Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Time Flies & Other Cliches Found At Love Park

I'm not sure I can come up with a more truthful cliche than "Time Flies" - because really, it does. I moved to Philly over a year ago and that just sunk in today.

It's been a tough year. No. Never mind that. Maybe I just haven't counted my blessings enough this year.

Things are not perfect, but I've been thinking a lot lately. I've been taking a step back and trying to figure it all out - my goals, my future, etc. At risk of sounding dramatic, I'm trying to figure myself out.

Moving to a new city - albeit, a big city - was not easy. I had to adjust to being away from
family and friends, push myself out of my comfort zone to make new friends, and learn how to work in a professional setting for the first time in my life. Next, factor in the unraveling of my 4-year relationship and learning how to budget my money (yes, these tedious tasks have more in common than you think). Finally, leaving an unpleasant environment - my own apartment - and moving for the third time in one year. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

Somewhere in between the shit-storm that was 2013, I forgot why I came here in the first place. When people ask, I usually reply, "For my job." However, that's not entirely true.

Before I moved to Philly, I was stuck in a dull spot. I wanted an adventure. I wanted to move to a place I didn't recognize with people I didn't recognize and explore it. I wanted to know what it was like to be completely out on my own and have to figure it out. I wanted to learn to rely on myself and prove to myself that I could make it.

It finally dawned on me today that this "tough year" I've been having is exactly what I wanted in the first place. I have just been focusing more on the mistakes I made rather than the lessons I learned. I got my adventure. Sure, I have problems, but the positives in my life far outweigh the negatives. My family is healthy and happy, I have learned once again how to be myself, and I have made it 14 months in this new city.

Sadly, I've been too busy mourning the death of my past that I have not looked around to catch these positives in a while. 

When I first moved here, everything was exciting. I had no idea what people meant when they talked about Queen's Village or Fairmount. I used my GPS to get everywhere and for a couple weeks, I could safely say that I knew no one. It was challenging and I cried... a lot.

Even through the tears, though, I looked around more. My eyes were open. I would go for a walk and marvel at all the different types of people walking by. My cellphone was glued to my hands and I instagrammed everything I possibly could. The coffee I got in the overpriced, hipster-ish coffee shop down the street tasted better than any other coffee I ever drank. The cable cars were so cool and look at me learning how to get around using the subway. Even driving on the Schuylkill was amazing for me - I would just look at the cars on either side of me and daydream about the people's lives inside.

Sometime between then and now, I stopped looking. I became comfortable - I found friends, I found enemies, and traffic was no longer (or ever will be again) exciting. The coffee was overpriced and tasted just like the cheaper coffee I made at my own house. I did not care who was driving next to me on the Schuylkill just as long as they stayed out of my way. Life became life again. I focused less on the positive side of my move and more on the negative.

My thoughts centered around losing my relationship, being far away from my family, having endless bills to pay and constantly getting stuck in traffic. The negativity slowly wore me down until finally I burned out. I did not want to be in Philly anymore, but I also had no idea where I wanted to be. Home? Somewhere else? Really, I just wanted to run and hide from all of my problems.

After a long talk with a close friend, she pointed out, "You keep saying you are so worried about 'making it' and 'surviving', but you're here. You are surviving. You have an apartment, friends, a car, and a job. You haven't moved home yet and it's been more than a year. You are breathing and talking to me right now. If that's not surviving, I don't know what is."

It finally clicked - I was surviving. I got the adventure I wanted but yet, I just wanted to run along to the next adventure instead of dealing with my problems and enjoying the ride. Deeply surrounded by my negative thoughts, I lost the magic of the adventure. Focusing on what other people had that I didn't - love, money, etc. - just made me forget that I got the one thing I wanted all along. I got the opportunity to move somewhere new, make it on my own, and learn to rely on myself.

I cannot say all my negative thoughts are gone forever - we all know that is impossible - but for now, I'm learning to see the good again. Traffic will never again be exciting, but when I drive into the city, I take a second to look up at that beautiful skyline and feel small again. I take out my phone and snap a photo of a tall building just like a tourist - even if I've seen the building a million times. I am back to pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and realizing that it is helping.

