Medical Emergencies and FI

(Warning: this has some bathroom TMI, so if you’re not down to hear about nausea or other stomach and health issues, maybe you should skip this one.) 

For the past week or so, I’ve felt a strange pressure in my lower left abdomen. Not quite a pain, not quite an injury, it’s more of a tenderness that is causing an awareness of that area. I brushed it off when it started; I’ve been doing more ab exercises at the gym recently and assumed that maybe it was a strained muscle. 

What the hell is going on???? Image from pexels.com.

That all changed early Tuesday morning. 

I still felt the tenderness, but it didn’t seem any different when I went to bed. However, I woke up around 2:30 in the morning and ran to the bathroom. I sank to the floor in front of the toilet, seat up, trying to breathe deeply to control the nausea that had hit me like a wave. But the breathing just seemed to push the uneasiness elsewhere, and I transitioned to sitting on the toilet, to see if whatever ailed me would come out that way. I was covered in a cold, clammy sweat. It got even worse when I started to feel light headed. I stood up and walked over to the mirror. My vision was going in and out, and black spots were appearing in front of my eyes. I couldn’t see straight.

Something was terribly wrong. 

This is it, I thought. One of my greatest fears was coming true: I was going to die alone on the floor of my apartment, with no one to find me until I didn’t show up for work for the rest of the week, in my very oldest and most ragged pair of underpants

Even just thinking about it now makes my heart beat faster, and I feel a little sick. (Yay, anxiety!)

I sat back down on the floor and tried to get my breathing and pulse under control. The intense nausea I felt when I woke up subsided a bit. I found my phone and dialed the 24/7 nurse line for my insurance and was quickly connected with an advice nurse. 

How long had I been exhibiting symptoms? Did I still feel like I needed to vomit? Did I still feel dizzy and lightheaded? Was I bleeding from any orifice? Did my eyes have a yellow tinge? Was I experiencing any sharp, stabbing pains? 

Since I didn’t have any sharp pains, wasn’t shooting blood out from anywhere, and was starting to feel better, the nurse on the phone assured me that I probably wasn’t going to die in the night. She did, however, schedule me for an appointment with my GP for later that day, since I had been having those weird abdominal feelings for a few days. Slightly reassured, I hung up the phone. At first I intended to camp out on the floor of the bathroom just in case, but no matter how many pillows and cushions I gathered around me, the hard floor and side of the tub still made my ass go numb and my spine feel sore. So, I trudged back to bed, and tried to go back to sleep sitting up, legs stretched out straight in front of me, trying to position myself so zero pressure was exerted on my guts. 

After a restless rest of the night, I went to the hospital, where my GP listened to me describe my symptoms again and then felt around in my guts to see if she could figure out what was wrong. Hernia? Nope. Enlarged spleen? Nope, that seemed normal too. From this external exam, she concluded that none of my internal organs seemed enlarged or out of place. I left her office with the reassurance that my organs did not appear to be in imminent danger of exploding inside of me. However, we did schedule a pelvic ultrasound to see if there might be something like an ovarian cyst hanging out and causing trouble. 

I still don’t know exactly what happened that night. There’s been another huge heatwave where I live, and I don’t have air conditioning, so it’s possible that I was experiencing symptoms of extreme dehydration. However, the symptoms I exhibited were also symptoms of shock–but from what? 

So what the hell does this have to do with financial independence? 

Financial independence buys time–but it also buys freedom. The freedom to live where we want to with the people we love. The freedom to slow down and take care of ourselves if we need it. 

Financial independence would mean that, after I had received my external exam from my GP, I could have stayed at the hospital and gotten my ultrasound on the same day without having to fret about returning to work. Instead, it is scheduled for Monday–and I have been spending the last three days wondering if there is something inside of me. 

My partner is currently finishing his master’s degree in Germany. If I was financially independent, I could stay for a while over there with him. Financial independence would mean being able to stay with the person I love, as opposed to living alone. It would mean having someone be able to drive me to the hospital in the middle of the night if I desperately needed it. It would mean not dying on my floor alone because I have some fucked up idea that I am taking an ambulance away from someone who truly needs it. It would mean having someone there to reassure me that all would be okay–and what I can’t seem to communicate through this post is how terribly alone I felt in that moment

Financial independence would also give me the freedom to enjoy the things I like most in life–my family, my partner, spending time in the outdoors, cooking, creating–without having to spend half of my waking life at a job where I don’t even know if I have a meaningful impact. A job where everyone comes in for a certain amount of time each day, regardless of what actually does or does not need to be done. 

