If I Was Nola Darling: Committing to Financial Wellness & Securing Peace

By Liz Abunaw. Photography by Eric Michael Ward. 

If I was Nola Darling, I would not sleep well at night. My mind would race, unable to quiet my thoughts long enough to find the peace needed to slumber. A perpetual knot would gnaw at my stomach each day, reminding me of its presence the second I remembered to forget it. My art would stagnate, my creativity stifled by distraction. If I was Nola, I would be haunted.

No, it would not be the life of maintaining relationships with three boyfriends and a girlfriend that would bother me so. It would be the weight of being buried underneath an avalanche of financial distress.

Nola may be beautiful, talented, intelligent, fit, and surrounded by love, but her life teeters on a precarious precipice, leaning further toward ruin. In the words of Cher Horowitz, Nola’s life is a total Monet. While the spacious Brooklyn apartment, frequent brunches, and killer wardrobe (that dress!) paint the image of living one’s best life, upon closer inspection the picture is marred by unpaid rent, inconsistent and low income, and maxed out credit cards. In short, the enviable masterpiece is actually one big mess. Ironically, with the exception of 36 minutes of panic in episode 9, Nola seems largely unbothered by her situation.

In a show that so accurately portrays the effects of misogynoir, gentrification, and racism, the toll of financial hardship on the body, mind, and psyche is grossly overlooked. Nola did not face eviction out of the blue. In fact her landlord’s promise to put her out if she did not pay her rent within 24 hours was the culmination of falling behind months ago. Having to duck your landlord on the way out the door every morning is anxiety inducing. Being fearful to open the mailbox unsure if a shut-off notice will be waiting for you is its own form of Russian roulette. Screening phone calls to avoid bill collectors is exhausting.

Projecting poise and strength to the world while avoiding landmines throughout your life is not an easy way to live.

Nola’s financial troubles are not unique to her. Americans have over $2.3 trillion in combined credit card and student loan debt. According to a 2014 report from the Urban Institute, 35% of Americans have delinquent debt. As Black women we are particularly susceptible to having financial issues. A single, twenty-something Black woman likely has a net worth of zero. If she possesses a degree, she is likely to be even worse off with an average of $11,000 in debt. We may be the most educated people in this country, but these degrees are not free. Without accumulated wealth, many Black women do not have the means to weather income disruptions like a job loss, illness, or other emergency, resulting in long-term damage to their credit and finances.

The inability to meet financial obligations not only wreaks havoc on your bank account and credit score, it is also holistically damaging to one’s health and relationships. Persistent high debt raises blood pressure, damages the digestive system, and causes physical pain. Financial hardship can take a tremendous toll on relationships as arguments over money can end marriages and not being able to afford to spend time with loved ones can lead to social isolation. 

Most troubling is the impact money problems have on mental health. A 2016 study from financial wellness organization Payoff found that 36% of millennials experienced such a high degree of stress about their finances that they exhibited symptoms of PTSD, including denial, avoidance, and nightmares. The National Institute of Health reports that 20% of U.S. adults experiences a mental illness every year. Researchers found that likelihood of having a mental health issue is three times higher among people who have debt, with depression and anxiety disorders being commonly reported. But what comes first, the depression or the debt? Unfortunately problems with finances and mental health feed each other in a vicious feedback loop.

How familiar is this scenario to so many of us? Unforeseen hardship, behavior patterns, or even seasonal sadness leads to spending above our means, which then results in anxiety, feelings of guilt, and despair, which are then assuaged with more spending, which fuels further distress. Lather, rinse repeat.

The cited statistics reflect real women, and I have lived the story the numbers tell.

Financial troubles have ravaged my family relationships, some I fear beyond the point of repair. I too have hated the sound of my cellphone’s ring, unwilling to hear about one more bill that had gone unpaid. I have not slept. I have not nourished my body. I have tried to hide from it all. So often talk of holistic self-care includes how we treat our minds, bodies, spirits, and psyches through diet, exercise, relaxation, therapy, etc. Yet very rarely is personal financial management mentioned in all of the ways to care for oneself. I have learned that financial wellness is an essential part of self-care.

