Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Thing That Couldn’t Die, Part 3: “I’m So Bored!”

Lindsay Lohan, in a still from Liz and Dick

When we first decided to get out of debt, I thought the hardest part would be finding enough extra money in the budget to actually put a dent in our student loans.  We always seemed to just break even with our income and expenditures, so I figured it was going to be tough finding more than maybe one or two hundred dollars to spare at the end of each month.  That certainly wasn’t going to get us out of $100K in student loan debt any time soon.

It turns out that finding extra money wasn’t that difficult.  Once we drew up our budget, got on the envelope system, and cut out most unnecessary spending, we found plenty of money to roll into our debt snowball.  When we paid off our car in only a few months, I felt like we were really on a roll.  And then, as we got to the bigger loans, the ones that were going to take more than just a few months to pay off, I realized I had been completely wrong about why getting out of debt is so difficult.  

It’s not the money.  It’s the sheer, unadulterated boredom.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Money Doesn't Fix Poverty

Has anyone else out there read John Cheese’s article on “The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor?”  I highly recommend it, particularly for those of us who grew up never knowing when the electricity was going to get shut off (hopefully not when a friend was visiting) and/or were taught how to dodge collection calls from the time we first learned how to use a telephone.   

Cheese’s theory is that those of us who grew up poor developed a certain mindset that stays with us, even after we land good jobs and have the ability to stay on top of our bills.  I have always wondered whether poverty is hereditary, and I have come to believe that it is.  Not because money eludes us, even after we grow up, but because money does not fix poverty.  I’ll give you some examples from my own family’s experience.

When I was growing up, my family was constantly in a state of financial crisis.  It always seemed to surprise my father when the electric bill came in the mail, or when my mom had to spend money at the grocery store in order to feed us. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Signing Your Life Away

One of the benefits of apartment living?  We don't get a lot of trick-or-treaters.  Hence, the teeny-tiny bowl of candy, which might be all mine by the end of the night.

Now for something appropriately spooky: the Wall Street Journal has created a list of five things you should know before you cosign for a student loan.  In reality, there's only one thing you should know before cosigning for any kind of debt - DON'T DO IT!!

I think the biggest myth out there regarding cosigning is that you're simply being a reference for the person who is going to benefit from the loan.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When your idiot brother-in-law asks you to cosign for that speedboat he's been dreaming about, he is really asking you to assume his debt.  In the meantime, when he loses his job due to "back pain" or whatever lame excuse he comes up with, you are going to be stuck footing the bill.  And you're not even a boat person, are you?

And if your nephew can't afford tuition at the overpriced private school from which he's chosen to earn a useless degree in anthropology or underwater basket weaving, don't cosign for a private student loan!  If he needs private loans, it means he's exhausted his federal grant/loan limit, which means he is being price gouged with respect to tuition.   

Anyone out there have any cosigning horror stories?  I'd love to hear them.

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Creative Route to Student Loan Forgiveness?

Photo courtesy of
I came across this comment on All Education Matters today in response to Cryn Johannsen’s post about AEM’s two-year anniversary:

“Has this blog done anything?  I'm thinking that this entire AEM is a pretend nonprofit that you "work" for so that you can get your student loans forgiven after a decade!  Right?”

It got me thinking…why not?  Have any borrowers actually thought of going this route?  Wouldn’t it be wonderfully ironic if student debtors had their loans forgiven by starting non-profits that fight against the student lending industry? Here’s a link to the eligibility requirements for public service loan forgiveness. 

I know one of the requirements is that the borrower must work “full-time” for a non-profit, but it doesn’t give a definition of “full-time.”  I’m sure some un(der)employed JD out there will find a loophole somewhere! 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Lawyers and Anxiety, Part 3: The Sunday Night Blues

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I remember when I was practicing law, Sunday nights were the hardest.  Thinking about the coming work week would bring on my anxiety with a vengeance.  It would start working its way through my neck muscles right around the time Mad Men started.  I’d often get headaches from it.  I would also feel particularly glum and hopeless on Sunday nights.  

I didn’t realize that the Sunday Night Blues is a recognized psychological condition, but apparently it is.  Here’s a nice article with tips on beating the symptoms.

