It’s pretty surreal that I’m writing for Money magazine given that for most of my life, I knew absolutely nothing about money, except how to waste it. My brother went on to work for a renowned bank, so I’m assuming nobody taught me about money because I was a girl—maybe my tiny female brain couldn’t handle such big, fancy numbers. Whatever the reason, by the time I was 25, I realized I was financially illiterate. I’m not exaggerating. I seriously thought a 401(k) was a marathon.
Not that I really needed to know much about money until very recently. For most of my life I didn’t have any, so knowing about investment plans, stocks or bonds would have been relatively pointless. My credit score was nonexistent. But once I started making money doing standup, this lack of an education really cost me, both literally and figuratively. I spent money impulsively and I gave money to whoever asked. It was all going pretty well, or so I thought, until one of my parents got sick…without health insurance. All of a sudden I needed all the money I had ever spent on shoes, fancy juices, and other people’s problems.
I remember sitting in the ICU, feeling not only terrified that I couldn’t afford to help with the medical bills, but also feeling trapped. In that moment, I realized I had been looking at money all wrong. It finally clicked for me that money is freedom.
Until that point, I didn’t know the way I managed my net worth was a reflection of my self-worth. What I spent my money on was either a positive or negative contribution to my future safety, sanity, and ability to feel free.
To change the way I thought about money, I started substituting the word “money” with the word “freedom.” This helped make previously difficult financial decisions way easier — and made the ones that used to be easy way harder. For example, if I was wondering about putting money into my 401(k), which I’m always hesitant to do because I want to see the money in my account now, I’d ask myself “Should I put some freedom into my 401(k) so I have some freedom when I get older?” All of a sudden, it was a no-brainer.
If someone asked me for money, I’d ask myself “Should I give some of my freedom to a friend who shows no signs of wanting to get her own life together and earning her own freedom, but keeps asking for some of my freedom?” So much for that loan.
Or if I couldn’t decide if I wanted to buy something or not, I’d ask “Are these new jeans worth two hundred units of my current freedom?” Luckily, I’ve come across literally zero pairs of pants I value as much as being free. I have, however, found a couple wireless bras that I do. But they give me another kind of freedom — so perhaps that’s why shelling out for those makes me feel like I’m breaking even.
Whitney Cummings is a comedian, actress and co-creator of 2 Broke Girls. Her book I’m Fine…And Other Lies is out this week.