How do we begin the process of caring for our finances the way we would our bodies and spirits? I suggest these steps as a starting point:

1. Face It

While it may be easy to tell ourselves that everyone has money problems, or that this is just the way life is, or that the unpaid debts will disappear in seven years, these thoughts only keep us in hiding from our truth. Ignoring the problem does not fix it nor does it respect your future self’s actualization to achieve the goals you have yet to dream for yourself. Instead, bring everything into the light. Open all of the envelopes emblazoned with crimson FINAL NOTICE warnings, answer the collection calls, pull up all of your opened accounts, and count all of the IOUs to friends and family. Gather them all together. Add up how much you owe to each lender and creditor. It may be helpful to categorize your bills by type, length of delinquency (if applicable), and total amount owed.

Create a budget for debt repayment. A great resource to get started is the Debt Free Divas site. There you will find helpful advice on budgeting, saving, and debt repayment. Reach out to your original creditors to negotiate repayment plans and how the debt will be reported on your credit report. Developing a plan that you can stick with is imperative in order to find freedom in your finances.

2. Practice Grace

If you have been running from your finances for a long time, then step one can be overwhelming, not just in knowing the magnitude of the problem but also facing how the problem was created. While your debt is your responsibility, it is not who you are as a person. We have all spent money at one time only to later feel foolish for the purchase. When decorating my home I was so obsessed with curating a specific look that I spent over $2000 buying and custom framing antique New York City subway stop scrolls. Not only did I buy more signs than I could afford to frame, I still have framed ones that have sat on the floor perched against the wall for over two years. However, it serves my progress no purpose to abuse myself for past mistakes or dwell on the more practical ways in which I could have spent that money. Nor should you speak to yourself in less than love and kindness for your missteps. Accountability must come with acceptance and forgiveness.

3. Take Care of You

Money problems are often the symptom of an underlying condition. Ask yourself if you are experiencing symptoms of persistent sadness, constant worry, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, appetite change, and/or persistent physical symptoms. You may be dealing with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. Breaking the cycle of debt and trauma may require healing and managing our mental and emotional well-being first. Understand your healthcare benefits to access mental health professionals. If you are un or underinsured in this regard, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers resources for finding low-cost help.

Also, do not be ashamed to share the full picture of your circumstances with those you trust most. You will likely find that you are not alone and those closest to you are carrying similar burdens. If you are uncomfortable sharing with people in “real-life” seek out more anonymous support online. I frequent a forum of Black women who discuss topics ranging from entertainment to politics to relationships, and more. There are a group of us who also share the good, bad, and ugly of our finances. Although we have never met, we serve as each other’s village, offering advice, commiseration, accountability, and a listening ear, all without judgement.

4. Take Control   

Personal finance is personal. How you want your money to work for you is for you to determine. However, it is important to make the determination. So often financial malaise finds us when we try to “do the most.” For the vast majority of us resources are limited, thus we must prioritize how we deploy them. It is perfectly acceptable to value the beauty of a pair of shoes, or the discovery of travel, or the blessing of giving, or anything else your money affords. However, it is impossible to value everything equally. Set goals for your money based on your values dictated priorities, then be ruthlessly selfish about accomplishing them. If everything is a priority then nothing is, so pick one or two each year. Maybe you want to pay off debt and save for retirement. Maybe you dream of owning a home or taking a six month sabbatical to study yoga in Nepal. Unapologetically build your financial house around these goals without regard to if people don’t understand why you choose to forego a car or keep roommates when you can “afford” to live on your own. When how you spend your money reflects your values it reinforces the knowledge that you are living in your purpose.

Nola Darling did not go through these steps as her financial woes were neatly cured by winning a fellowship. Unfortunately, no matter how much I like to think that watching Grey’s Anatomy makes me a doctor, TV is not real life. Providential windfalls are rare and are not a likely or sustainable solution to Nola’s problems. While having more money is helpful, if often offers only a temporary reprieve from money troubles if one never learns money management. If She’s Gotta Have It Is is more realistic in its next season I fear that we will once again see our beloved protagonist ducking her landlord.

Liz Abunaw is a personal finance nerd and freelance writer who loves to talk all things money-related. She strives to educate and empower Black women to take control of their finances and think bigger about how to use money as a tool to build monumental dreams. Liz has called Chicago home since 2012, but maintains that deep dish is NOT real pizza. Long jogs on cold days make her happy, as do good food, great friends, and afternoon naps. You can find more of her money (and life) thoughts at her blog Open Mouths Get Fed.