I’m about to clock a year of living alone soon, after migrating a few houses down the road from my parents’ house (yes, it still counts), and I’ve been reflecting on this period of my life: whether it was too late or too soon, and how prepared I was for the realities of #adulting.
In many ways, mine is the quintessential experience of a single, twenty-something young woman who ventures out on her own: a life largely occupied with a day job while juggling several responsibilities outside of work, nights spent drinking wine and binge watching tv shows, dishes piling up by the sink, reading books amid a myriad of other equally satisfying hobbies and drinking more wine (because are you really doing it right if you don’t consider the fact that you might actually be an alcoholic as a very real possibility?)
What had me shook, most of all, is how EXPENSIVE everything is and why this isn’t something more people are talking about (I mean, they talk about it but after experiencing it firsthand it’s kind of like, this should be a way bigger deal than it is) — suddenly you’re plunged into the reality that you are now entirely your own financial responsibility. What a wild concept. And I will be the first to admit that I am coming from the very privileged position of having had the time and financial wiggle room to actually save up for the move and proceeded to rent an apartment in the same somewhat affluent neighborhood my parents live in. I had been warned, in the sort of vague yet alarmist way that people have, not to expect it to be easy. And I took that with a pinch of salt because, come on, how bad could it be really?
Boy, was I in for a surprise. Right from the word go, money starts leaving your account at an alarming rate. The bills, I expected. It’s the unexpected that I wasn’t ready for. Who can prepare you for burst pipes, unending car trouble and the fact that good furniture costs a fortune? Not to mention the fact that keeping yourself measurably happy (going out with friends, vacations, the occasional splurge, etc.) is now relegated to whatever you manage to have left over when everything else you need to survive is taken care of. Let’s not even get into the delicate intricacies of trying to meet your saving goals. It gets to the point that even with what is considered a ‘comfortable’ salary, there will be enough expenses to claim every single penny. It’s no surprise then, that a majority of people are trying to identify separate streams of income as a matter of survival and will occasionally rely on loans from friends, family or financial institutions just to get by. The surprising thing is that there seems to be some sort of stigma around needing to be bailed out in this way. Where does this disconnect come from? I have seen the advice of “living within your means” doled out countless times but what does this really mean when you look around and just about everyone is struggling in the same way? Are we all terrible at managing our finances and trying to live lives we can’t yet afford, or is there something fundamentally wrong with the system?
I’ve figured out that making it to the next pay day becomes a skill in prioritising my needs and creature comforts. Each month, I weigh my options: Do I really need to get that problem with my car fixed right now? Will the few extra bottles of wine make a difference? Is the event worth it? And the stark realisation that while these may be my priorities, someone is having to think about taking care of kids, making rent, access to healthcare or whether they have enough food to last them the week. While we all experience our fair share of anxieties on this spectrum, I’m not blind to the fact that our problems are vastly different. In much the same way that I know there are people for whom impatiently/desperately waiting for the next cheque to arrive isn’t part of their reality. People who have a majority of their needs met and for whom life doesn’t seem to be a constant uphill battle financially. For the rest of us, it is only a matter of differences in what our individual hills are made up of and how steep they are.
The question for me, is always how we ended up here as a society. The promise to one day be one of the lucky few seems to be the only thing holding us back from tearing the entire system down and creating a standard of living that makes better sense for everyone. Part of us must keep telling ourselves: if I tear it down then I can’t ever get to the top and the view must be incredible from up there. It’s obviously not going to be as easy as individual efforts to achieve any meaningful change, because like with any system of inequality, it is self-sustaining in ways that are deeply complex. At the end of the day however, all systems are man-made and susceptible to change, albeit gradually.
I’m not going to turn this into a spiel against capitalism because I’m nowhere near smart enough to pretend I know what I’m talking about. I just know that I keep coming up against the same realisation: that it shouldn’t have to be this hard to survive and live comfortably — and let us acknowledge here that while the definition of comfortable is relative for everyone, our basic needs are mostly the same. I’m hoping it becomes more and more evident that I’m not the only person who sometimes goes to sleep at night wondering how we can live with ourselves as a society, when we can clearly see the inequalities all around us driven by systems that only benefit a select few. And questioning when that wondering will lead to a more significant call to action for changes to be made, instead of simply experiencing it as a mild, passing discomfort while we try our best to stay afloat.