I Spent My Entire Life Savings In A Year But I'm Clawing My Way Back

photographed by Meg O'Donnell.
It’s no secret that Generation Rent faces tougher financial strain than the generation before them: one in three millennials will never own their home while contending with greater job instability than ever before.
But while all young adults are increasingly struggling with debt, it’s worth acknowledging that the issue is disproportionately gendered. A Young Women’s Trust survey of 4,000 18-30-year-olds last year found that young women are more likely to be in a difficult financial situation, with 40% of young women struggling to make their cash last until the end of the month compared to 29% of young men.
This has had a knock-on effect on savings. According to the Office for National Statistics, 53% of 22-29-year-olds had no money in a savings account or ISA between 2014 and 2016, up from 41% between 2008 and 2010.
Crucially, for many young women, their family is a safety net, with one in five relying on their parents to get to the end of the month and many borrowing from their parents well into their late 20s. But what happens when that safety net suddenly disappears?
Jess* is a 27-year-old Londoner whose dream of owning her own place came to an end when a change in her family circumstances forced her to fall back on her life savings. We asked her to tell us about the emotional toll this had on her and what she learned from it.
"Like any young professional, I always dreamed of having my own place, complete with the obligatory overgrown houseplants and crystals. I grew up working class, so the idea of buying a house seemed out of reach. But as I reached my early 20s, I figured out that if I stayed in a steady job, I would be able to save for a deposit in three and a half years. I wasn’t on an amazing salary as my industry relied heavily on interns so permanent roles were low paid. For two years, my salary stagnated at $21,655 but I’d always try to make extra cash, whether that was selling old clothes on eBay or going to focus groups, so if I saved enough, I’d be able to get a mortgage for a studio apartment within a few years. My mom wanted me to have a better shot at having my own house as she knew what it was like having an insecure job, so she didn’t ask me to pay rent but I made sure to help with chores including the laundry, dishes, and cleaning the house, which would take up a significant amount of time every weekend.
I forced myself to keep saving. Every month, I’d put around $900 into a separate bank account that I wouldn’t touch unless there was an emergency. The rest was for socializing, but there were lots of sacrifices; I didn’t go on holidays, buy new clothes, or update my phone. I would feel the occasional twinge of resentment when I saw photos of friends on weekend jaunts to Budapest but even though it was tough, the goal of having somewhere to call my own was more important than a resort holiday or gel manicure. By last June, I’d managed to save around $15,000.
My mom married my stepdad several years ago, but last year, his behavior changed for the worse. Whenever he was around the house, we’d walk on eggshells, as we’d never know what mood he’d be in. He’d often threaten violence for the most harmless things – like unwashed cups in the sink – and at least once or twice a week, would smash up the living room, so I’d be forced to hide in my room. It started affecting my day-to-day life – I’d come into work and nobody would be any the wiser, but I’d be so terrified of having to return home every day. I dreaded weekends, as it meant I had to see things for what they were: after work, I would be too exhausted, but weekends just showed me how bad the situation really was.
I knew leaving London was out of the question, as jobs in my industry were few and far between in other UK cities and it wasn’t possible to work remotely. But it was hard to come up with a thorough plan – I would veer between wanting to leave desperately while also knowing that if I stuck out one more year, I would never look back. And whenever I scrolled through Zoopla, I was put off by all the extra charges: letting fees, deposits, and other bills, which meant that saving for a deposit would take years longer.

It was hard to shake off the shame – I wanted to confide in friends but I didn’t know how to tell them.

