By Ellen Margulies

The last couple of years have been interesting, career-wise and financially speaking. I went from a well-paying career I loved to a low-paying job I struggled with to a temp job I was lucky to get that covered about two-thirds of my bills. All of this was interspersed with months of virtually no income at all. (Unemployment, if you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to need it, is woefully inadequate. The government formula seems to be: your old salary multiplied by number of months it will take you to find work divided by screw you, we’re going to give you less money than a college freshman gets for a weekly allowance.)

During this time, I struggled with my financial identity. Before being laid off in the summer of 2011, if I needed a pair of jeans, I bought them. If I wanted a pair of shoes, I got them. If I stopped at the drug store to pick up my prescription and saw some nail polish I liked, I bought it. If friends invited me for a night out at a restaurant or a movie or a weekend getaway, I went. It’s not like I was flying first-class and sporting designer duds and $300 purses, but I certainly never had to worry about whether I could afford to get new tires.

Of course, that all changed.

Wants were stuffed in a mental closet, and needs had to be seriously evaluated. I could live with the dripping sink and the falling-down fence, but I had to find the money to fix a flat tire. Vet visits and dental check-ups could wait. I had to write down my budget – every essential expense, every dollar coming in. The numbers were sobering. I grew to hate automated bill paying, because it was harder to cheat the system. I also hated seeing the truth in black and white, because I couldn’t lie to myself anymore about what I could – and couldn’t – afford.

It had been decades since I’d had to watch my pennies like that. I had forgotten what it was like to not have enough money. Some months, bills went unpaid. Fun outings were out. I no longer picked up a magazine and threw it onto the conveyor belt at the grocery store when I was checking out. Pedicures were a sweet memory. I said goodbye to my cleaning lady and seasonal wardrobe refreshment. I turned down social invites that involved anything more expensive than a cup of coffee, and sometimes even that.

I also exhausted my life savings, got ready to sell my car, talked to my banker about busting into my retirement funds and tried hard not to think about selling my house. I hated the judgment I sensed when people learned I kept my cable TV, which for me was my only entertainment outlet. Maybe I should have let it go, but we all make our own choices, stupid or otherwise.

Things have turned around now. I got a new job in January that I’m actually excited about, one that will pay me a hell of a lot more than my last two gigs, although not as much as my old career. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I probably won’t be seeing those paychecks again. The new normal, as they say.

Still, it’s going to be so gratifying to be able to confidently pay the bills, start building up my savings again and say “yes” to more of those social outings. And I’ve learned some humbling lessons along the way that I hope will stick with me. The illusion of job security is safely tucked away in my mental closet with the likes of the Tooth Fairy and straight men who like to watch “Say Yes to the Dress.” Luxury purchases will get scrutinized, and turned down more often than not. I have a newfound empathy for friends and loved ones who are financially struggling, because I really had forgotten what that was like.

I’m liking the idea of a budget now, because I’ve figured out that this is a smarter way to go. I need to really understand what’s coming in and what’s going out before I purchase 7 slightly varying shades of fuchsia nail polish.

And I think I’ve re-learned what it is to count, and appreciate, my blessings. Thankfully, that’s one thing I don’t have to budget.

Hear from this week’s expert, Dana Zukierski.