Mary in Pennsylvania has a new and crucial perspective to share:
This is in response to the recent reader note “Taking on Student Loan Debt Is a CHOICE.” Guess what? Like Kirsten, I’m tired of hearing about school loan debt, too. But I’m also in the middle of the experience.
Although taking on debt from student loans was a choice, my other options were not realistically viable. See, I was raised in poverty, and I was still in poverty when I started at a community college as a twenty-something adult working in a dead-end job and raising my three kids as a divorced mom. There was no drunken partying until the wee hours of the morning, or blowing off classes that Mommy and Daddy paid for. Try juggling three kids, one of whom was in diapers and child care, a job and a full schedule of college classes, complete with homework and labs. Without those loans that I “chose” to take out, I would likely still be working for minimum wage and living in poverty.
There was no lavish lifestyle during college as a result of my school loans; those loans paid for tuition and books, and also allowed us to barely survive while I was in school and working. To give a good idea of what our life was like WITH school loans and me working, we still qualified for subsidized housing, food stamps, and child care, and medical assistance, as well as free lunches at school for the two older kids. Poverty. We’re talking poverty here.
Although I graduated 16 years ago, I am still paying on my school loans (via the Income Based Repayment Plan). Today, I have a middle-class job (which would not have been possible without my degree), but I will be paying off school loans until I die, as I am almost 50 years old and haven’t even paid off half of the balance.
Incidentally, as a former teen mom who dropped out of high school and later got my GED so I could go to college, it’s likely my kids would have followed in my less-than-stellar footsteps back then. Because of my struggles with going to college while raising my kids, they learned through some of my examples. Education became VERY important in our household. We all studied, we all went to class, and took classes seriously. Education was our way out of the life we had back then.
As a result, all three of my children graduated from high school, none were teen parents or involved in the judicial system, two are college degreed, and one is serving in the Air Force. Would that have happened without me going to college? Maybe, but statistically unlikely.
So school loans weren’t just a choice, they were a necessity—not only for me, but for my three children as well. Without it, we would not have survived.
A refreshing reader dissent from Kirsten Campbell:
I know this is an Unpopular Opinion, but I’m tired of hearing about people’s student loan debt. I keep seeing articles about it cropping up on The Atlantic and it has become increasingly irritating.
I’m Canadian, and I went to university in the same city I grew up in so I would avoid student loan debt. My parents didn’t pay a dime towards my degree or the degrees of my two siblings. We always knew they weren’t contributing; it wasn’t a secret that they weren’t paying for our schooling. As such, in grade 10, I started tutoring ESL and later worked retail to save money for school.
While in school I typically tutored 4-10 p.m. every weeknight, then on weekends I worked retail. In the summer, I usually ended up working more retail because my tutoring kids were away or wanted a break. When I got home from tutoring at 10 p.m. each night, I made myself dinner and then started my own homework and assignments. (Yes, after helping other people with theirs, I wasn’t terribly motivated when it came to my own work.)
I worked like a dog. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but university was expensive, I had to buy a used car to get myself there and pay for insurance, gas, food, clothing etc (except rent) all by myself.
Of course I desperately wanted the “university life” that I saw on TV: brick buildings, living on campus, and fun parties every weekend. But I couldn’t participate because I was living at home and rushing from my last class (4-5 courses a semester) to get to my tutoring on time. I sacrificed and gave up every fun or interesting part of university life in order to ensure that I graduated with no debt.
Many nights while doing my own homework at 2 a.m., I wondered if I could do it all. Then I remembered I had no choice. Dropping out wasn’t an option.
So I buckled down and pushed through five years of university to get a double major without owning anyone a penny. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m sure glad I did it.
As such, I’m tired to hearing about everyone’s student loan debt. Taking on student loans is a CHOICE. I chose to sacrifice to make my future better. Those who took on loans in order to have fun in university are buried by debt and I’m tired of hearing from them. No one forced them to take on loans. No one forced them to move away from home and live on campus. They made their choice so now they must live with it.
I’m 12 years out of undergrad and still paying off thousands in student loans, and that’s with two parents and a step-parent paying most of my tuition. But Kirsten’s right; that was totally my choice, and personally I can’t complain. If you think she’s off base, however, drop us a note and I’ll add. Update from a reader living in New York, Peter Zdanowicz:
I also went to university in Canada. You cannot compare paying for a college education in the U.S. to funding one in Canada. Right now undergrad tuition to one of the best schools in Canada (university of Toronto) is $6,040 CDN, or about $5,000 USD. And there is no in-state / out-of-state qualification; that price is what all Canadians would pay.
A Canadian can certainly pay for most, if not all, of his or her tuition with after-school work and summer jobs. I too worked in restaurants and painted houses to pay for school. I had enough left over to pay rent and even buy some furniture.
Tuition in Canada is heavily subsidized by the government, which makes is relatively affordable. In Canada the calculus of paying for higher education is much more about choice. You can go to almost any university in Canada and pay $5,000 to $7,000 in tuition. Cost is usually not a barrier to higher education. I got to choose the school that best suited to my needs. That’s a real choice.
Another reader, Doug, is on the same page as Peter:
Kirsten is wrong. I too am Canadian, and I put myself through university with a minimum of debt. It is much, much, cheaper to go to a good university (in my case Simon Fraser University) than it is in the U.S. You simply can not compare the two. I don’t know when she went to university or which one. I graduated in 1976 with $5K in loans—about $21K in today’s dollars, a roughly four-fold increase, and today the cost has gone up by about four times as well.
The University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s—and the world’s—premier universities. You can see its pricing here and you’ll notice that except for a few specialty programs, most undergraduate disciplines are in the $6K/year for a full course load. What are the costs in the U.S. for an undergraduate arts/science degree at a world class university for a U.S. citizen? A quick search showed me it was at likely to be at least $20K/year and three to four times that for one of the Ivies. You aren’t going to save that kind of money by tutoring and working a (likely minimum wage) part-time job or two while taking a full course load, even if you have the luxury of living at home with your parents for free.
My degree was the most expensive of all programs offered at my university, which I should have mentioned. All in all I paid about $60k for tuition. That’s a lot no matter where you’re from, especially when you’re living in the most expensive city in Canada. Now add in a car, gas, insurance, parking, random university fees that always crop up, car repairs, food etc etc and it doesn’t look so cheap.
In Canada, scholarships are a lot harder to come by than a lot of other countries (at least I didn’t qualify!). Americans complain about the high cost of their post secondary, but we are forgetting to mention how cheap the cost of living is in most U.S. cities (I’m not counting places like the Bay Area). Had I chosen to live on campus and get a meal plan, my university education would easily have topped $100k.
My point is that people have choices—choices NOT to sign up for thousands upon thousands of dollars in student loans because they don’t want to commute to a local university instead. Yes, that would mean giving up the “university dream” and working while attending school.
