August 18, 2010 by Leah
Apparently I’m one of those walking clichés: I’m great at managing an organizational budget if it’s seven figures or over, but I’m pitiful at dealing with a household budget in the five figure range. Actually, that word “budget” might be the key. Organizations have annual budgets that are created and vetted by several layers of management, that are tracked on a regular basis – daily, in some cases – and that are re-evaluated on a slightly less regular basis. Does anyone actually do this at the household level? Are we supposed to? Should we?
Obviously, I’ve always known how much money I make. I’ve even sporadically given myself monthly variable expense targets (you know, all the stuff that doesn’t include rent, phone, internet, loans, insurance, cable, gym memberships, etc.), but I’ve never been disciplined about sticking to them. The first few years of my professional employment were financially murky, at best. Soon after getting a great apartment at age 23, I lost my utility job and took a pay cut of over $5 an hour to work for a non-profit with a mission I loved. I squeaked by until various bridesmaid duties, a trip to Scotland (totally worth it, by the way), and medical bills I incurred by being underinsured left me with $10,000 in credit card debt. To manage that, I took a second job for a while, working as a front-end clerk at a local grocery store. I only lasted three months, quitting rather dramatically when a puffed-up supervisor reprimanded me for not asking a customer if she needed help out with two bags. (That’s the policy. We were also trained to look for corporate badges or nametags so we could call the customers by their names. That’s not “personal,” that’s creepy.) Three months of part-time work at eight dollars an hour doesn’t go that far towards reducing debt. (On the plus side, I lost 10 pounds due to not being home during the prime evening eating hours.)
I finally got on my feet again thanks to a series of generous-yet-well-deserved raises at work, after which I decided to start a graduate program. Over half of that was funded by my earnings and by inheritance money my mother was nice enough to give me after my grandfather passed away, but I still took out four student loans. (I later discovered I was one of the few people in the program paying my own way. Many of the other students were funded, at least in part, by their for-profit employers.)
Then in May of this year, I graduated and left my job at about the same time, leaving me unemployed and in debt. I had some savings, leave to cash out, and a fabulous husband who has a great job, which means I’m one of the lucky ones. I also have more than five years of professional experience under my belt, which is a huge boon in a job search. Writing cover letters and answering interview questions in a rational manner has been MUCH easier during this job search than it was during the post-college period of unemployment.
During that post-college job search, I had no debt and managed to scrape by (even living in Manhattan) until I found a temp job, all thanks to my wonderful parents. Many people do not have parents as wonderful or as solvent as mine are. I do not understand how, as a society, we support letting financially uneducated young adults incur tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt prior to releasing them into a world where they’ll be lucky to find a job in “the service industry.” I’ve read several articles on this lately, questioning the ethics of colleges that encourage their students to incur debt they won’t be able to pay back, questioning whether “emerging adulthood” is, in fact, a life stage that needs a different set of rules, even questioning whether a traditional college education is “worth it” for most of us. I mean, look at me – I spent years enrolled in various excellent institutions and only at age 28 did I finally get myself out of credit card debt and establish some emergency-fund savings. I can analyze literature, music, art, and apply my knowledge of history and philosophy to any number of current events, but I have no idea how most people manage their personal finances. In the future, perhaps the new government Office of Financial Literacy will be able to help folks like me.