In fact, today I wanted to go to an art exhibit in the city. It was a tribute to the 70's punk rock era which I am incredibly interested in. Still, I was worried all day - would I hit traffic? Is it worth it to drive into the city? Where will I park? But finally I overcame and decide to just go. 

Unfortunately, when I got there, it was closed. I was bummed but figured I was already in the city and I missed the gym, so maybe I should just walk around for a while.

It was exactly what I needed. I watched with my eyes wide open as a skateboarder tried over and over again, and failed every time, at a new trick. I watched a burned-out photographer beg people to "Kiss, kiss" in front of the love statue. I saw people older than me, younger than me, people with more money and people with less. More importantly, I felt the magic of the city again.

So I just sat there, taking it all in. Finally, I realized I could be surrounded by complete chaos and feel at complete peace. I can't say that I'll stay here forever, but it's nice to know that - for right now - I'm exactly where I belong.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Things You Do When You Owe $1000/mo. On Student Loans

When you’ve got over $100k in student loan debt for a bachelor’s degree, you do things you never dreamed you would do. The person you wanted to be when you hit the real world is different than the person you are, and that causes depression and anxiety all in itself. You feel like your life is ruled by your debt and it is. 

You don’t feel entitled to complain, though, because people will tell you one of two things:

  • "You should have gotten a ‘better’ degree.”
  • “You knew what you were signing up for, kid.”

And you’ll believe them, even though you did not exactly know what you were signing up for and you thought two degrees in fields that interest you was enough. It’s not.  

Since you were born, you were told that you will go to college, because if you don’t, you won’t get a job. Fast forward to 18 years old - you got into the state school you wanted to and you know that people regularly take out loans for their education. Your education is your responsibility and your parents have 5 other mouths to feed, so you take out loans. If you don’t, you won’t get the education you need to get the job to support yourself.

What they failed to mention, though, is that jobs are hard to come by. The jobs you can find do not cover your $1,000/month payments, especially when you have to relocate to a new city just to get that job. That means rent and food and not living in your parent’s basement. (Even though our millennial generation is full of people that just coast off of their parents’ hard work, right?)

Don’t think that anyone wants to hear you complain though – then you will be fitting into the “me, me, me” stereotype of your generation. Also, what were you thinking getting a degree in communications and psychology? Even if you have two degrees, kid, why didn’t you just go into engineering? That’s where the money’s at…

Never mind that my passion has always been writing and helping others, and I barely passed math in high school. That doesn’t matter… you just go where the money is, and if you don’t, you’re dumb. That’s what I pick up on these days.

So what do you do when you when you can’t afford your life?

You live in a sketchy neighborhood to afford the rent and you don’t turn on the heat.

Never once did I dream I’d be living in a sketchy area, and while most of my friends say, “It’s really not that bad!” it’s still not a location I thought I’d wind up in. Your neighbors fight constantly, the inside of your apartment constantly smells like weed, and you learn not to look up when you walk to your car. You try your hardest not to turn on the heat until you are so cold you just do, and regret it 20 days later when you get the bill. Also, a microwave and a toaster are not options – they take up too much space and they are not in your budget.

You eat more mac n’ cheese than you should.

Because it’s cheap and you can’t afford to buy the healthy stuff. Never mind that you always ate healthy in the past and you feel better when you do eat healthier. Some weeks, you don’t go grocery shopping at all, you just eat pasta for 5 days straight. You finally realize that what you learned at your overpriced university was true – poor people are typically more obese because they can’t afford to eat healthy.

You buy all your clothes in thrift shops.

I’ve always been a thrift store shopper, so I don’t necessarily hate this, but when you can’t afford a new outfit ever it drains you. When you need new running sneakers and you are too scared to cough up $40 for the cheapest pair you can find, you just stick with your old pair that makes your feet ache. You panic when you need to buy essentials like socks and underwear, because it’s not in your budget. At all.

You attend a lot more house parties and a lot less bars.