While I was at university, a classmate of mine didn’t work a single day she attended school. Instead she got loan after loan after loan. Before I lost track of her in third year she was $50k in debt with no clue how to pay it back. I still wonder about her and how she sleeps at night with that albatross around her neck. We graduated in 2008, which was the Great Recession and no one was getting jobs after grad. That’s another story though.
My parents raised us with the philosophy of “If you can’t afford it, you don’t get it,” and it’s a great motto to live by. If I couldn’t afford university, then I wasn’t going. If you can’t afford to attend an out-of-state school, then you’re not going. It’s really that simple.
That’s also why I started saving money for school while I was in grade 10. It’s not a surprise that school crops up at the end of grade 12, so why are so many students shocked when it does?
My brother completed his PhD at our local university when he should have been at an Ivy League school. He didn’t go because he couldn’t afford it and he didn’t want to be saddled with six-figure debt. He has built an amazing career so far which proves he didn’t suffer by staying in province and not living the “university dream.” He graduated with no debt.
The pressure to live the dream is what pushes a lot of students into signing up for debt they don’t even understand. I read a lot of “I had no idea what I was doing” or “I had no clue how long it would take to pay back” from students with loans—which again points to choice. They chose to be ostriches and bury their heads in the sand instead of educating themselves on what their signature on that paper means. They chose not to start early and work in high school or delay school by a year to save up more money. For the vast majority of people, no one put a gun to their head to sign up for loans; it was their choice. The frat party ends eventually and you’re stuck footing the bill one way or another. Just because your choice to sign up for loans has now come back to haunt you, that doesn’t mean the rest of us need to hear about it anymore.
A doctor of disadvantaged patients details her long and arduous path to financial security:
I grew up in a lower-middle class setting: My father was an engineer, my mother a teacher’s aide, then a teacher. I never had to worry about food on the table, much less a roof over my head, but there was no room for extras. By the time I was in high school, we were settled very comfortably in middle class.
Then the recession of the early 2000s hit, the company my father worked for closed down, and I graduated high school and started college, with my parents living on a single income and my elementary school-aged brother still at home.
By nature (and perhaps a little by nurture as well), I was always a frugal person, but knowledge that my parents were borrowing almost $40,000 a year to pay my college tuition kept me on the very straight and narrow. I only ate the two meals a day that were included in my room and board. I walked everywhere. The rare trips into the city were done via public transportation.
After I graduated from college, I attended medical school, and this time, the student loans were in my name.
I lived with a roommate in a 750 sq ft convertible apartment to cut down on costs. My living costs at that time were kept to an absolute minimum despite living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, but I still got a little sick every time I signed the paperwork to borrow yet another year’s worth of tuition. By the time I graduated, I had paid over $180,000 in tuition at a handsome 6.8% interest rate. My parents had graciously covered my living costs. My friends who were not as fortunate owed nearly $250,000.
In the United States, you are not allowed to practice medicine until you have completed a training period called residency. Residency can vary between 3 to 7 years depending on your career decisions. It is essentially a period of indentured servitude, during which you work 80 hours a week for 49 weeks a year, and receive a federally set stipend in exchange.
The year I started residency, my salary was approximately $45,000 per year—an hourly wage of just over $11. Despite this, I was able to save 30% of my take-home pay. The positive effect of working 80 hours a week is it leaves very little time to waste money.
I started on income-based repayment of my student loans as soon as my grace period ended, but the monthly payments weren’t even covering one-third of the accruing interest. Following residency, some people choose to pursue further training during a period call fellowship. Fellowships vary from 1 to 4 years, during which you work almost as much as in residency and receive a slightly higher stipend. I continued to save as much as possible, and my husband and I were able to pay for our small wedding in cash. I continued income-based repayment, but the student loan principal kept growing, with interest capitalizing year on year.
Finally, after 6 years of post-graduate training, I took my first job at a university hospital almost a year ago. Physicians who practice medicine in an academic setting generally make substantially less than their private practice counterparts. While I make a very handsome salary, it is still only two-thirds of the salaries of my friends in private practice.
My husband, who has a doctorate, is still looking for employment, 9 months after our relocation. [See here for a reader discussion centered on the question, “Is a Ph.D. Worth It Anymore?]
We continue to rent, but we’re hoping to buy a house in the next several years; we have saved enough for a full 20% down payment. We are both in our 30s, and have deferred having children due to school and training, are anxious that attempting to have children will incur yet another cost in the form of high-risk pregnancy or IVF.
This year, I will max out my 403(b) and Roth IRA. The principal on my student loans have capitalized year upon year, and now are almost $200,000, despite being on income-based repayment for 6 years.
I logically understand that my financial future is secure. We are still on track to be financially independent by the age of 50, even if we do have children. The years of setting a budget and saving like a fiend during residency (and during graduate school for my husband) has left us in an enviable position. Because I work in an underserved area, the balance of my student loans will be forgiven after 120 payments, approximately 4 more years. I have no undergraduate student loan debt. My husband, mercifully, does not have any student loans, nor any other debt.
But despite making a salary that puts me comfortably in the 1% of earners in the state, I remain anxious about money. My husband is unemployed. My student loans exceed the size of the mortgage that my parents borrowed for their house.
Although my parents and my husband’s parents are financially secure, I know how quickly one hospitalization can completely destroy financial stability. My brother is finishing college, and I intend to pay for his graduate school costs so that my parents won’t enter their retirement years with that burden.
My in-laws are still paying off the student loans that they incurred for my husband and his siblings. Retirement plans were not available to us during residency and fellowship and I certainly wasn’t contributing during medical school, so I have 10 fewer years of retirement savings than my college classmates who did not pursue my path.
I am certainly grateful for the opportunities afforded to me by my parents, and I am extremely fortunate to be able to work every day in a position I love, impacting people in a very important and direct way. I wouldn’t say I made any huge financial missteps in my life, although I do wish I had started investing sooner and more aggressively. If retirement plans had been available to me, I certainly would have started saving specifically for retirement sooner.
The biggest financial lesson I have learned, though, is that lifestyle inflation is dangerous. I am still able to aggressively save because I never felt the need to upgrade just because I could. Because of that fundamental belief, I will always be able to work at a job I love, even if it is not as lucrative.
That quote comes from Brian Brunjes, the local butcher and friend of Neal Gabler, who wrote our May cover story, “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans.” Brian started to struggle after his son was diagnosed with autism, causing his wife to quit her job to care for him and thus leaving the Brunjes family with one income. Here’s Brian alongside Neal in a segment for Wednesday’s NewsHour discussing financial impotence:
Today, the average family has enough financial reserves to keep going for about three weeks. That’s it. And that’s middle-income.
Here’s another startling statistic from economist Annamaria Lusardi:
[H]ow confident are you that you could come up with $2,000 if an unexpected need arose within the next month? And what we found is 40 percent of families could not come up with $2,000 in 30 days. So it’s important to recognize that, that the financial fragility is just so widespread.