Reading this back, the Tuesday morning episode doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. People experience medical issues all the time (my bowels and I are no exception). But in that moment, when I couldn’t even see my face in the mirror, all I felt was a primordial panic. This can’t be it. 

This can’t be it. 

And that’s why I am pursuing FI–so that at the moment when the earth decides to shuck me off of its surface and send me spinning into the great unknown, I will know that I have led a fulfilling life.
And I won’t be left thinking this can’t be it.

The Thing About Money, Part 5: Budgets, or, Knowing where every penny goes

(This is the fifth post in a six-post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money, Part I.)

I have tracked every monetary transaction I have made since January 2018.

I had just started grad school and, while not struggling, per se, was stretching to pay the bills. My three jobs covered my living expenses, but I was taking out (a lot of) loans to pay for tuition. I started tracking my spending as an exercise in self-control and to get a more accurate view of what my financial situation was. I wanted to see the cold, hard numbers. Money has always made me uncomfortable, and I have been forever anxious that it would eventually run out. 

Tracking where every dang cent goes. Image from pexels.com.

I also wanted to hold myself more accountable–if I knew I had to put my spending on a spreadsheet, to immortalize my shopping numbers on screen forever and stare at it day in and day out, it would make it a lot harder to drop $50 at Uniqlo every time I felt like I “needed” a new pair of pants to fit in with the full time workers at the corporate office at which I was interning. 

What I expected was to feel trapped. Money has always made me nervous, so having to really stare it down on a day to day basis made me feel a bit… well, queasy. And it did take a while to get into the habit–every time I bought something, I reminded myself to write it down. I tried pen and paper at first and wrote all my sums down in a tiny notebook, but eventually just switched to a google sheet. I made the switch because (a) 99% of my spending is with credit or debit cards, so all the transactions automatically show up in my account and (b) I could use formulas to do the math heavy lifting for me. 

Despite my apprehensions, what surprised me most about tracking my spending was the feeling of relief and freedom it gave me. 

Knowledge is power, y’all. 

Knowing exactly how much I had in the bank lifted the ever-present sense of anxiety that would swoop down even more fiercely when I was in a situation that involved spending money. Every time I was invited to dinner with a friend, I didn’t have to skip drinks entirely, order the cheapest thing on the menu while explaining that I wasn’t that hungry anyway, and spend the whole time praying they wouldn’t suggest that we split the check evenly. I’ve been the last person to get the check on more than one occasion–and, as such, the person who somehow pays $20 more than everyone else despite having the least to eat. This was especially bad when I was still living in New York and a lot of my friends made more money than me. I honestly don’t think it ever occurred to them that I couldn’t keep up with their lifestyle on my nonprofit salary.  

I don’t have to worry about that now* (or at least, not as much). With the power of spreadsheets, my entire financial situation is freely available at my fingertips. Honestly, I don’t even need to look any more–at this juncture in my life, I have a pretty good idea of how much money I have at any given time and in which accounts, in addition to knowing my current net worth (in the negative $20,000 range, y’all. Woo student loans!). I know whether or not I can go out to lunch with a friend. I know how much will be leftover at the end of the  month and how much I can afford to throw at my student loans. 

I know how much every bill costs and have accounted for it. I’ve also been able to start accounting for my future–last year I opened my first retirement account (a little late to the party, but better late than never) and this year I started saving to visit my partner in Germany. Having a budget and recording every single transaction empowered me with the knowledge of when to slow down on my spending and when I can feel good about taking a trip to see a loved one. I also like to spend my time making sample budgets–what would my spending look like if I made two student loan payments in one month?, for instance. 

These days, when I get really anxious and wonder how I will ever be able to pay off my student loans, retire, own a home if I so desire, etc., I take a deep breath and open up my spreadsheets. The numbers are there–numbers that tell me I am not spending more than I earn, and that I’m going to be ok. And yes, my car is twelve years old and over 125,000 miles, but in the event it decides to break down, I can manage it. And yes, my stomach hurts all the time and my joints hurt and I’m getting older and everything hurts, but I have the privilege of affording a doctor**, damn it. Which is actually quite a timely statement, as a medical issue the other night required me to make a doctor visit yesterday morning***. In the past, I would have fretted over whether or not I could afford the co-pay, or, in times I didn’t have insurance, if I could afford even a visit to Urgent Care. Because of my budget, I knew I could afford the co-pay–and it was money well spent to be assured that my spleen isn’t in imminent danger of exploding. 

