I started working at an investment firm as an assistant in 2008, just a few months before the Great Recession started. I could go on and on about what happened and what it was like there, but I’m pretty sure you already know. The sense of urgency in each day was compounded by the fact that you couldn’t escape the panic. I was surrounded by red: blinking lights on screens, negative numbers in spreadsheets, and in the glimpse of everyone’s overworked eyes. It was my first real job out of college and we couldn’t afford to lose it. Recessions are terrifying for everyone and when I say that I worked 90-100 hour weeks often, I am, sadly, not exaggerating. We ended up with a lot of doctor and resident doctor friends because we were on the same punishing schedules. Young people without a lot of responsibility to other people or things means they can dedicate their lives to work as their sense of purpose. It is their sacrificial lamb. There was even a year in there where my husband was at grad school and would get home at midnight and I would leave at 5 am – we only saw each other awake on weekends. But it all seemed normal during the Recession because survival by almost any means necessary was the only mode for a lot of people.
Despite some of those chosen inconveniences that felt an awful lot like hardships at the time, we still thought that we were doing pretty well: my husband had just started grad school, we had found a basement to live in with a hot plate setup, and I had a full time job. All of this in the middle of Silicon Valley. Certainly not a cheap place to live. We shared a car, used public transportation, and I rode my bike for 35/40 minutes to work at 4:45/5:00 am every day (and returned when it was dark). We packed our lunches, ate tofu & beans, wore clothes threadbare, and all the other normal things young couples do to make their finances work. I would come to find out that some people would consider our lifestyle choices extreme, but we either didn’t notice or they were too busy worrying about their own lives to say anything.
I think that was the benefit of being young – the standards were lower because people knew we weren’t “established” yet. I once made a joke about selling my guitar for groceries (which actually was true) and the horror on people’s faces was palpable. I learned two things that night: I clearly needed to learn how to “read the room” and I should probably keep some of our frugal ways to myself. We were young and brazen in only ways that being inexperienced and full of hope can make you. We didn’t have much to lose. We were living bare bones for a first world country, but we had both spent time in impoverished countries and we had seen how little we could live with if we needed to. Luckily, we didn’t need to and by some miracle, I was able to keep my job throughout the entire Recession and years following. Every ounce of energy went into that job, and it ended up paying off.
Most of the money went straight into my 401k, low cost mutual funds, and our savings account because all we knew for sure was that we were going to put as much cash away to have options in the future. Everyone around me was an expert and yet they were still losing staggering amounts of money. If they couldn’t predict the markets, who was I to try? Despite being young, brazen, and risky, we were abrasively rational when it came to our finances. Saving more and spending less was all we could do to get ahead. Looking back now, 10 years later, that was the fundamental piece and guiding principle on which we built our lives. All decisions about money had the stinging memory twinge of the Recession days, because the thing about being a young gun is that you can still remember that economic instability could be looming right around the corner…