An inherent Catch 22: if I write about my financial situation, I am exploiting both the privilege I hold and the financial failures I’ve experienced. If I don’t write about money, I uphold the taboo silence around financial health on a per-person basis, missing out on both advice and the ability to potentially help (or at least relate to) others who are in similar situations.
As someone who always errs on TMI, I shall divulge my financial journey. This has been very top of mind for me since I left my job in Denver, when income became a serious question mark.
My Financial History
I was raised in a middle-income home with a mother who was arguably obsessed with money. If she wasn’t screaming at my dad asking him Where’s the check?! from one of his serial small businesses, she was telling me that to play oboe in the school band it Will have to be your Christmas AND birthday present. If she wasn’t spending an extra two minutes after checking out at the grocery store balancing her checkbook on a purchase-by-purchase basis, she was reminding me that my grandpa, her dad, paid for everything, everything, in cash.
When my mother died, I was a 21-year-old in my fifth year of college with student loan debt, a plan to move to Arkansas, and a new, just over $30k inheritance. I used money from my mother’s death in the following ways:
- I donated 10%, $3k, to the church that helped me through the first year of coping with her death; specifically asking them to use it to renovate a specific center that almost exclusively college students used
- I bought an old Camry, cash, for $5k
- I paid off all of my $15k student loan debt
- I loaned-without-any-expectation-of-getting-back $5k to a friend who would benefit a hell of a lot more from it than I would
- I used the rest to move to Arkansas and join TFA without financial burden
In short, I got rid of that money as fast and as ethically as I knew how. Would I do the same thing now? I’m not sure, but I don’t really feel bad about any of those decisions, and I like to think my mom would approve.
Then I got a job with a salary.
As a teacher in rural Arkansas in 2010, I made about $30k a year. It slowly, very slowly, increased with each of my four years in the classroom. Because I lived in rural Arkansas, with access to nothing and no real entertainment nearby, I saved about $15k in my four years as an educator. I then moved to Little Rock: with coffee shops and vegetarian food and an airport and rent that jumped from $125 (in 2010, seriously, yes) to $750 plus utilities. The money dried up. Six years in education gave me a jump to just $40k, when I was at a director level role in a non-profit. With a high rent (worth it) and needing to buy another pretty old car, I didn’t manage to save anything.
After two years in Little Rock, I made the jump to Denver. My rent was suddenly $950 and my salary was just under $60k. I used all of my disposable income to travel. If I wasn’t on the east coast seeing my siblings, I was back in Arkansas visiting my dad and friends. If I wasn’t in Egypt, I was backpacking Central America. And if I wasn’t doing that, I was drinking vodka and dropping hundreds at TJ Maxx and Nordstrom Rack.
By August, I had quit my job, was living in my Aunt’s basement, had about $10k in a retirement account, and was in the literal red as far as holding money. I began to live off of credit cards, limiting myself to my aunt’s home and aunt’s food because I had no idea what the fuck to do.
Now I’m here.
Calculated out, with my two art museum jobs, I would make less than $40k if I kept up my clocked-in exact 47 hours a week and if my fellowship was a full year. The reality is that I usually work between 42–46 hours a week, don’t get paid if I take a day off, and my fellowship is only 10 months.
I take home about $2,400 a month.
I’ve been carrying about $1,500 of credit card debt. Occasionally getting overdraft charges because I accidentally have my cash in the Maryland bank account instead of the Arkansas account, and an autopayment I forgot about takes more than I have. I had a car, and car insurance, rent, utilities, phone bill, IRA contribution, and food. Every time I got a $52 parking ticket (too many times) I would rip myself apart with how stupid I was, how I didn’t have the money to pay for it, and would watch my accounts stay exactly the same.
In this, I had to chill the fuck out and give myself some grace, as well as a reality check to the privilege I hold.
- I have good credit. I was born into a family that understood and maintained good credit. My parents never took out loans or did anything in my name, so when I was 18 and opened my first credit account, all I had to do was consistently use and pay the bill to have good credit. Right now, according to mint (the app), my credit is at 760. Enough to have no issue with renting, buying shit, or getting a loan if I needed one.
- I have had retirement accounts since my first job. In the time between quitting Denver and working at these museums, I opened an IRA and have contributed to it even when I was living off of credit cards. I have three different retirement accounts; none of which are substantial, but is more than what a lot of the country has.