Meanwhile, from our hello@ inbox, here’s the story of a young woman who works in online media and is about the same age as Neal Gabler’s daughters:
Supposedly I did everything right. I worked hard to be the first person in my family to graduate from college. I did so with only $3,000 in student loans. I took several internships and kept a part-time job all while going to school full time. I got a job at a hip company right out of college. Everything went right.
Except the pay isn’t great, because, hey, I don’t have any experience. So I answered an ad on Craigslist for a roommate to save money. By the end, there had been people on my couch running from the cops, multiple cockroaches on my pillow, and my “landlord” saying it wasn’t her problem that I didn’t like bugs. So I moved out. Except the rent and utilities to go to this job cost me half my income.
I end up just making ends meet. And it’s like, why did I work so hard then? Wasn’t college and working hard supposed to get me somewhere? I’m just as broke now as my family was when I was a kid.
Gabler explains in very dry, empirical terms how wages have stayed the same while the price of everything you need has gone up. What he doesn’t explain is the real psychological toll that has on the generation his daughters are in. We haven’t messed up and cashed out 401(k)s or reduced down to one income—yet we’re still screwed. We were screwed the moment we entered into this system.
And that fact is so soul crushing it’s a wonder I get out of bed every day. Because a good day is having enough to eat, a bad day is getting a ticket for a burnt-out headlight and needing to take a payday loan just to keep my ability to get to my job—one that barely pays me enough to eat.
This is why extreme candidates like Sanders and Trump are winning. This is why everyone is on Prozac, booze, or worse. We know we’re drowning. People are desperate. This is why people read click-bait articles instead of hard news. No one wants to think too hard about how shitty the world we live in now.
Update from a reader, Katharine, with some advice that our young reader and Linda Lee, whose story is here, might find useful:
I would strongly advise Linda and other out-of-work newspaper editors to retrain as medical editors and writers through the American Medical Writers Association. There is a growing demand for this sort of work, particularly from Chinese researchers who want to see their papers published in English-language medical journals (and the work can be done at home). Here’s an article about this growing field.
Linda responds: “Thanks, I’d already explored taking courses in medical bill coding (extremely boring recall, worse than organic chemistry) and this sounds much more attractive. I appreciate you keeping me up to date.” If you have any advice for Linda or any of our readers struggling with the job market, please let us know.
This podcast [SPENT] will address the age-old question: Why are we so f*****d up about money? Each episode will feature stories from people like you, people who have made money mistakes and lived to laugh about it. Well also have great advice from empathetic experts. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, we’ll get our financial lives together, one episode at a time.
Our reader highlights a few of the best episodes so far:
The latest one is with Dean Haspiel, a comic-book artist, Emmy winner (he did the art for and inspired the Zach Galafianakis character in Bored To Death), Marvel and DC veteran … a genuine success in his field, and yet he only recently got out of debt and got health insurance, at nearly age 50. His latest endeavor is a free webcomic about an alternative Brooklyn where art is a currency of exchange. As he says wryly, “This is a romantic fantasy.”
The Tiana Miller episode is another standout. Broke and badly ill with multiple sclerosis, Tiana still musters the spirit and energy to perform standup comedy all around NYC. She talks about learning to navigate the health care system alone, having to rely on friends to take care of her, and how illness helped turn her into a professional funny person. (“I was like, why would I get hired at a chandelier store? One of my main symptoms is intense tremors!”) It’s a really emotional episode.
The movie clip was flagged by another John, from the inbox, telling his story of “rags to riches, living the American dream”:
I have been broke and don’t ever plan on going back there again. I grew up “middle class” because my father was a carpenter and made good money and spent it on “toys”—motorcycles, boats, cars, etc. I had four brothers. I worked for my dad carrying shingles but couldn’t swing a hammer. I got a job at a steakhouse washing dishes and that sucked. I worked in a grocery store bagging food and eventually night-stocking shelves.
My high school had a training program with a community college a few miles away and I certified in welding. After graduating high school I worked welding for a year with great pay. My only experience with a union is that after being hired I was “bullied” into joining the union; the union steward told me to be prepared to strike. Not encouraging for just starting. The strike never came but the business shut down.
I got married, had a kid, started going back to the original community college, got divorced, went to the local state college, got an Electrical Engineering degree, moved out of state, worked three years then got laid off, moved back home, got a job with an electric utility, bought a house, got a live-in girlfriend who loved to gamble and gamble and gamble—but she left with her debt, thank God.
I was deep in credit card debt and had a house payment and a rental house a state away. I took a deep look and decided that debt was the anchor holding me back.
I worked a side wiring job for extra income. I started living within my income instead of overspending for once in my life. I fixed up the rental house and sold it. Paid off the truck loan. Attacked the credit cards and paid them off smallest to largest using the snowball effect. I added 50% to my remaining mortgage for a while then doubled the payment until I had enough in savings to pay it off in full.
I have been maxing out my 401(k) and Roth and saving cash ever since. My work has a pension plan that has been building for the past 25 years. I have sat down and added up all my assets (no debts at all so nothing to delete — woo wooooo!) and they are approaching $1 million at 57 years of age.
What was the one event that made me change my ways? Becoming single the 2nd time and realizing that I was responsible for my own retirement and happiness. I’m not here to “make” anyone else happy as I’ve strived to before in life.
What financial event moved me out of paycheck-to-paycheck living? The realization that things happen and when you need savings to fall back on. The furnace goes out? Buy a new one. The vehicle breaks down? Tell the mechanic to “fix it.” The market tanks? Who cares, buy more dollar cost averaging. Want to go on a trip? Just buy a ticket or hop in the car and go. Want to eat out? Don't look at the prices, eat what you want and leave a big tip without fanfare. Attached is a link to John Goodman explaining why you should have a pile of money.
I’m debt free. I’ve been broke and I’ve been rich. Rich is better.
Reader Dave teaches at a community college, and he crafted a recent class around our current cover story:
I was engrossed by Neal Gabler’s article and admire his candor. It resonated with me particularly because I have been a freelance graphic artist for over 30 years and I understand exactly the feast or famine nature that such a freelance creative career provides, including the fact that art fees have stagnated (even contracted) over the last 20 years, as publishing budgets have done the same.
My wife has also been a long-time freelancer but our financial situation is much more positive at this point than the Mr. Gabler’s, despite what seems like similar costs (mortgage, college, etc.) and income in a high-tax Northeast state. I credit that to the luck of good health, but mostly to learning the basics of personal finance early on and so avoiding some bad decisions and making a few good ones early on. (Those skills were perfectly described in your recent reader entry “When Self-Denial Gives You Freedom.”)
In addition to my freelance work, I have taught as an adjunct in the art department a local community college for many years. Mr. Gabler’s story was so compelling I decided to devote an entire class, entirely off the course topic, to a discussion of the article and a presentation of the basics of personal finance.
I had no idea if the students (generally 18-25 in age) would be interested at all, so I gave them the option to either work on their projects or skip the class. No one did. In fact, in all the years I’ve taught, it was the first time there was applause at the end of a class. Not for my presentation skills, but for having offered information most had never heard and that they recognized could have an immediate positive impact on their lives and for decades into the future.
