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The Unspoken Power of an Emergency Fund

My hands shook as I handed the cashier a thick stack of coupons. As he scanned them, one by one, I watched the total on the screen drop with bated breath. $112.87 became $108.72, which became $103.21, and on. On the inside, I was a child doing something she knew was wrong. Outside, I was in survival mode.

“Your total will be $91.93,” announced the teenager behind the counter.

I inserted the debit card connected to a joint account that I shared with my husband. It was the account he put money in each payday for me to buy groceries and a number of other expenses around the house. When prompted, I entered my pin and selected ‘cash back’. I wagered whether I could get away with $25 this week, but decided not to risk it. I didn’t want my purchase totals, the only piece of data my husband saw on the bank statements, to arouse suspicion. I punched in $20 instead.

Like I had been handed something sacred, I carried the $20 to my car in my hand. I loaded the groceries into the back of my hatchback, then sat in the driver’s seat while I did my bookkeeping. I removed a gun safe from under my seat, my fingers lithely undoing the combination lock. Inside was an envelope, a pen, and a running total of all the money I amassed in secret. Today’s contribution would bring the running total to $873, an impressive albeit insufficient total.

The only financial literacy I was ever taught in any official capacity came from my high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Echevarria. She was a sage woman who was unafraid to tell it like it was. One day, near the end of classes, she kept all the senior girls back while she dismissed the other students. She imparted some general pre-college words of advice, then leaned against her desk and crossed her arms.

“It is very important that you always remain financially independent. I know someday, maybe you think already, you’ll meet a boy and you’ll love him and you’ll think nothing will ever go wrong and you’ll sign a joint lease and adopt a joint pet and combine bank accounts. That only other people’s relationships will fail. And I’m here to tell you that’s not true, and when things go sideways, you’re going to want access to your own money. It’s going to give you a lot more freedom to leave on your own terms.”

I’ve thought about my teacher’s words to me a lot over the past few months, wishing I took it more seriously in high school. Last year, my husband cheated on me, again, which I discovered while snooping on his iPad after he was a little too excited about me going away to visit family for a long weekend. I was mentally checked out of the marriage, and I think he knew this. I kept my cards close to the chest—at that point, I was already getting ready to file divorce papers.

But there was a problem: the $3,500 retainer that all attorneys in Madison, Wisconsin required before taking on the case. There was no getting around this number—I called at least eight different law firms and kept getting the same figure. It was maddening, and I cried on the phone with at least two lawyers while I tried to figure out how in the world I was going to pay this fee.

I did not have $3,500. In our joint checking account, my husband kept between $80 and $100. He didn’t allow me access to our joint savings account, which had at least $20,000 in it, because I was “bad with money.” Throughout our relationship, he discouraged me from working while he was worked many hours overtime to bring in well over six figures. I listened to him for the most part, though I did take a temporary part-time job doing data entry at a medical office. Once I decided that I wanted to leave my ex-husband, every dollar helped.

I did have a small sum of money tucked away in a separate savings account—my grandfather invested a few hundred dollars when I was born, which had grown to about $1,500. My husband didn’t know this money existed. For a long time, I considered this my “emergency fund,” having taken my Latin teacher’s advice to heart. I gravely underestimated just how much I needed for an emergency.

Factoring in the $1500 I had on hand from my grandfather’s investments, I needed $2,000 more for the lawyer’s retainer fee, so I went into overdrive. I found inconspicuous ways to earn cash without my husband noticing I was gaining resources. It was part of my strategy to keep my cards close to the chest because if my ex-husband knew I was becoming more financially independent, he would get suspicious. In addition to couponing (so I could stealthily get cashback on my husband-funded grocery shopping), I participated in online focus groups that paid me directly in my PayPal account, which he didn’t have access to. I told him I wanted to declutter our apartment, so I held yard sales when he wasn’t around. I even secretly sold my plasma, which generated several hundred dollars each month.

By June, the attorney’s fees were paid. I was also able to set some money aside for other emergencies, like the day when I declared I was moving out. He blew up and started to scream at me, verbally poking knives in the sensitive places only he knew. I packed up a handful of my belongings and found safety in a hotel room that night, without ever having to do the mental math in my head of whether or not I could afford it.

It’s been ten months since I paid a lawyer and got out, and I’m still rebuilding my emergency fund. Going through this experience firmly convinced me that I need to have a fool-proof emergency fund, independent of any partner I may have in the future. Today, I have things set up so that when I’m paid every week, $50 is sent directly to my emergency fund. I’ll fund the account until it’s the equivalent of a family law attorney’s retainer and one month of rent, groceries, medical costs, and all of my other recurring expenses, and then I’ll tuck it away to hopefully never need it again.


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