My brother, Matt Hynes, and his wife Eden began their lives together on a financial high note. They paid for their 2014 wedding in cash and began their marriage with a clean slate.
Then things got complicated. Two days after saying their “I dos” in Temecula, Calif. , they packed their belongings into a U-Haul and moved across the country to Taneytown, Md., with their two Boston terriers in tow. Far from a young professional’s hot spot, Taneytown did have the benefit of being close to Mount St. Mary’s University, where Matt, 28, had started his bachelor’s degree before leaving school to serve in the U.S. Navy. Now off active service, he set his sights on finishing his degree.
The couple knew life in Taneytown would be an adjustment from the San Diego area, where Eden had grown up and Matt had been stationed. They would be living in a town with less than 7,000 people and going from two full-time incomes to one. Still, they saw it as an opportunity to save money by focusing on inexpensive outdoor and domestic activities instead of spending on the pricey meals, drinks, and events they had enjoyed in California.
But while rural, Taneytown wasn’t inexpensive. In an area with a median rent of $1,004, housing expenses were higher than anticipated. Their dream of forgoing dinners out for home-cooked meals also proved surprisingly unrealistic as they tried to balance work, school, and their budget. The costs of moving across the country, setting up house, and transitioning to living on less income quickly escalated, and they went into debt to cover the expenses. Despite Matt taking a part-time job to supplement Eden’s salary as a surgical coordinator at a local breast health clinic, and what he received through the G.I. bill, the financial challenges took their toll. Rather than weekends spent hiking and cooking, they found themselves working constantly and burned out by the struggle to catch up.
I could relate. Two months before Eden and Matt got married and moved to Taneytown, my boyfriend, Heath, and I relocated from Chiang Mai, Thailand, to Fairfield, Iowa, a town of just over 10,000 people, where Heath had been raised. We knew the cost of living would be higher than in Chiang Mai, where $1,000 a month was enough to cover basic expenses plus a few luxuries, but Fairfield seemed an easier financial transition back into the U.S. than moving to either coastal New Jersey, where Matt and I grew up, or to a major city.
But even in small-town Iowa, we struggled. We, too, imagined ourselves cooking leisurely, nourishing meals and engaging in all manner of affordable and healthy pursuits in our abundant down time. But between our security deposit, setting up our utilities, and other miscellaneous expenses, we found ourselves working all the time just to keep up. Heath networked with former clients to get his IT business up and running, and I took whatever freelance writing work I could find. Our precarious financial position only got shakier the following spring, when the old car Heath’s mom had given us finally died. Buying a new vehicle wasn’t on our radar, and a car payment added a significant monthly expense.
Like Matt and Eden, we started to feel trapped in a sad cycle. We talked about financial strategizing, but most days those conversations took on a wistful desperation as we told ourselves that someday, someday, things would settle down and we’d get a handle on our finances. But our first two years back in the U.S. were hectic. After living abroad for years, I felt like I needed to travel to visit friends and family spread out all over the U.S. Between those costs and our regular expenses, I racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt, some of which I am still paying down. The cost of living in Fairfield is about 20 percent cheaper than other areas in the U.S., but that’s small consolation when your finances are stretched to the limit.
Between the demands of work and school, Eden and Matt often felt too exhausted to do much in the evenings beyond grabbing a pizza and catching an hour or two of TV. All they could focus on were their immediate financial concerns. “We pushed [healthy] food, our health, and our financial habits to the wayside,” she said.
For all of us, there were months when our lives seemed to have reached an even keel, and financial planning seemed a reasonable, even attainable, goal. Then an unexpected expense or hardship would arise, and the cycle would begin again. “Literally every time we’d get a little pocket [money] set aside, something would happen and we’d drain that,” Eden said.
The elusiveness of long-term planning
As anyone who has endured financial hardship knows, long-term thinking during such periods feels all but impossible. Researchers have found that stress caused by a lack of financial stability inhibits long-term thinking abilities. Even when you know what the right choice is, you may not have the energy or willpower to act on it.