Here’s an outline of my class presentation, which contains links to articles, tools (Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook) and calculators (debt repayment, compound interest, inflation, undergraduate loan). This kind of information should be mandatory in every high school curriculum.
I thank Mr. Gabler for the article. There are ripple effects that will be felt for quite awhile, as I intend to offer this information in each of my future classes, until there is a required personal finance class, or as long as someone stays to listen.
Here’s some more specific advice from another reader:
I’m writing to offer a suggestion to Linda Lee, [the struggling former newspaper editor] whose story was outlined here. I tutored on anything writing-related for extra income after college. It was one of the few ways I could command a decent hourly wage for the skills I had as a writer.
Tutoring was very flexible. I was able to do it on my own time even if it was only for a free hour here and there during the week. Sessions can be held in any location (libraries, coffee shops, client homes, remotely, etc.) Getting started is simple, and cash payments at the end of a session are a way to get some extra funds very quickly. Craigslist and Wyzant.com were good ways to find clients. As a veteran (and published?) journalist and editor, I’m sure Ms. Lee’s skills would be in demand.
I passed along that advice to Linda and she replied:
I did NOT get that Civil Service job, and the people in Paris have still not wired me the $2,000, so I’m up for any advice. I had thought of freelance writing, but never thought of tutoring. It’s a great idea. (Better than going to a temp agency.) I really like the idea of someone handing me cash at the end of a tutoring session. Instant commodification.
Another reader, Amanda, previously offered advice to Ben—the unemployed dad without a college degree—in an update to “The Demoralizing Process That Job Searches Have Become.” (If you have any tips on how to make it less demoralizing, please email us.) Here’s how Ben replied to the update, which plugged a scholarship program from the mikeroweWORKS Foundation: “Well, now I know what I’m doing with my Saturday.” We’ll keep you posted on that and other reader developments.
The overwhelming majority of the reader response to Gabler’s story has been positive and supportive. But to balance things out a bit, here’s a strong reader dissent from Adam (a pseudonym), who benefitted a great deal from community college:
Hello! I wanted to comment on the discussion around money and Neal Gabler’s essay. This is a little bit of my own story and mostly a comment on his piece. Apologies if this is off-topic; I had a strong response to the cover story.
Gabler’s essay is out of touch and frankly obnoxious. By his own admission, his financial quandaries are entirely his own fault. He had privilege and opportunity, and made a series of choices that put him in desperate straits. He picked a risky career path in which money comes inconsistently; he then refused to live within his means, squandering his money on status symbols like living in the most expensive areas of the country, private school tuition for his children’s entire educations, and expensive weddings. I have no sympathy for him; he is paying the price of his own snobbery and unwillingness to make pragmatic choices.
In my observation, this is radically different from the predicament of most struggling American families. Many people have never had access to even a fraction of the opportunity Gabler describes, and have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into climbing up from poverty into the lower middle class, only to get knocked back into poverty because the car broke down, the rent was raised, someone got cancer, etc. Gabler pleads masculine pride in telling his wife not to return to work; many families never had the option of a full-time caretaker even when their children were newborns, let alone a spouse staying out of the workforce when the children have gone to college.
This is somewhat of a pet issue for me because, like Gabler, I am from a relatively privileged background—just privileged enough to be exposed to the idea that I should conduct myself like a wealthy person and refuse to consider money in my decision-making. Many of my relatives sank their whole fortunes into sending children to expensive private colleges they couldn’t afford. Why? I have never understood this.
I knew damn well at 17 that my family didn’t have tens of thousands of dollars lying around to send me to school, so I went to community college and then a state university and graduated with no debt. That’s a testament to my incredible good fortune; my parents were able to pay tuition at a state school (it was about $7k/year). I don’t think I would deserve any sympathy if I’d refused that opportunity to send us all into debt just so I could go to my “dream school.” Many of my cousins and former classmates have done this, and I think it’s a preposterous waste.
Maybe it’s the fact that people studied at these “dream school” enclaves that partly explains why they are so out of touch and unwilling to live within their means. At the state university, I went to school with young people who grew up in deep poverty, who were the first in their family to go to college, etc. This taught me a lot of gratitude about my own middle-class background and fundamentally altered my reference point for the class system. I no longer think of rich people as normal and see myself as inadequate; I instead realize that working-class people are much more typical and I feel fortunate. My sympathy lies with the families that are making tough choices about housing and healthcare, not with the families who are making “tough” choices about fancy wedding locations.
Thanks for curating wonderful discussions and keeping comments anonymous!
Our latest reader story of fiscal conservatism in the face of uncertainty comes from an African American woman in Birmingham, Alabama:
I was born in January of 1973 out of wedlock to a single mother who already had two older kids. My mother and father were surprisingly cordial to each other all my life until they passed in 2008. Neither had a high school diploma, but my father was a very smart man. My father took financial responsibility for me but not my two half sibling, so basically my mother struggled all her days to make ends meet.
I lived with my mother in public housing (ghetto) in the state of Alabama. She was a CNA [certified nursing assistant] and we lived paycheck to paycheck. If she was able to save any money, an emergency would come along to gobble it up.
One of the emergencies that has stuck in my head for 30 years and set me on my current path was a flat tire.
Yes, a flat tire. I’ll never forget I was about 13 and my mother's old Ford Pinto (green) got a flat tire. The puncture was on the side of the tire and it couldn’t be patched, so it needed to be replaced, but she didn’t have enough money to buy a new one. She had to call around to family members to borrow the money for the tire. She made promises to pay back the cash on payday.
I made a promise to myself never to be in the situation of having to beg or borrow money. In my mother’s household there was always an emergency. I learned there will always be an emergency when you don’t make enough money for day-to-day living. Those early life lessons have made me into a penny pincher. I started working at age 15 and have never stopped.
I got accepted into every university I applied to. I stretched myself thin working while in college to cover basic needs that my family couldn’t help me with, like food. I got scholarships and financial aid to cover most of the costs of a college education, but because of financial illiteracy (and family illiteracy), I got into student loan debt and credit card debt.
My father and I sat down on his front porch after I got my first job out of college and he told me how to budget. (I was too embarrassed to tell him I was already in debt when I graduated.) This is advice from a man that never went to high school but also never went homeless or hungry:
1. Use one week of your salary to pay a car note and insurance.
2. Use two weeks of your salary to pay rent or house note.
3. Use one week of salary to pay your monthly bills.
4. Twice a year you’re going to get an extra two week’s pay—save it for a rainy day.
My response was, “OK daddy, but how can I save a dollar when all I got is a dollar?” His response was, “Spend 80 cents and save and tithe the other 20 cents.” If you can’t pay for it out of what you have, don’t get it.
