Tanya Sweeney: I have survived financial uncertainty, and you will too

Don’t conflate your bank balance with your sense of self, or your prospects

It’s tiring  adding up your basket items in Lidl, making sure you have enough to not embarrass yourself at the till. Photograph: iStock

It’s tiring adding up your basket items in Lidl, making sure you have enough to not embarrass yourself at the till. Photograph: iStock

 

You don’t need me to tell you, but there are many reasons why despair hangs in the air like old cigarette smoke. The rug has been pulled out from under Ireland and its ankles are in the air.

Only a couple of months ago (though we may as well be talking about the Viking era, it feels so long ago), Ireland’s unemployment rate was below 5 per cent. Now, almost 22 per cent of the workforce is receiving unemployment benefit, with almost 300,000 more wage packets supplemented by the Government. That amounts to an awful lot of people facing into financial uncertainty and, for many, this will be for the first time.

Within this cohort, there were seemingly shockproof jobs, comfortable lives, plans. Solid ground beneath the feet. No one saw what just happened coming. No one could stop it. But that doesn’t make it any easier to endure.

Now, I know a thing or two about financial uncertainty. I haven’t had what your parents would describe as a full-time job in almost two decades. I work in a sector that has reported of a death rattle for over a decade, so you could say I’ve done the field research here. I can’t offer anyone a roadmap for the months ahead, but I can empathise with those of you who are facing an uncertain fiscal future.

I don’t, by the way, profess to know anything about the ceaseless, cruel grind of true poverty. There are writers far more qualified and able than me to talk about that. But on being financially afloat one day and somehow afraid to exhale the next, I can talk with authority.

A friend of mine describes the lifestyle of a young journalist as “dogsh*t and diamonds”. Its capricious nature does a bit of a number on the head: being invited to an expenses-paid lunch for work, then eating Cornflakes for dinner. Flying to the US to see a band on a five-star press trip, then not having the money to buy a magazine at the airport.

Down the years, my bank balance has seen seriously skinny times: the tiring arithmetic of adding up your basket items in Lidl, making sure you have enough to not embarrass yourself at the till. A credit card balance that never seemed to respond to control, like throwing a glass of water at an inferno.

It may feel demoralising, but being broke is rarely a reflection of one’s talent, or success or even marketability, especially now

Worrying about money, specifically where it is going to come from, is utterly draining. You are on a constant, adrenalising lookout for the exact moment that your balance dwindles to zero. It chews away at available brainpower, making it tough to be productive or even positive. It stymies creativity and ambition. Days waiting for cheques to clear feel molasses-slow.

And even in a situation like this current one, in which no one did anything wrong and we’re all in it together, it can be hard to extricate oneself from a hazy sense of failure. The amount of energy I’ve spent feeling sorry for my broke self could probably power Brazil.

In more recent times, the ATM has become more friend than foe, but I am still useless with money. A few years ago, I took my damning bank statements to a financial adviser for a “forensic” analysis (a fitting enough word, given he was dealing with an absolute crime scene).

Bob politely overlooked the €400 Anthropologie sprees and the near-daily taxi rides and the restaurant names spackled all over the page and delivered his summation. “Whether you make €1,000 or €10,000 a month, your balance is always zero in the last week of the month,” he offered. Never mind the swallow who sang all summer. I was the peacock who partied all the way to payday.

The truth of it was that although my earnings could vary wildly from month to month, I always found a way to make rent. In the more bountiful times, I’m not so much extravagant as careless: taking taxis for short trips, buying coffees, paying for an embarrassingly pricey moisturiser.

When things got seriously financially hairy some years ago (by dint of a supportive editor moving on, and another magazine folding), I had two choices. I could take the “rejection” personally and take it as fact that I was not good at what I did. Or I could carry on, adapt and evolve. I asked for meetings with copywriters, and picked up the phone to call old bosses. My pride felt the pinch, certainly, but it always led me onwards.

It may feel demoralising, but being broke is rarely a reflection of one’s talent, or success or even marketability, especially now. Many of us freelancers or self-employed types always think of a way to get our rent over the line, even if it takes a little ingenuity.

The trick is not to conflate your bank balance with your sense of self, or with how your prospects look. Worrying about the future may seem sensible, like a pre-emptive strike but, ultimately, it’s an exercise in futility. As we have all realised by now, none of us know what is just around the corner.

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