I like some of the author’s suggestions (podcasts and bubble baths seem to work wonders for me).  But I think Andrew Weil hits the nail on the head by emphasizing that if you cannot overcome the sadness you feel on Sunday nights, you might need to reevaluate what you are doing with your career and find work that’s better suited to your values.  Wise words indeed. 

Lawyers and Anxiety, Part 2: Let’s Talk About Sex

*** Warning:  This post contains some adult content. ***
Photo courtesy of
I met my husband almost nine years ago, before law school (and well before law school debt).  At the beginning of our relationship, I was at the tail end of my college career and didn’t really have a care in the world. 

Sex was easy.  Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights were spent out at the bars with friends, and then we’d stumble home after post-bar time pizza or burgers (“hangover sponges” as we called them).  Even drunk and full of greasy, toxic waste, we’d still find a way to get it on.  I recall one time, after an all day pub crawl, I was freezing cold when my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I got home, so I jumped into the shower with my clothes on.  The water warmed me up and – possibly feeling inspired by a foreign film I’d recently seen at the independent cinema near campus (was it the bathtub scene in The Dreamers?) – I jumped into bed, wet clothes still on, and we proceeded to have one of the hottest sexual encounters I can remember.  I recall different positions, scattered bottles of lube, and waking up wearing his tee-shirt and my high heels from the night before.   

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Beats the Hell Out of Waitressing

Photo courtesy of

Thank you to those of you who answered my survey regarding second jobs.  For those of you who said you'd be willing to go into hookin', a little lawyerly advice: sometimes it doesn't matter what's in the briefs, as long as you give good oral.  Good luck!

The Thing That Couldn’t Die, Part 2: Why Pay Off Debt? (The Math)

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Warning:  I am not a math nerd. I used Excel to help me calculate the figures below, and I compounded the interest monthly, rather than daily, so the calculations are approximate.  

I was recently involved in an internet discussion regarding paying down debt quickly.  I talked a little about my experience delivering pizza, and someone interjected with this argument:

Hey, I'm really really not being a jerk here okay?
But I just want to interject something. When I was finishing my private school in law (I went to two schools, the first one I hated, the second was more expensive but it was so much better), we had a lecture on the "practical side of life." What came out in this lecture was that since student loans were so low on interest it was at times better to invest your money than pay down your loans.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Thing That Couldn't Die, Part 1

I’m starting a new series, in addition to the Pizza Diaries. This one will be entirely devoted to our debt pay-off. I think it’ll help me stay motivated. Enjoy! 

“Great was the curse laid upon it
Great was the evil power granted it
Buried for 400 years, it still lives
Stare into his eyes if you dare
For every woman that does 
Becomes a willing slave to
The thing that couldn't die
And every man becomes a monster
Greed had made them unearth a monstrous evil centuries old
Now they and they alone have to face the consequences…”

Did Sallie Mae exist in 1958, when they made The Thing That Couldn’t Die?  Whoever wrote that trailer seems to be sending them a message.  At any rate, take out the “400 years” part (my loans have been due for only about five), and you have what amounts to a perfect description of how I feel about my federal student loans.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Pizza Diaries, Part 9: Reality Bites

I never told anyone at my day job about my pizza delivery gig.  I don’t think they would have understood my motives.  Most of my co-workers live high on the hog, and don’t seem to mind being in debt.  I work a few hours per week balancing the books of an attorney who’s been practicing for over thirty years.  When I see his credit card bills, it makes me cringe.  He basically spends $3,000 a month on crap, and he still has a huge mortgage on his home, even in his sixties.  A co-worker and her husband recently borrowed money from both of their parents for a down payment on a condo.  And yet another co-worker makes substantially less than everyone else in the office, but has a remarkable shoe collection nonetheless.  How could I possibly make these people understand my fear of bending over for Sallie Mae every month for the next twenty years or so?

Driving around under the dark cover of night had given me a false sense of security.  Leading a double life had been fairly easy up to that point.  I simply didn’t tell anyone about my night job, except a few people.  I sometimes worried about having to deliver to a co-worker’s house, but I told myself that if such an occasion should arise, I would find a way to trade deliveries with another driver.  Most of the people at work were off bread anyway (they’d all been reading that book Wheat Belly).  I knew I’d be safe, at least until the next diet craze stormed the office.

And then one particularly rainy night in March threw a monkey wrench in the works.  

