Saturday, November 13, 2010

Financial crisis

I’m running out of money.

I’d like to put the blame on the high cost of education, a tough economy, or some other debilitating side effect caused by our flawed economic superstructure. But I can’t truthfully blame anything or anybody but myself.

I currently have $1,473.79 in the bank. Next semester, I will have to make my final tuition payment ($1,089). So when I graduate in May—if all goes according to plan—it looks like I'll have about $384.79 left (if my part-time job wages continue to cover all my living costs).

Let me try to explain how I got in this situation.

There have been two phases to my debt-free college-degree experiment. The first phase was in the spring semester of ’09—my first semester—when I arrived at Duke with just $4,000. In this phase I was poor.

The second phase began in the fall of ’09 when I came back from my well-paying Park Service job as a backcountry ranger in Alaska with well over 10K in the bank. In this phase I was radically frugal—and I’ve been in this phase ever since.

Despite having money—after my summer at the Park Service—I chose to carry over many aspects of my initial frugal phase. I stayed in my van; I rarely, if ever, ate out; and I still shopped at places like The Salvation Army.

Yet, I did use my money a bit more freely. I bought a new and expensive pair of hiking boots. I started buying my groceries at Whole Foods rather than Kroger. I stopped meticulously keeping track of my every penny. I felt more at ease taking long gas-guzzling trips to David’s and the Appalachian Trail. And instead of working 20 hours at my part-time job, I only worked 12.

This past summer I chose not to work so I could focus on my studies and on my book proposal. It was a bold move, I realized. After all, I could have gone back to Alaska and brought back another 10K+.

Still, I thought I’d be alright. Besides, I had plenty of money left over from my '09 summer job.

But because of some bad spending habits and some unforeseen expenses, I’m down to close-to-nothing again. For one, I strayed from making my meals from cheap bulk items (beans, rice, oatmeal), instead treating myself to cheeses, yogurts, and expensive vegetables like avocados.

I even—I'm ashamed to admit—paid for a haircut. At first, I thought I'd save money and give myself one. I locked myself in a bathroom and tried to give my hair a light trim since it was starting to get into my eyes. Before I even started, I realized how dumb an idea this was. I knew that cutting hair would probably fall into the category of things that I will forever be terrible at. When it comes to pointless aesthetic touch-ups—like making beds, sweeping floors, or polishing cars—I know I’ll somehow—by virtue of my carelessness—end up making whatever I’m doing look worse than it originally was.

After a few snips, I realized I did irreparable damage to my hair. I accidently removed all of my bangs, but still had long hair on the top, sides, and back of my head, exposing my high hairline and accentuating my long, flowing locks—sort of like Chucky.

Embarrassed, I wore a hat for the next few days and when I couldn’t deal with it any longer, I took my travesty to the barbershop and very guiltily spent $20 on a non-necessity.

And my van—because of several back and forth trips from David’s to Duke this past summer (2 hours each way)—needed a series of repairs.

I got new tires ($330), new front brakes ($350), and a ball joint issue resolved ($350). In a matter of weeks, I’d lost over $1,000 on my van alone. That’s when I took a close look at my bank account, shrieked, and decided I needed to go back to my old frugal ways.

Between my financial crisis and my recent parking lot drama, I felt, for a moment, like my little world was crashing down. Nothing seemed certain or secure. My van was breaking down, I was getting kicked out of my neighborhood, and my shower slippers were falling apart. I felt like the protagonist in Barton Fink whose crumbling hotel room corresponded with his own psychological degradation.

Since then, I’ve upped my working hours from 7 to 13 at my part-time job tutoring kids.

I signed up for two MRI studies, bringing in a clean $75 cash for just a couple hours of work.

And I stopped shopping at Whole Foods—where I’d buy local, organic stuff—and now shop at the cheaper, though less ethically-sound, Kroger supermarket.

And I’ve begun scavenging for food wherever and whenever I can get it. It’s amazing how much money there is at Duke. I went to a film that a student group was showing just so I could eat at their lavish (and free) reception. Here, they’re serving tea smoked red fish mousse crostini with Terrace Hub Sauce, brown butter pear bars, pecan tarts, and butter squash goat cheese croquettes.

To go on an aside… I can’t help but feel embarrassed for the waiters and waitresses who proudly, beamingly, read off the specials, pronouncing each extra adjective on a dish with rhetorical flourish, as if it was them who'd gathered all the ingredients and prepared the meal. Frankly, I’ve found that the more adjectives there are on an entrée, the nastier it tastes and the costlier it is. When I'm in a situation where I must order such a meal, I obstinately reduce whatever it is I'm ordering to a word. "I want fish," I say with a neanerthalithic grunt. Anyway, despite the long titles, I got all this food for free.

Here I found a goldmine—a platter of vegetables that someone just left on a table in a classroom. I’ve also found a half a package of Oreos, and a half eaten pizza in the library, among many other neglected dishes.

Now that I’ve taken these necessary measures, I’ve achieved some semblance of financial stability. While I will be running on empty soon enough, I should—according to my math—easily be able to make my last tuition payment next semester.

