Recently, this article from The Atlantic has popped up in my news feeds again and again. In the article, writer Neal Gabler takes a hard, honest look at the financial choices he made throughout his life and how they slowly left him and his family drowning in a sea of debt. Gabler does take full responsibility for his choices–for living beyond his means, racking up credit card debt, and splurging on luxuries–but learning how a series of well-intentioned decisions brought on so much suffering made me think carefully about the choices I’ve made in my own life–and the ones I make moving forward.
First, however, it’s important to acknowledge how much of one’s financial circumstances are beyond control. The family you are born into, the educational and economic opportunities available to you, and early experiences with money can make or break you. I was lucky to have thrifty parents who started saving for my college education before I was born. I was even luckier that they could afford to! But most importantly, I was lucky that they were realistic.
Growing up, my family never took fancy vacations, only ate out a few times a year, and never, no matter how much my sisters and I begged, sent us to the pricey sleep-away summer camps many of our classmates attended. Our birthday parties were modest, but fun and memorable, with home-made cakes and relay races in our back yard. My sisters and I grew up hearing “no” a lot–and while it was frustrating at the time, we got over it.
And now, all those years of tiny momentary sacrifices are paying off. After putting three daughters through college, my parents are on track to retire on time, and months away from paying off their mortgage–in spite of the rough years during the recession, when my dad was laid off and my mom had to take a second job.
I’m sure it’s obvious by now how much I admire my parents! Although they are far from perfect, I believe they taught me valuable lessons and set me up for success as well as they could. I’m grateful for the modest childhood I had, and here’s why: all those years of hearing “no” helped me say “no” to myself.
Okay, I’m far from perfect. I’m known to go on occasional shopping sprees, splurge on travel, and waste money trying to get cute toys out of claw machines… but one of the hardest decisions I’ve made is one that I’m proudest of. When I applied to graduate school, I ended up choosing between a top-ranked Ivy League school with a gorgeous campus in an exciting (but expensive) metropolitan area (School A), and another good but not as highly ranked or well-known school (School B). I had my heart set on attending School A, especially after touring the school and meeting some of the faculty–but they didn’t offer me a scholarship, and tuition plus cost of living over the two-year period was an estimated $200,000! School B offered me a significant scholarship, and happened to coincide with an opportunity to work for free room and board–estimated cost $20,000.
It broke my heart to say “no” to School A, but I knew I was going into a field that didn’t pay well, and it just didn’t make sense. But here I am 5 years later, with less than a year left on my loans, dying to switch fields and try something new. It makes me a little sick to think of how much worse off I would have been if I’d chosen differently–how much less freedom I would have, and how much I’d be sacrificing for years to come just to break even! And, ironically, there’s still a wistful part of me that wishes I could be a proud School A alum… but that’s what it means to choose. The truth is, I can’t have it all. No one can.
And speaking of responsible choices… I’ve decided to stick it out one more year at my current job. It just makes sense–I do still have several months of student loans and an upcoming wedding to pay for. I’m still going to pursue my creative projects on the side, and I’ll probably benefit from having an additional year of having to be extra disciplined to make time for my dreams.
I’m new to blogging, and would love some feedback! Did you connect with anything I wrote? Did anything strike a nerve? What choices have you made that you were proud of, or regretted?