For a college graduate of the Great Recession, my experience isn’t all that unique. However, it was my post-college financial struggles that shaped me into the individual I am today: a twentysomething with a passion for understanding how people use money in their lives. You might relate to my story, or you might not (maybe you haven’t worried about money a day in your life). But hopefully you can learn something from my mistakes as a college grad in financial crisis.
Post-Grad Anxiety Disorder
July 15, 2009. It’s 1 a.m., and I can’t sleep. There’s no air conditioning in this apartment, and the summer heat is advancing quicker than usual. My portable fan is doing little to wick away my sweat in the humid early-morning. I’m lying on a lumpy futon, the only real piece of furniture in my room. The metal IKEA frame pokes through the thinning cushion. I’m sure this couch was comfortable at some point in its life, but I can’t complain too much; it was free, and I suppose you get what you pay for. To top off my discomfort, my stomach is rumbling. The pasta I ate for dinner filled me up, but that was more than six hours ago. My groceries need to last me for the week, so I decide not to venture into the kitchen.
The real reason I can’t sleep has little to do with my accommodations or my hunger pangs. I’ve been crying off and on for the past three hours. I feel hopeless, worthless, and depressed. I’m $30,000 in debt. I’m making $1,000 a month. And I know I can’t survive like this for much longer.
Two months earlier, I had graduated with a degree in International Relations from Boston University, an arguably prestigious and unquestionably expensive private school on the east coast. My college years had been speckled with character-building extracurriculars (marching band was my favorite), studying abroad (twice) and a few internships in the city. Like many of my fellow IR majors, I had lofty ambitions of graduating from school and landing a career abroad, where I’d discover a cure for poverty (yes, at the time I strongly believed there was a cure for poverty).
By my senior year, the impact of the 2008 recession still hadn’t really affected my personal life and my ability to secure a job post-graduation. On the other side of the country, my family was struggling to find some financial stability in an uncertain economy. But for me, I remained blissfully unaware of the financial woes of the real world, and eagerly awaited my chance to get a job and start earning some meaningful money.
It was only until I got my first job rejection letter that I realized how incredibly disillusioned I had been about my major, my college career and my plans after college.
Actually, it wasn’t even a job. I’d been turned down for an unpaid internship at a nonprofit; they claimed to have been “overwhelmed” by the number of applicants. I could not believe it. I’d been rejected for something I felt extremely overqualified for, something that didn’t even resemble full-time employment. My fall-back option after graduation, this particular internship, had told me I wasn’t good enough. “If I can’t land an unpaid gig, what does that mean for my job prospects?” I thought.
By the time graduation rolled around, I hadn’t made any progress. I was still jobless and confused. In my cap and gown, walking across the stage as the department chairman read my name aloud, I felt more anxiety than pride.
My parents had given up a lot for me to go to BU and they wanted to see me earn something that they never had: a degree. For them, it was the guarantee for a better future. It was a chance for me to escape the cycle of living paycheck-to-paycheck, to get health insurance, and to live a life with less stress and worry. For me, a degree and a job represented more options and more opportunities in life.
I now had the degree. But shaking the chairman’s hand while he gave me my diploma, I felt like I’d been entered into a deceptive contract: “Here’s your diploma. That’ll be $30,000, paid off in monthly installments for the rest of your life.” I felt like BU hadn’t fulfilled it’s end of the deal. At that moment, I had no income. The only money to my name was debt. I had no significant savings. I had no job prospects. Instead of feeling financially free and independent, I felt chained down by a mountain of student loans.
What had I gotten myself into and why hadn’t someone warn me?
Drowning in Debt
I continued working as an intern after graduation, making $1,000 a month. At first, it was bearable. I lived in a cozy apartment with three other girls in a similar post-grad limbo. We would sit around our fold-out kitchen table late at night, commiserating about how unprepared we felt to deal with the real world.
In the meantime, I was beginning to rack up credit card debt. Any unexpected expense became a credit card change; I just didn’t have the savings or the cash flow to deal with it. I was also uninsured and struggled to consistently pay for my prescription medication. I looked for ways to cut back on my expenses. I stopped going out on weekends. I cut back on groceries, like fresh produce – significantly more expensive than the packaged variety in the freezer aisles of the grocery store. Meanwhile, the pressure of finding a real job was getting to me. I was cracking.
What I Wish I Had Done Differently
In that moment, lying on that lumpy futon in the middle of the night, I wondered what I could’ve done differently. I wondered what it’d be like if I’d saved some extra money before college. I wondered how I could’ve avoided all of this student loan debt. I wondered what I would’ve done differently to pick my major, to find a job. What did I miss?
I blamed the economy; I blamed my college education; I blamed a lot of things for the situation I was in. But I knew that blame wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
I learned a valuable lesson: a college degree did not guarantee my financial success - and I had learned that the hard way, through thousands of dollars of unnecessary loans. Looking back to my teens and college years, I wish that I had done one thing differently: I wish that I’d learned how to deal with money. I wish I’d understood the value of a dollar and the benefits of saving money early and regularly. I wish I’d learned more about investing. I wish I understood the consequences of taking on student loans. Most importantly, I wish I realized that there are no financial guarantees in life and that you shape your financial destiny at a young age. I don’t blame my parents for not teaching me these things – they were never taught about managing money themselves. But I do know how valuable it would have been for me, and how it could’ve helped my situation.
I knew feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Something had to change. I began reading personal finance blogs to help me live off my measly earnings. I started budgeting, researched creative ways to earn extra cash on the side and scoured for coupons and discount codes for every product I bought. I was not going to let debt get the best of me and I knew I had to be the one to shape my own financial future. Needless to say, my life did a complete 180 when I finally found a full-time job. However, by that point, I’d added an extra $2,000 in credit card debt to my pile of loans. Still, I was determined to erase the money mistakes of my past. While I began fixing my own financial future, I also committed to helping others avoid debt and save money. I started teaching money management classes in Boston, and I now help develop financial education curriculum and savings programs for kids all across the U.S.
Lucky for me, I managed to crawl my way out of debt, but I know that others my age aren’t so fortunate. I hear stories of twentysomethings (including some of my friends) that are buried under monthly credit card payments and student loans, while working part-time jobs that barely pay above minimum wage.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say what I did wrong: I borrowed too much, I didn’t save and I didn’t understand how my financial actions affected my future. While I love helping people (especially the recent-grad crowd) fix their finances now, I am a firm believer in preventable finances.
This website was born out of the desire to share my story and help others avoid a similar fate to mine. The Empowered Dollar is a personal crusade of mine to help prevent anymore anxious and impoverished college grads. I’m still learning a lot about what it takes to be a financially successful adult, but I’ve got lot of lessons and stories to share with parents and kids alike.
I know you have your own relationship with money. I would love to hear your financial story. What kind of struggles with money have you faced in the past? What kind of money issues are you dealing with right now? Leave a note in the comments below!