Throughout my twenties, I had one really bad money “habit” – school. Education was held up to some crazy standard in my house as long as I could remember. If I didn’t get straight A’s, I would be grounded for the following marking period. There was no discussion of if I would go to college (because neither of my parents had), it was just where. And because of that, my parents planned and saved to put me through college. Granted, all of the earlier brainwashing made me a little bit of an overachiever too, so I flew through undergrad in three years with a double major.
Then I went on to grad school and they even helped pay for that. I completed three Master’s degrees at the school I was attending (not as impressive as it sounds, they were all in the same general area with slightly different focuses – ie. a lot of the same core classes and then just like 6 specialized classes each). The years between when I graduated high school to 2008 and were actually pretty great for my dad, a self-employed contractor, but the recession hit them pretty hard. I felt like it was unfair to rely on them anymore, so I switched to mostly online classes and got a full time job as a customer service rep at Nationwide.
I have never done a job before or since that I hated as much as that job. Holy cow. I hate talking on telephones and that was the entire job – people call you and yell at you all day. Or ask you crazy things like how much does it cost to insure a parade float. Anyway.
Fortunately where I was living in Virginia was pretty cheap, but I managed to rack up a little credit card debt finishing paying up my tuition and rent. Not a huge deal. Then came graduation and I had no idea what to do next – other than get the heck away from Nationwide.
At this point I should probably tell you that as much as I love school, I have a knack for choosing some of the least useful areas to study. As an undergrad I double majored in literature and theater production. My three Master’s degrees are in religion, religious education and divinity. I was setting myself up for a very expensive path to flipping fries. Or teaching religion or literature in religious schools (the only ones who will accept a Masters of Religious Education as a form of certification). None of these were things I really wanted to do.
So I get a phone call from my very focused and goal oriented best friend from high school, who was completing her Master’s degree in something that would actually make her money and had just received an offer to work at a pretty big deal company out in San Francisco; however, she was a little alarmed about moving to the other side of America. So I told her I’d go with her.
And I actually did. About a month after that initial phone call, I quit my job, loaded all my stuff in my car in Virginia and headed across America on a crazy, carefree road trip to my new place in San Francisco. It was a pretty awesome apartment in Noe Valley for a whopping $1,250 a month. Each.
Oh, did I mention I didn’t have a job?
After three incredible frustrating weeks, including interviewing at the Rainforest Café, where I had worked through two summers in college, and being told I was underqualified because the Fisherman’s Wharf one was so high traffic, and finally getting offered a job at FYE at the airport (only because the manager liked that I had a theater degree and felt I would be personable and outgoing – clearly he overlooked the production half, but at that point I just rolled with it). I got a phone call from a cruise line I had applied to stage manage with. Let me point out here that I love stage managing. From my sophomore year of college on, it was what I wanted to do (other than the three year break to collect a ton of Master’s degrees because I thought maybe I should be a missionary instead) and even while I was studying religion, for the first two years of grad school I worked for a small theater company in the city as their stage manager where I made more than enough to provide for spending money. So I was interviewed by them over the phone and pretty much asked if I had a valid passport and could start in 48 hours. No problem. My roommate wasn’t super excited that I was about to disappear for 3 months, but she was excited that I would definitely be able to pay our rent. I was excited that I would have a way to combat my $4,000+/- credit card bill.
So for the next three years I sailed the seas, stage managing and seeing the world. To say it was awesome is pretty much the biggest understatement possible. However, there comes a time when the negative parts of the job (and trust me, there are negative parts to the job) begin to outweigh the positive parts and I started trying to figure out what to do next. I decided I wanted to get my PhD in theater, so I could be a professor someday… might as well put this education habit to use. So I applied to three programs and, surprise, surprise, didn’t get in. I was talking with our British travel guide about this in early/mid April of that year and I mentioned how maybe going back to school and getting a Master’s degree in a subject actually relevant to what I’d like to go on and study might be helpful, but I’d missed all the deadlines, so it would have to wait a year. He explained to me that the British school system was set up differently – Master’s programs were only a year there, but fully accredited and accepted worldwide. And you could apply at any time (seriously, you can still apply like a week before classes start).