Although neither Matt and Eden nor Heath and I experienced utterly hopeless times, the stress, desperation, and exhaustion we experienced provided a window into how people become trapped in lifetimes of poverty. “Long-term planning is especially elusive in cases of longer-term poverty,” said Laura Cohen, coordinator of The Lord’s Cupboard of Jefferson County, a food pantry in Fairfield. “A person living in poverty will typically spend so much time working just to stay alive—working toward the next meal, the next round of food stamps, the next paycheck, the next place to stay—that he is literally unable to devote any time to long-term planning. Living this way, it’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘rewarding’ oneself with a new item for the home, a new piece of clothing, a TV upgrade, rather than socking away money toward the future.”
While they don’t help people stay on budget, these “rewards” may offer small respite in an otherwise stressful life. Even when I vowed to curb my spending, I impulsively bought clothes, books, and other little luxuries because I felt we deserved something new and because I didn’t have the energy to exercise restraint. Then I’d berate myself because buying those non-essentials put us in a financial pinch.
Similarly, Eden and Matt would try different budgeting techniques only to abandon them quickly out of sheer exhaustion. When all you can think about is making it through the next day, budgeting itself feels like a luxury you can’t afford.
‘It’s hard now, but everything will be alright’
Our trajectories mirrored each other these past few years and there is comfort in being able to commiserate with my brother, to share the frustration that buying a home closer to family in New Jersey is financially untenable now, and to be able to say to one another, “I know it’s hard now, but everything will be alright.”
Thankfully, this year marked a turning point for all of us. In May, Matt earned his bachelor’s degree and soon landed a well-paying job with a craft brewery. He and Eden moved from Taneytown to Roanoke, Va., a community that better suits their needs. Eden had already found her bright spot. While out of work for four months following a reconstructive surgery in Taneytown, she launched The Mammy Company, which sells handmade pillows for breast cancer patients undergoing mastectomies. It is a goal she has had since her own double mastectomy at age 24.
Now Eden and Matt are thinking about long-term investments again: they’re even talking about buying their first home. With steady income and satisfying work, they’re optimistic about their financial future.
Heath and I turned a corner this year as well. Fed up with the stress of financial uncertainty and living chaotic, work-centric lives, we committed to making substantial changes. Interestingly, it was the non-financial choices that improved our money outlook the most. We began following a strict, low-carb diet that left no room for splurging on sweets or racking up McDonald’s receipts, no matter how busy we were. The structure of the diet shaped other habits as well. We differentiated between work hours and downtime, which any freelancer will tell you is not always easy. Heath became laser-focused on developing a career as a software engineer, and the newfound organization of my days helped me write better, earn more, and experience less stress and anxiety.
I also began working out regularly, which added another layer of discipline that helped me think more clearly. By prioritizing areas of my life outside work, I experienced a balance I hadn’t felt in years.
“I see physical wellness as a component, financial, social, emotional, spiritual—all of these [are] facets of wellness,” said Danie Hill, who co-owns Impact Fitness & Sports Performance in Fairfield. “I think it’s really difficult for people to find a balance in all spheres when one is completely lacking and another is really excelling, because it catches up in one way or another.”
The decisions people feel forced to make out of necessity can spiral into other seemingly irrational choices—financial and otherwise—but the opposite is also true. And small steps matter. Joshua Laraby, executive director of the Fairfield Economic Development Association (FEDA), advocates for incremental change. “I hear over and over from people who coach and advise on personal development, [that] it’s about taking small steps and having small successes. That leads us to be inspired, to be more likely to take another small step,” Laraby said.
Cohen said, “thinking ever-so-slightly outside the box” when making those small changes can lead to big shifts in a person’s life no matter where they’re starting out financially. She remembers a food pantry client who planted a vegetable garden to grow her own food. “She stepped outside of her box, outside of the life that she’s been living, and is trying something new in an effort to feed herself and her family better.”
While finishing his degree, Matt gained experience in his field by working for local breweries so he’d be ready to take a full-time job as soon as he graduated. Eden continued to build The Mammy Company, and both hoped that the stones they were laying would eventually create a path to financial and holistic wellness. When Eden’s business orders started to increase and the job offers started to roll in for Matt, Eden said the tenor of their lives changed.
“You can see the difference in our demeanors and how we interact with each other. We’re way more motivated, we see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Eden said. “We know that there will be problems down the road, but we can plan ahead for them now.”