Just as my career was taking off, I realized I couldnt manage my own money. The solution to my dilemma was not what I expected
On a warm spring day in March 2015, I fluttered around our family home with nervous energy. In one hour, I had a phone interview with one of Canadas largest newspapers, the Globe and Mail. As a budding freelance writer, I had pitched the story of my familys downsizing journey, hoping to get my first big assignment. Instead, one of Canadas most well-known finance reporters would be calling to interview me. Six months earlier, my husband and I, used to going against the grain in many ways, had chosen to leave our trendy home with natural sunlight, cherry-wood cabinets and fossil gray carpet, and move into an underground abode without a speck of color or luxury. The trade-off: we could finally afford diapers.
To pass the time before my interview, I read Sometimes I Like to Curl Up in a Ballto my two daughters. From my position, cocooned in their room, I had a view of the window that framed the feet of visitors walking down the steps toward our apartment.
Sometimes I like to curl up in a ball, so no one can see me because Im so small, I read aloud, my one-year-old and three-year-old curled into the crook of my arms, the words foreshadowing my own future emotions.
As I read, I noticed a familiar set of shoes passing by the basement-level window, and the kids and I raced to the front door.
Youre home early! I beamed at my husband, Daniel, tossing our youngest into his arms, excited about the chance to prepare for the interview. But Daniel stood eerily still, holding our one-year-old daughter, while our three-year-old clung happily to his leg.
Whats wrong? Are you OK? I asked, noticing beads of perspiration on his forehead.
He told me we should sit down, steering me to the couch, the tension between us escalating.
Your brother Jason died. He had a heart attack. Im so sorry.
I could feel my entire life changing with his words.
My middle brother, Aaron, had phoned Daniel at work, to make sure that he would be home to tell me the news. Numb, I called Aaron. He answered, and the gravel in his voice made me fall apart.
I cried hot, dripping tears. I asked questions you dont anticipate asking: why did it take so long to tell me? Would there be an autopsy? How long was he gone before someone found him? And then I finally asked him the question Id been dreading, not wanting to sound selfish or unfeeling: What am I going to do about my interview with the Globe and Mail?
Its an opportunity of a lifetime, Aaron reassured me.
By the time we ended our call, I had 15 minutes to pull myself together.
I splashed my face with cold water, rubbing away the tears and mascara stains. I brushed my teeth. The phone rang. Brianna speaking, I said, my voice even.
And for the second time in under an hour, my world tilted, my stomach went to mush, and my life changed forever.
For the next two weeks, my life was split in two. A few days after I found out my brother had died of a massive heart attack after a morning run, we welcomed a newspaper photographer from the Globe and Mail into our home.
The underground lighting was dim, so we took photos of our family playing in the yard outside, my laugh grating in my own ears. When the photographer left, I felt shame gnawing at the pit of my stomach shame at the smiling photo that would be seen across Canada, the broken and grieving sister hidden far from sight.
When the story was published, my inbox flooded with emails from across the country. The reporter, Rob Carrick, referred to me as a tiger mom of personal finance. His praise was an endorsement of sorts. This young woman knows what shes talking about, his words implied. Our savings at the time were impressive: by trading our townhouse for a basement apartment, we were saving around $600 every month. We were also curbing spending by keeping to a strict budget, which included no extensive travel, careful meal planning, using one vehicle with a low monthly payment of $200, and thrifting everything from clothes to toys to furniture. At the time, our family lived on $41,000 annually, and we still managed to put money into retirement savings and have a little bit left over for an emergency fund.
Carricks article captured many of our thrifty ways, including the specifics of our finances and how we managed to live within our limited means. Many of the emails I received were messages of approval from baby boomers. We werent stereotypical millennials, they said, flippant about money and unwilling to sacrifice. Our lifestyle reminded this ageing generation about the good old days of hard work and living within your means. I swelled with pride, because we were thriving, living our best life under the feet of our lovely landlords upstairs.
Over the next few months, I promoted myself as a personal finance guru, using the well-known newspaper article as my elevator pitch. I seized each opportunity, working late at night while my children slept in their shared bedroom, typing in the tiny office my husband had built for me inside of a closet.
But my newfound success didnt bring happiness or relief. I grieved for my brother and celebrated the first anniversary of launching my freelance writing career at the same time, wiping away tears while congratulating myself on a steadily growing list of publications. It had been a whirlwind year, and I couldnt find my feet: one part of me felt elated and enthused about the path my life was on, and then with a sudden crash, I would feel bereft lost and detached from the world.