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Looking Back: The Difference 9 Years Makes

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Last updated on August 20, 2018 Comments: 14

9 years ago, I was a fresh college graduate with a degree in music education, living close to campus and looking for full-time teaching jobs while working as a substitute teacher. If I remember correctly, the pay was about $70 per day. My one-bedroom apartment, almost completely unfurnished, was $600 per month if I remember correctly. I’m estimating because I have no financial records from this time. Looking back, I can’t determine how I was able to afford my rent, food, and student loan payments.

I have a hunch that my survival was assisted through the use of credit cards, but I have no surviving documents that prove this other than the first credit report I pulled, in 2005, which lists a number of open credit cards dating back to 1994, the year I entered college. One of these old credit cards is listed as “past due 30 days” around the time I had graduated from college and another was “past due 60 days.” Although the details have been lost forever, I can’t deny that I was doing something wrong by not managing my money properly.

Unable to find a teaching position that suited me perfectly — I wasn’t about to settle and be miserable — I decided to work with a touring, competitive drum and bugle corps over the summer and continue to work for a similar organization full time in the fall. The best thing about touring with the corps, other than the exposure to some of the country’s best musicians between the ages of 16 and 21, the country’s best music instructors, and an overall exciting summer, is that I had almost no expenses during that time. We lived on the road for nine weeks or so and had four free meals every day. Most of my belongings went into storage for the summer, so my only rent was the storage fee.

Returning to “real life” after the summer ended was not as easy. Many weeks I worked over 80 hours at the non-profit arts organization, and they did not pay overtime on top of the low salary. To save money, I moved in with my father and younger brother for a few months, but our apartment was about 60 miles from my office, so I needed a reliable car.

There was one problem, however. Just like I didn’t know much about managing my finances, I didn’t know much about cars. Apparently, you have to add oil to the engine every so often. After destroying the motor of my 1986 Toyota Celica, I learned my lesson. In the fall of 1999, I purchased a used 1997 Honda Civic and was introduced to the wonderful expense we call car payments. With the low salary, rent on a new apartment I was sharing with a friend, my student loans, the new car loan, and everyday expenses, my credit card debt increased every month. I had a general feeling that this wasn’t right, but I still wasn’t paying attention.

In the years that followed I did try to improve parts of my life by moving closer to work, where I was spending more than 50% of my time, but the options were not great. After moving as close as 20 minutes away from the office, my employer and I (sort of) mutually decided to part ways. This is what led me to discover the value in managing my money, and I’ve written about this in How to Be the CFO of Your Own Life.

9 years ago, my net worth was negative, but I don’t even know the extent. The primary causes were the student loans and the low income as a college graduate in the non-profit arts education field. By changing my attitude, applying focus, and learning the importance of “living below your means,” it didn’t take me long to become self-sufficient without the use of credit. My situation became crystal clear, and the change was like flipping a switch.

How far have I come since then? I’ve been chronicling my progress on Consumerism Commentary every month since July 2003, so feel free to browse my monthly financial reports.

This story was part of May’s writing project at the MoneyBlogNetwork. Here are more articles are written by bloggers looking back at their finances from a decade ago.

Article comments

Luke Landes says:

Denise: Thanks, I fixed the link.

Anonymous says:

The monthly updates URL has a typo. It should be

Anonymous says:

What a coincidence! I’m also a music education major who struggled out of the gate because of a lack of open jobs and eventually went on to do something else. Except for the DCI stint, it’s the same essential story, right down to the strong interest in personal finance. I found your blog relevant before, but now it really speaks to me! I even drive an old Celica!

Anonymous says:

Get out! I’d have never guessed that I’d see a DCI reference on a PF blog… Small world.

If you don’t mind me asking, which corps were you with? DCI isn’t what it used to be, but I’m still planning on driving for 15 hours to hit the show in Madison, WI next month…

Anonymous says:

I’ve been a reader for about a year and it is interesting to learn you were involved with Drum Corps.

I was never able to march, but it was always a dream. I was with a Division II corps until Spring Training camp, when I got an offer for a great internship and made the decision to be responsible towards my career and forego marching. One of my few life regrets.

Anonymous says:

as a 5-year college grad myself, it’s inspiring to hear how well you’re doing. I have yet to pay off my student loans entirely, but I’ve been reading CC for several years and learned SO MUCH in the process.

Anonymous says:

We are encouraged to read biagraphies to improve ourselves. I like this series that you are particpating in. It is very inspirational as we feel that we actually know the person who is writing about the past 10 years.

And you net worth growth is awesome!