Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A lesson in education

  
I'm ready to pass the torch.

I'm over 40 and I've been working since I was 15 years old. 

Unfortunately, I have no savings and I'm deep in debt. 

I also have student loans totalling more than $70,000 that I've managed to put off paying by applying for forbearance every year for the past 10-plus years. No, those loans weren't always that high! I think when I stopped going to college (just about one semester's worth of classes shy of getting my bachelor's degree) they totalled around ... I forget. I don't want to throw a number out there and be wrong. But with interest accruing every month you can imagine how much of that current number is interest alone. 

And getting bigger with every passing year. 

So great, I've avoided default. But I feel hopeless at the idea of being able to pay that back in full in my lifetime. 

I won't lie: part of me doesn't want to pay it off. Well, not all of it. I wish I hadn't listened to my dad; he meant the best for me because he really believed that having a college degree would set me up for success in life. He didn't understand that along with that degree I also needed a healthy understanding of the financial side of it. Both my parents, God bless them, believed in the power of having a good education, and they're right. But they were only half right. 

My financial "education" - the early years

We were never wealthy by any means. We were "rich" in the sense that, compared to billions living in third world countries around the globe, my family had a roof over our heads, food to eat, clean water to drink, and decent clothes to wear. We also had a car to drive. We were always free to worship at the church we attended, cast our vote, walk freely in the streets without fear of being targeted. In that sense, yes, we were wealthy, comparatively speaking. But compared to people living in the same city, even down the same street? Our house was small -- 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, for three adults and two kids -- we didn't have central air, my room which I shared with my sister was basically the attic (which wasn't insulated), we lived in the inner city, our meals were small and we drank water, not milk, with our meals (although that's hardly a bad thing; years later I figured out that might have been the biggest gift my parents gave me: the gift of healthy eating), our clothes came from thrift stores sometimes, and the cars we drove were always used. Always. 

My dad grew up during the Depression (yes, he was older than your typical parents are when I was born). His view of money was stark, to say the least. He knew how important having a savings was, and expressed as much to us regularly; he also referred to debt by what it really is -- slavery. He often implored my sister and I NOT to go into debt, for that reason. I recently learned that my dad was very good at building a savings so we could go on family vacations during summers when I was growing up. Vacations, mind you, which forged my passions for road trip adventures, the great outdoors, and writing. 

So that should have formed quite a healthy understanding of how money works, right? Except he could sometimes be rather negative and off-putting in his delivery of that message. It is said that people from his era, especially men, tended to be negative because that was an overriding trait of that generation, due to the oppressive living conditions of the Depression era. I don't know how true that is, and I would argue that's just a personality trait in general, because I know plenty of negative people of all ages. It was certainly true of my dad. He kind of had the attitude that having lots of money and investing it in the stock market was a fool's errand. He had the right ideas as far as some basics of financial health; he just had a very negative, narrow way of communicating that. 

My mom, on the other hand ... she had a more liberal view of money, shall we say. She and my grandma, her mother, knew all about retail therapy before such a thing was even a thing. And since I often accompanied my mother when she went shopping, I would get treated, not just to getting my own things, but to the number one dynamic that drives this country: consumerism. What money can buy. I do not blame my mom. She is one of the nicest, most big-hearted people you will ever meet. Also highly intelligent and compassionate. She taught me some very important life lessons that serve me to this day, and I love her dearly. 

Both my parents taught me the kinds of things parents are supposed to teach their children in order to become contributing, law-abiding members of society. They did an excellent job raising me and my sister. The one thing they weren't really very good at, however: how to manage one's finances. 

Starting work - my first job

I got my first job scooping ice cream at the Häagen-Dazs at the mall. I was 15 years old. I had to get a work permit in order to get that job. I think I was making $3.50/hour. My motivation for getting the job? Wait for it -- I wanted to go on a cruise for fans of the Monkees. Yes, you read that right. Back in 1988 I subscribed to the Monkees fanzine, which is where I saw the cruise advertised. I figured out I'd need $3000 in order to go. And I spent around 10 months working and saving up all my money. I went on that cruise, including the plane ticket there and back, and even got a few souvenirs. 

That was the only time I saved up any significant amount of money, in three decades of working a wage-earning job. 

After I graduated high school I found myself inundated with credit card applications. This was 1990. Nobody but my dad warned me about applying for those things -- as a matter of fact, I think that's when the speeches about how being in debt is like being in slavery started in full force. I waved off my dad's exhortations to throw them in the trash, because, being a teenager I pretty much knew better than him. Sadly, I tended to not listen to him during those years (except on the one thing I shouldn't have listened to him). And I am regretting it now. The first credit card I ever applied for was an American Express card with Chase bank, and in all my 17-year-old wisdom they approved me. Suffice to say, that ended in disaster pretty soon after it began, and my credit history officially started off on a bad foot, before I even turned 20. 

My credit history was never "good" after that. 