Here’s the real kicker–I call myself poor. I grew up poor. I identify as poor. I generally believe myself to be poor. But according to the numbers, I’m fine. I’m quite alright. I’m actually doing quite better than a lot of people in the world right now, so what am I bitching about? I am a white, able-bodied, hetero-, cis-gender woman, which means I have a lot more privilege than others. I was born in the United States and have never had anyone question my right to work or even just be here****. I landed a job with insurance, which means I was able to go to the doctor–which means I don’t have to carry the anxiety and mental burden of wondering whether or not I’m going to wake up with organ failure and die alone on the bathroom floor of my apartment. I just need to take a deep breath and trust in the numbers. 

Are you interested in tracking your spending? I encourage you to give it a try–as I said above, confronting my financial situation has made me more prepared to move through life’s monetary obstacles with confidence (or at least knowledge). I’ve made a basic google sheet that provides spaces for expenditures on the left and income on the right. A few simple formulas calculate your totals and subtract your expenses from your income, so you have an up-to-date view of your monthly cash flow. The one I use is very similar, except I also have calculations that show the exact amounts I spend on categories such as groceries, gas, student loans, retirement, and savings (I get a bit extra with my personal spreadsheets, as previously mentioned on this blog).

In theory, you should be able to view this google sheet and make a copy of it. Please feel free to let me know if you have any questions or issues!

Are you already tracking your expenditures? How’s it going for you? Please feel free to leave a comment and share your experience. 

* I actually got a good tip about this the other day. If you can afford it, pay whatever the split is in the moment. Then never go out to dinner with those people again, ha ha. 

** In network, of course. America!

*** Hence why this post is a day late. 

**** There’s a recent debate going around in the FI world about whether or not FI is a “political issue” and whether or not we should be discussing politics when discussing FI. Spoiler alert: IT IS and WE SHOULD BE.

I Met with a Financial Advisor

Image from pexels.com.

Last week I met with a financial advisor.

It was one of the benefits of my job. I work at a large organization that runs a number of “wellness” programs through the HR department. While I ignore a lot of them — house buying workshops, financing your child’s education, etc. etc. — I was intrigued by the one-on-one appointments with an independent financial consultant. So I signed up. Because, hey, it was free, and maybe I would learn something new!

I came prepared and sailed into the tiny conference room with my laptop filled with files and files of conspiracy-theorist level spreadsheets. We’re talking budgets, account totals, and lists of everything I have bought/spent for the last 18 months. As soon as I showed the advisor my screen, his eyes lit up with joy. “I’ve never had anyone come into the first meeting as prepared as you,” he said.

Which, honestly, makes we worry for my coworkers. But I digress.

Before getting really down and dirty with the numbers, he asked me a few background questions. What have I been doing with my finances? What are my goals? Am I married? Do I have student loans? Etc. etc. etc. After getting a handle on my situation, he asked me what my goals were. I said I had two main goals: (1) pay off my student loans and (2) be able to completely retire at 59.5, if I choose to.

One is a truth and one is a lie. 

Frankly, I would like to FIOR (be financially independent and optionally retire–in my case, semi-retire) by 50. Of course, that’s a lie too. I’d like to FIOR by 45. Saying it out loud makes me feel foolish, though, as if it is an impossible dream, and not wanting to have the dream squashed, I told him 59.5, when I can start taking money from my retirement accounts. I’m 32 right now, and thirteen years just doesn’t seem that doable, given my current HCOL area and student loan debt. But it’s there, in my heart (and no longer a secret, since I’m putting it in my blog, I guess). 

We looked at my student loans first. I have two big direct unsubsidized loans from the federal government. Each loan is approximately $20,000, and because I took them out in two different years, one has an interest rate of 6% and the other 6.6%. I’m currently in my grace period, so I don’t have an exact monthly payment amount yet, but I’ve calculated them to be a little less than $500 a month. Of course, like, a full $200 of that is just interest. He suggested refinancing, but here’s where my anxiety creeps in–keeping my federal loans comes with perks, such as hardship deferments and things like that, which I would lose if I refinanced. However, I plan on paying my loans off as quickly as possible anyway, so does deferment availability matter anyway? 

(I’m still looking into this. If I can find somewhere that will refinance me at like 3.5% or less and allows for early pay-offs, I might do it. But that’s for future S to figure out.)

Then, we looked at the amounts I was putting away for retirement and where. I have a traditional IRA, but was advised to switch to a Roth. This is something I have been thinking of for a while anyway, mainly since I learned that you can take out what you’ve put into a Roth* at any time, since it’s already been taxed. This is something that I have worried about–I know it’s sensible to put as much into retirement as possible, but there’s a nagging ‘what-if’ worry in the back of my mind that makes me hesitate. 

“What if my car blows up, and I have to spend my whole emergency fund, and then I get fired?”

“What if my mom’s house gets blown away in the next hurricane and she needs some liquid cash to get back on her feet?”

“What if I get some rare cancer not covered by my insurance and it costs ten million dollars?”

“What if Godzilla comes and smashes my apartment and I have nowhere to live?”

Knowing that this money isn’t necessarily 100% tied up until 59.5 does put me a bit more at ease. Even though I don’t plan on needing it until I am eligible to receive dividends, viewing it as a super catastrophic kablammo emergency fund that supplements my own, normal, less life-or-death emergency fund makes me feel better about putting so much of my cash into it. 

After retirement plans, we spoke briefly about other types of investing. He beamed at me, eyes twinkling. “I usually don’t even talk about this kind of thing in these consultations, but I think you can handle it,” he said, while reaching for an investment brochure. We talked about the different types of funds and asset diversification, and picked out a few things to try–some REITs, Index Funds, Emerging Market funds, etc. 

(I have a list of exact funds**, but this leads us to another issue–how to get my money to these funds. I’ve been trying to get some things set up through Fidelity and Vanguard, but both processes have been mildly frustrating, to say the least. Looks like I’ll have to actually call a human…) 

Overall, I enjoyed the experience, although he was a little pushy in emphasizing “unexpected surprises” like accidently having a kid (“My partner and I don’t plan on having any,” I said. “Well, you never know what nature has planned for you!” he replied. And I bit my tongue, saying to myself “That’s why birth control and termination options exist.” BUT THAT’S A WHOLE ‘NOTHER ISSUE.)

While I didn’t necessary learn anything new in the appointment (I’ve done a LOT of googling, reading financial blogs, etc.), I found it valuable in that it gave me some assurance that I’m already doing some things right. It clarified a few things about my own finances that I still found fuzzy, and it also gave me a little push to pursue some opportunities that I had been thinking about, but that my own risk-aversion (and generally change-resistant nature) had prevented me from already doing. 

All in all, it was pretty fun! I would say if you have the opportunity to take place in a meeting like this, do it. Even if you don’t necessarily learn anything that will make you change your financial goals and methods, it’s always nice to have a second (and hopefully, more experienced or knowledgable?) set of eyes go over your numbers and assure you that you won’t be eating cat food at seventy

* Contributions, not earnings

** I signed a paper that said he and/or the university and/or his company was not to be held legally responsible if I lost all my money, FYI

The Thing About Money, Part 4: Retirement, or, I don’t want to be old and poor

(This is the fourth post in a six-post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money, Part I.)

As mentioned in Part 3 of this series, one of the things that scares me about my current debt load/financial situation in general is not having enough money to retire on. 

This worry isn’t without warrant. According to this 2018 survey, 42% of Americans have “less than $10,000 saved” for retirement. 42%. So, pretty much half of us (assuming this excludes children–Why haven’t you opened an IRA yet, little Timmy?). This is especially true of millennials; 57% of us have less than $10,000 saved (GUESS WHO HAS TWO THUMBS AND IS IN THE CLUB? THIS GIRL!!!!). 14% don’t have any retirement savings at all.

Nothing. Zero. Nada. 

This is a problem.

As per the National Council on Aging, “over 25 million Americans aged 60+ are economically insecure—living at or below 250% of the federal poverty level.” A full third of senior households don’t have any money left over by the end of the month, and some have to go into debt just to meet their basic living expenses. And even if they get social security, on average, women get $4500 less a year because they paid less into the system (and this number is even worse for women of color). Many elderly people are working well into their seventies, but eventually, there comes a time when their bodies just can’t do it anymore. 

There’s a big joke about having to eat cat food into one’s retirement, but it seems like there are people who are actually out there doing it. Frankly, I don’t want to be one of those people. 

You bet your ass I will push Mittens right out of line to get to that Fancy Feast. Photo from pexels.com.

This is a multigenerational issue. In a previously-mentioned episode of Bad with Money with Gaby Dunn, Gaby talks to her parents about their retirement plans. Her mom laughs and says “You’re my retirement plan.” She includes something along the lines of how they’ve invested so much in Gaby and pretty much that they expect her to help support her parents in their retirement. This is an incredible amount of stress to place on one’s child. And some parents live longer than we expect, which means we could be taking care of them after our own retirement*. 