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Pizza Diaries, Part 8: Auld Lang Sigh

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In the world of pizza delivery, the holidays are a time of great generosity.  Deliveries are plentiful; tips, abundant.  Because of all the extra money I was earning, the temptation to overspend reared its ugly little head sometime in late December.  I had to constantly remind myself that all my tips were going toward my student loans.  

A little background: I love the holidays.  Some of my best childhood memories revolve around the period between Halloween and New Year’s.  I grew up in Chicago, and every Christmas, my family would go to my grandmother’s brick two-flat on the south side.  She always put up a small artificial tree on an end table between two lazy boy chairs.  One of the chairs had belonged to my grandfather, who died when I was two or three.  Blue lights and a few hand-made ornaments sparkled on the branches.  One year, my oldest sister couldn’t resist peeking at the presents that were stacked underneath the tree and around the end table.  She had been wanting Michael Jackson’s Bad album, and one of her presents was shaped suspiciously like a 33.  I remember feeling probably as excited as she did, eagerly anticipating the moment when she could finally unwrap it all the way and make things official.  The thing about growing up poor is that the holidays are the one time of year when it’s ok to fantasize about material riches.  It’s ok because you’re not asking your parents to provide you with the impractical; you’re asking Santa Claus.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Forgetting Travis Bickle

I'm in New York this weekend and I've been thinking a lot about fear.  I am staying in Manhattan, but I rented a car since I have an event to attend in New Jersey.  When I told people I planned on driving in the city, a couple of them freaked out.  They seemed afraid that I would get into an accident or not be able to find parking.  Or worse yet, I'd have to park in a garage and pay about $50 a night.  In their eyes, renting a car would render me lost, dead, and/or penniless, in no particular order.

But as it turns out, my drive into Manhattan from New Jersey was fairly uneventful.  I got to drive over the George Washington Bridge, and I only got honked at by one person (a cab driver who thought I should have run over a pedestrian rather than yield).  And I found free parking right in front of my friend's apartment building, where I'm staying.

Today, as I wandered the city, I wondered why I didn't listen to the fearful voices that told me to just take cabs everywhere (which would have cost me a lot more money). 

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Pizza Diaries, Part 7: The Invisible Woman

No one really notices pizza delivery drivers.  There’s no reason to, I suppose.  During my time as a driver, deliveries were a cold affair.  I knocked on a door, a customer answered, and without so much as a “hi there,” handed me money and took the pizza.  Only the occasional customer penetrated my shell of invisibility.    

I remember one in particular.  He lived in a small bungalow shaded by olive trees and a few oaks.  I delivered to his house several times, and his German Shepherd always greeted me at the door.  I think he liked me because I was never afraid of his dog.  I have a Labrador of my own, and I can spot the difference between friendly, excited energy and lethal hostility.  Taz just wanted to be the first one to sniff the garlic and mozzarella.   

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Maybe Jumping into a Volcano Would Help

When I practiced law, I often fantasized about how I would quit my job. I found it comforting to live vicariously through movie characters, particularly when I felt like I was doing a life sentence in the bowels of hell, aka a small-to-midsize firm. Watching this scene from Joe Versus the Volcano helped quite a bit.  In a nutshell, Joe finds out he’s dying from an obscure disease (a “brain cloud”) and realizes he’s wasted his entire life up to that point. His boss ends up on the business end of Joe’s newfound self-awareness.

If you’re having one of those weeks, I highly recommend watching this. It might make you laugh just enough to get you through a hard time at work. It might even motivate you to polish off your resume and see what else is out there. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Pizza Diaries, Part 6: F*&# You, Dave Ramsey!

I remember a particularly bleak moment during my pizza delivery career.  It was a Friday night, and I was already exhausted from working night and day all week.  It was pouring rain, it was dark out, and I had no umbrella.  I was to deliver a large pie to a sketchy-looking apartment complex.  When I got there, my heart sank.  There were no visible numbers on any of the buildings and no lighting to speak of. 

One thing that enrages me about the area where we live?  People around here have entitlement issues.  So much so that in the ultra-ritzy areas, there are many homes that are not even numbered and they’re surrounded by fences and moats and gargantuan trees.  Yet, people call up and order takeout with no special instructions as to how that takeout is supposed to appear at their doorstep. 