And he meant every word he said. There weren’t any rich family members or grandparents available to bail me out of financial trouble. And neither he nor my mother had access to lines of credit, such as home equity loans. But my mother sometimes used payday loans to stretch her money to support her household. Payday loans would put an enormous strain on her that translated into stress for her kids. Watching my mother struggle was hard for me. I grew up with a since of lack, uncertainty, and a feeling of insecurity. We had love and respect but no money.
How am I doing now at age 43? I am divorced. I have one child (11) and a niece (14) I support. I’ve been in the workforce for 18 years in a stable career. I made about $69,200.00 last year.
$12,586.26 (18.2%) of my salary went to taxes (fed, AL state, Birmingham city, SS, and Medicare)
$11,313.79 (16.3%) of my salary went to pretax deductions (retirement, medical, dental)
$45,299.95 (65.5%) Went to me!
I have a modest house payment of $1,000.00 / month. I pay extra each month to pay it off faster.
I send my kids to public school ($1,000.00 yearly in fees and lunches)
I have a 2015 Camry that I owe about $12,800.00 on. I could have saved more money last year but I wanted a new Camry with a sunroof. My used Prius’ lithium ion battery died four months after the warranty was up and six months after I spent $900.00 in repairs. It was time for an upgrade.
I don’t have credit card debt (thanks to Dave Ramsey [the financial author]). I have $70,000.00 in my state pension and $60,000.00 in my IRA. My daughter has a 529 college plan worth about $4,000.00. I have about $30,000.00 cash in the bank.
Since I don’t have a financial safety net, I need a hefty savings account to make me feel secure. I would like to save more and spend less, but the costs of life keep creeping up. The monthly rates for water, gas, and electricity have increased this year, so that I am paying about $30.00 more per month than this time in 2014. That is $360.00 per year.
I shop at thrift stores for clothing except for underwear and shoes, and those costs have steadily increased every year. I shop at ALDI instead of Walmart but still spend close to $500.00 on groceries. I even take my lunch to work most days.
I learned some hard lessons about the lack of money early in life and during my struggle through college that have stirred me toward financial literacy, security, and peace. I also know that life isn’t predictable and bad things happen to good people, so it is best to be prepared for the worst.
Payday lending works like this: In exchange for a small loan—the average amount borrowed is about $350—a customer agrees to pay a single flat fee, typically in the vicinity of $15 per $100 borrowed. For a two-week loan, that can equate to an annualized rate of almost 400 percent. The entire amount—the fee plus the sum that was borrowed—is generally due all at once, at the end of the term. (Borrowers give the lender access to their bank account when they take out the loan.) But because many borrowers can’t pay it all back at once, they roll the loan into a new one, and end up in what the industry’s many critics call a debt trap, with gargantuan fees piling up.
As Mehrsa Baradaran, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s law school, puts it in her new book, How the Other Half Banks, “One of the great ironies in modern America is that the less money you have, the more you pay to use it.”
Well, I had a plan, I had a history of and was going through a severe downward spiral of depression brought on by a lifetime of abuse, chemical and hormone imbalances, Februaries, and a devastating final blow to my family’s financial survival. At this point, I had been bouncing around on meds with my PCP [personal care provider] but really needed a psychiatrist, a specialist, but I couldn’t get an appointment for three months with the only psychiatrist I called that was taking new patients. And the rest of THAT story makes for another story about our healthcare system, but for now: finances.
I’ve never been good with money. I liked to have experiences, not things. I literally haven’t owned an entertainment unit in ten years. I can’t stomach spending the money on it. Concerts, trips, kids activities, preschool tuition—that was important to me.
Before marriage and kids, I went to the notorious Art Institute (my second try at college—depression got the best of me my 1st time and I dropped out three years in). I got a fun, creative, and inspiring $70K education that has yet to bring me that salary in one year. After college, I worked for about a year-and-a-half before I was laid off five months pregnant due to the financial crisis in ‘07/’08.
My husband’s career, meanwhile, was steadily elevating. No college. Zip. But he took care of us enough to have another baby 2-1/2 years later and buy a house with a mortgage that was just $50 more than the apartment we were renting (which was a shit-hole). Things were looking UP for us, but I think the real downfall started then.
With no savings of any kind (we scraped pennies together for the 3% FHA down payment), we slowly dug our graves. We maxed out our credit cards on new floors and defaulted. We took credit at furniture stores and defaulted. Soon, my loans went into default (they wanted over $600 a month even considering our income).
Now we had kids, but we weren’t dead! We have lots of friends, lots of fun stuff to do, and now our kids had social lives, too. Soon, I NEEDED to go back to work for my sense of self-worth and for all the things we wanted to do. I refused to place my kids in one of those daycares that hires 19 year olds for $9/hr (you know, the ones you hear about on the news for forgetting a kid on the bus after a field trip or locking kids in closets). Also, interestingly enough, I’m a terrible classist it seems. If my kids were being minded by someone, the least they could do is enrich their young impressionable minds. My kids would be baby Einsteins!
Private preschool tuition for two, new/used mini-van with the buttons and computer panel, dinners and drinks and concerts and blowing off steam with friends, and finally, last year, our $5,000 medical deductible finally became too much to do. I was working but still making the base $36K/year that I made before I even went back to college in 2003. Let that sink in. I worked as an assistant, with no skills or experience and made the same amount after I went to college, had my own business, built up a portfolio, business contacts and reputation. I obviously failed that test.
Now, March 2016, I was just let go from my job (financial instability of the small businesses for which I continue to work), filed our taxes and was expecting a big return—one that was desperately needed. We were two months behind on every single bill payment, including the mortgage and car. We seemed to owe everyone and their mother $200, like we manufactured Benjamins in our garage. I wasn’t earning my sweet $2200 a month anymore, so we planned on this refund taking us through the next two months, giving me a cushion to find another job.
Well, to my surprise, the government had other plans. Uncle Sam came to collect on the federally backed Sallie Mae loans I’d be unable to keep up with. They took the entire refund before it ever hit our account.
My heart sank. I saw us losing our house, our car, my daughter, with 2-1/2 months left of Pre-K, would have to be pulled from school. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to die. I put the final nail in our coffins. We had nothing. We HAVE nothing. We couldn’t get an apartment for what we pay for our spacious home if we lost it.
My plan? My plan was to drive into oncoming traffic or just slam into the freeway median or drive off a bridge. I have life insurance through my husband’s work, after all. It had to be an accident so that my kids would never suspect my intentions.
Shame. I was so disgusted with myself I couldn’t think of anything except “disgusting piece of shit,” which is actually what I wrote over and over in my journal before and during the first part of my holiday in the cuckoos nest.
So, it’s been a month. With a lot of help from my personal financial advisor (my mom—yes, an almost 40-year-old woman needs her mommy to figure our her finances … shame), we have put together our total debt and planned our escape from this uncharted level of hell.
Trying to get well emotionally while also demolishing the house of lies of our financial situation is very hard and it’s tempting to let the depression wash over me so I don’t have to feel. But, I can never go back there again. Our children are still young and they don’t have to ever remember this time, right? Except for when we tell them about the time we used credit like it was a God-given right as an American, and it destroyed our lives, marriage, and almost destroyed our mommy.