How do I feel about my situation? There is, admittedly, a small part of me that thinks—“Gee, in a few months, I’m going to be completely broke, practically homeless, and will have no possessions of significant value. I’ll have no health insurance, a worthless degree, and probably won’t have a job.”

But that’s just a small part of me. I knew, all along, I was putting myself in a financially vulnerable situation. Hell, if there’s one Master’s Degree that will most certainly not better your chances at getting a job, it’s Liberal Studies—the program I’ve enrolled in. I knew this.

But financial security is not and never has been my goal. The ONLY thing that is important to me is that I graduate debt-free. I don't care if I have to sell the van and sleep in stairwells. I don't care if I have a dollar left in my bank account in May. All I care about is achieving my goal.

I believe that to pursue and achieve a goal, you sometimes need to view the world with a sort of tunnel vision. You need to blur all the temptations, detours, and sidetracks on your peripheries in order to keep sharp focus on your goal. All I see ahead of me right now, wavy and mirage-like on the horizon, is my goal of graduating debt-free. Once I do that, then I’ll worry about eking out a living.


Anonymous said...

whole foods is not ethically sound, they are anti-union and treat their employees like crap. the food MAY be sourced more "ethically" (read: more palatable to guilty, white, liberals...) but the store itself is no more ethical than any other oppressive structure you can find.

Ken said...

Anon-- I know, I know... Never said it was ethically sound. (I'm a big fan of 'Omnivore's Dilemma'). But it's better than Kroger. There are more organic options and I have a hunch that their workers are better treated and paid. I'd love to have my own garden, but my situation makes that impossible. I'd love to buy from a local farmer's market, but that's inconveniently located and awfully expensive. This is certainly one of the drawbacks of having limited funds and living in a van.

Nick said...

Nice post Ken. It sure had a captivating progression from diaster to recovery. Looks like you got things under control now.

To be honest, I think you're being too hard on yourself. After all, I'd say you're more financially wise and frugal than 99.999% of Americans! But I guess as you said, once you set a goal you stick with it. Your goal is admirable and inspring.

Regarding the haircut, have you considered buzz cuts? They may not be your style, but they're convenient.

Anonymous said...

If there is a smaller grocery in the area (IE: not kroger, wholefoods, etc) check their dumpsters. I didnt spend any money on produce or bread for the last two years of my undergraduate career (I also saved spending any money on housing my final year by squatting in my studio in the art building...) by eating from dumpsters. If you have a bakery or bagel shop in the area, their dumpsters are often fertile ground--equally so if you go in at closing time and ask them what day old stuff they are tossing already you might be surprised at what they will hand you over the counter, gratis.

Chris said...

You're going to be missed for turkey day Ken! Send me your PO box and I send along a Jesz style care package!

Ken said...

Nick--I haven't had a buzz cut since the third grade. Obviously I would get a buzz, or massacre it again on my own if I was down to my last few dollars. But I guess I want to keep my hair long as long as I have it. Thanks for the support.

Anon--great advice. If it comes down to it, of course. But I'm well stocked again with cereals, powdered milk and bulk items. I might even have enough food in my van to make it through the rest of the semester.

Chris-- Ha--Box 93544 / Durham, N.C. 27708. I'll miss you guys. Maybe I'll come by next semester. Update your blog!

Natalie said...

Great post, and I totally sympathize. I'm also pursuing my Master's in Liberal Studies at a private university. Luckily, I also work for the school, so my tuition benefits cover all costs except textbooks. But you are much more financially cognizant than I am. Truth? Even with a full time job and no tuition bills, I'm flat broke.

So cheers to you for making it happen!!

Anonymous said...

Ha !
Your not poor.
With no debt,a good mind and strong healthy body. You have what many people would consider great wealth. I would get very bored with grains a cheap healthy food to eat. I consider eating as entertainment, just staying nourished is easy and cheap but BORING !
Nice thing about fishing is you can do it while you read or study.
Just wet the line and wait for a nice tasty fish to bite your hook.
If all you catch is catfish and you don`t like them, send them to me,I do.
Google " cuban reel " it would take no space at all.


Anonymous said...

I find your life experiment very interesting as I could not understand your generation's casual attitude towards mountains of debt and school. Your path shows it can still be done if one is resourceful and willing to make some sacrifices to achieve one's goals.

Altho I am well old enough to be your mother, when I went to college in the 1970's, I did it on my own and graduated with a mere $300 in debt which I deliberately incurred my last year to start a credit history. I worked during the year (also tutoring for some of it) and most summers. I did take 2 summers to spend on extended bicycle camping trips which netted me no income and took a whole year off to earn money to finish school. While I didn't live in a van, most of my college years were without a car - I got around on a bicycle and public transportation. I too thought Dorms and food plans were much too expensive. I went vegetarian with most of my protein being eggs, cheese, and peanut butter. For a year, I lived in a barely converted barn with 2 other girls splitting the rent. Cheap but bugs abounded! I was healthy but spent very little during those years. Oh, and I managed to have about $2k in the bank upon graduation too. Not too shabby in a period of 17-18% inflation and a bad recession.

