How To Reclaim Our Value Outside Of Our Bank Accounts
For many years, I felt that going into debt for my student loans was a result of a personal failing. I believed I was not working hard enough to pay for my education. I’ve been told that my decision to pursue an English degree was irresponsible—I mean, who needs someone who can write good?
As a millennial, I’ve listened for nearly a decade as non-millennials discuss our financial issues. We’ve been called out for our how our avocado toast obsession is costing us homeownership, for not having kids, and for not buying diamonds (oh, the horror!)
Listen, I get it. Debt is not great. I’m not the Scrooge McDuck of debt, jumping into my vault of debt receipts, reveling in the sheer volume of them. No one loves debt. (Except student loan companies). But it’s something that most of us deal with, and it’s time to stop the cycle of shame around it—because it’s not productive.
Why Does Debt Feel So Personal?
I don’t know if you’ve ever received one of those emails that tell you your bank account has reached zero dollars, but I have. It guts you, and leaves you scrambling for whatever cash you may have lying around so that you can avoid the fees you get for being broke. If that doesn’t make you feel like you’ve “lost the game” of adulthood, then I don’t know much else that would.
While you find yourself attempting to scale the walls of the hole you dug for yourself, you begin questioning your worth. Not your net worth, but your actual birth-given worth as a human. It’s a painful process, and it can be a prolonged experience.
I could explain to you why I ended up in debt, but the truth is that none of the expenses are ones that I regret. Honestly, I would rather sit down with you and tell you about my entire menstrual history before I would show you a credit card statement.
We’re taught to internalize our net worth as our self worth, as if the numbers in our accounts qualify us to be any more or less human than others. So, I want to shed a little light on how I’ve been working towards reclaiming my value beyond debt—it’s a lifelong process of unlearning and re-learning, and I’m just getting started.
1. Track Everything & Ditch Emotion
Money is emotional. It affects where you sleep, what you eat, where you go, and how you spend your time. It is inextricably linked to our existence in this modern world, and it’s understandable to feel vulnerable when it’s scarce.
Something that helped me was to put the numbers in front of myself in one of the most unemotional formats I could think of: a spreadsheet. I tracked every penny, planned every expense, and made columns to show where my bank account and credit card balances ended up each day.
As I planned, I saw where the negative numbers were and adjusted payments as necessary. I felt soothed by facing the realities of the situation, and more in control once I knew what I could expect from the weeks ahead. Plus, I ended up spending less and found more room in my budget for savings. It helped me regain my power and agency in a situation where I felt that I had none.
Tracking expenses carefully also helped me develop a more objective view of spending and debt. I realized that my debt is not the emergency I thought it was, and a measured, steady response to it is much healthier for me. When I viewed debt as an emergency, I saw every purchase as a pain. Now, I acknowledge the pain but have created space for myself to celebrate the benefits of each purchase.
Watch this habit, though. Be intentional and detailed about where your money is going, but don’t let it become the only thing you think about all day, every day. Spend five minutes each day looking at your accounts and your budget, then log off and live your life.
2. Pay Yourself
This one was, is, and will always be, the scariest one for me. I live with such a scarcity mindset that I often withhold indulgences, big and small, from myself. Then comes the inevitable reactionary impulse buy, which triggers the shame spiral. I prefer to avoid all of this.
When money is tight, offer yourself a small cash allowance—even if it’s $5 a week—to keep on hand in case you need a snack or a cup of coffee. Having this physical reminder to take care of yourself is helpful, but it also reminds me that my “treat yo’ self” money is finite. I’ve found that I end up making my coffee and lunches at home more, so that I can spend the money on things I can’t predict I’ll want.
I spend my discretionary cash on things like parking for a day at the beach, a happy hour cocktail, or a new lipgloss. These little tokens remind me I have agency, and that I don’t have to deny every whim that comes through my mind.
Don’t have any cash to spare? Pay yourself in the most valuable currency around: time. A thirty minute walk can do wonders, and it’s free.
3. Talk About It
Have you ever talked to your friends about money? Like, really discussed the nitty gritty of your budget? We’re taught to not talk about our debt because it’s shameful, and not talk about our salaries because it’s boastful. But scrolling silently through personal finance articles online isn’t always helpful on its own—like I said, money is emotional, and it requires more than just investment tips to help us reclaim our value.
So, talk to your friends about it. Tell them you’re having trouble identifying your worth beyond money, and tell them if you’re having trouble sticking with budgets. Learn from finance experts, but also lean on peers who are experiencing the emotional burden of debt. Form a support network, remind each other of your value, and build healthy financial goals alongside one another.
Here’s a hot tip: these are the people who will drink cheap coffee and eat scrambled eggs at home with you, because they realize that spending time together is more important than spending money.
4. Take Stock Of Everything You Do Have
Speaking of friends who will drink cheap coffee with you, nourish yourself by evaluating everything you do have. You have friends. You have cheap coffee. Maybe you have a phone to text them or call them, and maybe you have a home to welcome them to. Even if your expenses are overwhelming, meet them with overwhelming gratitude and your whole world will crack open.
Especially take stock of what you have beyond money. Pets, friends and family, hobbies, photographs and memories—reminding yourself what brings you joy beyond a paycheck is a great exercise for re-centering yourself.
I heard something amazing in a podcast a long time ago that has resonated with me for many years: you can lose all your money, but you can’t lose your ability to make money. There’s obviously a lot to unpack around the ability to make money and it’s not always that simple, but I do enjoy the sentiment. So I’ve updated it: we can lose what we have, but we cannot lose who we are.
Above all, celebrate your time and treat it as something precious and valuable—because there’s always more money, but there’s never more time.
You and your existence have value beyond your net worth—you are not a number on a page, but a whole, complex, and unique person on your own. You do deserve love, and you are worthy of abundance. And it’s something that I’m still learning to this day.
Emily Torres is the Managing Editor at The Good Trade. She’s a Los Angeles transplant who was born and raised in Indiana, where she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her reading or writing, caring for her rabbits, or practicing at the yoga studio. Say hi on Instagram!