IN the shit that I happen to own or the place I happen to occupy in our world. I actually like to picture selling my house and moving somewhere scrappier. I know I’m enormously lucky to own property in the first place. I like to picture being forced to work a lot harder and being forced to sell most of my stuff. Having something to sell at all is privileged. Having lived as well as I do now is privileged, even if it all goes away suddenly. Shit, being able to sit still and relax and live outside of your fear anywhere is a kind of privilege. I want my kids to understand that we might not always feel comfortable. There’s no way to prevent them from flipping their shit over small things — oh ho ho ho, believe me, I have tried! — but there IS a way to model acceptance and realism.

We went on a big vacation to Australia earlier this year (their first time abroad and my third), and I kept saying to them, “We could easily never do anything this incredible again, so just savor the living hell out of this, okay?” It’s hard to get kids to embrace things the way you want them to. But at the very least, you have to try — without, uh, ruining the moment or making them anxious about how fleeting good stuff can be. It’s not easy!

But yeah, definitely cut back and try to save more of your money. Consider sending your kid to public school, if you can’t stop imagining the unmatched trauma of removing your kid from private school. Consider not expanding your lifestyle every single time one of you gets a raise. Consider taking cheaper vacations and becoming much more conservative with your cash as a means of planning for a very uncertain future. Focus on having less but savoring it much, much more. Because, to me, our world is wildly uncertain and, quite honestly, a downturn feels imminent. The denial ruling our current moment looks a lot like the denial I saw around me in 2007, as the housing market soared, and in 1999, when tech stocks ballooned. Throw in the looming threat of irreversible climate change and welp, yeah. Things are going to get rough. You can bet on it.

I understand that it feels disturbing for a lot of us to consider that. I know that if you’re already a little anxious or depressed or full of dread over the future, that makes it even more horrifying to try on worst-case scenarios for size. We all have to take care of ourselves and soothe ourselves however we can. But I also think that people like you and me — who are making a living, who have kids — have a very clear responsibility to pour a lot of our energy and financial resources into creating a better world, fighting climate change, and setting ourselves up to help others as conditions worsen. We also have a gigantic and solemn duty to demonstrate to our kids that happiness comes from hard work, connection, love, and fighting for what’s right, not from nice vacations and cool things and teachers with advanced degrees who talk to you in dulcet tones.

One of the hardest things about being a parent is that you have to model how to live. That means that you can’t be a drunk. That means that you can’t go off on other people for no reason. That means that you can’t drift around the house in your soft pants, feeling miserable. That means that you can’t put all of your fears and your sadness and your avoidant, needy, greedy tendencies into your children. You don’t have to be a fucking hero around the clock, but you do have to consider what your kids see every day, what they hear, and what they learn about being alive. You have to TRY to solve the problem of how to be as relaxed and as happy as you possibly can, so that your kids don’t see that as an insurmountable challenge in their own lives.

In other words, you have to work hard to live in reality and put things into perspective. You have to DEMONSTRATE that life is fine without luxuries, and that just being alive is a gigantic blessing. And for someone like you, who panics in advance? You have to stop treating your foresight as “wrong” and also stop destroying yourself with it. Use it instead. Start mapping out a way to find joy even in the midst of a crisis, a layoff, a time of stress, a time of extreme belt-tightening. Personally, I try on disasters for size. I try not to scare the kids, but I want to know, for myself, that I can be strong and capable and loving even as the whole world spins off its axis.

I’m not that strong. But as long as I’m alive, I want to feel grateful, and I want to show my kids that being alive is enough, as long as I can help someone else or make the world a tiny bit better. Sometimes I picture a shack, one vegetable growing in a mud puddle, and a depressed, skinny dog who won’t move when I try to sweep the dirt floor. I focus on what I’ll do to keep my shit together and be a good mother in spite of everything. I know that sounds like a joke. I know it’s entitlement and privilege to imagine that kind of world without feeling ill. But it helps me, because it reaffirms my commitment to never let small changes in fortune grind my life into the ground for no good reason.

It’s your anxiety combined with your insecure childhood that has tricked you into believing that how much luxury you have in your life will determine how happy you are. Trust me that as long as you’re living under that delusion, your happiness will be compromised. So the answer doesn’t just lie in saving more of your money. You need to reach beyond this concern and find some higher purpose or meaning, or you’ll always feel doomed.

You should start by cultivating your gratitude. I know you feel guilty about this already, but gratitude is a practice. So say it with me: We’re lucky to be alive. We’re lucky to be healthy. We’re lucky to have partners and children and friends and family. We’re lucky to have another day in front of us, a day we can spend finding ways to make this world better. We should save our money for our families and also save our money for other human beings who might need us when everything goes to shit. We should take our unbelievable good luck and make a concrete plan to share it, share it, share it, until our last breath. Shift your focus. So many people need you besides your child, besides your husband.

Your fear is justified. But maybe your fear isn’t asking you to save yourself. Maybe it’s asking you to expand your horizons. Maybe your fear is saying: Wake up. The world needs more from you than this.


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I Have an Excellent Lifestyle, But What If I Lose It?’