How Someone Who Went From Internships & Overdrafts To A Dream Job Does Money

Hello! Can you tell the nice people a little about who you are and what you do?

Sure! I’m a 28-year-old reporter in Washington, DC.

How did you get where you are, roughly? Would you say you took a more or less direct path?

I took a very direct path, although it was kind of disrupted by broader currents of The Economy and so forth. When I was thinking about college I already knew I wanted to be a journalist, and I chose to get an expensive journalism degree because I didn’t want to wait an extra year after college to get my master’s if I majored in something else. (I’m not sure why I thought those were the two options, but they’re what I thought the options were.) I started college in 2005, which was about the last minute that working for a newspaper full-time seemed like a stable possible career path and not an insane gamble entailing a lot of rejection and risk, financial and otherwise.

So I did many internships in college, almost all of them paid, like actually paid, enough to pay my rent and eat for a summer at least, and then I graduated in 2009 and discovered that no matter how fancy my degree was or how many internships I’d done, there were about 10 newspaper jobs open in the entire country.

Right. So what did you do?

I kept doing internships. By 2010 I had I think five internships on my resume, and I had applied to literally every newspaper in America, and I was offered yet another internship — by somewhere I’d previously interned. And I just couldn’t.

I finally got a local newspaper job right at the moment when I thought I was actually going to have to move home. It paid $32,000 per year and I thought I was the luckiest person in the world.

I think, objectively, you might have been! At least at that moment. And has your career trajectory been smooth since then?

Not totally. Because it turned out that I was fairly miserable being a local reporter and living in a small town. Which surprised me, because I’d done a lot of internships, I was used to living on my own and working hard, and I really didn’t expect it to be like that. This was what I’d assumed the first few years of my career were going to be like. But I didn’t realize how devastated my newsroom (like many local and regional newsrooms) had been by the recession. So after about three months I knew I wanted to leave and I started looking.

I got incredibly lucky a second time when a job in DC that I was actually qualified for — very similar to one of my internships — opened up. That was the thing that made everything else possible.

That’s pretty lucky, too! But you were well-positioned to take advantage of the luck. How have you found DC?

I totally love it. When I moved here I was 24 and assumed I was going to stay a year or two and then leave because that’s what everyone here does. There are basically two types of celebrations: birthdays and going-away parties. But now that I’ve been here four years I’m realizing that, while there are other places I think I’d be happy living, DC is probably the best place for me to do what I do and it’s a place where, at least for now, I have a really stable and wonderful network of friends as well as the job stuff. I think I might be a lifer, which is terrifying.

Listen, I grew up in DC; it’s not so bad. 🙂 What would be your own #AdviceToYoungJournalists, at this point?

I still am astonishingly surprised whenever anyone asks me for advice because it feels to me like I just graduated and started out and it’s insane when I realize that’s not true. But. I would do so many things differently if I were to do it over! I feel like I’ve been incredibly lucky, which is amazing, and maybe the best things that could have happened given when I graduated and the industry I wanted to go into. But I guess my best advice is … you can note the extremely long pause in my typing right now … to do as much work that’s like the kind of work you think you want to do as you can. And to not be afraid to adjust your dream if you realize that you don’t like that, or it’s not feasible, or it’s not going to pay you well.

At least when I was in journalism school and starting out, it felt like there were one or two very specific career tracks that were lauded and praised and valued and would make you a success, and anything less than that is compromising yourself or your ideals. When I was 21 I thought I wanted to work at local newspapers forever, and I have friends who do that and are very happy, but it turned out to not be the right thing for me and I’m glad I realized that. (And there’s no shame in leaving journalism, either, and it doesn’t make you a sellout or a bad person. That’s a message journalism schools do not do enough to spread.)

What has surprised you most about doing money as an adult? Did you have any sense of what it would be like when you were younger and have your experienced matched your expectations at all or is the lived reality laughably different?

Oh my god I had no expectations for it at all. I do not think I understood money in the slightest until probably after college graduation. And I don’t think it’s my parents’ fault; we were upper middle class (though living in a suburb of kids with parents who were lawyers who went to the Caribbean every year, so I didn’t realize how relatively well-off I was until later), and they are extremely good with money and modeled good behavior, but it just didn’t take for some reason.

My first few years out of college were a nightmare of overstretched credit cards and overdraft fees and I wasn’t even living in a way that felt extravagant, I was just continually making expensive and stupid mistakes at a time when I didn’t have the money to do that.

Do you remember how the credit card thing started? And were there other notable expensive mistakes in particular?

I know when it started because I looked it up last night, actually. I opened it in 2007, which would have been my first summer with an internship, and the idea was to have it for emergencies. And then I charged, I don’t know, new bras or parking tickets or something — it had a $500 limit so it didn’t take long to get up to it — and I got terrified by it and quit looking at it and didn’t make any payments for three months. And so of course eventually it caught up to me and my parents found out when the credit card company called my home address.

Oh no!

This was not a time in my life noted for great organization, obviously, and this was just one part of me kind of unraveling when I had to actually adult on my own. I had a solid amount of magical thinking that I would be able to pay it off before anyone noticed. When I describe it now it doesn’t sound too bad: my parents paid it, I paid them back, because thankfully I was starting a summer internship and actually had money (and they got the passwords to my bank accounts until the money was repaid) and we had a lot of conversations about What I Was Thinking, but it was horrifying and embarrassing and it was not the last time I got in money trouble, but it was the only time I had to ask for my parents to help, and I at least made minimum payments on credit cards after that. Baby steps.