School as the answer

Along the way my dad kept pushing me to go to college. However, since I discovered the way to make money was by working a job, and since I knew that once I finished high school I could go full-time and make even more money, I'd pretty much made up my mind that's what I was going to do so I could buy myself more stuff. You know, the stuff I went without growing up. I did not want to be dragged down with college classes when I just got finished with high school. So I made the conscious decision to put off college until I was "ready" (not that I had any clue what that meant, exactly). 

I did take one class in the fall following my high school graduation, partly to appease my dad and partly to see if perhaps it was something I wanted to pursue: a drawing class at the art museum. At the time, my dad was employed as an adjunct professor at the University, and because of that I was able to get a free ride to college, minus the general fees that everyone has to pay. That's part of why my dad pushed me to go to college; he was able to provide that for me and my sister through his work, which is why he went into that job in the first place.  

To say I didn't fully appreciate what was offered to me back then is the understatement of the century. 

And then the University changed Presidents, and the new President did away with making a college education so accessible to family members of employees of the University. The perks were still available ... but only up until age 26. Among other things. This new wrinkle happened about a year or two before I turned 26. So that basically quashed my chances of completing a degree on a free ride. It made my dad angry; not with me, but with the new President. My dad went from pushing me to go to the University to encouraging me to try the other college in town. Never thought I'd see that day! He was really bitter about that. 

I did eventually wind up going to college full time about 5 or 6 years after I graduated high school. My dad, bless his heart, gave me this unfortunate advice: "Just get the education; worry about paying for it later." 

So ... after working factory jobs those years after high school and deciding he might be right after all, I applied for and received federal grants, enough to pay for my college in full, minus books. Again, I had the opportunity to go to college for free. But it wasn't enough. I discovered I was also eligible for Direct loans on top of the grants and could get them all if I wanted. This is because to the Federal Government I looked quite poor, so I qualified for just about everything. At the time I thought that since I'm eligible I might as well take it all, and figure I'd figure out a way to pay it back "later" (not that I had any clue what that meant, exactly).  

Keep in mind, this is all happening in the 1990s. If there existed financial education targeting people like me I was unaware of it. Nothing was offered to me, and the people in my tight-knit circle of influence never tried pulling me back from jumping off this cliff. Not that I blame them, and knowing how I was back then, I probably wouldn't have listened to them anyway. 

Still, it does boggle my mind that that level of financial responsibility can be offered to people like me without accompanying education. I mean more than the Promissory Note that you sign when you take out those loans. Not everybody comes into this world with the proper fear of financial obligations that one should have when it comes to that kind of financial agreement. You get that when you apply for a mortgage, which is in many cases the same amount of money! And that's for a roof over your head! Of COURSE you're going to go to great lengths to keep the roof over your head! Maybe not so much to make sure the student loans are paid back when you realize college is not for you, or you change careers, or you're just a hopeless dreamer and drifter like me. 

From school to career

In the fall of 1999 I began work in what is my current career path -- broadcast television news production. A dinosaur if ever there was one. (That is a whole 'nother blog post. That could very well be the subject of a whole 'nother blog: my experiences over the years.) This career path proved to be lucrative and fraught with peril, all rolled into one for me. I stuck with it because of the rewards and benefits: it was my first job that came with paid vacation time. I also discovered it was my ticket for travel -- there are TV stations with production departments all over the country. I could pretty much pick a spot on the map, wait for a job to open up there, and go to it. That's exactly what I did moving down to Florida. 

I was winding down my senior year of college and only had about two to three semesters left to finish my degree which was going to be a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Video. I felt it was time I started looking for a job, since I knew it would be awhile before I'd make it as an independent filmmaker in my own right. I never watched the news because to be honest, it didn't interest me in the slightest. But it was essentially a video production, and ergo in my career path. I figured it had to be better than delivering pizzas, which is what I was doing at the time. I'd certainly learn valuable skills working at a TV station and be exposed to networking opportunities. 

I will never forget my first day on the job. I was hired as a part-time camera operator to work on the early morning shift. My day began at 3 a.m. and my work shift began at 4 a.m. I showed up, they let me in, showed me around. It was about what you'd expect to find in a newsroom at 4 a.m. -- people buzzing around, the smell of coffee strong in the air, printers going. 

Eventually they handed me a pair of headsets and got me set up in the studio. I put the headsets on and heard so many voices in my head. It was all quite overwhelming. As we got closer to show time I noticed the two anchors were bickering. The voices coming through the headset got more urgent. I heard a countdown, the very first time I heard a countdown to a live broadcast - as anyone who has ever worked in this business will tell you, it was a magical, thrilling time! The crew is about to go live and they only get ONE chance to get it right! So the countdown becomes very important. 

The person giving the countdown said, "A minute thirty". Only a minute and a half to air! The bickering between the two anchors was getting worse. "One minute." This is what stuck with me all these years -- at that point in the countdown the female anchor began crying. I was shocked. What in the world were they going to do?? Tears were streaming down her face. I heard the director (also female) say, "Oh no, he's got her crying ... " I really had no idea how they were going to recover. This was the most thrilling thing I'd ever witnessed. 