Not all of the reader entries for our “true money stories” are ones of financial woe; fiscal conservative Lori Miller offered various tips with the kicker “with enough money saved, you can tell them all to piss off”; another reader described how her sex work was both lucrative and empowering; and a “Financial Independence Obsessive” detailed her track record at length. The opening anecdote from this next reader, Chris, is a great illustration of how his parents instilled fiscal responsibility at a young age—and, as you’ll see, he carried those values into adulthood:
I’ll never forget my first lesson in personal finance. When I was 12 years old, I wanted to go to the movies with my friends. They were all going unchaperoned, and I couldn’t stand the thought of saying no because an adult had to be there. I asked my parents, and they said, simply, “If you don’t need an adult to go with you, you don’t need an adult to pay for you.”
It was simple; it was easy for me to understand; it stuck with me ever since. If I wanted freedom—true freedom—then I needed to be able to pay for it.
When I was 14, I got my first job, as a camp counselor. I got to keep half of my earnings, but my parents took the other half to put toward my education. They sacrificed to put me through private school, but I needed to have some skin in the game as well, even though $400 doesn’t really go so far.
When I turned 16, I wanted to drive. My grandmother sold me her car for a dollar, so that was squared away, but I lived in a city with astronomical car insurance rates. If I wanted my license, I had to pay my fair share, so I spent my summer job money coming up with $1,200 for insurance. When I was 16.5, I got into an accident and had my first lesson in unexpected expenses: $500 for the deductible and a premium that rose to $2,600 a year.
I went to a top tier university—one of the ones that has conspicuous wealth, and one of the ones where, when I said I couldn’t afford to get the newest, most advanced gadget, my classmates encouraged me simply to put it on my student account. How could I, though? My parents were already paying for my education; wouldn’t it be dishonest of me to charge something to a credit account for which my parents couldn’t even see the line items?
My friends often went on extravagant spring break trips, while I worked over my spring breaks. A student group I joined traveled every year, and we did get to go to far off lands, but I was only able to go because I saved all of the money I could scrape together to pay for it myself.
Many of those friends are wildly successful, mostly due to a combination of natural ability and drive as well as some good breaks, but many others are not so successful, even with that natural ability and drive.
When I got my first job, I was thrilled, but my pay was pretty average for my location. It’s been five years since starting that first job, and my coworkers and I have all done relatively well. As I got to know them more, most of whom were my age or a couple years older, I saw them spending lavishly; they got top tier apartments and nicer cars; they ate out five nights a week and bought their lunch every day; they went on at least one foreign vacation a year.
I found myself thinking, those coworkers must make a ton more than I do! But I learned a few things about them along the way. First, they all made roughly the same as I did, and their pay has tracked roughly with mine. However, half of them contributed nothing to their 401k; the other half contributed 5% or less. None of them established emergency funds; all of them financed their lifestyles on credit cards. Many of them want to make the next step in their lives—starting families—but are hamstrung without financial reserves in case of emergency. They will eventually get there, but later than they want.
All the while, I was saving 12% of my income for retirement, and though I couldn’t save much, I forced myself to put away at least $200 a month toward savings, increasing that number any time I got a raise or bonus. I didn’t go on vacations, and I cooked for myself most of the time (developing some pretty awesome cooking skills!). Every so often, I challenged myself to be more frugal without sacrificing my 20s, and it has paid off without question.
Today, I am married with no student loans of my own, and my wife and I are working on paying off hers. Together, we have multiple credit cards, but we use them strategically. We put all of our expenses on them and pay them in full at the end of the month, meaning that since we get a minimum of 2% cash back, we are always earning a 2% discount on our purchases.
We bought our first home last year, for less than half of what the bank approved us for. We have modest cars, which we financed only because the interest rates were lower than recent inflation rates, and we carpool to and from work most days. We have taken a few vacations, but only because we earmarked savings to do so. We save 16.5% of our take-home pay in Roth retirement accounts and dedicate 17.5% of our take-home pay toward building emergency reserves. Each time we have gotten a raise, we allow a little bit for ourselves and put the rest toward our savings.
By the time we hit 30 years old, we will have six-figure retirement reserves.
The part about surprise expenses is absolutely reality to us. Last month, my car was hit while I was at work and the person who hit me didn’t leave a note. The insurance deductible was $500, and due to a variety of reasons, we realized it was best to buy a new car. (The dealer gave us a reasonable trade value on it.) To keep payments reasonable, we tossed in an extra $2,500.
The next week, we took our dog to the vet for an ear infection, only to learn that she had cancer. The next week, she had surgery. In the past three weeks, the vet has cost upwards of $2,000.
And, almost on cue, we discovered that we had an infestation of yellow jackets, the lawn mower broke, and the dishwasher quit. After all was said and done, we wound up with $6,000 in unexpected expenses in just over one week.
Thankfully, we had been given sound advice and had planned for just this sort of series of events. We absorbed some of the cost into our monthly budget by sacrificing some of our typical expenses, and the rest came out of our emergency fund, which will take about four months to repay.
The point of all this is to send the message that it is possible to build a nest egg. It feels daunting when you are fresh out of college and with debt, but you start to see results after a while. The first milestone is a positive net worth. The next is knowing that your retirement is on track. The next is knowing that a job loss wouldn’t mean your ruin. And on and on until you realize that your hard work has given you what you always wanted: your freedom.
That’s what these two readers went through. The first:
Neal Gabler’s article needs to be shared and sent from one end of the country to the other. The worse thing that happened to me in recent years was outsourcing. My entire industry up and died over the course of one year; all the work went to Canada. I was decimated. I had no savings, my wife wasn’t making anything, and there were no jobs—none that I could find.
I went into a downward spiral of fear, panic, extreme sadness, and a feeling of absolute destitution. I couldn’t sleep much. I cried all the time, trying to hide it from my wife and daughter as much as I could. They still knew.
Though I hadn’t even been inside of a church in 30 years, I wound up going one day, sobbing to the reverend after service. I was lost, and I knew it.
Emotionally, spiritually—we define ourselves by our jobs, and now I had none. I pounded the pavement, making calls and calls. Eventually I got lucky and caught a break—a small firm that led to better work, and then better.
But the damage took years for me to overcome mentally. Four years later and I just got over the fear of looking at my bank account. And I still have no savings for my family. My wife makes better money now, but we’re not that young anymore. I live in constant worry for our future, knowing we aren’t prepared, and having to use most of the money we make now just to stay just a little ahead of the bills.
The other reader whose religious faith was deepened:
I have just gotten through your cover story and certainly agree that the middle class, poor, and some of the upper classes are in a financial mess. I watched as my income stagnated over the years. My own downfall came when I lost my job of over 26 years, obliterated my 401K, and bought a franchise business in 2006, which never made a dime (all my customers were losing their jobs and homes). I went bankrupt in 2009 and had a brain hemorrhage in 2012, which almost took my life, disabling me. I will always believe that this happened as a result of stress and worry over finances.
