I remember the day that my father, stepmother, and I loaded up their 13-passenger van and my 1997 Chevy Cavalier with all of my belongings and we took the 1,100 mile trip down to Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Looking in my rearview mirror from time to time, it occurred to me that my entire life fit into two moving vehicles…and that was okay by me.
Suffering Through Unemployment
When I lost my job, I lost my identity. I had no idea how much work is tied into my true self until I spent almost an entire week waking up, eating breakfast, laying on the couch and watching movies from the local library. I lost my rhythm because I lost my reason. I was depressed.
Still, I was in a good position financially because of the money I had saved. Every day I searched for jobs to apply to, and even though I had one year of experience under my belt, I still fell into that endless loop of “they won’t hire me because I don’t have experience, and I won’t gain experience because they won’t hire me”. Fortunately, a month or so after my lay off my aunt and uncle had recently moved to Palm Beach Gardens, FL, and they invited me to visit their new home and possibly apply to the company where my aunt was working. South Florida was a paradise complete with palm trees, manicured highway medians, teal and aqua waters where you could see your feet, and exotic flowers. In a word, it was heaven.
After three interviews and two tests, I was offered an entry-level position in market research. It was by far the best opportunity I would have to gain experience and a skill set, and I decided to take it.
A Clash of Values
Moving to a state and an area at the age of 24 where people only deigned to live once they have amassed a lifetime worth of retirement money was such a dream to me. However, I was an outsider from the few people my age who lived in this retirement and vacation paradise because they were generally ‘from money’ (hence why they grew up there), were into the trendy clothes, nice (leased) cars, partied at expensive and posh clubs, etc. I just am not that kind of person!
Still, I found my niche. I made some great friends in their 40s, which is who I could relate to better. I spent some wonderful times with my aunt and uncle, who fortunately would take me out to eat often (which I would also feel bad about and bake them things like apple pie or key lime pie, or make them homemade guacamole). And I also spent a lot of time outdoors. Each weekend I would hike a different trail, or head to the beach to lounge in the sun, or canoe, go alligator-spotting, or snorkel (for free!) with a group of friends my aunt and uncle had put me in touch with. The area was truly a paradise; I felt like I was on vacation in some exotic location every weekend!
Cost of Living
Everything in Palm Beach Gardens was more expensive. I had an inkling before moving there that it could be more expensive, as my aunt and uncle’s place was quite nice. But I didn’t know that I would be forced to spend more money than I was comfortable with just to get by. In other words, I had not thoroughly researched the cost of living, and how it would affect my personal finances. On top of this, I took a pay cut of $5,000 for the first eight months working in my new position until I could prove my worth to them as an employee.
For the first five months I moved in with a psychotic roommate (literally; and I later found out that she was selling her anti-psychotic medication on the black market for extra cash), and so my rent was bumped up to $550 per month from the $350 I had been paying before. Then I found an apartment and moved in with my boyfriend. The idea was that we would split rent, except that he never found a job and after a series of very unfortunate events, we split and he moved back up to PA. Now my rent was tripled from my first apartment to a whopping $950 for 850 square feet. I also needed to “furnish” the place, so I purchased a desk for $50 and a futon couch for $199 that dubbed as a guest bed. I went without a kitchen or dining room table, and instead bought a patio chair for $16 and a small patio table for $12 (had to take advantage of that Florida sun!).
My apartment was complete!
Fortunately, my work was once again one block from home, so I only had to fill my tank of gas once a month.
Paid Down More of My Student Loans
It had been a few years now since I graduated college and it really began to sink in that I was paying on this debt at rates that would take me 9 years to pay off! Even though I had a nice saving account, it dawned on me one day that so long as I owed this money to other people, it truly wasn't my own. I looked to my future, and really didn’t like the idea of still paying on my college debt into my 30s, so I decided to take some drastic measures. I paid off a lump sum of $2500 in the beginning of 2008, and then I paid off the entire $6,000 private loan in 2008 as well.
Saved What I Could
Even though I had raised my negative net worth some because of paying down student loans, by the time I left Florida two years later (after being laid off again), I had $10,000 in my saving account. Honestly, I felt like I was just treading water. In my first year out of college, I was able to accumulate $10,000, and had expected to be able to do this at least each year from then on out. By my calculations, I should have accumulated over $25,000 by now! True, my goal of paying down my student loans had progressed, I had added several thousand dollars to my retirement account as well, and I had replenished my savings from the move and settling costs…but it felt as though I had just worked almost two years of my life for nothing. This is because it is not about how much you earn; it is all about how much you keep. In my eyes, I had not kept anything because my savings account had the same dollar value. And did I mention I was laid off again? Ouch.
To be continued…
Save Beyond Your Means Series: