The Savings-to-Self-Respect Feedback Loop

Finally, I get to write a post about an emotional benefit that saving has had for me! I’ve been complaining ever since I paid off my debt that saving doesn’t feature that same high that comes when you throw $2000+ at a loan on a single day. I used to feel like a warrior making those big payments, and socking cash away just doesn’t carry the same excitement on a month to month basis. It mostly made me feel like I was running on some kind of Sisyphean treadmill, looping around every month between direct deposit and savings account with nothing interesting, like a debt-free letter, to show for it.

However, I think I’m starting to “get it.”

My pile of cash savings (as distinct from retirement accounts) is close to $10,000, and should be somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000 by the time my guaranteed income runs out at the end of next June. That is real money for me; with my expenses as low as they are on a month to month basis, it’s over a year of rent, food, insurance/gas, and some incidentals — more if I make substantial changes to my lifestyle. And of course, that would assume I couldn’t make any casual or freelance income during a theoretical year+ of not having a full-time job.

And as the money gets real-er, I find myself reacting differently to the job market. Now that the consequences of losing my main income source aren’t “default on loans,” “borrow money from parents,” or “move into parents’ basement,” I feel so much more powerful in this process.

The debt payoff process made me feel powerful because I was taking control of a thing that scared me — and I was terrified of my debt. I put myself in control when I decided to pay it off in a year instead of in ten years, and every time I made a big payment I demonstrated that I could win. The savings process is making me feel powerful because now that I have this huge buffer, I am no longer terrified of not having income. And that means I can stand up to exploitative situations.

There are a lot of those in universities these days. I was about to say “especially for humanities types like me,” but honestly, it’s just as bad for most young scientists. There are a variety of underlying factors, but the end result is that many administrators who hire want as much as possible out of their candidates in return for as little pay as possible.

I interviewed for a position a few days ago that I’m very skeptical about. There are some things about it that intrigue me (otherwise I wouldn’t have applied at all) but right now it’s much clearer that it would be good for them to have me, rather than for me to have the job. Let’s say they did offer it to me. I could (1) accept it or (2) try to negotiate up to a deal that I would actually want to take. At that point they could (2a) give me what I want, more or less, or (2b) say “nope, there are plenty of people happy to take this job for what we’re offering” and move on.

Having about a year’s expenses in cash makes me much more comfortable going through Door #2. The risk of negotiation wouldn’t be nearly as much. If they said no, and if nothing else came through (I think something else would, but if it didn’t) then I would still have a lot of choices.

When I started saving, I did it because I never wanted to feel as scared again as I did in my last semester of grad school, with a pile of debt and no job lined up. That’s a negative reason — it worked, because I started saving, but it wasn’t much fun. But it looks like now I save for a very positive reason: because it enables me to choose self-respect over desperation when dealing with employers. That, in turn, leads to better deals, because it empowers me to negotiate only deals I want to take — which are almost always going to be more than what I’m initially offered, in this market. And that will lead to more savings, because I’ll be making more money…which will lead to more self-respect in negotiations…which will lead to better deals and more savings….

This is a treadmill I don’t mind running on.

36 thoughts on “The Savings-to-Self-Respect Feedback Loop

  1. Brooke says:

    This is amazing! I can’t wait to get to this point, even though with my debt payoff it is years to come. I have to say, though, some of this benefit comes jut with an emergency fund, debt-free or not. It is just really difficult to save a major e-fund AND pay off debt aggressively. All the best in your job hunting… my first interview in 18 months is tomorrow and I am a little bit nervous!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Brooke, it’s so nice to hear from you! Funny, I was just thinking about you last night and wishing you were still blogging and wondering how you were doing. I’m glad that your e-fund is doing well. I can imagine it would have some of the same benefits — if you have enough saved up to cover debt minimums for a while, for example. Good luck with your interview!

  2. Sarah Noelle says:

    What you say about saving being a less compelling goal than loan payment makes a lot of psychological sense to me (perhaps it has something to do with negativity bias?). But I love that you’ve found this reason to be more excited about saving. Having a little extra security that will allow you to take time to find a job you really want is invaluable, as whatever job you end up taking will have a huge impact on a lot of areas of your life. Better to choose carefully.
    Like Brooke, who commented above, I look forward to the day when I will be in this position! 🙂

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I got to say, it’s pretty great. The first two years out of grad school were rough for me emotionally, and it’s nice to be further through the tunnel.

  3. ARBM says:

    I totally get where you are coming from… It’s hard to find the motivation and satisfaction from “just saving”, but putting it in perspective like you have here… that money saved up means you don’t have to worry about this or that… or can open the door to this other great opportunity… It’s great! 🙂

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah! That mental switch is definitely helping me feel better.

  4. I like this a lot. Hooray for you! Having money in the bank gives you so many more options and you are seeing that first hand.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Options are AMAZING. Thanks 🙂

  5. Hannah says:

    Having money does inspire confidence. It’s not just about the ability to make more money. Its about the fact that when you have “enough” you can make choices that not everybody can. You can try freelancing or not working or whatever. When you have enough money, you can start over on your own terms instead of someone else’s.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Right, exactly! I want to set the terms, or at least partially.

