I was 21 when I got some of the best financial advice I've received in my life. I had been doing fetish modeling and professional domination for a few years already, providing much-needed extra cash on the side to supplement my mall job at Hot Topic. Having even a couple of dollars to throw around was a new and exciting pleasure, especially when I made as much in an hour as I did working my "respectable" job for a week.
I was at a house for an event where I talked about my experiences as a sex worker when a man approached me shyly and pulled me aside. He was older than me and had a curled moustache and suspenders. "You want some unsolicited advice?" he asked. I nodded.
"Save half," he said earnestly. "Whatever you make, whatever you're doing, save half. It'll be hard sometimes, but it's worth it."
He was gone before I could say anything, my surprise advice-giver disappearing into the crowd.
I rolled his words around in my head. I had a few extra dollars to throw around, but I was still occasionally poor enough to have to go to a food pantry in order to eat, so saving half of my much-needed money felt like a goal that would be forever out of reach. But I took his words to heart. I started a habit of tucking away half (OK, sometimes a quarter) of my earnings away, just in case.
Sometimes I desperately wanted to buy myself a new dress, or go out with my friends, and it sucked to turn them down in order to stick to my goal. Watching my savings account get more and more robust, though putting aside $50 from selling some writing, to $300 when I had a good client, felt good. It felt solid. It was something I could control.
I kept doing professional domination. I moved to London, where escorting was legal, and tried my hand at that. I found that I liked it. But even more than that, I liked looking at my savings account, feeling safety in knowing that wherever I was, I could afford to leave at any time.
I was reminded of my experience earlier this week, after an essay by Paulette Perhach went viral. Perhach's essay extolled the virtues of the "Fuck Off Fund," a savings account that you have so you can tell a shitty boss, an abusive lover or a toxic housemate to fuck off when they cross your boundaries. The idea is that no matter what type of toxic situation you may encounter in your professional or personal life, "whether the system protects you or fails you, you will be able to take care of yourself," Perhach wrote.
It's a financial security that women often don't have, in part because we tend to be paid less and in part because society discourages women from being anything but accommodating. As a woman and a freelance employee, that feeling Perhach described was very familiar to me: that initial sense of purpose and hope that slowly spirals into treating yourself because life is shitty and the only thing you can control is having a cute dress to wear. I know what it's like to juggle the bills. I know how it feels to stay in a shitty job with a boss that considers your boundaries a suggestion and not a firm guideline.
The part that made my heart catch in my throat, though, was when Perhach described the slow march of an abusive relationship into your life: "He seems so sorry, cries, even, so that night you lie down in the same bed," describing the moment after a partner strikes you. "You stare up at the dark and try to calculate how long it would take you to save up the cash to move out."
The situation Perhach describes is one that an estimated one in three women face, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence — and it's one that keeps women both financially and emotionally dependent on their partners. I was all too familiar with the way a lover can stroke you with one hand and slap you with the other; that tension of not knowing if it's bad enough to leave in your heart, while your gut tells you to get out now. Even though I wasn't financially dependent on my often narcissistic and emotionally (sometimes physically) abusive boyfriends, I still found myself dragging my feet on getting out.
"Money doesn't buy happiness. But it sure does buy stability."
Women in particular are taught that we need to be polite even to people who are mistreating us, something that only increases the more marginalized you are. We're encouraged to smile when we walk down the street. We're told that asserting our boundaries makes us bitchy or hard to work with.
Seeing $10,000 in a savings account isn't going to undo that particular harm, and saving enough to feel safe telling off your boss is not particularly achievable when you make less money than your higher-ups. This is particularly relevant if you're black, or trans, or queer: Many people who live on the margins or make less than a living wage don't have a consistent income that allows for that kind of saving. But if you're privileged enough to be able to save, it's a security blanket, something you can count on when the chips are down.
In the long run, that strange, suspendered man's advice paid off: My savings account saved my life, over and over. When I was assaulted during a session with a client, I was able to take a month off and go to therapy to help myself recover. I was able to take a cab away from my abusive ex when he threw a plate at me. I was careful with my extra cash, picky about what constituted an emergency in my eyes, but knowing that I had those savings in case things got dire gave me a sense of security I hadn't known before.
When I was fired from my last job, I found myself living more hand-to-mouth than I had in a while. But because I had been privileged enough to save half when I was more financially flush, I was able to pick myself back up. I could afford to wait for a job that really suited me, rather than grasping for what was available. Saving half allowed me to be patient for a staff writing job, a book deal, my own production company. It's allowed me to mostly quit sex work when that no longer felt good.
Having a "Fuck Off Fund" doesn't guarantee that you can triumphantly march out the door of a toxic situation. But it helps ensure that the door is unlocked, left ajar for you when you're ready. It will help shield you from the very real consequences that unfortunately can come from asserting your boundaries.
Money doesn't buy happiness. But it sure does buy stability.