Functional Imagination, or why understanding our financial need is so damn hard


Americans are a rich nation with an impoverished scope of imagination. The story of our dreams are purchases to get status and love, power grabs, and an impending apocalypse that some aim to buy their way out of. The shadow side of these dreams are feelings of lack, powerlessness, and impending doom. There is no alternative in mind. We have a story problem, along with other material issues.

Part of this problem is the stories we absorb. Have you been encouraged to expect achievement against the odds? Have you been brought to believe that nothing you can do will make your life better? 

Who’s served by these stories? Who needs us to wildly grab for power, or give up? Who wants us desperately clinging to the screen or to the status quo? And what changes if we find another way?

I harp on stories because our frame of possible reality can be shaped by narrative. For some of us, successful stories about money are wildly unsettling. Heretic. Capitalist. For others, they may seem viable but wrong. What if we could consider money without a fearful or shameful story?

Further, the scope of what is possible is embedded within a story, and in this way the things we imagine get pre-set by our stories. No one you know is making ends meet? Everyone hates life? Money only comes from exploitation? Well hell yeah then money is a monster.

I want us to have a more flexible imagination when it comes to money: one that goes before the development of markets and beyond the pain of our ancestors and the grind culture of today. 

Asking: “what’s my game plan here” should be safe to try on, even if it’s tough to answer.

Getting this answer is reallllly important for people who aren’t family resourced, and for everyone who wants to do work, housing, and giving, differently and create new stories. It’s important as we navigate transitioning to sustainable energy and out of extractive economics.

I want our stories about resilience and care not to center money but to have it as a backdrop from which things are possible.

In the short term, that’s going to mean looking at money – and beyond it – as one leg of the new table we’re building to gather at. Even when it’s nerve-wracking.

Ready? Let’s talk about income and how it ends up hitting so differently for different people.


When I got my first “real” job making $32k a year in 2005 after making $1200 a month, I thought I’d hit a jackpot – then I realized student loans, health insurance, and a small retirement contribution left little afterwards. Next I got a job making $49k in 2007, which let me save more and pay down more debt but this was short lived due to the 2009 recession, and my income drifted back down. 

When I got my next “real” job bump in 2016 up to $60k, I thought THIS was making it: then I needed to get dental work and was by then really wishing I could buy an apartment someday, but at $500 a month, my down payment savings rate was solid and the most I could manage … but it was going to take years. 

In 2018 I made a bigger jump to a $125k a year job and that was the financial unlocker for me. I finally had enough income to cover everyday needs, fill in gaps in my healthcare, save meaningfully for a down payment, and still have some consumer fun and travel. 


At each step along the way, making more money made a meaningful difference – and it took hitting a certain baseline to make a visible dent in the gaps left by not having enough income for a long time, and not having another source of money, like family help.

I always had enough money for rent, food, and a little fun – because I already had a sense of what those everyday costs were and would therefore hustle to earn at least that. But I didn’t know how to imagine and incorporate next-step stuff, like paying off my loans or saving up for a home. And I wasn’t dialed in to the gaps I’d need to fill, like having a dental-work-and-good-shoes fund, or getting holistic care when my body got sick from cheap food. I knew “more” would be helpful but that was about it.


Gaps in our financial safety nets and lack of support can create big problems or block opportunities for us. Some can be temporarily resolved by loans: student loans for school, mortgages for homes, credit cards for emergencies and income gaps, but of course those come calling in the future. 

Filling in gaps is important to understand from an inequality lens. People from working class and first generation immigrant families, people whose families are impacted by the racial wealth gap, people who have rejected or been rejected by their families are operating without a net [also the title of a great book by Michelle Tea which I have an essay in], and without the extra cash infusion help that many people with families with resources get.

And without that help or net, there’s a whole bunch of gaps that emerge, which only some people ever experience and have to deal with. Emergency? Credit card. Go to school? Loans. Want a car? No one has one to give you, get a loan. Buy a home? Better start saving…

Some of these gaps are systemic: BIPOC, immigrant, and working-class families have less resources because of larger machinations such as the racial wealth gap, hiring inequalities, and the disenfranchisement of industrial labor in the US. People who can’t work have limited and small disability payment options. 

And some of these gaps are temporary or self-driven: working part time to make art or go to school without additional family income support could very well mean you’ll have the challenge of gaps and catch-up to do, but that’s not systemic inequality [though why your family has no money to help with, might be].


Beyond systemic gaps, these days it can be hard to understand the current everyday cost of things, because inflation in the last few years has reset our costs, but our expectation anchors may not have changed. No, you can’t live on whatever income you were in 2019. There’s been a 20%+ cost of living increase since then.

So what’s possible? First thing first: try to get a picture of success. This can be challenging for two reasons: 

1. It can be alienating and painful to imagine something that feels like it’s been kept from you. Money isn’t scary because it’s numbers, it’s scary because the numbers mean things that we are frustrated or thwarted by.

One exercise that’s helped me with the fear factor is to remind myself that I don’t have to like numbers for them to help me. Knowing the data is not the same as condoning its source. And remembering that these numbers are not me or a reflection of my value. Rich people are not better, poor people are not better, literally how much money you have does not indicate your value as a person. 

2. It can be confusing to come up with something that you’ve never considered. The question I didn’t know to ask in my 32k – 49k – 60k journey was “is this enough for my bills, my problems, and things I want?” – because I didn’t know how to sketch these out. 

A framework that’s helped me with this imagination exercise is: needs, gaps, and goals. Examples of each:

Everyday Needs & Annual needsGapsGoals
Rent/mortgage + utilitiesFoodHealthcareTransitCar/rental insuranceGiftsBasic stuff needsPay off credit cardsPay off student loans, car loanCatch-up health/dental careHelp out familyMaintenance on stuff or upgrades on broken/old stuffetcTravelDown paymentBuy a carIVF or AdoptKid college fundGo back to schoolSabbaticalFancier stuffRetire somedayetc

But wait? You might think – there is a 4th category: fun! Joy! Giving! And you are right – let’s not earn money just for the responsible stuff, let’s also live LIFE, together  with our resources. 

So, the four categories are:

Everyday needs & Annual needsGapsGoalsFun & Discretionary

An exercise I invite you to do, is to fill in the four categories for you with an IDEAL, would-cover you annual total for each thing you’d spend money on, if you were putting money to all the things in an ideal scenario. Include whatever you need to include to feel complete.

Try this at home, with a pal, or hop into my upcoming workshop “Level Set: Income Reset Discovery” to do it together. Learn more about the workshop here or Sign up Here LINK

This workshop is given on a sliding scale $30 / $50 / $75 ; if the low end of the scale is prohibitive, please write me for a code to attend.