A friend of mine recently said, “Why do your friends always have parties? Why don’t they ever go out?” Hmm… it could be because it costs $5 a beer no matter where you go and you are broker than broke. So for me, I’m thrilled my friends have house parties. I still get to be social without overdrawing my bank account. But sure, everyone would like to go out once in a while…

You call customer service reps dirty words you didn’t know you even had in your vocab.

You call Sallie Mae, Wells Fargo, etc. and cry, plead, beg. Explain to them that if your payments aren’t lowered that you will not afford food or your rent. Tell them that you will pay your loans until you are 99 years old if it means you can make them affordable each month. They will say no. Then you will scream and call them names and realize that you are being the mean person you never wanted to be. Then you get off the phone and you realize that you are taking out your anger out on someone else that doesn't deserve it, and you start to feel guilty. 

You use your credit card even though you told yourself you wouldn’t be a person that relied on credit.

My ex-boyfriend and I always spoke about how we would always keep our credit in check. That is still very important to me and I work hard to not use my credit card. Sometimes, when it’s a Tuesday and you don’t get paid until Friday and your gas light has been on for a while, you have to use your credit card.

You pray that your car just keeps running and never breaks down. Ever.

Because you can barely afford your bills now, how are you going to be able to afford a car payment, too? So your 2000 Pontiac Grand Am better keep running and running and never die.

You apply and apply to part time jobs to help pay the bills, and because you are overqualified, they do not call you.

People have mentioned that maybe I should stop complaining and get a second job. Restaurants, bars, retail stores, janitorial jobs, freelance writing, receptionists, you name it – I’ve applied for it. People say all the time, “You live in Philly, it can’t be hard to find a part time job.” I agree. I understand that complaint, but I’ve been trying. So many people are desperate for jobs right now that even the lower paying jobs are competitive. If they can hire someone that doesn’t have a full time job sucking up 8 hours a day, they will.

You wish you could go back and decide not to go to college.

You see friends from high school that did not go to college and you realize that some have more money in their bank accounts than you. They are taking vacations that you cannot afford. Maybe they are not making as much money, but they also do not have to fork up $1000 a month for their education. I know… the grass is always greener, but at this point I’m not sure if I’d rather be in their shoes or mine.

You stop dreaming and you lose hope.

I was interviewed by the Huffington Post recently and the reporter asked, “What is your dream? Where do you hope to be a year from now?” and I laughed. I told him I don’t waste time dreaming. He told me that was depressing and I agree. However, I can hardly afford to take a weekend trip to the Jersey Shore or a day trip to snowboard, so what would I dream about? I dream about days when overdrawing my bank account is no longer an everyday anxiety-provoking thought. I understand there are millions of other people in my boat or worse, so it’s no use getting down about it… but am I going to dream? No. Dreams cost money. I dreamt once about going to college and getting a job, and it’s precisely the reason I don’t dream anymore.

I’ve thought about grad school, which is another solution many people dish out to me. However, the thought of taking out more loans to pay for another degree that might not even help is a scary thought. Plus, I’m not sure what I would even want a degree in or what will pay better. There are no jobs.

If this all sounds whiny to you, than #sorrynotsorry (yes, I just used a hashtag because I’m a ‘millennial’ and I can.) This is the truth about our broken system. I will be paying on these loans for 30 more years and the thoughts I’ve had about buying a house, car, and having kids are looking more and more daunting as the days go on. I am just keeping my head above water now and I only need to worry about myself. People tell me it’ll get better and maybe it will. I hope it will.

As always, there is a silver lining, though. One of these days I will get the second job and it will make life more affordable. I do have a job which many people do not have, so that is another positive. I have an apartment and I have food and I have things in my life that bring happiness that have nothing to do with money. I will work diligently to find solutions to my own debt problems, spending less and putting more towards my loans each month. So I want you to know I do see the positives in my life and it's not all bad. 

My advice for future college attendees: be careful about how much you take out and which lenders you choose. If you can go to a university at home to avoid paying room and board, do it. You can always party with friends on the weekends.