- This credit card debt is my only debt. I recognize this is insanely rare for someone my age with my educational experience. Even with a masters, I carry no loans from either degree. I hate talking about this because of the guilt that sometimes pops up in speaking, but I can’t change the privilege I was given, and it’s not a I-had-so-you-can’t; it’s I-had-and-want-all-to-have and the financial planning (life insurance) of my parents that offset a lot of debt I could have had, in addition to deliberately choosing an inexpensive college and taking the offer for free tuition to a less-impressive master’s degree.
- I have skills, education, and solid professional experience. Regardless of how much I talk down to myself, I know what I’m capable of doing, and I know that the salary I hold now does not at all need to be the salary I continue to hold. I am deliberately choosing to not use my teaching experience (a jump to a Baltimore City teaching role would likely get me at least $47k, and I’ve opted not to do that right now).
So shut up, Caroline!
Considering this, in my relative position on earth, I still felt the weight and stress of wanting to a) contribute to my retirement, b) eat, c) have health insurance, d) maintain a social life similar to my peers, and e) get to work. This is without acknowledging how much I want to see my family or closest friends, none of which live in the same state as me.
What did I do to flip my situation and outlook?
In the last two weeks, my financial situation has made a fairly dramatic shift. I dropped my credit card debt down to $700, have about $2,000 of flexible money, have a tiny starting savings for a car, a tiny travel savings, and goals for the next year.
- I created and obsessively used a budget.
I made an extremely detailed budget in google docs that I update every Sunday or Monday; I also downloaded apps for ALL of my accounts; I opened a new checking account in Maryland so I have separate accounts for automatic withdrawals and actual flexible money, as well as multiple savings accounts for different savings goals).
- I made targeted savings goals.
I aimed to increase my grocery spending while decreasing my eating out spending; I set a number I was willing to spend on alcohol; I made a list of higher-cost items I want to buy, like a bed frame, so when I want to drop $35 at Target I stop and reconsider my priorities; I set aside exact dollar amounts I wanted to contribute per month to savings goals for travel, buying a house, buying a car, and retirement).
- I decided that owning a car was too much of a drain.
Getting rid of it cut my monthly expenses by $200 and, due to most challenging logistics of getting out, I now prioritize my Going Out Time to be way more meaningful and less expensive. I now take the bus everywhere and limit Lyft to when I have a lot of stuff to bring somewhere or know I’m going to be cold or out really late.
- I put feelers out for The Hustle.
Last week, a blog I wrote for free for over the summer reached out asking if I wanted to write a few paid entries. At $75 a post, I limited my time (an hour for each draft) to maximize profit. This should lead to an extra $300 to put toward my debt. I also started www.okayeverything.com and sold some original artwork. When there are extra hours at work, I weigh my exhaustion with the literal dollar value of the work and sometimes work extra.
Frugal Now By Necessity = Frugal Later and Saving Way More
I am seeking jobs with salaries starting at $50k and maxing out somewhere near $90k. How qualified I am and the likelihood of nabbing one I’m not sure of, but I am sure that in the next twelve months I’ll have a higher take home income. By living in my current reality, I’m trying to memorize my habits and hold onto them.
I love Baltimore. Knowing this, I feel fairly committed to buying a house here in the next 3–5 years. Because I (finally!) know this is a goal of mine, I hope to land a higher paying gig where I can manage a mortgage and furnishing a house by myself (haaaay spinster women!) Because I’ve managed to get frugal as hell right now, I hope I can hoard away money to Live My Damn Life the way I want to in upcoming years.
I still understand where I stand, comparatively.
It’s a pretty huge struggle to put this into the internet, because I am too aware of my comparative position. I understand student debt and have so many loved ones in that battle. I understand having shitty credit due to family members impacting it before you were 18, or due to not having the historical knowledge of what good credit does or how to maintain it. I also know what it’s like to feel forced into hourly work despite your skills, and know (and have seen) the classist and racist hiring practices that permeate ALL industries.
I am in a position right now where all these things set me on fire with rage. At the same time, I am trying to see our goddamn capitalist society not as “I have so you cannot have” but as, “This is how I did it and I see you on a path doing better.” It’s so easy to see money and careers as only competitive, but I don’t think they are. I think the more gains I know how to make for myself, the more gains I know how to help others get AND the more wealth I have to share by investing in people and organizations I believe are doing good.
IDK, am I full of shit?
Money is so damn taboo, that I don’t really know a lot of bigger picture opinions, and I’m open to them. I have friends that think it’s insane to make less than $90k, and friends that think making more than $30k is out of reach.
This is where I am right now, and I’m sharing it because I damn wish I have had more transparency with money until this point. If you want to compare budgets, add your story, or talk more Money Real Talk, please let’s do.