If I Could Start Over

Day 8 | $0 paid | $90,717 till freedom

Knowing what I know now, I would do things a lot differently if I could go back in time to graduation day. I’d live like a pauper, beginning on Day One. Super cheap used car (like, $5k max), a rented room, $100 monthly entertainment budget, extra job. No mortgage? No car payments? I would’ve burned that $101k rather quickly.

So Why Didn’t I?
A little bit about me–I come from a family that respects the value of money–almost to a fault. My dad got his mechanical engineering degree from an Ivy, he has two masters degrees,  and he’s a successful executive in the automotive industry. Money was never tight–or at least my parents never let me know if it was.

And while money never appeared to be tight, it never got thrown around, either. My mom bought my clothes at Kohl’s (until college, at which point I bought them). If I wanted name brand, I had to pay for it myself. My mom spent her Saturday mornings clipping coupons. Every single Saturday evening–without fail, no exaggerations–we went to mass followed by dinner at Olive Garden, Red Lobster, or some similarly priced restaurant. Besides those dinners and only a handful of small family vacations (read: Grandma’s house), that was basically the full extent of entertainment provided by Mom & Dad, Inc. while I was growing up. And I wasn’t one of those kids with eighty different gaming consoles. I had a gameboy with about three games in addition to the home computer.

My dad is extremely careful with money, and he has gone to lengths to try to instill that value within me. It took him two weeks and a couple of trips to K-Mart before he finally bought me a bicycle when I was five. When I outgrew that, he paid for a second bike a few years later. On the car ride home after the second shopping trip, he told me that that would be the last bike he ever paid for.  Four years later, when I was 15, I worked 40 hours a week for an entire summer bagging groceries at Kroger so that I could buy a fairly high-end bike. I ended up using it every day at college, from freshman through senior year.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the racing kart my dad bought me when we lived in Italy. We had moved there for my dad’s job when I was 13 and I was having what could be considered a “tough time” adjusting to life in a foreign country away from my American friends. I broke into and robbed the school store, I smoked cigarettes, and I brought an airsoft handgun to the school dance. After the last incident, the headmaster advised my dad to get me into some sort of father-son hobby immediately so that I had a reason to love Italy. My dad wisely chose kart racing, and that took care of the problem. (It took my dad two weeks to buy an $80 bicycle, so I can’t even tell you how many weeks/months it took him to pick out that kart.)

Before and after Italy, entertainment was generated by bike rides, outdoor games with the neighborhood kids, and trying my hand at 2-player PlayStation games at my friends’ houses. Unfortunately, I was horrible at PlayStation because I didn’t have my own,  so nobody ever wanted to play with me and I turned into that kid who just sits on the couch and watches his friend have all the fun. It was horrible.

God and family came first at home while I was growing up, but money got its fair share of respect, too.

What’s Money?
I don’t know exactly when it all changed for me, but at some point, I stopped respecting the value of money.

It certainly wasn’t in undergrad. I was a student athlete and had no time to make money, so I monitored every dime I spent. Mom and Dad were funding tuition, rowing, and living expenses, and entertainment and clothes didn’t count as living expenses.

It certainly wasn’t during my years immediately following undergrad, either, when I worked as a supervisor in a factory. I decided the bonuses and raises of my blue-collar staff so I knew how little they made and I saw how many of them were living paycheck to paycheck. In addition, the factory was constantly under the threat of being outsourced and offshored. Between these two influences, I never felt fat and happy, and was always watching my back for that tap on the shoulder that signals the beginning of a lay-off. I treated myself to a used Honda S2000, but never traveled and never ate at nice restaurants. I rented a room from one of my colleagues who owned a house. I had a very healthy Screw You fund.

I guess I have to chalk up my new perception of money to HBS. Actually, scratch that–let me put the onus on myself and shift the locus of control internally. I have to chalk up my new perception of money to the way I allowed myself to be influenced by HBS.

HBS is awesome. Simply awesome. If you ever get the chance to attend, do it. If you ever get the chance just to visit, do it. HBS will forever hold a special place in my heart. There aren’t enough gigabytes on this blog to list all the reasons to attend HBS.

But I let HBS influence the way I interact with money. At HBS, $100 dinners (for one person) in downtown Boston are a standard affair. Nobody thinks twice about taking an international vacation–they just go. I remember a friend  told me she was going with a group of students to Oktoberfest for the weekend. I asked her what bar she was heading to. She laughed at me and told me the bars in Germany–she was going to the actual Oktoberfest–for the weekend! At HBS, many students come from family money,  have already made a fortune on their own, or are going to make a lot of money when they graduate. Some students fit all three descriptions.

$100 dinners? I think our entire bill at Olive Garden was typically about $30, and that was thanks to my mom’s coupons. International vacations? We left Italy only five times when we lived there, and that’s with our house being fewer than three hours from the border. My S2000? Hah! One guy at HBS cashed in some tech stock when he was 18–right before the bubble burst–and bought a brand new M3 with the proceeds.  Kohl’s? Try Gucci, D&G, and Armani.

Some of my new friends made as much in a bad year as my dad did in his best year.

While my friends back in Austin admired a good pair of dark-wash jeans, my new friends admired completely bespoke $12,000 suits. You know, the ones where the buttons on the cuffs of the blazer are actually functional? Yeah, neither did I.

So why couldn’t I buy a $5,000 car, rent a room, and pay down all my debt in a year when I graduated in June 2009?

Seriously? Given the context, is that question even relevant anymore?

My new peer group would judge the hell out of me. And dammit, they went to Harvard and I went to Harvard, too. If they can live like that, then I can live like that, too.

My friend was just in town and he told me that he’s making $250,000 per year as a consultant. He bought a Porsche 911 turbo the other day. With cash.

