Feminism has become one of the internet’s go-to buzzwords–a label as likely to be applied to pizza cravings as politics. But while some applications have more merit than others, it’s important to remember that feminism as a concept colors many different aspects of our lives. Including–and in many ways especially–personal finance.
Enter the “fuck off fund,” a cheeky phrase du jour that owes its current infamy to this viral essay written by Paulette Perhach. The piece, published last week on the Billfold, extols the virtues of an emergency savings fund in the form of a choose-your-own-adventure allegory. A girl gets her first internship, her first credit card, her first black leather skirt–and then, as her student loans come due and her lifestyle upgrades catch up with her, her first past-due notice. Perhach’s heroine moves in with her boyfriend, who volunteers to cover rent as her debts keep piling up. Then her boss starts to get hands-y and her boyfriend abusive. The girl is stuck in an impossible situation, trapped by her finances.
As Perharch notes, “This story sucks.” But her heroine’s life doesn’t have to turn out that way. What if instead of buying a new car and a new skirt, she continued driving her hand-me down Civic and shopped at thrift stores:
You save up a Fuck Off Fund of $1,000, $2,000, $3,000, then enough to live half a year without anyone else’s help. So when your boss tells you that you look nice, asks you to do a spin, you say, “Is there some way you need my assistance in the professional capacity or can I go back to my desk now?”
This story is certainly not a universal one. Over at Refinery 29, Lindsey Stanberry argues that the piece patronizes women and implies that they are bad with money, incapable of balancing a basic checkbook. Then there’s the fact that millennials make up an estimated 40% of American’s unemployed population. In this context, a personal savings account–let alone a retirement fund–may be little more than a pipe dream. Unsurprisingly, financial instability also disproportionately affects minorities, especially when we’re talking about early wealth accumulation.
All that said, young people would be wise to heed Perharch’s advice if they can. For one thing, maintaining an emergency savings fund—even a small one—makes a lot of economic sense. As pension economist Allison Schrager noted earlier this week, even if you contribute to a 401(k) or other retirement account, it’s incredibly important to have liquid assets–money you can access quickly and without incurring penalties. This cash can save you in an emergency or help bridge unexpected gaps in employment or insurance. According to data from the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, median liquid savings (checking, money market, and savings accounts) for Americans aged 18-29 is only $1,500. Overall, a full quarter of Americans have only a few hundred dollars saved in the bank.
Erin Lowry, aka the Broke Millennial, runs a website that doles out personal finance advice to young people who aren’t likely to have a financial planner. Lowry tells Quartz that millennials—who collectively owe billions in student debt—often think they can’t afford to stash any extra money away. But that mindset can wind up hurting them down the line. Women especially have an extra incentive to save. Even though studies have shown women as a group actually save more of their paychecks than men, they still tend to end up with less money in their accounts. The wage gap has a lot to do with this, of course: Women are less likely to negotiate salaries earlier in their careers or advocate as aggressively as male peers for raises and bonuses.
And then there are the scenarios Perharch describes in her essay: a sexually hostile workplace, an abusive partner. While these problems are not gender specific, women are much more likely to be sexually harassed at work. Meanwhile financially abusive relationships pose a very real danger to women, even if they are less likely to make the nightly news. “Financial abuse, whether you’re talking about ruining her credit, getting her fired or hiding the money, is just as effective in controlling an abused victim as a lock and key,” Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told the Huffington Post in 2014.
Even a small emergency fund can make a difference, preventing an uncomfortable situation from becoming a crisis. Lowry remembers when her fund did exactly that. As a newcomer to New York City, Lowry found herself working three jobs, balancing her duties as a page at The Late Show with David Letterman with part-time gigs as barista at Starbucks and a babysitter. “One night, a father of the children I babysat came home drunk and began making wildly inappropriate comments towards me,” she recalls. “While the money from babysitting was great (thanks Manhattan rates), I had plenty saved to get by without that gig until I found another. So I texted the mom the next day and said I’d found another job and wouldn’t be returning.”
The fundamental case for a fuck-off fund isn’t about playing into stereotypes about women who are bad with money—it’s about being prepared. Don’t become a victim of bad luck or bad circumstances.
“It’s far too common that people stay in jobs or relationships because of a dependence on a paycheck or financial support from a partner,” Lowry explains. “You can prevent this from happening by starting a small habit of saving early on. It doesn’t have to be much, but just establish the habit by putting $5, $20, $50 or whatever you can afford.”
Because there’s nothing more empowering–or, well, feminist–than the feeling of economic independence.