I was one of those Millennials you love to hate who had no kids, lived in a big city, and struggled to make ends meet while earning $65,000/year when I was twenty-six years old.
(Well, except I’m not a Millennial.)
It feels like $65,000 was real money back in the day, but it wasn’t. First, I wasn’t married. My boyfriend didn’t want to commit to a long-term relationship, so I went hunting for a new place to live in Chicago. The cheapest apartment I could find that wasn’t infested with cockroaches and near my sister (who was a teenager and living with her father because our mother’s house was unstable) was about $1400/month after rent, insurance, and utilities.
That’s a mortgage payment in some small cities. In Chicago, it was a third-floor-walk-up with no A/C in a semi-safe neighborhood.
After payroll taxes, housing costs and health insurance contributions, I was stretched thin. But I had to make a $1000+ student loan payment to Sallie Mae every month. Then there were additional fixed costs like fuel, car insurance, city stickers, and public transportation passes for the days when it snowed and I couldn’t drive my car down the side-streets of Chicago.
Plus I had other necessary personal expenses like cat food, vet bills, medical prescriptions, contact lenses, glasses, doctor copays, tampons, birth control, and food. Pap smears weren’t free back then, and it was cheaper to visit Planned Parenthood than use my health insurance coverage.
(So much for working in HR and improving the employee experience.)
On top of all that, many of my friends were getting married. David’s Bridal is a bitch, but I wanted to honor my relationships and take part in weddings. I could only afford to do that a few times. After spending too much money on marriages destined to fail, I had to look at my budget and say no when people asked me to be a bridesmaid.
(“Can I do a reading?” That question alone would save me $500 repeatedly.)
And I mentioned my sister who lived nearby. She was a teenager and had little money. While her father provided a roof over her head, there were other things she needed beyond his budget. So, she worked at the mall after school, and I gave her a $100/month to use towards lunch, personal health products, and whatever else she needed.
You know what wasn’t on my $65,000/year HR manager budget?
Avocado toast, fancy clothing, regular savings, retirement, vacation, entertainment, gym memberships, candle parties, internet, drinking money, brunch, or an emergency fund for car repairs or significant life events.
My CHRO at Kemper Insurance would criticize what I would wear to work. She gave me gift cards to places like Ann Taylor and J.Crew to buy clothes — and it was a kind (although passive-aggressive) gesture — but a $100 gift card doesn’t go far in those stores. And I would’ve preferred gas money.
About a year into living on my own, I needed my credit cards to stay afloat. I had two allergic reactions (to Compazine and some fruit) and went to the ER. That took forever to pay off. Then my mom got sick a few times between 2000—2002, and I had to take time off and care for her. When I ran out of PTO, my time off was unpaid.
Also, Sallie Mae didn’t give a shit about my finances. That payment was non-negotiable. So, on weekends, I worked part-time as a docent at an art museum. I babysat for some of my coworkers. The hustle wasn’t pretty (and there was no Uber) but I did whatever I could do to stay solvent.
When my CHRO at Kemper Insurance found out I was broke, it horrified her. We’d worked together at a previous company, and she saw herself as a mother-figure. We sat down and reviewed my expenses. Things were tight, and she expected to lecture me on cutting cable and spending less cash on entertainment, but the joke was on her because I was stealing cable TV and had no life outside of work.
During the meeting, she said, “I’m proud of you for living this simply.”
I’m not a praise-junky, so I asked my CHRO for a raise. Other people in similar roles at Kemper who were 10+ years older than me were earning more money. Rookie mistake, the meeting was over. She told me I was still paying my dues in life, and you don’t get a raise just because you have access to an HR system and you can see the institutional pay inequities.
Then she gave me a lecture about cutting deeper — why did you order pizza this month? — and told me to find cheaper car insurance.
But I was already living a minimalist life. My existence was so inadequate that someone broke into my apartment and there was nothing to steal. I had a 13″ TV and an old company laptop, and the guy was like — nah, no thanks, not worth it.
Eventually, my CHRO left the company, and the new VP of HR gave me a raise to $72,000 so I wouldn’t quit. That helped. Then I learned the debt-snowball method and tried to pay down my debt. Dave Ramsey isn’t my jam, but his methods work.
And, thankfully, my boyfriend and I got back together. I could merge my credit cards and use the reallocated rent payment towards my debt. And my boyfriend became my husband, which lowered my health insurance costs. Our combined household income expanded because we weren’t duplicating expenses, and I caught up with my bills.
But it was messy. And it makes me forever sympathetic towards anybody with financial problems.
Money problems start long before you spend any money. If you’re born poor, good luck. Go to college? Well, that’s a blessing and a curse. Student loans are crippling young American families and you can’t shake that bill with bankruptcy. Student loans follow you until you die. Speaking of bankruptcy, most of them are related to accidents and illness. And nearly all of our necessary expenses like housing, health insurance, and transportation have exploded while real wages haven’t kept up.
Also, it’s not like average people are walking around in designer clothing. Most of us look like slobs at work. Sure, many of us have mobile phones. But it’s because got rid of our landlines, which weren’t cheap, and use our mobile phones for everything.
Talking about money with my CHRO was one of the most humbling and humiliating experiences of my life. People love to lecture you about bills, but they’re just talking to themselves as a warning not to be like you.
So, in tomorrow’s blog posts, I’ll share my ideas on how you can fix your finances and set yourself up for success. If you fix your money, you have freedom. And you’ll never have to listen to your boss — who earns six-figures and had a husband with health insurance benefits and a solid retirement account — lecture you on eating pizza again, again.
Amen to that.