Nine Small Steps to Security: Breaking the Cycle on Being Broke

Paycheck-to-paycheck isn’t the only way to live

Crystal Jackson
Aug 31, 2020 · 8 min read
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Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

What if I told you that poverty was a mindset?

Yes, it’s also a condition and socioeconomic status. But being “broke”, “poor”, or constantly struggling with finances all come with a very specific mindset. It may vary by degrees, but there are common denominators.

I’ve been thinking lately about my own relationship with personal finance. I have built my own stability over time, but I had a rocky start and several instances of total financial devastation that I never anticipated. I’ve made a lot of mistakes with money — but I’ve also learned a lot.

I was having a conversation with a friend and talking about all the people I see going on vacation right now. First of all, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. Life hasn’t exactly returned to normal, and yet people are throwing on bikinis and heading to the nearest beach with nary a precaution. Secondly, I’ve watched one person after another talk about the financial devastation of this year … and then take themselves off on a vacation.

It’s a cycle. There are some people who are forever broke, and it’s not a coincidence. It’s a lifestyle.

I don’t mean any judgment in that statement. It was my lifestyle, too, until some pretty tough financial losses put me on a different path. But if we ever want out of that cycle of feeling broke and perpetuating poverty, we’re going to have to make a few basic changes.

If you had the choice between your favorite streaming service and a big bucket list item (like travel), which would you choose? Often, that is the choice we’re making. We can have coffee out three days a week, or we can take that class we’ve been eyeing. It’s that simple.

We can start by sitting down and writing out our ultimate goals. Then, we can make a separate list of things that are important to our quality of life on a more regular basis. Next, we compare the two. Where can we cut back so that we can have something from our long-term list? What changes can we make to have a positive quality of life now and also make that bucket list possible?

That coffee brewed at home might taste better when we see a growing savings for something else we’re wanting.

We all deserve to have dignity and basic human rights. That doesn’t mean we deserve to have those expensive name-brand shoes or a week’s vacation at the beach every year no matter what. We deserve happiness, but maybe we can’t afford those shoes.

Telling ourselves we deserve something is the ultimate free-pass to ignoring our financial situation. We buy the thing “we deserve” because “we work so hard” and then afterward, we have added stress from having made our financial situations so much worse. Whatever relaxation we got from those shoes or that trip have a much higher hidden cost.

The “I deserve” mentality is powerful. It’s also one of scarcity rather than abundance. We’re so focused on what we think we should have (often in comparison with what others are getting) that we don’t think about what we already have in our lives. This mindset often keeps us from changing our approach to money in a way that would afford us more trips with less stress later.

I’ve known people who are never happy in any place of employment and keep looking for the greener grass elsewhere. If we don’t have a stable working history, we don’t look like stable employees. It’s just a fact. While I wouldn’t advocate for someone to stay in a job they hate, it is important to evaluate if the job is the problem or if it’s our outlook about working. Adjusting our expectations and building a stable work history can contribute to better opportunities down the road.

For those of us who dream of working a creative position, the key will be to go back to evaluating what we want most. To have a creative job, we might have to make some sacrifices. Deciding our priorities will help make this transition easier.

Retail therapy is fun. But it’s more fun when we can do it knowing that we have emergency savings waiting in the wings if anything goes wrong. I started saving small. Loose change, a percentage of tax returns or bonuses, birthday money that came my way — basically, anything that wasn’t anticipated for my bills became a part of my savings.

Of course, our savings can’t grow if we keep tapping into it all the time. Learning to put some money away for emergencies and then defining what is an emergency can help us reach our financial goals. Once we build up a minimum amount, then we can consider how and when to use it for splurges.

We all have things we enjoy. Concert-goers stuck in a financial pickle can enjoy live streams of their favorite artist or try out a local venue with live music. Free concerts in a park or a bar that offers a live band are all more affordable options. Avid readers can take advantage of library services, Little Free libraries, and even swapping books with friends. Whatever our hobby or interest, we can be more creative about how to enjoy them without stretching already stretched bank accounts beyond their limit.

I love travel, but in times of financial duress, I enjoyed day trips to nearby towns — taking that travel mindset with me. It wasn’t a European tour, but I got to play the tourist, find interesting and beautiful places close to home, and know that I wasn’t breaking the bank doing it. It was still fun, and rather than resenting what I couldn’t do, I learned to make the most of what I could.

One red flag behavior that stands out is accumulating as much debt as we can afford, whatever that amount might be. Just because we can afford an expensive car payment or high credit card bill doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go for it. We can’t expect our financial situation to never change or only change for the good. To spend up to our very limit with debt can be a reckless way of keeping us in a paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.

Learning to use debt responsibly — keeping balances low and paying those bills on time — is essential if we want to live lives that aren’t ruled by our debt instead of our desires. Learning to alter our spending habits takes practice, but we stop whipping out a credit card for every impulse buy and learn to be more intentional about our purchase.

After all the things we should stop doing, I thought we needed one we absolutely should try to do when possible. We need to learn to invest in our happiness now.

Last year, I invested some funds in redecorating my house. No, I didn’t pay anyone to do it for me, but I did make a budget, create a list of what I needed, and asked a friend who has a great eye to help me turn my home office space into a nice place to work. We hit up local antique and thrift stores looking for bargain décor. I had an idea in mind, and with my friend’s help, we managed to turn a boring mess of an office into an absolutely cozy and beautiful work space.

Investing in the now might look like going through our closets and tossing outfits we never feel good in. It may look like getting rid of old things — throwing them away, upcycling them, or donating them. It may look like simple purchases like plants and candles to make our spaces more pleasant. By creating spaces where we feel good, we contribute to positive mental health and might help us make other mindset shifts more easily.

It’s easy to get caught up in living for later — when everything finally falls into place for us. But living this way ignores a key fact: things will never fall into place if we don’t get rid of unhealthy habits and begin healthy ones. Otherwise, when our ship comes in, it will find us absolutely wrecked with debt and stress.

Investing in the now also looks like living more intentionally — choosing how we spend our time and money with both our current and future goals in mind. We stop wrecking ourselves with bad financial habits that only add to our stress and start investing in peace of mind and good choices.

When I was struggling the most, someone I knew tried to convince me to invest in real estate. I was drowning in debt, and yet they tried to convince me that buying and flipping a house was a sure-fire way to get ahead. They ignored the fact that I didn’t have the resources to do it.

When we’re in debt, it might not be as easy as investing money we don’t have or buying property. Often, we have to slog our way out of debt by paying down balances and limiting our spending. Get Rich Quick schemes don’t work. Slow and steady often do. We might have to make do with small gains until we can get where we want to be. What’s important is that we keep making small steps forward instead of massive leaps back.

Figuring out a way to make extra money could mean tapping into a talent or skillset. Throw it back to those teen years when side hustles looked like babysitting, house sitting, walking dogs, washing cars, garage sales, or doing yard work. Some of those same hustles exist for adults. But there are a multitude of other options for earning extra money — from plasma donations to paid market and university research to part-time jobs working from home. Anything that increases our income could help us in the long run in reaching our goals.

Poverty is a cycle and a mindset. It’s easy to stay there and to think we’ll never be anywhere else. And maybe it’s true. Maybe no matter how we hustle or what we do, we can’t change much about our outside situation. I guess there’s only one thing left we can do, and that’s change our inside situation.

How we think about our lives and how we approach each day matters. Even if we can change nothing else, we get to change our minds. And if we do, maybe we break the cycle and start living the way we always dreamed we could.

This article is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered Financial or Legal Advice. Not all information will be accurate. Consult a financial professional before making any significant financial decisions.

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Crystal Jackson

Written by

Former therapist. Author, Heart of Madison series. Poet.

Making of a Millionaire

Stories about money, personal finance and the path to financial independence.

Crystal Jackson

Written by

Former therapist. Author, Heart of Madison series. Poet.

Making of a Millionaire

Stories about money, personal finance and the path to financial independence.

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