Once I got my first job out of college, people told me it was important to save money. Nobody told me how much money to save, or why it was important, but I tried to do it anyway. Then I read this article by Ashley Johnson, the CFO of Wealthfront, and I discovered this shocking statistic: “Only 48% of millennial women say they have three months’ worth of emergency savings, while almost 70% of men do.” Put another way, just over half (52%) of millennial women potentially cannot afford to leave their job, relationship or living situation, even if they want to. Unfortunately, I have lived through this and had to learn this lesson the hard way.
Last year, I ran out of money and became financially dependent on my then-boyfriend. It was a gradual process, and it seemed like I was making the right choice at each step, but it came at huge costs for my life. At the end of September 2019, I got fired from my job and started spending my $12,000 in savings, invested into ETFs, which was about 6 months of living expenses in San Francisco (it was still not enough). After months of job searching, by March 2020 I was still unemployed, and my finances had been completely crippled by my $1,400 rent. I was also interviewing for jobs in New York, where my boyfriend lived, so I thought I better move there to do my final round interviews in person. The plan was to live together for a couple weeks and then I would move out once I got a job. Then, surprise surprise, the pandemic hit, and all my interviews were cancelled.
My boyfriend’s house was not a good place for me. His housemates were lovely people, but they were also raging alcoholics who got belligerently drunk every night. I feel like a princess for saying this, but the house was very dirty and there was junk everywhere. The shower was still moldy, no matter how many times we cleaned it. I also realized that my boyfriend and I had different outlooks on life, and I wanted to break up with him. But I couldn’t afford to leave. I was completely trapped. My anxiety was through the roof. I came up with my own definition of a safe living environment: would I let a child live here? In my boyfriend’s house, the answer was no.
As women, it’s not always clear to us why we should be maximizing the amount of money we’re making and saving from our day jobs. But we are missing the point: it is not the money that matters. Money is the tool that gives us our independence, our control and our freedom. It gives us the ability to decide where we want to live, where we want to work, and who we want to live with. It was only once I got a job again, and had money of my own, that I was able to break up with my boyfriend and move out. Luckily, I didn’t have the extra complications of domestic abuse, or children, which can make it impossible for other women to leave.
So, how much money should you save? The short answer is: as much as you possibly can. The world is a complicated and expensive place. It could take you a month to get settled elsewhere, or it could take you 9 months. If I were to do it all over again, I’d have at least 8 months of savings in ETFs, and an extra $1,000 set aside in case I needed to fly back to my parents’ place in London immediately. Right now, I have about a year’s worth of living expenses in savings, but it still doesn’t feel like enough.
When you’re making enough money to live, and you’re in a relationship with someone who was making a lot more than you, life can get very comfortable. I definitely got complacent and wasn’t as concerned about negotiating my salary or saving, when my boyfriend could take me out to dinner and buy me groceries (I did pay him back for a lot of it when I broke up with him). But you have to remember: your partner’s money is not your money. Their career is not your career. Their savings are not your savings. You need as much of your own money as you can possibly get. It is the only way to protect yourself, and make sure you still have the option to leave at any time, at your own volition, for any reason.