I chose the physical sciences which ended up in computers when they were taking over the world. During the deep recession at the end of the 70's beginning of the 80's, I got a permanent job because I had a good job history upon graduation. Now some 30 years later, I got to retire in my mid 50s with security for my future. That is worth a tremendous amount of sacrifice.

While liberal arts is not a good prescription for job security, have you looked into making your seasonal ranger gig a permanent career? Having a foot in the door is very helpful. I have a brother who did that. While some of the bureaucracy was a headache, he really loved the life and career. Plus he got to retire in his 50's too.

Living below your means and saving your money really adds up over time and can be a good life while you do it. Much better than overspending and racking up debt to impress ... who? Financial freedom is true freedom. I can't tell you how great it is to have this total freedom with 20-40 more good years left to live. I know it seems like forever from where you sit, but it is something to consider as you proceed with your plans.

Also, you are a very good writer with clear, organized thought evident which counts for a lot as almost every job requires being literate. And far too many young people are not.

Best to you,


Ken said...

Natalie--you lucky gal. We liberal studies students are few and far between; in fact, outside of my program, I don't think I've ever come across anyone in a similar program.

Brickstone--Well said. Even though I don't have money, I know I'm not poor--at least not poor like a 1/5th of the world is. I always have recourse to family and friends if I need a meal or a place to stay. Plus, I can always go back to the park service, or find some other semi-lucrative career. Real poverty is having no way out. I have tons of opportunities at my finger tips. I'm just playing with poverty, and having a good time with it in the process.

Mary--Lovely story. It really is amazing how so many so willingly go into debt. Truly baffling. I thought about making a career out of rangering. It's a great job, but sometimes I just didn't feel like I was "getting shit done." I desire, more than anything, a true and meaningful purpose, which I didn't get out of that line of work. Perhaps this is my idealist side rearing his head, but I can't see myself ever in permanent career setting. For now, my goal is to be "self-employed." I'd love to write and get paid for it. And someday I'd like to live a largely subsistence lifestyle. We'll see. I don't like planning far into the future too much. I'll look 2-3 years down the road, but never more than that.

Trish said...

you are a wise soul Ken. And I am so enjoying your blog.

kenavo said...

I was happy to read this story.
Sometimes I feel a bit silly, because I buy my clothes for 1 euro a piece on a braderie.
But in fact they are of good quality and I feel better then for new ones.
This weekend I was on a secondhand market and met friends an musicians.
They all buy their clothes there.

Anonymous said...

As Yogi said, "When you get to a fork in the road, take it". Looks like your "goal" will be accomplished shortly and it is time for you to ponder what the next goal will be. The next one will be much harder to define but with what your experiences to date will provide you direction and inspiration. Good luck.


Ken said...

Trish--How kind of you. Wise? I wish, I aspire!

Kenavo-- If only everyone thought about materialism the way you and your friends do. Less fashion, and more function. Works for me.

Heb--Nice quote. I already have my next goal in mind, and a couple of backup ideas if that one doesn't pan out. It's called-- Mission impossible: Getting published. I'm sure I'll be doing entries on this in the future.

Chris said...

Got your address. Keep an eye out for a package in the next week or so. Would have put something together sooner but been busy at work/home and haven't had a chance to check the blog. Also I updated my blog just for you!

Buried Alive

Ken said...

chris--You really didn't have to do that, but thanks. ;) Blog looks good!

Financial Aid Loan said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Anonymous said...

Just to throw this out there, but unions actually screw workers over harder than employers who are anti-union. My SO has worked for Walmart and for a union-happy employer, and while neither place was spectacular, she said working for Walmart was better. They even go over it in training.

Also, most employers, regardless of whether they pay minimum wage for an obscene $100+/hr, treat employees like shit.

As for going organic and local, Ken, try farm markets. You can buy in bulk for largely decent prices. I'd ask beforehand if there are any such locations in the Durham area, but there are a bunch of them here in Ohio.


Dian Yang said...

Hi there. I'm a Singaporean undergraduate in his second year. My parents are paying for my tuition fees, but I intend to pay them back some day. Your story has been very inspirational. Please keep writing. I too have read Walden and I think it's truly wonderful how you're living your ideals.

Ken said...

Cat--Thanks for the recommendations. Can't say I know enough about unions to respond with anything intelligent.

Dian--I'm reading "Better Off" too! It's pretty good. Not great, but good so far. Good luck with paying your parents back--that's a noble undertaking.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog! I'm a spartan professor. I can't believe how much food is wasted on our college campus, either. Once a week I feed my kids leftover pizza from some campus function or another. We have a "childcare issue" so once a week or so my kids get dropped off on campus while I teach. They always seem to come up with an afterschool snack. Someone's always serving cookies, pizza or fruit -- and there's always way too much food. My kids are starting to think college is about eating (which I guess is better than thinking it's about drinking, but still . . )

Ken said...

spartan prof.--Ironically, I just got back from my department's gathering--I stayed till the end, and I took a whole freezer bag of salami and cookies. It's amazing how much food is thrown out in general. When I worked as a cook, it was part of my job to clean out the fridge; I'd throw out maybe 10 lbs of food everyday.