Choose Life

I imagine there are some people who are wondering why the hell I would be open about something like how much debt I have and what I’m doing to get rid of it. As I mentioned before, I feel like part of the obstacle of repaying debt is talking about it. How did I get into so much debt? Obviously, some shit happened.

A lot of people wind up getting into debt by living a lifestyle that doesn’t match their cash flow. I certainly have instances of doing just that and making stupid mistakes like paying for a group of people to do something and then pocketing the cash to cover other expenses rather than using it to pay my credit card right away. Thank God Venmo was invented to stop that from happening ever again. If you are my friend, you must download this app. The bulk of my debt comes from using my credit cards for basic needs when I worked for a business that couldn’t pay all of its employees on time. After I left that business, I was partially unemployed for six months, then I moved to Boston. And yes, I did go on a vacation to Puerto Rico while I was unemployed. Yes, definitely an instance of doing something I couldn’t afford — but I got engaged on that trip… so, no regrets #bitches.

The very first credit card I got came with a Bank of America “Campus Edge Checking Account” as overdraft protection. The limit was $1,500, and as a sophomore in college with all my basic needs covered by loans or my campus job, I completely forgot about the thing. In college, I successfully lived within my means. I did use my credit card for plane tickets to Germany and Italy while in school, but I paid the bill right away using my work study and babysitting money. During my junior and senior year, I worked between 20-40 hours a week doing my work study job and babysitting at night. Working so much and being a full time student, I didn’t exactly have time to go out and do stuff, but I made it happen. My rent was cheap, I cut corners on food — something I can only fully realize when I see photos of how gaunt I was from 20-23 — I wore my clothes until the knees split open and the armpits ripped, and I was lucky enough to have friends who enjoyed sitting around each other’s apartments and back yards to hang out rather than going out to expensive clubs. The thing that got me was graduating from college.

College life activities
College life activities

I interviewed to be an admin at a few financial services firms, but I fell into working in a restaurant. Waiting tables and bar tending are commonly recognized as quick and easy money, but I worked on the back end and had an entirely different experience. The job was offered to me as $10/hour in cash, 20 hours a week assisting the owner, pay check every other week. The owner, whom I had known through babysitting, knew that I was a writer, and she brought me on board telling me that I’d have plenty of time to be creative and get writing done. I knew absolutely nothing, so how I could I know that she was wrong.

Over two years, my position grew extremely fast, my creative time plummeted, and my debt skyrocketed. I went from easy filing tasks and errands to running payroll, managing inventories and ordering, serving, hosting, bar tending, interviewing new hires, etc. I was working like crazy. By the second year I was technically making a good amount of money which enabled me to move out of my old apartment with roommates to get a studio by myself, but I rarely received my compensation in full for a pay period. Eventually I switched from being paid entirely in cash to getting part of my salary in an actual pay check, but that didn’t change the regularity that I could cash my paycheck on the date it was made out for. At that point, I had started using credit cards to build credit, but I soon found myself accepting every other offer that came in the mail because it was so easy.

I was partially responsible for withholding my own cash payroll salary. There were several other employees who were exclusively on cash payroll for their own reasons, and some of them were supporting families or had previously requested several advances because the pay schedule didn’t match up with their needs. I probably shouldn’t have done it, but I always felt so responsible to make sure that those other people were getting paid on time and in full if possible. Sometimes I would owe myself a couple hundred dollars, sometimes over a thousand because there wasn’t enough cash to cover everyone. There were two occasions where I was allowed by my boss to take pay advances to cover the security deposit for new apartments, so that was really great at least.

Working for a place where you’re not getting paid regularly is definitely cause for concern and should make you wonder about the business’s stability. I was afraid that I couldn’t leave the job for several reasons that I know now were just related to being emotionally manipulated by my boss, so I stayed. In order to make my rent, and student loan payments every month, I started to hoard my cash because I was always worried that I wouldn’t get my entire pay check and I would have to make a late payment. I got used to the habit of using my cards, only sometimes being able to pay off the balance in full when I received the rest of my pay, and avoiding logging in to see the rising balance. I can attribute at least $6,000 of my debit (excluding interest) from 2011, 2012, and the beginning of 2013 to the spending habits I developed while working at this place. The rest of it comes from my Puerto Rico vacation, my 6 months of unemployment and the need to… you know, EAT, and my move from Brooklyn to Boston.

My first job in Boston was through a temp agency, so I made enough to cover rent and only my most basic needs. When I first moved here I stopped using deodorant when I ran out rather than spend the $5, and when I was out of hair ties, I used the green rubber bands that wrapped the packaging my blueberries came in. Any surplus of money I had after rent and groceries went towards paying the minimum on my credit cards. Everyone knows this gets you nowhere, but this was all I could do.

Now I have my full time job and a freelance position on the side to supplement my income. I started paying $800 a month in May 2014, and I’m pleased to say that I covered the majority of my share of paying for my wedding with cash. The $1,000 venue deposit was paid for with a bonus from work, the decorations were paid for by a $1,400 bonus from work, etc. I paid for the honeymoon with my credit card, but my husband and I used money we received as gifts to cover that expense.

Whenever a young person is in debt, don’t just assume it was because they were living excessively and being reckless. Actually, you can kind of assume that. Young people build up credit card debt because they have the gift of myopia that fades with age. They don’t fully think about consequences to their actions, and they live in a world that markets to them in every medium possible that they need to go out and LIVE and EXPERIENCE and BUY to be BETTER. 



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