I like things, I always have. I have a penchant for all things Pottery Barn, Ann Taylor, Coach, and a love for a certain little Blue Box. For the record, I have never had a problem working hard to get what I was after. I held down between 2 and 3 jobs throughout my undergraduate career (and I was fortunate enough to not have to pay for the tuition or room and board on that degree). I have always felt that I needed to have my own means regardless of my situation in life. Unfortunately I haven’t always been as smart with my money as I could be. Truth be told, I am still not as smart as I should be, but I am a few hard knock lessons down the road and I’d like to think that I will eventually figure it out. If you live within your means is it bad to want things? What about when your means change? Do you wonder if maybe it was deserved; karma, perhaps? Or is it just life’s unpredictability?
In the late 90’s I fell into the same money trap that many college freshmen do: credit card debt. By the time I was 24 I had probably about $7000 in credit card debt. I wasn’t a shopaholic or anything (despite the love of material goods and creature comforts), most of it came from car repairs and other necessary evils, but not all of it. I couldn’t tell you now what I bought that wasn’t necessary. I am sure there were a few pieces of clothes, there were late night pizza and fried pickle binges (“fried pickles!?” you say. Try them, you’ll understand – unless you don’t like pickels), but in reality nothing was so important that I still have it. Lesson learned: sometimes you have to pick and choose, not everything is “necessary” and very rarely is it worth the extra money you ended up paying.
I couple of years after college I ended up with a sales job where I made enough in one month to pay off the debt. I vowed never to be in that position again, but now I had an apartment and no furniture. I advanced myself a little of the next couple of months’ paychecks to make things a little more comfortable – I had the money, right? I bought a new car, a sofa, a washer and dryer. I let it go to my head. Then the company I worked for went under. I had no job, no income, and a lot of debt, again. Lesson learned: circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, you’d better be prepared.
I didn’t like sales, I wasn’t particularly good at it anyway. I had a history degree, I had thought about law school on and off. I thought a lucrative career would be something that could keep me happy, but then a close friend gave me some food for thought;If if I wasn’t happy in sales and couldn’t stick with it merely for the money, what would I do if I was an unhappy lawyer, as she thought I would be. She was right. I cancelled my check securing my admission to law school. I went to culinary school instead. My parents thought I was insane. But I love to cook and I love my job. I also came out of culinary school with $50,000 in student loans (turns out culinary school and law school do have something in common). Plus, I had not been able to shed the credit card debt while I was attending school 30 hours a week for 18 months. Another thing they don’t tell you in culinary school, what most cooks make directly out of school can’t come close to the money you need to pay for the education. Lesson learned: overtime is a good thing and Sallie Mae is evil.
I started dating my husband, Patrick, 5 years ago. He was as poor as I was. We both were working in the restaurant business. I was in the kitchen and he was seating tables. Then he worked his way up to serving. Money suddenly wasn’t as tight. I was living with a roommate and paying my bills, barely. We decided to move in together. When the relationship became more serious we began combining finances, we opened a joint account and I took on the responsibilities of CFO of the household. I did, after all, have the background knowledge in what not to do. We talked about what we wanted to achieve. We both had student loans, though mine far exceeded his, I had the credit card debt and he wanted to go back to school. We also wanted to get married. I had a dream, a diamond solitaire in a little blue box. We weren’t going to put it on credit, if we couldn’t pay cash we weren’t going to buy it. There was a lot of scrimping and saving. We were paying down $1000 dollars a month in debt, paying school tuition, and saving for my dream ring. Two years ago he proposed. I was thrilled. Lesson learned: planning pays off.
We managed along for the last two years on the same basic trajectory. We bought a house a year ago. I paid off the last of my credit card debt in March. We were saving and planning for the wedding in October. I, of course, had a very definite vision. I also had a budget, but it wasn’t set in stone. My friend Lauren and I went dress shopping, I ended up spending twice as much as I thought I would. Then there was the food and the alcohol. Patrick and I didn’t want to skimp in that department. After all, I am a chef and there are certain expectations (mainly those I have for myself) and he is an initiate sommelier, we didn’t want to compromise on that. I was ruthless in my decor choices, I knew that flowers were horribly expensive, but having a fall wedding allowed us a little latitude with the use of branches and candles. Nevertheless, the budget increased by about 50% from where I thought we would be. I reorganized our earnings, got creative with our planning and proceeded. As we got closer I got nervous. Money was tight, we needed to stop spending frivolously. I got anxious as our savings account dwindled, always in the back of my mind were the lessons of my own personal history, what happens when you want too much and make yourself vulnerable. Then the karmic inevitability happened, Patrick lost his job. We were a month away from the wedding and our income had been reduced by 60%. Oh God. It was too late to change the wedding plans and to be perfectly frank, I didn’t want to. This is a once in a lifetime thing, contracts were signed, most payments were made, plane tickets had been purchased by excited family members, and we were in love; but the fact of the matter was I was putting us directly in the path of a financial freight train barreling out of control, if anything else unexpected were to happen… We immediately ceased all extra activities. Gym membership, cancelled. Monthly cleaning service, cancelled. Dinners out were now cheap dinners in (the benefit of being a chef for a living is eating at work). We trimmed our monthly expenses as much as possible. We also put $9000 of remaining wedding expenses on a credit card with no interest until next October. Thankfully, we do still have a couple thousand in our savings account, the result of the determination to not have to put any other unforeseen events on a card. We are, however, still walking a precarious line. Lesson learned: the best laid plans don’t nullify the past.
So I have asked myself frequently in the past 2 months, did I get too comfortable? Was I too confident that my “plan” would work out? Did I somehow cause this by wanting too much, my like of “things” getting in the way? It’s not a question that can really be answered. What’s done is done, as they say, but hopefully this experience will help me in the future. It’s another lesson learned and at the very least it is knowledge to use going forward. I hope that we can be better prepared in the future, more self-sacrificing, but then again, isn’t part of what makes life fun living a little…