At that point, I had barely two extra dollars to rub together. I distinctly remember lying down on the floor in my bedroom and literally surrendering to God.
One of my blessings is not having had a credit card since 2008 … and no credit card bills. My hospital bills were forgiven. By God’s grace, I was able to keep and refinance my house and through social security and a small pension (remember those?). I am making it.
But I am careful with what I have. My faith has got me through this life and I refuse to worry, and I nip it in the bud if I start to slip. What did worry ever bring me that is good? I could come up with $400 in an emergency, or even a couple thousand through some hard saving. I am not always frugal; I can’t live that way. Still, what is a vacation?
Yet, I am grateful and hopeful and I will always need grace. Speaking of which, pray for me: my car is 16 years old ...
I principally want to say thanks for your reader stories on financial insecurity. It reminds me of just how plain lucky I am. It is too easy to feel holier-than-thou, but many decisions I’ve made were done with no more or less foresight than your contributors. Neal Gabler's article was excellent. I cringed at the cost of upholding some of his values, but was appreciative of his candor; and saddened (though not surprised) at the awful comments.
Several worrisome recurring themes are present in your readers’ stories. I just cannot believe that secondary educational costs and the consequent debt are sustainable. And somehow finding means to support independent journalism seems imperative to me. Lastly the whims, the slings and arrows, of corporate careers seem only to worsen, with more and more victims falling by the wayside.
These stories almost provide me an understanding of the success of Mr. Trump’s presidential run.
Our next reader, Ben, hasn’t completed college yet and is struggling to find a job. This line is pretty gut-punching: “I had hoped to find my way to something resembling a career before my kids were old enough to notice that their father was a failure, but it’s looking more and more like I won’t meet that deadline.” Ben’s full story:
I grew up working in a family business. When my dad retired, he split the business up among his kids. I was a little too young and a little too ignorant to keep it going for long, and after four or five years it fizzled out. After that I spent a couple years doing freelance writing/other stuff, but most of that work dried up eventually as well.
I settled into a stable but dead-end retail clerk job for three years, but I’m topped out at barely-surviving levels of income in my job and have started looking for other work. This is my first real job search, and I’ve discovered something terrible: I’m completely unemployable, at least at anything that pays enough that we could technically survive on it. I’ve sent out a little over 80 applications in the last month or so, and only managed to get around five interviews, none of which led anywhere.
As bad as the realization that I’m soon to be without work is, it’s not the worst part for me emotionally. Worse is the demoralizing process that job searches have become. Recruiters for large companies will call you in for “sure thing” interviews that turn out to be jobs you can’t get. I’ve learned that many of them need to meet a certain threshold on interviews to secure bonuses and will get you in by any means possible.
Interviewers ask questions that reward liars and punish the truthful, but it doesn’t matter; your answers aren’t important if the next guy has a degree. Ditto work experience.
The worst are online assessments, by far. I have dozens of hours clocked taking complex logic and multitasking tests. I’ve aced them left and right, but the purpose of them isn’t to make sure a person without a degree is smart; it’s to make sure the degree-holder that HR demanded isn’t stupid.
And these aren’t great jobs, either: $25-30k a year with no or shitty benefits, in a lot of cases. The bachelor’s degree they want isn’t related to the work; it’s just something they can expect to get so it’s something they ask for. It’s the new high school diploma.
I’m looking into completing my bachelor’s, but that’s terrifying in a different way: How do you afford college if the best job you can get is Lyft? If I sink myself into $40-60k worth of debt to get a $30k-a-year-job, will I ever be able to dig out?
Update from a reader, Amanda, who points to some potential help:
Ben’s story immediately made me think of Mike Rowe’s foundation, as he seems to be exactly the kind of person Rowe is trying to target with his foundation's “Profoundly Disconnected” campaign. They’re currently taking applications for a scholarship program for the purpose of, in Rowe’s words, getting people the training they need for jobs that actually exist. I myself went the college route, but I appreciate Rowe’s efforts because, as Ben’s story illustrates, going to college to get a job doesn’t always make sense.
All recipients of the scholarship money have to sign the “S.W.E.A.T. Pledge” (Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo). From the list of 12 points:
1. I believe that I have won the greatest lottery of all time. I am alive. I walk the Earth. I live in America. Above all things, I am grateful.
2. I believe that I am entitledto life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nothing more. I also understand that “happiness” and the “pursuit of happiness” are not the same thing.
3. I believe there is no such thing as a “bad job.” I believe that all jobs are opportunities, and it’s up to me to make the best of them.
4. I do not “follow my passion.” I bring it with me. I believe that any job can be done with passion and enthusiasm.
5. I deplore debt, and do all I can to avoid it. I would rather live in a tent and eat beans than borrow money to pay for a lifestyle I can’t afford.
Today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.
A few weeks ago, I met my first Millennial grandparent. I was interviewing a woman in her late 30s about President Joe Biden’s new child-tax-credit proposal, and she mentioned that it would benefit not just her two young kids but her older son’s kid too.
The incidental meeting was a reminder both that Millennials are getting older and that they are doing so without growing up, at least not in the way that many of them might wish. The woman I interviewed does not own a home, nor is she anywhere close to affording one. She has nothing in the way of savings. Nevertheless, she is a grandmother, catapulting into middle age.
Millennials, as just about everyone knows at this point, are a generation delayed. The pandemic recession has led not-so-young adults to put off having kids, buying a house, getting married, or investing in a car—yet again. But today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.
It’s time to prepare for a new and better normal than your pre-pandemic life.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Arthur C. Brooks will discuss the science of happiness live at 11 a.m. ET on May 20. Register for In Pursuit of Happiness here.
Many years ago, I met a woman who had had the kind of experience you ordinarily only find in fiction. As a young adult, she was in a serious car accident, resulting in a head injury. She suffered a period of total amnesia, followed by months of convalescence. When she recovered, she was never the same: Her family relationships weakened; she cut out former friends and found new ones; she moved halfway across the world; her interests and tastes changed; she became more outgoing and less self-conscious; she no longer cared much what other people thought about her.
Three years after his polarizing confirmation hearings, the Supreme Court’s 114th justice remains a mystery.
This article was published online on May 13, 2021.
The suburban gentry of Chevy Chase, Maryland, had some difficulty making sense of Brett Kavanaugh’s descent into villainy that fall. He had always seemed so nice and nonthreatening to his neighbors, so normal—the khaki-clad carpool dad who coached the girls’ basketball team and yammered endlessly about the Nats. It was true that his politics were unusual for the neighborhood, the kind of place where No Justice / No Peace signs stand righteously in front of million-dollar homes. But Brett was not a scary Republican, of the kind who had recently invaded Washington. He was well educated and properly socialized, a friend of the Bushes, a stalwart of the country club. When his nomination to the Supreme Court was first announced, the neighborhood had largely welcomed the news. People gave interviews attesting to his niceness; the owner of the Chevy Chase Lounge said that he would add Brett’s photo to the wall of famous patrons.