Luckily, I don’t have to worry about my mom. She’s about to retire from the military, so she has a guaranteed paycheck and affordable medical care for the rest of her life. The knowledge that she’ll be taken care of takes a great weight off of me; she’s too proud to ever ask for help, but I would have given it to her, had she needed it. But she doesn’t. And I’m super grateful, because now I have the freedom to only worry about myself.

Unfortunately, the reverse of this situation is the reality for people as well. Many parents of adult children are having to delay or are not adequately saving for retirement because their children still need support, either with general expenses or, often, student loans. It’s completely understandable why someone would want to help their children, especially if they’re struggling; however, this seems like a good time to remind everyone of what they tell you on planes–put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. 

I don’t want this to be my future, for myself or my mother. 

Like my mother, I am also too proud to ask for help if I need it, unless I’m in an incredibly desperate situation. There was one–exactly one–situation when I had to call my step-dad for emergency support, and it still ranks as one of the most shameful moments of my life. After I graduated college, I was trying to support myself on the only job I could get at the time–minimum wage at a local bagel shop. Parking was notoriously hard in my neighborhood, so I often played roulette with spaces in random apartment buildings. One morning I walked to my car to find it booted. The cost to remove the boot? $200. 

I did not have $200.

So I cried. I called the number on the boot and cried on the phone with the company, cried when some random man showed up to take the boot off, cried when he ran my almost-maxed-out credit card, and cried on my way to work, wondering how I was going to pay rent the next week. After work, I did the unthinkable–

I called my step-dad and asked for help. 

And cried some more. And he, sweet man–full of remorse from years of alcoholism and still feeling like he needed to buy my love to make up for it–he transferred some money into my high school savings account so I could write a rent check without it bouncing and get a few groceries for the week. I felt like shit. I felt like the smallest, most pathetic, most useless human on the face of the earth. I felt manipulative for calling him, because I knew he would help me, because I was too embarrassed to talk to my own mother. 

I am still embarrassed when I think of this story. 

However, I tell this story to remind myself of why saving is so important. I don’t ever want to rely on anyone else again for my support. Additionally, I have no children to care for me and currently no intention to have any, nor, if I do, would I expect them to care for me. That’s not their job. As such, I need to make efforts now to ensure that my finances are ok later. 

I currently have a tiny bit of money stashed away for retirement. As in, like, less than $5000. Additionally, I worked overseas for a full three and a half years, so that’s three and a half years I didn’t pay into social security. I’m in my thirties, and even though retirement seems like it’s a long way away, I don’t think I’m going to make it into old age gracefully if I don’t drastically change things now. 

However, there is a part of me that wonders if it’s even worth the effort. Should I worry about “the market” when climate change is going to cause “Human Civilization to crumble” by the time 2050 rolls around (aka when I’m 63)? Should I instead be stockpiling clean water, bullets, and sunscreen? (I talked about this a bit in my first post, so I’m stopping my existential ramble… now.)

Assuming we are still alive in 2050 and not slaves to our computers or in a war against an army of machines, I will need some retirement savings. 

It’s not easy. Since starting my new job, I’ve budgeted a pretty good chunk–about $500/month–to go into an IRA. Even with the rest of my expenses and my student loan payments, I should be able to keep this up at least through June. But then I might get kicked out of my employer-owned housing, and that $500/month might have to be added to my rent just so I can find a place to live (three cheers for the south bay). 

I recently cancelled my cell phone insurance and photoshop monthly plan, in an effort to save some more money. I tell myself that if I keep playing with my spreadsheets and adjusting my numbers by five dollars here, ten dollars there, I will somehow feel like I am not going to end up old and destitute, only to have my body tossed in a pauper’s field with the gravel barely covering my bones, where on windy days the dirt blows away and you can see my skull (Oh Milat—why did you stare at the mayor?)

But this is why I need to start now. As the oft-quoted Einstein supposedly said, compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. I have about thirty years to get this powerful force to work for, and not against, me. So, next week, let’s take a good hard look at my budget. 

* This may be behind a paywall. I’ll work on posting more sources that are open access, but your local library may have a subscription through which you can access this article.

The Thing About Money, Part 3: Student Loans, or, How debt scares the hell out of me

(This is the third post in a six post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money, Part I.)

I have $43,188.99 in student debt.

