Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Debt and D.C.

During times like this, I really appreciate not having a TV watching habit. From NPR I've heard about talking heads, dualing press conferences, and stalled talks. Why? America is about to reach it's debt limit, and a showdown is occurring in Washington, DC.

Debt and D.C. -- those two words bring back memories, and not the happiest of ones. Following my college graduation back in 1995, I packed all of my belongings into an old Honda Civic and moved east to work for free for the Public Defender Service in D.C.. There I assisted an attorney in the defense of juveniles. Most interns were earning credit for college. Having graduated, I was simply gaining experience to add to my law school application. It got me out of Madison and into an entirely different world. During this time I worked for money selling clothes at The Limited in a high end D.C. neighborhood. Not being the most sophisticated person when it came to money, I had emptied my bank accounts in Wisconsin and operated with cash until I got a new bank in D.C. The cash habit continued. I walked everywhere. Bused and metroed most of the rest of the time. And then my internship ended. I accepted a job, one with pay and benefits, and Arnold and Porter -- one of the nation's largest law firms.

Graduation brought not only a diploma, but student debt. Not a whole lot, roughly $7k, in 1995 dollars. My move to D.C. is not something I regret, but soon after moving into the beltway I found my frugal habits fading. Especially after signing on at Arnold & Porter.

Yes, this frugal person who's blog updates you read daily or found via a Google search, has not always been frugal. My D.C. years brought about an every increasing lot of debt:
  • at the firm I routinely worked 60+ hours a week. I earned a great deal of money for a 22 year old, but life was so crazy that I did not have time to make wise decisions. I bought what I needed, when I needed it. Budgeting, seeking out deals, I just didn't have the time....plus, I was earning "good money" or so I rationalized;
  • not too long after starting at the firm I found myself on assignment in New York City for several months. I had a hotel suite, expense account, and no friends. Transplanted from the Midwest, I knew no one. Isolated and lonely, I found comfort in shopping. And it was a great antidote for stress. I'll never forget on the most stressful day on the job I left work, headed to Macy's and bought the Coach Beckman Brief briefcase I'd coveted for several years$500 on a Macy's charge card;
  • a few months after starting at the firm, work life in a cubicle farm clearly was not what I wanted....so I started a masters program. It was designed for people who worked full time. Each class met once a month, Thursday - Sunday, 9am - 5pm. I was earning a masters in Public Administration, and financing it ALL through government student loans. I loved school, hated the cube farm, and didn't really think too hard about using loans to fund a private school degree. Soon my debt swelled -- D.C. style swelling;
  • after three years in D.C. I had worked for the public defender, a major law firm, and the federal government (a paid internship for my masters). It was time to go to law school, a childhood dream. In state tuition and a letter of acceptance were offered by UW Madison. Back to the 608 area code I went. The move was financed entirely by credit card. And the debt just continued to grow.
It was not until I graduated from law school in 2001, with $97k in student loans and about $5k in personal debt, that my frugal roots re-emerged. Why then? Upon graduation I found myself limited in job paths I could pursue because I needed to pay off my loans. I hated being limited! Within weeks I was intent on paying off my debt, living debt free, and having a world of choices. Six years after graduation the debt was gone. The bulk of those years I worked for a state agency; no six figure salary there. Through penny pinching, working a full time job plus side jobs, and determination, my debt was gone. My world opened up. And that is some of history behind this blogger. I hope my story and habits help you reach our sustain debt free living.

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