  6. Jason says:

    I can certainly understand the emotional part of this. I just wish you didn’t have to go through being exploited anymore. My wife is up for some positions, but has been teaching adjunct for three years now. The exploitation is a alive and well in our household. I only wish it could get better. The good thing is that you have options. And options is just about the best thing humanities Ph.D.s can hope for. Best of luck on the search. Depending on your degree we have some options here in the Northeast 🙂

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, I’m kind of through my angst about the situation and moving on to being glad to have options 🙂 Thanks! And good luck to your wife!

  7. I think it’s so empowering to have a big wad of cash saved up. When I did at one point I felt so much more relief and felt like the ball when it comes to heavy decisions was more in my court for a change.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yes — that feeling of the ball being in my court definitely is what it is. It’s so nice to feel like I have some power! Even if it just ends up being the power to walk away.

  8. This is so wonderful! I want everyone to read this. Because you’re describing exactly what taking control of our finances is all about — choice, independence, freedom. Even if you don’t have total financial freedom, you have freedom from taking a bad job just because you need the money, or one that would pay you less than you’re worth. You know your worth now and value it more, because you have money saved — I think that’s pretty incredible.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      It feels really really good! Thanks 🙂

  9. Cash Crone says:

    Great article! Being in the position of choice is a very good place. Thank you for sharing!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thanks! And I love love love your domain name. I’ll check you out 🙂

      1. Cash Crone says:

        Thanks so much! 🙂 New banner and profile pic coming soon…

  10. Mandy says:

    Just a great big giant “YES” to everything in this post. It really is about taking back our power – from those exploitative practices, from a toxic cycle, etc. Well said.

    1. thesingledollar says:


  11. I’m so glad you’ve found some emotional fulfillment in savings now as well! I wonder how the academic job market would change if all the candidates were financially stable and empowered to ask for reasonable wages and benefits.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      That is a really good question. I think it would still be rough, because so many more people want university teaching jobs than there are jobs to fill, but I also think most of us could use a whole heaping pile more of what I call here “self-respect.” I think that’s often very hard when you are right out of grad school, for a complex set of reasons that include although they aren’t limited to financial desperation. (So many grad students have families to support–I can’t even imagine how I’d have felt the last few years if there were kids depending on me.)

  12. Points for the use of “Sisyphean.”

    When we were paying down debt, we were broke and sometimes had to put unexpected expenses on the card. So it was hard to feel very powerful when the balances yo-yoed. I still don’t feel terribly powerful because we’re saving for a medical expense that will pretty much deplete savings.

    But I do feel a little safer looking at the emergency fund, knowing we have $17,000 in the savings (aka “dental implants”) account that is there if we truly need it. If we didn’t have a few things up in the air — like whether my husband will lose his disability benefits (-$760 a month) and need his own insurance (probably a high deductible and big monthly premiums) — I might feel more powerful. Because then we’d be savings for things that stick around, like retirement, the house and even getting a rental property.

    I’m glad that you realize you have options. Depleting savings is never fun, but it’s best to find something that you’ll be happy in long-term. Otherwise, you might be looking at unemployment again and needing to draw on savings again.

    Good luck in the job search!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      It’s just so hard to feel like you have to take any work going. I hope you don’t end up in the place — good luck with the disability hearings!

  13. Amanda says:

    I have to say that realizing that grad school would not necessarily produce a job led me to start saving a couple of years ago, and the fact that I have been able to save enough to see me through a decade of very, very frugal living has made it much easier for me to deal with the really difficult grad school and has enabled me to maintain my self respect! Thanks for this!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      It is awesome that you did that earlier than “after you graduated” (which is when I started.) It’ll serve you in really good stead. Congrats! Glad you liked the post.

  14. I think it is wonderful that you now have this power and freedom. The power to say no to a job if it is not the right fit. The freedom from the dread of never-ending debt payments. Congrats!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thank you — I think it’s pretty wonderful too!

  15. Kurt says:

    Nothing like having a tidy sum socked away to lower the stress level and gain a different perspective on opportunities.

    About the potential job–what would you think about accepting if offered, but continuing to look? Alternatively, if you do decide to ‘negotiate up,’ might be a good strategy to give the employer a few options. More pay of course is always good, but what about more vacation time to start off? a potential bonus, depending on your performance? a commitment to a minimum % pay increase after your first year, again depending on your performance? A menu of options might feel less like a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’, ultimatum sort of thing to the employer, and you might get a better response. Or, as you say, it may just go on to the next person!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thanks so much for this comment! All good ideas. Academia works kind of differently from the business world, in that it wouldn’t be a good idea to start looking immediately after taking a job — too bridge-burning. That said, offering some alternate options is a great idea and one I might very well pursue.

  16. Great post! I especially loved this: “it enables me to choose self-respect over desperation when dealing with employers.” That’s SO huge! It enables you to hold out for the job you really want, if you so choose! And that may pay you big dividends over time in terms of happiness- which is really what it’s all about, right? Good for you, you’ve worked hard to put yourself in a truly great position.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thank you! I agree — self respect also equals happiness here! I want to be in a position to choose the life I want, and I’m definitely getting there, financially and in other ways. Thanks again.

  17. AWESOME post, C. We are slowly getting the effect of this feeling as our debt decreases. The less debt we have, the more self respect, freedom and peace we feel. Can’t wait till it’s totally gone and we can start really pounding the savings! Congrats. 🙂

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thank you! And encouragement in your quest — it feels great.

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