It was hard to shake off the shame – I wanted to confide in friends, but I didn’t know how to tell them I was feeling unsafe in my own house. I stayed on because the dream of having my own place seemed to be more important, but last summer, the situation escalated to a point that I genuinely thought I wasn’t going to make it out alive, and when neighbors called the police, I realized I had to leave.
At this point, my priorities were forced to shift: my personal safety became more important – it genuinely became about survival. I left my mom’s in June and stayed with my cousin, who was aware of the situation, but it wasn’t long until I started to feel uncomfortable. I hated feeling like I had to rely on anyone else and as I was on holiday leave, I’d be around most of the day so there was always the expectation that I had to clean the house constantly as a way of repaying her. And whenever her stepdaughter would stay over, I had to book a hotel for the night. Not only was that eating away at my money, but it kept reinforcing that I had nowhere to call home – all I seemed to be doing was living out of boxes.
After what seemed like endless scrolling online, by July I managed to find a one-bed studio in my cousin’s neighborhood. The rent was more expensive than ones I’d seen by several hundred dollars per month but I decided to take it, as it was available immediately and I didn’t want to risk being made homeless if my cousin asked me to leave. I paid six months’ rent in advance and managed to get a discount of a couple of hundred dollars. I was relieved that I finally had a place of my own without any threat of violence or homelessness. I had hoped to put a bit away each month for savings, but as I’d picked a place without bills included, I realized a few months in that I was barely adding any money into my savings. Instead, I’d started dipping into my savings to buy furniture, bedding, and kitchenware.
Coupled with this, I’d been appointed a new boss at work who ended up having the same bullying and aggression tactics as my stepdad and claimed my work as her own. I complained to HR but felt like I’d gone through so much at that point that I didn’t need to fight for the job, and left.
Adding to this stress was my cousin, who kept turning up uninvited at my house. Though I’d expressed my gratitude several times, I couldn’t shake off the feeling I "owed" her, so when she turned up uninvited, complaining about issues she had with her stepdaughter, I felt forced to lend an ear. I started to dread any kind of celebration, such as her birthday, as I’d have to go well over my budget to buy gifts in case I was accused of being unappreciative, which made me increasingly resentful.
Around the same time, I started dating an initially charming guy who soon quickly turned controlling. I started realizing that the experience mirrored my stepdad – and it only took him being offered a job outside London for me to feel safe enough to block him.
By December, the six months' lease on the studio came up and I decided to end the contract. At this point, I’d developed a mentality that everything I’d worked towards had frittered away so I’d adopted a careless approach to spending, dipping into my savings account to buy things I would have avoided before, such as a holiday to Hong Kong, perfumes, and beauty products.
And so earlier this year, I decided to move to New York for a fresh start, which ended up creating more issues down the line. I’d assumed I’d be able to get a job quickly, but it proved far harder than I thought. After two months of unsuccessfully trying to find a job and paying rent and other expenses such as a removal van and storage for my belongings in London, I decided to pack it all in and return.

The impact of losing everything I’d worked towards has taken an immense toll on me. Whenever I log into my bank account, I’m forced to relive it all over again.

Since then, I’ve moved in with my mom after my stepdad left and I’ve cut off ties with my cousin. The impact of losing everything I’d worked towards has taken an immense toll on me. Whenever I log into my bank account, I’m forced to relive it all over again. And it’s hard not to shake off resentment that friends are starting to buy houses or nearly finished saving for a deposit and won’t encounter any of the trials I did. But despite my setbacks, I’ve landed another job, and while I occasionally dip into a buffer fund I’ve created if anything goes wrong again (which has around $2,500 in currently), I’m trying to save again.
For anyone going through a similar situation, I’d advise contacting a charity like StepChange, as they’ll be best placed to advise you. I went through a period of blaming myself for everything that happened, but I realize now that by keeping quiet about my situation and putting up a pretense to friends that everything was okay, I moved from one bad decision to the next.
Though I hope I’ll never end up in that situation again, there were lots of positives that I learned from it. It taught me the importance of staying within your means – in hindsight it would have been better to get a studio with bills included so I could add something to my savings every month, no matter how small. And if I ever plan on living abroad again, I know it’s better to secure a job beforehand as I ended up spending lots on moving there unnecessarily. And most importantly, it showed me just how important having a savings account is when you’re trying to leave an abusive household.
According to a representative of StepChange, young people make up a growing proportion of their clients, with under-25s representing 14% of the people they saw in 2018, and with an average outstanding debt of about $8,000. Young people are also more likely to have insecure or irregular income, which can put them at greater risk of problem debt. Their advice to anyone struggling with problem debt is to contact a free and impartial debt charity and not to ignore the problem.
For impartial advice on dealing with debt, head to StepChange.
*Name has been changed to protect the subject's identity

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