Another friend of mine has an M6 and a penthouse in downtown San Francisco.

Supposedly–and I have no reason to be skeptical–one of our peers is clearing about a million dollars annually on Wall Street working in private equity.

(BTW, I want to state  for the record that I’m sincerely proud of all of these guys. They’re incredibly smart and talented, and I hope they find even more success in their lives than they already have. They completely deserve it, and I’m rooting for them.)

Oh, and lest anybody should forget, the 43rd President of the United States of America went to Harvard Business School.

And what about my old friends? I went off to “Hahvahd”–I better not come back and live like I did before I went there. I better upgrade everything–car, house, clothes–everything has to be at least one tier better. After all, I went to Harvard. The societal pressure to look it and act it is huge.

So I got back to Austin, and I tried it out. Instead of going small and paying off the debt in a year, I went fairly big–I got a house, two cars, and a motorcycle–all within one 18 months of graduating. Up until last weekend, I was going on $150 dates.

In no way am I in over my head–I can afford this lifestyle and the standard student loan payments. I have been line-iteming my finances the whole time, and I even took the time to establish a budget, but since haven’t had any real financial goals (until recently), there have never been any consequences for exceeding my budget; I have just been making sure to avoid an unsustainable position.

Time to Change!
I don’t think I can point to one isolated event that has happened recently and consider it a wake-up call, a call to action, if you will. But for all the reasons I listed on this post, enough’s enough–I want to be rid of these loans.

Cue soapbox: A lot of people in this country–regardless of socioeconomic status–have an unhealthy obsession with things and experiences and statuses. We shop brands, we drop names. We try to keep up with the Joneses. We comfortably tolerate an unhealthy level of debt.

I started this blog when I was writing a cover letter to apply for a weekend delivery job. I took a step back and it wasn’t until I stopped laughing at myself that I realized others might enjoy laughing at me, too. So I wrote an introduction, pasted in the cover letter, came up with an appropriate domain name, and launched the blog.

The blog started as a joke. I had every intention of following through on my challenge when I started it, but I wanted to let people be amused by it and get a laugh at it, too. I hope they still do, but a lot of the comments have actually turned the joke of a blog into an inspiration.

Soapbox off. I don’t want to preach about consumption anymore because I’m just as guilty as the next guy, if not more so. But for the next ten months, I’m going to try to set an example. I’m going to try to get back to some core values. I’m going to try to unload $90k in debt by cutting costs and increasing revenue.

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14 Comments

Filed under Three-Post Explanation

14 responses to “If I Could Start Over

  1. yanghoyun

    No, this blog is *not* a joke, it is *very* real. Thank you for sharing, I’ll be following every post. I’m an Harvard grad too and everything you’re writing hits a cord in me. Keep it up and I look forward to reading it all!

  2. I love this blog, but jeeze, dude, you were living a way too materialistic life. If you kept those habits up, it would incredibly difficult for your audience to empathize with you. It doesn’t matter how your friends were living; be a better person and stop making excuses for your excess.

    If you need more help, check out Adam Baker’s blog, Man vs. Debt: http://manvsdebt.com/. He has a very similar story to yours. He also has some resources on his site that might help your efforts, such as a guide to help you sell your crap.

    The main point of his site is that he has come to the conclusion that in life, less is more. A simple, purposeful life trumps one lived by fashion and impulse purchases. Also, Adam built a business: his website. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to do the same. Let the high-school dropouts who actually need the cash taxi a pedicab. That’s why you have an MBA, right?

    • Joelle

      I don’t mean to come off as offensive or anything, but if the blog author decides (and can afford) to live a “materialistic life,” who are we to judge? I can empathize with him just fine, and I am in no way able to finance the kind of lifestyle that he has. While I do admire Adam Baker’s life goals and have read his blog, his lifestyle is too extreme for me, and ironically lost me as a reader.

      I think the nice thing about this blog is that it’s a different perspective (and a very real perspective) on life and student debt, no matter how materialistic or not the blog author is. I honestly don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with what he is doing, whether he has 1 car or three.

  3. Cassie Olson

    I LOVE this blog, yesterday my grandmother and I were sitting in the same room, on separate computers reading and would say things like “oh oh! have you gotten to this part yet?!” Like it was an exciting book. We will both be reading along with you on your journey and wish you the best of luck!

  4. Ashie

    I couldn’t agree with you more Joelle. Love how your completely honest about your spending habits. Best of luck to paying of your student debt.

  5. If mom and dad paid for undergrad tuition, why don’t you just ask them to pay for your MBA’s debt, despite being ~30 years old? The shame or acceptance is no different. No biggie!

  6. HUGE FAN ALREADY! I am on a snail start making my own websites. I bought a bunch of domain names (i.e. beyond-sense.org and http://www.beyond-sense.com – incense store) just wondering what you use for the formatting on this blog?? thanks alot!

  7. Frank

    Love finding this blog to be honest. I am finishing up my MST and am going to be in debt for roughly $105K once it is all done. Recently married and bought a co-op, it seems like I will never get these loans down. The talks of having a child are completely gone for the moment because I know what awaits me after December’s graduation.

    In taking your advice I have already stopped contributing to my employers ESPP and putting only 1% into my 401K instead of the 7% I was at. All the extra money each month is going right towards student loans. Looking to get out of the lease I just impetuously got into 6 months ago too so that money can go right towards the loans. If I can somehow manage to get someone to stay in our extra bedroom I will do that as well.

    Hopefully, at this point next year I can say that I have put a major dent in the loans if not just paying them off completely.

  8. I am currently finishing my second of five years of a doctorate in psychology and am going through the archives of your blog. Really encouraging and empowering, and I admire your convictions on hard work and belt-tightening. Thank you!!

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