I paid the shipboard internet machine $40 to spit me out a 4 hour internet card (one of those negative parts to the job), that moved at a snail-like pace and Googled a few Master’s programs in England and, to this day I don’t even remember how exactly I found it, stumbled onto the University of Sheffield. The website made the place look great, so I figured, what the heck? I’ll send in an application.
A few weeks later, once I’d barely even thought about it anymore, an acceptance letter showed up at my parents door (who were totally unaware of this mad plan). Alright. So apparently I was going to live in England. Pretty much on a whim. I had about $9,000 saved up at this time, so it was well past time to blow it.
Then I learned some super exciting news while trying to get my Visa paperwork in order. I had to have X amount of money in my bank account before England would approve my student visa. This included all the money to cover my entire tuition and £800 a month for 9 months. So, you know. £7200 for living expenses and about £12500 for the tuition. That came out to a little more than $32,000. A lot more than $9,000. And it didn’t help that I had planned to work part time at school to make some of that money – the British government would not take that into account.
So for the first time ever, I approached the bank of Grandma. My grandmother is really well off, so I knew I wasn’t creating a financial hardship for her in anyway, but it still definitely made me feel sick to ask her if I could borrow $20,000. Or any amount between $0-20,000 to offset the interest that student loan companies were going to charge me. She was incredible and agreed to lend it to me with no interest (seriously, you guys paying the big loans with all the interest are braver than I). My dad topped off the account $3,000 more that I just turned around and gave back to him after I received my visa.
Visa approved, most of the money I needed socked away now in my bank account, I headed off to England. Where my rent and utilities alone were more than £800 a month, so clearly my expenses were going to need some recalculating. I got a part time job working in the theater there and later a second part time job as a campus tour guide, but student visa’s limit international students to 20 hours of work a week during the school year, so I wasn’t making much. However, I was making just enough to eat and occasionally grab a pint or a movie with my friends.
About midway through the school year, I applied for a $3,000 Sallie Mae loan to make up the difference between then and the end of the year and I got a little less careful with my credit card. When I finally finished my course of study and returned back to work I owed:
Sallie Mae: $3,000 at a variable interest rate (usually around 8%)
CapitalOne: $6,192.46 at 14.90%
Grandma: $20,000 at 0%
Grand Total: $29,192.46 at on June 6, 2011 (the day I flew home)
That number felt like a stone around my neck. Honestly, the Grandma one was a great financial help and I’m still super grateful, but it felt super awkward and miserable to me to owe my Grandma so much money. And, I love her to death, but she definitely became one of those people who would comment on every penny I spent until I paid her back. We agreed on a monthly payment of $500, but each time I would save up and do something fun, like go a trip to Peru with my cousin, I would have to listen to her remarks about spending my money wisely. There is definitely a certain peace of mind to interest rates.
After grad school, I went back to sea for two years. My first contract back was 4 months long and I was able to completely pay off the Sallie Mae loan and hack away at a big chunk of credit card debt. The next contract was six months long and I was able to completely get rid of the CapitalOne debt, open an IRA and start an emergency savings account.
Once my sea legs wore off for good, I joined the circus and traveled with them for a year. And in November, I mailed out my last check to my grandmother and am very happy to say that no one owns me (I’ll go to South America anytime I want grandma! Love you though!)!!
Would I do it again? Yeah. I loved living abroad and I loved my course of study. I even regret not spending money on a few things I wanted to do over there. If I ever hit the lotto, I’d go back to Sheffield for my PhD in a heartbeat. Since that’s unlikely to happen, instead I’ll save up for a few years, make a real plan about applying to grad school and apply my butt off for scholarships, fellowships, research positions, etc. I applied for Sheffield, but a lot of scholarships weren’t good internationally or weren’t applicable to international students.
And I definitely wouldn’t be here writing this if all that hadn’t happened. I probably wouldn’t have an IRA or emergency savings account either, because it was definitely dealing with all that debt that got my head on straight about how money works.