$40,328 is principal, and $2,860.99 (or 7%) is interest. The only reason the interest is so low is because I made a few payments here and there while still in school. On $20,500 worth of loans, I have an APR of 6.6%. On the other $19,828, I have an APR of 6%. 

This amount of debt makes me sick to my stomach. 

Counting each and every cent. Image from pexels.com.

In my 32 years of life on this earth, I have never personally had a negative net worth past $2,000. That was in consumer credit card debt I accumulated while struggling to find a post-college job that paid a living wage. I paid that amount off soon after I got a new job, and I’ve been in the positive ever since–until I started grad school. My current net worth is in the negative $20,000s. In the words of Elizabeth Bennet, “How is such a sum to be repaid?” 

(Of course, that was about an elopement. And I don’t have a handsome and conveniently rich Mr. Darcy to dispatch thousands of dollars to my aid.)

I’m not alone. Collectively, students in the United States owe a total of over $1.5 trillion in student loans. Per NerdWallet, the “average U.S. household with student debt owes $47,671.” Undergraduates finishing up in 2017 owe an average of $28,650 each. And this number can change depending on the field you go into–I owe over $40,000, and I am in a subset of education that is not known for paying well (as is the field in general). Medical students owe, on average, almost $200,000 a pop. According to this article from 2015, social work graduates can owe upwards of $60,000 in debt and expect starting salaries of only $41,000. These are all essential fields. Unfortunately, not all of these fields pay well. 

And all of us in these essential fields have a story. Here’s mine.: 

My student loan debt was just to pay for my master’s degree. I was very blessed in that I didn’t need to take out loans to fund my undergraduate education. My biological parents split when I was three, and my mom and stepdad divorced when I was sixteen or so. As such, my mom was the only parent on my FAFSA. 

With a combination of grants and scholarships, my mom as the sole income provider for our family, working several jobs through college, and the decision to turn down my NYU acceptance for a more affordable in-state school (a decision which I regret only a little bit, but mostly not at all), I was able to graduate in 2009 with my BA in English, during the Great Recession. I bounced around a few minor jobs after that (including working for minimum wage for the first time since high school) and finally landed in South Korea, where I spent three and a half years teaching English to high school and college students. 

I’m confident that making the decision to move overseas is the only thing that helped me have a stable career trajectory in my twenties. 

After coming back stateside in 2014, I moved to New York City, where I worked at an artisanal nut milk company, a terrible for-profit medical school, and an international exchange nonprofit (that had a heavy endowment but, instead of paying its workers a living wage, threw us two big parties a year with all the free booze we could drink and acted like saints for it). While there, I started volunteering somewhere and discovered a deep passion for a field I hadn’t previously given a real look at. I threw myself into the volunteer work, and I deeply enjoyed it–but to do it professionally, I needed a master’s. 

It was 100% my decision to go back to school. By choosing the program I did (in-person at a private school with no online component), I knew I would be paying a bit more, but I thought it would be worth it. I chose an in-person only program because the curriculum and experiences required made it seem like it had more credibility to it* (although–surprise!–they added an online program in my second year, which had been in the works for multiple years, and which the school didn’t think worth mentioning to us). And while I am one of the lucky ones from my program that was able to find a full time job after graduation (although it took a cross-country move), a number of my fellow graduates are still looking. 

Most of my courses were taught by busy adjuncts who were professionals in the field but not professional educators. Some were taught by adjuncts who weren’t contacted by the university until a week before classes were supposed to start. Some were taught by adjuncts who didn’t hold the degrees for the program for which they were teaching. Some were taught by adjuncts who didn’t bother to show up on the first day of class (which, on a quarter system, is 10% of class time), who cancelled because they were sick and didn’t make up the class (instead touting it as some sort of favor to us), or who let us out after an hour of what was supposed to be a two-and-a-half hour class (two-and-a-half hours that we paid for, regardless of actual time spent). I mention this not to shit on adjuncts–after all, adjuncts make up the backbone of higher education and are often asked to teach under shitty conditions–but to show that, despite the astronomical tuition, I was not receiving the education that was advertised. Frankly, my education was not a priority for most of my instructors (although I can’t blame them–if you lack resources like time and money, you can only do so much). My university did not hold up their end of the bargain. As per the above linked article,

“If you are paying for a college education today, you are paying comparatively more money than previous generations have paid — nearly $70,000 in annual tuition, room and board, and fees at America’s most expensive schools — to be educated by a more poorly-resourced, poorly paid, and potentially poorly-motivated group of educators.”

