In My Time of Need, a Rich Friend Helped Me Put Together a Budget

by Erin Webreck

One bleak, chilly morning back in January, I was laid off from the start-up job I loved, and later that afternoon, my partner of four years broke off our engagement. Alone, either of these would be devastating, but for life to send them both within a four-hour stretch of time seemed unnecessarily cruel.

At first, panic about my lack of employment masked most of my relationship grief. I began an aggressive job hunt for anything that would pay the rent and other bills that were suddenly my sole responsibility. I soon found a gig blogging for a start-up, a temporary contract with full-time potential. I began work excited about the position, but with the wolf no longer at the door, the pain of my broken heart became more apparent. I was let go three weeks into my three-month contract because, according to my manager, my heart wasn’t in the job.

Back at square one, my savings soon ran out and I started living on credit cards. I deferred my student loans, which spared me the crippling $1,200/month payments for a time, but I remained terrified about my ability to manage them when the deferment ended.

I resumed the job search, and soon a law school friend recommended me for a position at her old company. I landed it, determined to hang on this time.

I could feed and shelter myself again, but those student loans would soon come due, and I’d racked up five figures of credit card debt during my unemployment. Once more, my sadness threatened to engulf me. I was keeping my head above water, but I had no idea which way to swim.

Enter Rich Friend, whom I’d met a year earlier when we were both walking our dogs in the neighborhood. She’d been a crucial support throughout my hellish winter, but my vulnerability — even in desperate times — had limits. Rich Friend knew some of the specifics of my breakup, but not every contributing factor. I kept her more or less up to date on my job search, but didn’t share every rejection. And she knew I was stressed about money, but certainly wasn’t aware of the debt I was struggling with. When she offered to help me make a budget, my stomach flipped in horror.

Allowing someone else in on my finances meant talking about some of my biggest fears and revealing my most regrettable mistakes. Dashing naked through the town square would leave me feeling less exposed.

But it was also alluring, the idea of giving those fears and regrets over to someone else to hold for a while. I’ve wondered why it never occurred to me during this process to hire a financial advisor — I must have known it wouldn’t serve my emotional recovery in the same way.

We met at Rich Friend’s apartment: Park Slope digs she’d purchased last year and had just redecorated with the help of an interior designer. Her home isn’t opulent, but it’s far beyond what I can fathom ever owning. I would have been depressed in the unattainable surroundings, but Rich Friend could have also been called Messy Friend, and the strewn Diet Coke cans, junk mail, and dirty socks put me at ease. Rich Friend selected a fountain pen from her collection, and we began.

I recited my debts and watched as they were logged in neat columns in elderberry ink. A lump rose in my throat as I peeled back the layers of failure: the six figures of student loan debt I’d been paying for 10 years but had barely made a dent in, the early termination fee for the lease I had to break when my ex moved out and I couldn’t afford the rent on my own, the credit card charges for trips we took together that ended up ruined by arguments, the nightly Seamless orders of cheap Thai food, the impulse spending that only left me feeling emptier.

I watched Rich Friend’s face carefully for signs of judgment or shock or disappointment, but none came. She simply wrote down the numbers. And she told me everything was going to be okay.

She pointed out that I had enough cash to start a mini-emergency fund. We figured out how to stretch the salary at my new job to cover my expenses and begin chipping away at my debt. Confronted with these threads of hope, I started to relax and give in to the process. What could I give up? What could I sell? What kind of freelance work could I do to earn a little more money to throw at those credit cards?

The hardest budgeting question Rich Friend put to me was, what are my goals and dreams once I’m debt-free? My dreams used to involve the person I loved most in the world. I’m still not sure what my future looks like without her, but I know it’s time to figure it out.

Rich Friend and I are now budget buddies. I cheer her when she makes an extra payment on her mortgage; she high-fives me when I kick some additional cash at my credit card debt at the end of the month. It doesn’t even matter that we’re in radically different tax brackets. What matters is that there’s another person on my team. We dust each other off when we fall, and we celebrate each other’s victories when we win.

And it’s important to have someone to dream with. Rich Friend has been talking about getting a place upstate once her mortgage is paid off. At our last budget meeting, I told her I think I’d like to visit Iceland someday.

She wrote that down on a fresh sheet of paper with her fountain pen filled with elderberry ink and left plenty of space below — plenty of room to keep dreaming.

Erin Webreck lives in Brooklyn with her rescue pup, Lucy.