When I started this blog, one of the first questions I asked myself was “When did I become so interested in personal finance?” It may strike you as an insignificant question, but it really made me think and remember a lot of things in my past. I’m not that old, but my mind has a way of shutting off memories I’m not particularly proud of.
One thing I immediately thought of was my feeling towards money during college. I was finally on my own, and meeting tons of new people…it was inevitable that my thoughts on money would evolve.
I was never quite one of those “starved” college students, unlike my sister. I either lived on a meal plan (freshman year), or I’d get some groceries once I was taken off the mealplan. My student loans refunded me about $1000 each year that I used throughout the semesters, so I always had something to live off of. Of course, that meant I couldn’t go out to restaurants each weekend and bars like some of my friends did, but luckily I’m more of a homebody and I don’t find “partying” as appealing as they all did. It was all well and good for a while. I only slightly resented my friends whose parents sent them money each month (particularly when they’d call them and whine about why their checks hadn’t arrived yet), and there were plenty of free things going around campus that I could still have fun.
I wasn’t able to land an internship until the summer after my sophomore year. I had sent out a bunch of resumes, but I don’t think I did such a great job of marketing myself. I’ve always been timid, so those things don’t come naturally to me. The one offer I got that summer was from a contact a family member had. They called me, interviewed me, and although they were ready to hire me for the summer they told me they couldn’t afford to pay me much, if at all. I knew if I didn’t take this, I’d be destined to another boring summer without anything to do and without money. I decided to take it. I needed to learn about the industry and gain experience (lack of experience is what I suspect kept anyone else from hiring me). In the end they paid me $200 a week. At 40 hrs a week that comes down to a staggering $5 an hour. (Ouch!)
My sophomore year I was invited to participate in a leadership program. It really was a great program, and for most people it changes their lives…but I think it changed mine in a different way. I met so many different people in such a short period of time, and the amazing part is how closely we got to know each other. Part of the effectiveness of this program is that you completely shut down your barriers and practically disclose everything to one another. Its liberating, but extremely scary (for me) at the same time.
Now, I realize most of the thoughts that went through my mind during those days were resulting from my insecurities and my perceived inadequacies. Essentially what happened is that I began to realize how different I was from all of these people. I had always thought we were a middle class income family. Definitely not upper middle, but I wouldn’t have thought we were part of the lower class income group. (You may be asking what does this matter. The truth is, I don’t know. But just the realization of this after 19+ years was quite a jolt for me.) That was a while ago, so I don’t remember the details of how I got to this conclusion, but I remember going back to my room one night and taking out my journal (they recommended we keep a journal during that week) and just bawling as I poured it all out onto paper. Just such a mess of thoughts… I’d spent the past couple of days listening to people talk about their European vacations, their trips to the salon for highlights (that was a guy, which is why I remember the comment), the cars they drove in high school, the study abroad experiences you couldn’t miss out from, and other stuff I can’t remember. Point is, I realized that so many people out there were having experiences handed to them that I knew I could never have. And it was because my parents didn’t have as much money as theirs.
After that it was mostly downhill for a while. I thought of everything in terms of money. The next year I moved into an on-campus apartment with a friend of mine. We had our own rooms, but shared a kitchen, living room, and bathroom. For everything I had to feel equal, otherwise I’d grow resentful that I was being taken advantage of. If I bought toilet paper I felt like she was using it all up (thus it wasn’t equal, even if she bought it next time she’d still have used more of it than I had!). If she asked to borrow bread, I would count how many she’d take and make sure she gave them back when she bought bread again. I was horrible! I’d grow constantly annoyed with her…and do you know why? Because every other semester she worked full time, and I KNEW she had more money than me. I couldn’t land an internship that paid me more than $5 an hour, yet she had a full-time co-op that paid her well over $15. I couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t buy the stuff she needed with ALL that money she had. I was blinded, jealous, and bitter.
(Disclaimer: I want to take a minute and say I wasn’t horrible to her all the time! I mostly kept these thoughts in my head, but we had a lot of fun and DID go out and enjoy life.)
Our senior year we also lived in an apartment. At this point I was on graduation mode. I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel where I could stop being a “broke college student.” The previous summer I had succeeded in getting an internship that paid me $13.50 an hour. I know its petty, but I think getting that internship saved our friendship. I had some savings set aside for an emergency, I had some spending money (in addition to my loan refunds), and most importantly I had a little confidence in my own abilities. Thats not to say we didn’t have any disagreements…every once in a while she did forget to buy toilet paper! lol.
When I started searching for jobs that year I felt those insecurities come back to me though. I was mostly scared that I was only going to be offered $10k less than what everyone else I knew was starting at. This was when I started being proactive about things. I read every budgeting article I could find on the internet, I attended every seminar about salary negotiation, resume writing, interviewing skills…I was going to be prepared so that I didn’t make a fool of myself in comparison to my friends. I know the motivation was a bit twisted, but I think it worked. When I got my offer from my current employer I was able to negotiate it up a little, and I even managed to get myself a signing bonus. While I now realize that money isn’t everything, I’m glad I did the most I could to get started in the best position possible.