– Dan Edmonds

So here I am, over $40,000 in debt, with a degree that some in my profession have started arguing only acts as a barrier to entry and shouldn’t even be a requirement for employment (although, for gainful employment, it most certainly still is). And for those of you who say I should have tried to get more scholarships and worked harder, please note that I applied for (and received) multiple scholarships as well as worked two to three jobs at any given time. During my last year, I worked full-time, went to school full-time, and worked a part-time job on top of that. And I still have negative $43,188.99 to show for it. 

The purpose of The Thing About Money series is for me to examine my relationship with money to understand why I have a hard time with it. In this instance, money is a heavy weight that is dragging me down with it. My student loans make me feel buried. That $43,188.99 plus future interest is getting in the way of my retirement (which we’ll talk about next week). It’s making me worry about ever saving up enough to put a downpayment on a house. It’s making me worry about how to pay off the loans and my rent next year (I live in a HCOL area for my job, and while thankfully this year’s rent is slightly subsidized, there’s no guarantee for next year). I have an emergency fund (once again, I feel the need to defend myself–I am a Good Poor!).

Is this debt the result of choices I willingly made? Yes. However, is this debt also emblematic of major problems with my university and the higher education system in general? Also yes. But as I feel powerless to change the system, I guess I just have to figure out a way to work within it. 

So that’s my story. What’s your student loan story? Feel free to include it in the comments. I’m sure it’s a doozy. 

*Please note that I am not claiming that all online degree programs are not reputable nor worth it. However, a recent study found that 53% of survey respondents thought that people learned less or much less in online degree programs as compared with residential ones. I never wanted my education questioned, so I went with a residential program. However, as explored above, perhaps that was a huge mistake on my part.

The Thing About Money, Part 2: Foundations, or, I grew up learning money was bad

(This is the second post in a six post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money Part I.)

When I was very young, my family was poor. Looking through baby pictures one time, I saw that we were in what appeared to be an apartment with two large beds in one room. When I asked my mom where we were living, she said it was a hotel. At one point, my parents were so poor that they couldn’t afford a security deposit on an apartment. But then dad joined the military (or maybe he was already in the military? Things in the early days are vague, and frankly, I’m not interested in discussing them too much). I remember one house that must have been military–it was in a townhouse, and we must have just moved, because I remember a room full of boxes that my brother and I played in.  

But then my mom and dad divorced, and we were poor again. Single mother with two kids living in a trailer in nowhere rural Maryland poor. I didn’t notice–my mom did a lot of things with my brother and I that were free (taking us to the park, the library, etc.) so we were always busy and happy. Every year or so the pajama fairy would visit while we were at the babysitter’s and put a new-to-us pair of pajamas on our beds. When it was just us, it was a non-issue. 

Ye olde change jar. Image from pexels.com.

But then I started school.

Things were better–my stepdad was in the military and mom was working full-time–but money worries were still a theme in my family. When we went back-to-school shopping, my brother and I looked longingly at the trapper keepers and dinosaur-shaped erasers, but always came home with the basics (although if we asked nicely, we got to pick two novelty folders–mine were usually Lisa Frank or Marvin the Martian. My brother opted for Hot Wheels or Taz.). Classmates would bring capri suns and fancy lunchables with build-your-own pizzas to lunch, and I would have my flip-top plastic bag with peanut butter and jelly. New clothes came from the Goodwill. We were clothed, fed, and taken care of–my parents did what they could for us. But I couldn’t help noticing the things the other kids had, and I knew that I couldn’t have them, even if I asked. Eventually, I didn’t want to ask anymore. 

In fifth grade, my school started an orchestra class, and I had to rent a viola to join. My parents bought me the wrong kind of shoulder rest but I was embarrassed to say we had to go back and buy a new one. I thought it would be too much money (which is silly, as renting the viola probably cost a lot more than a shoulder pad, but I was nine, so didn’t think about that). The other shoulder rest was a pad that made it easier to play. It was hard to play with mine, so I didn’t practice. I didn’t practice, so I didn’t want my parents to sign my practice log. I didn’t get my practice log signed, so I was in danger of failing class. Finally, my teacher called my parents, and I got the pad I needed all along. If I had just mentioned it to my parents at the beginning of the year, things would have been fine (and I would have been a lot better at playing the viola). But it cost money, so I didn’t want to ask. 

