How the Baby-Sitters Club Does Money: Karen

Karen is 35 this year, six years younger than her step-sister Kristy and the other members of the BSC. Karen realizes just how lucky being 35 makes her.

“I graduated in the spring of 2001, and I had a job as a finance assistant waiting for me when I graduated,” Karen explains. She knows she got the job in part because of her father; the same man who literally bought her a pony when she was a child helped Karen get summer jobs that put her ahead of her peers when it was time for graduation.

“He says I did it all myself,” Karen said. “Well, sure. I did the work myself and he helped. He helped just by being there.”

Karen didn’t move to New York after college. “Watson and I talked a lot about earning power, cost of living, and assets. I was always very interested in money, especially going from the big house to the little house as a child — sorry, I mean the two different homes in which my parents lived. They had joint custody.” Her decision to stay in Stoneybrook and work in the finance department of an unglamorous industry was also shaped by Watson — “I mean, he worked in insurance, which said a lot about what you could do with what other people might consider a boring job” — and her choice to stay in Stoneybrook meant she was living in a one-bedroom apartment of her own instead of sharing a miserable NYC apartment with roommates.

Picking Stoneybrook over NYC also meant that 9/11 happened as something that Karen watched instead of experienced. But, like everyone else, she could tell within months that something had changed.

“Everyone was cutting back,” Karen said. “We probably would have cut back anyway.”

Karen watched as her company started hiring people at 60% of the salary they offered Karen a few years ago, and began taking on more and more unpaid interns to handle work that would otherwise have been performed by entry-level staff. “I know exactly why we did it. I was one of the people who had access to the numbers. But yeah, everything was changing.”

Karen’s sister Emily Michelle, for example, graduated five years after Karen did and couldn’t find work. “Watson was shocked. He couldn’t believe that you just couldn’t find work, not if you were a talented and educated person.” Emily Michelle ended up moving back home, and then going to graduate school. In fact, Karen and Emily Michelle were in grad school at the same time; Karen to get the MBA that would help her career, and Emily Michelle to ride out the recession.

In 2008, Emily Michelle graduated and started working behind the counter at Kristy’s short-lived Stoneybrook Scoops — “terrible year to start a restaurant” — and Karen continued to move up the career ladder, although her salary was moving much slower than she was.

“At some point you just realize that this is the new normal and adjust your expectations accordingly,” Karen said.

Karen shifted her dreams of her own Big House, with ponies for her future children, into what she calls “the new American dream:” a good apartment, high-quality health care, retirement savings.

“I mean, can you believe I used to think I’d live in a home just like my dad’s? It seems ridiculous now, and I’m earning more money than a lot of people I know.”

Karen lives with her partner in a one-bedroom condo, the type of home that would be out of reach for Emily Michelle or other people just a few years younger than Karen.

“I’ve been out of college for over a decade and I’m still only in a one-bedroom. This place is much nicer than my first apartment, but still.”

However, Karen knows she’s made the right tradeoffs. She and her partner are debt-free, they’ve got the emergency fund, the retirement savings, and the health care — which was much more important a few years ago, when Karen’s partner began transitioning.

“The LGBTQ community in Stoneybrook is so much better now than it was when I was growing up,” Karen said. “It’s like, nobody knew anyone who was gay, even though they were obviously there.”

Does Karen have any financial advice for other people? “Don’t get born in a year where you’ll become an adult during a recession,” she says. “Otherwise, I don’t know. Spend less than you earn? Unless you’re like my little sister who is earning, like, two bucks over minimum wage? I don’t know.”

Previously: Abby

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