If where you live isn’t truly your home, and you have the resources to make a change, it could do wonders for your happiness.
“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Several years ago, I was sitting on a flight to San Francisco, when my seatmate, a man a little older than me, struck up a conversation. Perhaps you hate it when that happens; I love it. In addition to being an extrovert, I’m a social scientist, so I’m always fascinated by what I can learn about people through conversations. Have you ever wanted to know how I come up with column topics? Now you know.
The man told me he was on his way home from seeing his family in Minnesota, where he had grown up. As an adult, he had pulled up stakes, left the bone-chilling winters behind, and moved to Northern California, where he had no connections at all. He raved about the professional opportunities and great weather where he now lived, comparing them favorably to the landlocked, snowy place in which he was raised.
Unless you’re extraordinarily wealthy (congrats on that), your experience of working through the pandemic has probably been miserable. If you’ve had to work in person, your days have been dangerous and precarious. If you’ve been able to work from home, you’ve had an enormous privilege. But devoid of choice and novelty, remote work has lost some of its romance for office workers who previously dreamed of ending their commute. In home offices around the country, the wallpaper has begun to yellow.
WFHers have been working longer hours and more weekends than before the pandemic, and they’re more likely to report loneliness, depression, and anxiety than people working in person, according to Gallup. At the end of April, nearly 66 percent of respondents to a Morning Consult poll said they wanted to return to the office as soon as possible. Half of remote workers even miss their commute. But these data aren’t as conclusive as they might look. In the same Morning Consult poll, 84 percent of respondents said they enjoyed remote work. Gallup found that remote workers reported better overall well-being and higher engagement than those in the office. Many office workers also seem to be more productive at home, even in the middle of a disaster.
When people share a space, their collective experience can sprout its own vocabulary, known as a familect.
I celebrated my second pandemic birthday recently. Many things were weird about it: opening presents on Zoom, my phone’s insistent photo reminders from “one year ago today” that could be mistaken for last month, my partner brightly wishing me “iki domuz,” a Turkish phrase that literally means “two pigs.”
Well, that last one is actually quite normal in our house. Long ago, I took my first steps into adult language lessons and tried to impress my Turkish American boyfriend on his special day. My younger self nervously bungled through new vocabulary—The numbers! The animals! The months!—to wish him “iki domuz” instead of “happy birthday” (İyi ki doğdun) while we drank like pigs in his tiny apartment outside of UCLA. Now, more than a decade later, that slipup is immortalized as our own peculiar greeting to each other twice a year.
The CDC’s surprising mask announcement was not just a public-health milestone.
The announcement seemed to catch everyone off guard: Early Thursday afternoon, the government told Americans that if they were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, they did not need to wear a mask—indoors or outside, in groups small or large.
People who have gotten their shots, Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said at a White House press briefing, “can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.” Coming from an administration that has preached caution to the point of criticism—only six weeks ago a teary-eyed Walensky warned the nation of “impending doom”—the words sounded like a surprisingly abrupt declaration of freedom: Did the CDC just end the pandemic?
It had not, of course. There were, as always, plenty of caveats to the CDC’s guidance. Masks should still be worn on public transportation and in high-risk settings such as doctor’s offices, hospitals, and nursing homes. The majority of Americans remain unvaccinated and should continue to mask up. Tens of thousands are testing positive for the coronavirus every day, and hundreds are still dying from it. Cases are surging in India and other parts of the world.
On Monday morning, my partner laid a carry-on suitcase down on the floor, preparing to pack for his first post-vaccination trip to visit his parents. The moment he unzipped the bag, our cat Calvin promptly clambered inside.
A piece of me would like to think that Calvin was attempting to covertly join my partner on his trip, or perhaps thwart his inevitable attempt to spirit away. But I’m pretty sure #OccupyLuggage was less a heart-wrenching bid to tag along on a flight, and more a textbook example of a central scientific tenet: Cats are absolute suckers for boxes. And sinks, and vases, and grocery bags, and shoes, and Pringles cans, and the nooks and crannies between furniture and walls, and just about any other space they deem cozy, confining, and swaddly. (Cats, in case you were wondering, are a non-Newtonian liquid.) It’s the one thing about which our pointy-eared companions are not terribly picky: If it fits, they sits. And when they do, we humans can’t help but obsess over them.
The recent scandal at her talk show suggests that the host’s smiling facade covers up something dark—and hints at why that facade had to be created in the first place.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show features a recurring segment, called “Cash for Kindness,” that spreads good cheer by lying to people. DeGeneres will send a producer or an audience member out into the world to pretend to be some harried worker—a cater-waiter, a delivery person, a birthday-party magician—and then, in spectacular fashion, spill whatever they’re carrying on the sidewalk. As potatoes go rolling or greeting cards flap in the wind, a trap is laid. DeGeneres watches through hidden cameras to see which passersby do, or don’t, stop to help pick up the mess.
The bit is funny because it is mortifying. Speaking into her producer’s wireless earpiece, DeGeneres feeds her staffer ever-more-distressing banter to recite: There’s an engagement ring in the tiramisus! The greeting cards are supposed to be in alphabetical order! The strangers who stop to help are, you may suspect, a bit nervous that they’ve been roped into some scam—or maybe worse, roped into a situation that will expose the limits of their time, means, or generosity. Eventually, the undercover staffer reveals that they work for Ellen. The random Good Samaritan is brought onto the talk show’s set, and DeGeneres hands them cash: a reward for being kind, but also, it feels, payoff for being messed with.
Like any good prank, especially the pranks DeGeneres loves, cash-for-kindness revels in voyeurism, deceit, and discomfort, all of which get forgiven in the name of a laugh. Yet, like so much of DeGeneres’s comedy, this mischief doubles as do-goodery. It is part of DeGeneres’s grand campaign to merchandise kindness—which is also seen when she says “Be kind to one another” at the end of each show, or when she gets taxi drivers to hug Uber drivers on air, or when she hawks kindness-themed subscription boxes for up to $250 a year. Her aesthetic of cream colors, goofy grins, and uplifting tears, along with her amusing displays of light sadism, have earned her a $330 million empire, a raft of Emmys, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
For some Americans, history isn’t the story of what actually happened; it’s the story they want to believe.
This article was published online on May 10, 2021.
Most of the people who come to Blandford Cemetery, in Petersburg, Virginia, come for the windows—masterpieces of Tiffany glass in the cemetery’s deconsecrated church. One morning before the pandemic, I took a tour of the church along with two other visitors and our tour guide, Ken. When my eyes adjusted to the hazy darkness inside, I could see that in each window stood a saint, surrounded by dazzling bursts of blues and greens and violets. Below these explosions of color were words that I couldn’t quite make out. I stepped closer to one of the windows, and the language became clearer. Beneath the saint was an inscription honoring the men “who died for the Confederacy.”