Well, so, now of course I have to ask: what was the most memorable time you got in “money trouble”?

Right after I moved to DC for an internship. I was making $26,000 that year, and I had just moved, which is expensive even if you don’t have anything particular to move, and I had a lag of a couple weeks before I started getting paid again. I was expecting to get a security deposit back from a previous apartment and there was some kind of paperwork snafu and it didn’t arrive. I had something like $10 to my name to last me until it did or until it got paid, and a credit card that was completely charged up. It all ended up working out, but I had a day of absolute horror when I had no idea what I was going to do. I remember digging change out of my pockets and buying ramen with it so at least I’d have something to eat.

Yeah, that is stressful. Have you had to deal with debt, too? What has your strategy been?

So one reason I think I was so careless was that I didn’t have student loans from college, and so I never had serious debt. I had a car loan from my first job that I automated payments for and eventually paid off with no drama, which was good for my credit and for my psyche. I’d go through a year or so when I was very good with money and would pay off whatever (relatively small) amounts of credit card debt I was carrying, and then a year or so when I was terrible.

I finally got serious about it this January when I realized I was 28 (well, 27 then), making a good salary, and had something like $3400 in credit card debt and almost no savings. I’ve paid down about half of that and saved more and I feel like around the beginning of this month I finally turned an actual corner, because I have paid it off steadily rather than relying on deus ex machinas of tax returns or birthday gifts or whatever to solve my problem.

An important step! Do you have tricks that you play on yourself to help you save / pay down debt, or strategies you’d like to share?

Oh yes. My entire system relies on tricks. I would say an important trick is generally to make more money, first, because I don’t want to be a person who tells you to give up lattes or whatever. But I’ve been good with money when I was making very little of it and bad when I was making relatively more, so that’s not all of it. For me it comes down to automating as much as possible and just taking choice entirely out of the equation.

So I moved my high-interest credit card balance to a card with 0% APR (obviously my credit recovered some since the terrible incident of 2008-ish) and figured out how much I’d have to pay each month to pay it off before the promotional APR expires. That’s withdrawn automatically from one of my bank accounts every month.

I also divide up my paycheck so that everything goes to a different account with a different goal. I have two checking accounts, one for discretionary money and one for rent and bills, including the credit card payments. And I have two savings accounts. So basically I can spend whatever’s in the discretionary checking account, and everything else has an assigned task and I never have to touch it or move money in and out (except to pay rent, which isn’t automated).

Do you have specific goals for the next year or two? Anything specific, money-wise, that you want to accomplish before 30?

Everything. Honestly, what made me get serious at the beginning of this year was I had assumed I would magically get better at money or get raises or something and by the time I was 30 I’d have my house in order. I finally realized that wouldn’t happen if I didn’t actually do something about it.

The big goal is to turn 30 with an actual proper emergency fund of more than $10,000, and no consumer debt. I’m on track to do both a bit in advance, which is great. I have been OK at saving for retirement (again, automation), so I’m not terribly worried about that yet, although I’m sure I don’t actually have enough.

Eh, what’s enough? 🙂 You live in a city full of know-it-alls; do you feel comfortable turning to anyone specific for financial advice?

This is so corny but I know she reads The Billfold too and it’s the truth: my little sister is much, much better with money than I am, and much smarter about it, and also is the only person who perfectly understands my financial situation (since we had the same parents and same upbringing and do have some family resources as well) and so I run most of my money questions past her.

For bigger and ambitious questions I can talk to my parents, but I try to avoid any conversation that starts with things like “so I didn’t really have a savings account until about eight months ago” because I know they would be very disappointed and ashamed of me. My friends are generally pretty smart and frugal but we don’t particularly talk about money much, with the exception of my roommates because a certain amount of that comes with sharing bills and the like.

I love that about your sister, and I’m glad she reads the site too and will see this.

Also, she once lent me money at 50 percent interest. She said I could mention that.

Uh, that’s usury.

She was in high school and I was in college. She claims she’s sorry and wouldn’t do it again. Thankfully I haven’t had to ask!

Tell her she’d make a good loan shark. Is she a loan shark now?

Not that I’m aware of! Unless she’s loan-sharking on the side, which I guess is possible.

Everyone needs a side-hustle, I’m told. OK, any last thoughts, things you would like to share?

My biggest regret, money-wise, was not saving even a little bit when I thought I couldn’t afford to. I would make huge ambitious goals and stick to them for a couple of months and then seesaw back the other way, like dieting. I wish that I had saved even $10 a month when I was just starting out, or $50 a month later. I realize that I’m in a better position than many, many people, but I should be, because I’ve had a ton of advantages, and sometimes I realize just how much catching up I have to do to get to where I feel like I should be, savings-wise. Even having saved $1,000 or $1,500 over five years would have made a huge difference, and I wish I hadn’t decided it was just too hard to save a LOT and so it wasn’t worth it to try very hard to save at all.

That makes sense, but in terms of biggest regrets, it sounds like you’re doing pretty well 🙂 Thank you for talking with us!

Thank you!!

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