The flip-side of the entitlement coin is that the rich slumlords who own the apartment complexes don’t believe that their hard-earnedmoney should have to go towards maintaining their properties.  So whenever I had to take an order to someone’s apartment, I knew to expect the unexpected.  No numbers on any of the buildings?  Maybe.  No lighting, and tons of cracks in the sidewalks?  Definitely.  Rickety staircases that threatened to collapse at any moment?  Check. 

And to top it off, even the people who live in these holes have an entitlement attitude.  Their “apartment” might actually be an underground hovel beneath a Jiffy Lube, and yet, they will call in an order and just say, “Yeah, I live at 123 Main Street.”  No clarification whatsoever about how to get their pizza from my car to their front door, which might require me to negotiate the city’s sewer system.

So anyway, there I am, at a run-down, never-ending apartment complex.  Soaking wet, hungry, and cranky, I could not find apartment 9A.  There was an 8, a 9, and a 10, but no 9A.  

I remember standing near the entrance holding a heavy thermal bag and thinking, “Fuck you, Dave Ramsey.  Why the hell did I take a job delivering pizza just cause some radio personality told me debt is bad?   Everyone I know has some kind of debt and none of them are working on a Friday night.”  

Finally, I called the customer and he came outside to meet me.  At that point, I had my suspicions that there was no apartment 9A, and I was either being set up for a mugging or some homeless person used the address to get delivery service.

It turned out neither was the case.  Apartment 9A was in the only place I hadn’t looked, next to the janitor’s closet underneath the stairs.  That’s the other thing I hate about the area where I live – if the houses and apartments are actually numbered, the numbering might not make sense.  Which kind of defeats the whole purpose of numbering to begin with, but I digress.

After I mentally told off Dave Ramsey and completed my delivery, I realized that I hadn’t taken the pizza job because someone on the radio told me to.  I had done it as a test to see if debt had broken my spirit.  The thing about me is that I’m a fighter.  And when I feel beaten down by life, my response is to fight back.  I can’t fight from behind a desk.  I can’t fight using a graduated repayment plan.  I fight physically.  If pizza delivery is anything, it is physical.  There’s lifting, carrying, navigating, running, climbing, and self-defense.  As long as I was doing all of these things, I knew I had lived to fight another day.  Each delivery meant I was closer to paying off my student loans.

The other thing I loved about pizza delivery was that it was a way of taking what I felt was mine.  No one could tell me I wasn’t qualified for the job, and getting it meant instant cash.  I didn’t have to wait around for some reject in human resources to give me a phone screening.  I didn't have to write a disingenuous cover letter.  I just walked in, asked for a job, and got one.  I would pay off my debt on my timeline, not anyone else’s.

So although there were moments when I wanted to strangle Dave Ramsey and give up on the idea of debt freedom, most of the time I simply felt alive.  Law school debt hadn’t beaten me.  I now know where I fall on the toughness scale, ranging from J. Wellington Wimpy to Jake La Motta.  

And if anyone has any doubts, all I have to say is, “Did you fuck my wife?"

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Any Given Sunday

I just tallied up the total extra income I earned last month from my second job.  A little over $800.  It’s not quite as much as I made delivering pizzas, but it will do.  The nature of my current moonlighting gig is much different than my pizzeria job.  With this new gig, I can mostly work from home and I charge a much higher hourly rate than I earned delivering pizzas.  But I work fewer hours, and I do not have a steady stream of work, so I have to deal more with monthly income fluctuations.  Since I work full-time during the week, I tend to complete the projects for my second job at night and on weekends.

In some ways, it’s harder than delivering pizzas. 

When I delivered pizza, I had a definite schedule, and therefore, I did not need to give myself a pep talk or find the motivation to do my work.  I simply went to work.  Now, I have the option to procrastinate on projects since I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder.  My only responsibility is to get things done by their due dates.  How and when I accomplish this is entirely up to me. 

Now I am sitting here with two projects hanging over my head.  Both are due tomorrow and it will likely take about four hours total to complete them.  If I start now, I can be done while there is still daylight.  But finding the motivation to work on Sunday is kind of like watching PBS NewsHour.  I know it will make me a better person in the end, but I can think of a million better things I’d rather be doing.  

Music tends to motivate me, so what I’ve done is compile a playlist of songs about work.  Some of them (ok, most) have pretty bleak lyrics, but they’re still motivating because they’re catchy, honest, and written about people who probably have it a helluva lot worse than I do.  Here they are, enjoy!