The countdown got us closer and closer to air time -- "Thirty." Meaning, thirty seconds to air. She is crying. The male anchor keeps egging her on. "Fifteen." The camera op I was shadowing, a decades-long veteran of this business, turned and looked at me and shrugged. Then the countdown from ten began ... " ... five ... four ... three ... two ... one ... you're up."

It was at that moment I witnessed the real magic. In that countdown, I watched as the female anchor wiped away her tears and when the giant, red "ON AIR" light popped on, she suddenly broke into a big, magnetic smile as if she never cried a day in her life, and proceeded to deliver the news with the most enthusiasm as I'd ever seen.

I was hooked. 

And that pretty much spelled the end of me bothering to finish my degree. 

I tried over the years, I really did. After I'd worked at that TV station a couple years I moved up the ranks and got increasingly more responsibilities as I trained on more and more crew positions. My dad died during that time. It completely devastated me and I quit the business briefly. Eventually I went back, mainly for the health insurance benefits. At some point I was ready to move up and out. I searched for and landed a job working in a bigger market a couple hours away, making more money. So since I was no longer in the same town as the university I started my degree in I had to either put it on pause, or look for other options. Sadly, I was in the middle of a semester when I was offered that job. I chose to take the job rather than finish those classes. Talk about regrets. I was getting straight 'A's and had perfect attendance, and would have been one class away from finishing my degree had I stuck it out. It kills me whenever I think about it. Unfortunately, in the news business if you don't jump on a job offer when it's available, who knows when it will be available again. I was desperate to get out of my hometown, too. I was 29 years old, so I was also feeling the pressure of, what am I doing with my life now that I'm almost 30?

I eventually enrolled in the local college there, and signed up for a class, but after three days I never went back. More money wasted. I really figured I was on a great path to paying back those loans, now that I seemed to have found my niche in life. The upward motion in television news can take you to network level if you're good enough. Those are six-figure union jobs. You get up there, you are set for life. 

Thing is ... after doing this for more than 15 years, and now that I'm finally willing to admit that I'm actually miserable at my job and I hate it, I really could care less about making network level. Why push myself toward that if that's not what I want? I had an epiphany recently, especially after reading Natalie Bacon's blog post about quitting her six-figure salary job -- I never liked news to begin with. My background and passion are artistic writing and documentaries. The TV station job was supposed to be a stepping stone at best; never a career path! 

I shelved my education for that path. 

Whatever, I think I've exhausted what I hoped to get out of it. That is not a business I care to become a "star" player in, not on either side of the camera. 

But, I've still got bills to pay ... more than ever before. 

Coming full circle

I don't think I behaved any differently than many, many people my age, back then, before my time, and now. People get themselves into financial binds all the time and then find themselves in their 40s, unfulfilled, and still owing tons of money. I would argue that nowadays, people just starting out as I once did have no excuse, because the type of financial education that exists nowadays was simply non-existent 20 years ago. And not to mention the internet. The internet certainly existed 20 years ago; but smartphones didn't, and Google was barely a startup back then. Whereas nowadays you can find blogs about personal finance in many flavors, literally at your fingertips ... that kind of thing just didn't exist back then. 

Now I'm not saying I should get out of my financial obligations; what I want, what I've always wanted, is for someone, some agency to become the financial mentor I never had! I had mentors for EVERYTHING growing up -- I was never at a shortage of mentors. I am truly blessed! But financial mentors were like a mythical fantasy creature. I don't want someone to bail me out, or even to save me from myself, but rather someone to hold me accountable for my financial choices. Someone to be that voice in my ear, that angel sitting on my shoulder to counter the army of devils all around me at every turn. Someone committed to turning me into a responsible person with my money! In some areas of life you need a coach. This is where I desperately need a coach!

I'm pretty sure agencies and people like that exist. Maybe not in the area of the country I live in (or maybe it does and I just haven't found it). But I seriously doubt I'm the only person to have this epiphany. 

In the meantime, I continue to seek solid financial advice and motivation on my own. I treasure the few blogs I've stumbled across that feel like they are speaking directly to me, such as FinanceGirl, and Money Under 30. Even though those two blogs in particular target millennials, I find the advice to be just as helpful for me. The irony is I bought Suze Orman's book, The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom back when it was first published in 1997. Well, it was probably 1998 or 1999 by the time I bought it. I instantly adored Suze Orman and still do now. I'd heard her radio show and TV show here and there over the years. I love her blunt approach. I appreciate how she tells it like it is, no sugar-coating things. I never want my financial management sugar-coated! I hate being in debt and not knowing how I'm going to get out of it! 

But I never really gave myself a chance to sit down and take notes on that book, and take it to heart. It got put on the shelf of "someday" (not that I had any clue what that meant, exactly ... seeing a pattern here?). 




Dear readers, please tell me what you think. Give me your honest thoughts, no matter what part of the financial spectrum you're on right now, even if it's to tell me you think I'm stupid. But if you're going to tell me I'm stupid I want to know why. And spoiler alert: I already know I've done lots of stupid things over the years! *wink* 

No comments:

Post a Comment