Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Nature of Fortune

With all of this talk about recession, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of debt and the nature of fortune -- both as in lucky and as in wealth. In 2003, I quit photography school. My personal debt was around $30,000, including student loans and credit cards. From what I've heard, that's probably average for someone who didn't have help paying for school. If I had continued at school, my debt would've been triple that amount.

So here I am, only five years later and the debt is gone -- with the exception of a small student loan at 3.75% fixed. It's true, my income has increased since then (not hard to beat since I was working at Barnes and Noble) but that's not the whole story.

One day I ran the numbers and realized if I didn't do something soon I would be in serious trouble. As it was, $30,000 seemed insurmountable. The reality of my paychecks versus the fantasy job market that would solve all my problems collided, and I'm only a little ashamed to say I did not handle it gracefully. There were tears and stalled negotiations with the universe.

So I quit school, got a real job, cut up half my credit cards, put the rest in safe place, and made a budget. I tracked every single penny, then categorized the expenses, and then stuck to an ideal plan. Ugh. It was hard. I recorded every stupid purchase. I cut cable down to the minimum. I reduced phone services and changed long-distance providers. I sold a lot of things I liked on and eBay.

It helped that I had Jeremy to share expenses with, but we couldn't live on his salary alone, and I didn't want to pay less than my half. During that time we moved into a place with a washer and dryer -- no more paying for laundry. We ate off of a lot of fast food value menus and brought our lunches to work everyday. I can't think of many vacations we went on, if any. We kept the same cars and the little splurges meant a lot more. I spent a lot of time at the library, and read the books I checked out on the bus. Oh and I exchanged cans and bottles for change at the recycle yard. Almost forgot about that -- then we would go to the $2.50 theatre next door and watch a semi-new release. That's just what we did. Actually, we still do a lot of that, only sometimes I cook now.

And I gave up photography. After quitting school, I couldn't bear to pick up the camera again. At least I saved money on film developing! (Always a bright side.)

In addition to a budget, I looked for ways to earn more. I jumped jobs and took advantage of networking connections. I switched careers. I left the security of the University and I was terrified of screwing up my corporate job for the entire first year. Made myself sick with worry, was on a variety of thyroid medication for a couple of years, and then I got my confidence back. Those things aren't necessarily related but they happened. Think of it as a text montage, maybe play "Eye of the Tiger" in the background.

Fortune can change in an instant. Good or bad. Although I think it's usually a slower progression of circumstances that lead you one way or another. After years of frugal choices, Jer and I are in the good part of the arc. You better believe I'm grateful for every second of it.

I guess what I want to convey here is that if you're facing a mountain of debt like I was, there's hope. You can overcome it. You just have to go slow and steady and realize that every little bit counts. Every stick of gum, every beer at happy hour, every time you get the large soda instead of the small. And just like dieting, I think the first time you realize "This is a total lifestyle change," is when you can really start to make progress. There's not going to be an inheritance that saves you or a lottery win. You just have to commit to the life you're in now and work with what you have. At least, that's what I did after picking my bruised ego off the floor. You may have a different strategy.

Anyway, if you managed to read all that, I tip my hat to you. I am off to steal the blankets from my cats and read the Photographer's Market -- it just arrived from today, old habits die hard.

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