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap by AC/DC (ok this one’s about a different sort of work, but I still like it)


Friday, May 18, 2012

The Pizza Diaries, Part 5: One Drove Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I previously mentioned that my marriage suffered from neglect during my days as a pizza delivery driver.  We suffered in other ways as well, from one complicating factor: my husband and I only own one car.

When we moved across the country about a year and a half ago, my husband and I decided to sell his car so we would have one less expense to worry about.  We owned a home, so we were going to have to make the mortgage payment on our old place and the rent payment on our new place, so we cut back on as many non-essentials as possible.

A few months after we moved, our home sold and we no longer had the mortgage payment to worry about.  But we decided to hold off on buying a second vehicle for a few reasons.  For starters, we wanted to make extra debt payments (although we had not yet adopted a strategic plan for doing this); we carpooled to work since my office was only a few blocks from his; and gas prices in our area are always high (about $4.50 right now).  So we figured we’d save a little money by sticking with one car as long as we could stand it.  Plus, my husband’s job pays for a free monthly train pass, and we live near a station, so if push comes to shove, he can always take public transportation for free.

When I took the pizza job, we had to get creative to remain a one-car couple.  We decided to still commute together in the morning, and then my husband would take the train home on the nights I had to deliver.  It sounded simple.  

It sure sounded simple.

But then, about a month after I started my moonlighting gig, my husband’s company moved five miles further north.  This meant we could no longer commute easily in the mornings.  Our area is densely populated and traffic is a nightmare, so an extra five miles in the morning would have added an hour onto our morning commute.  Neither one of us wanted that, so my husband found a company shuttle that would take him from our old work neighborhood to his new location.  This meant we had to get to work about a half an hour earlier, so he could still make it to work on time with the extra leg of his commute.  Most days it was doable, but there were a few occasions when he missed the shuttle and I had to lug him all the way to his job and get to my job later.  In a word, it sucked.

Also, as the evening wears on, the trains around here run at longer intervals.  So if he could not catch the 6pm train because he got stuck in a meeting, he would have to wait around another hour to make the next one.  And then he would have to hop on a light rail to our apartment, which was another 15 minutes.

Oh, and did I mention that I took the pizza job just as the rainy season was beginning?  So not only did my husband get stuck on public transportation many evenings, he had to walk from station to station soaking wet.  

Rainy nights also meant more pizza orders, which meant I would get home later than anticipated.  Oftentimes, I would come home to discover that my husband had not eaten anything since lunch because we were out of groceries, and he did not have a car to drive to the grocery store.  

On these nights, rather than waste another half an hour running to the grocery store and back, we would eat a ten-minute dinner using common household staples: scrambled eggs and toast, soup with grilled cheese, or oatmeal (maybe some protein powder sprinkled in it if we had any left).

Being a one-car couple also put a damper on both of our weekends.  I spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights delivering pizza, while my husband stayed at home with no car.  Most weekends, he would do housework and make a late dinner for both of us.  (The pizzeria closed at 10pm Sunday through Thursday, and 11pm on Saturdays and Sundays, so sometimes we ate dinner as late as 11:30pm.)

But even though it is extremely inconvenient at times, my husband and I have sort of fallen in love with only having one car.  Life is just simpler and more peaceful with fewer possessions to worry about.  And we figure that since we got through my pizza delivery gig with only one car, we can pretty much get through anything.  We are more efficient with our time now (i.e. we go to the grocery store every week or two rather than every other day) and we spend very little on transportation costs.  Our insurance premium is $150 per month and gas is less than $200 (since I stopped delivering pizza).  Because we no longer have a car payment, the only other costs we incur are oil changes and periodic maintenance.  

Some people think we’re crazy.  Mostly friends who always complain about being broke, but drive high-end cars with high-end payments.  When I told my family that we only drive one car, I think they all got the impression that we’re destitute.  Or cheap.  But many of them have declared bankruptcy, and not one of them has any sort of retirement plan, so what do I care what they think?

What my husband and I have learned from paying off debt is that it doesn’t happen by accident.  It will not happen without a plan.  It is a marathon, not a race, and sometimes we will have to get radical in order to stay on course.  If we sail past the finish line driving one car, that’s OK.  We want to finish together anyway.