We had a yard sale one time so mom could raise money to go see a dentist for a problem with her teeth. It was summer, and it was hot. We lived at the end of a cul-de-sac on the edges of town that didn’t get any thru-traffic. If you came to our street, it’s because you had a reason. We put ads in the paper, put up fliers, and got a few visitors, but I remember seeming like we had a whole lot leftover at the end of the day. I took it upon myself to count our earnings, and when I saw mom later, I told her how much we had made that day: about $73 dollars. She immediately burst into tears. I was horrified. 

Over and over again, the lessons I learned were that money was a problem that led to heartbreak and shame. 

This has very much shaped my adult life and my current attitudes about money. Money was something we always needed and never had enough of. Money was the reason we couldn’t get our air conditioner fixed and had to use painter’s plastic to section off the living room to trap what little cold air we could get out of a borrowed window unit. Money was why we snuck cookies into the movie theater instead of getting the brightly colored and highly coveted boxes of candy, and why we saw the movies at the theater across town after they’d been out for a few months. 

Now that I am an adult, I know that I am lucky we had air conditioning at all, or that we could go to the cheap movies–we always had something to eat and somewhere to sleep. But it was hard to go over to the freshly-built McMansions of friends, play with their vast collections of brand-new barbies, and not feel different. Less. Even the food they ate was different. My best friend in elementary and middle school, S, wasn’t rich, but she wasn’t poor either. Her parents always had nutritious, organic groceries. When I stayed over for dinner, I was almost always presented with some sort of mysterious organic vegetable and lentil soup that her mom had made from scratch. Although I am old enough now to know that is a far cry from filet mignon, it was also a very far cry from the hot dogs with store brand mac-and-cheese or dehydrated potatoes and canned corn we ate at my house. 

This continued into my teens and adulthood. My first serious boyfriend, T, was rich. He probably wouldn’t say that–after all, his dad was a transmission mechanic, a thoroughly blue-collar job, but they lived in a house that was bigger than two of mine put together and that had an in-ground swimming pool. And it had stairs (if you grew up in a trailer park or a shitty ranch house like I did, you know what it means to covet stairs). He dressed nice; his mom bought him clothes from places like Abercrombie and Aeropostale–coastal Carolina preppy, and they didn’t have those stores in our town, you had to drive an hour to the big mall in Wilmington to shop there (which, to me, was basically the other side of the world). 

Meanwhile, I would come over with my purple hair and wearing my Goodwill skirts or, when I finally got a minimum wage job slinging popcorn at the movie theater, my highly-clearanced hot topic cargo pants, and I could see the thoughts behind that woman’s face plain as day: trash. My youngest son has brought home trash. 

I still feel like people look at me and see white trash. 

Once again, I am reminded of a quote from 30 Rock:

“You’ve come a long way, haven’t you, Kenneth Ellen, with your cheap loafers and your page jacket? But you’ll always be a pig farmer’s son, boy, cause I smell fried baloney all over you.”

Poor is a stink that I feel I can never wash out. I feel like people smell it when they see the holes in my sweaters and my Payless (RIP) shoes. They smell it when I mispronounce big words I only ever read in books and never heard spoken aloud, or when I talk about not being able to afford to go home for both Christmas and Thanksgiving.

And I smell it, too. Even now, after getting my master’s and landing a new job that I like, after starting an IRA and a savings account and trying to learn about investing, I still smell it. 

This is my background with money. I am obsessed with it and scared of it but want more just the same, but I never seem to trust it, nor do I believe I will ever really have it. Money is a thing that other people have, and the lessons I’ve learned about money is that there’s never enough, and people know and look down on you because of that. 

In one of my favorite podcasts, Bad with Money with Gaby Dunn, Gaby Dunn talks to her parents about their attitudes toward money and spending as she was growing up. For example, Gaby’s mother is a lawyer, but she often takes favors from clients who can’t afford her services. When Gaby questions this practice, her mother explains her actions by saying that she worked a lot for children and felt like those children needed her help. And she also counters with–”Do you feel you were deprived of anything?

I feel like my mom would say the same to me. I was fed, clothed, housed, and safe. So is it fair to blame her for anything, if that’s what I’m even doing? Do I feel deprived? Should I just get over it, whatever it is? 

I’ve been trying to think of a snazzy way to wrap-up this post–you know, some sort of snappy final statement that sums up everything I have to say in a pithy one-liner. Drop the mic, etc. etc. etc. But I don’t think I have anything, so I guess I just hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into my weird anxiety-riddled background with money. What are your weird money thoughts? Feel free to explore in the comments.