A Tale of Two Salaries

You live, you learn.

When I was 22, I made $45,000 a year before taxes. Or I should have: Twice, I lost my paycheck and felt too ridiculous about it to tell anyone. I worked for the New York City Department of Education, which had the option of direct deposit, but that involved filling out a form, which I was inexplicably resistant to doing at the time.

I had moved to New York the summer after college and had found a roommate — a friend of a friend of a friend — who announced that she couldn’t pay more than $700 per month in rent. I both admired her clarity and felt baffled by it. Doesn’t she realize that this is New York? I thought to myself. And you have to just pay what they ask for? We ended up in a one bedroom at 96th and Lexington. I paid $1,100 each month and got an actual bedroom. She paid $700 and got an area of the kitchen. I could no more afford the $1,100 than she could, but felt obligated to pay it because, unlike her, I had neither a budget nor any self control.

Around October of that year, I noticed that, despite always talking about depression in the past tense, like it was a phase that I’d gone through in college, I was still depressed. Feeling depressed made me feel entitled to anything that would make me feel momentarily better. So I would routinely oversleep (like most depressed people, sleep was my favorite thing) and take cabs to the school that I worked at in the Bronx.

After massively screwing up another day of teaching, I would then decide that I deserved to go meet my friend immediately, and would take a cab from the Bronx to the restaurant she worked at in midtown, where I’d rapidly drink about five gin and tonics. I spent thousands of dollars at Staples on school supplies (yes, some fraction of which was necessary, and it is outrageous that teachers have to spend money out of their own pocket for such a thing). Most of that money was spent because I didn’t know how to teach, but thought that I might be able to conceal that fact if I just bought a set of miniature whiteboards. I signed up for two gyms with monthly recurring charges, and went to each of them once. Exercise was important, because if I couldn’t exercise, I would stay depressed, of course.

When I found a mouse in our apartment (on my pillow, in fact) I paid $516 to an exterminator who would come out that very evening. I deserved to live in a mouseless apartment, didn’t I? Who wouldn’t be depressed if they were cohabitating with mice? I paid that money, but continued to eat in bed and get crumbs everywhere. The mouse, or one of its brethren, returned.

When I got home at 3 a.m. one night when my roommate was out of town and found that I’d forgotten my keys, I paid $542 to a locksmith to let me back in. More precisely, he told me that it would be $542, I handed over a credit card that I knew would reject the charge (it did) and then, rightly, got screamed at in the hallway by a man who had no leverage except for his rage and my fear. (It apparently wasn’t enough for me to have creditors calling at all hours — I needed to add a furious creditor who knew where I live and was adept at breaking locks.)

After that year, I moved back into my parents’ basement, worked a very low paying teaching assistant job, and slowly began paying back locksmiths, gyms, and credit cards. If this hadn’t been an option, I cannot imagine how long and how hard I would have had to work to dig myself out. I faced some consequences, and I worked hard, but I know that because of them, I faced a much softened version of the real life consequences of my actions. I had committed financial homicide, and got off with community service.

My next step was to go to a law school where the majority of graduates work at firms that have a starting salary of $160,000. It’s a well-known number, casually thrown around by everyone from professors to first-year students. At the law school auction, the dean of students shouted “Just think about that $160K! You’re going to be fine!” as she attempted to entice 25-year-old students with no source of income to buy a week-long trip to Aspen.

I did not want to work at one of the $160K places. But I still had some debt — not as much as many of my peers, thank god — but some. I wanted to have children someday. I wanted to keep living in New York. It would only be for a few years. Landing one of those jobs was, almost certainly, the financially responsible choice.

I went to a series of interviews with people in suits who said things like “M and A” and “corporate culture.” A few interviews in, I felt a heaviness that I thought I had banished years ago with little white pills. I ignored it, and went to more interviews. They went horribly. I felt like a fraud who had forgotten her lines in a play she didn’t know she was in. I stopped sleeping and started eating more. I decided maybe the issue was that my interview suit made me look like a hideous monster, and went to buy another one. I took a cab for the first time in years.

I already knew how quickly I could spend money when I felt miserable. I knew I could make $160,000 disappear into drinks, expensive clothes (which I would ruin by washing incorrectly), cab rides, and too much rent. I knew what I was capable of, and knew that I needed a job that didn’t make me feel the need to compulsively spend.

Several of my law school friends were morally opposed to the idea of corporate firms, and never began the interview process. I admired their clarity, and retroactively pretended that their reasons were my own. But my reasons for walking away was much more selfish: I couldn’t fake my way through the interviews, and, if I managed to, I was pretty sure I would end up with deep, debilitating credit card debt again. When I am miserable, there is no amount of money that can keep me solvent.

Today, I still live in New York, and I’m once again earning $45,000, but this time as a lawyer at a nonprofit. I have the same salary that I did at age 22 at age 30, after having gotten another degree, and I feel nothing but some mild amusement at that fact. (N.B. I did not have to take out student loans to go to law school. Also, at some schools, including my own, working in nonprofit law makes your student loans go away eventually. Having no net loss from this degree is what makes it possible to have no net gain.)

I am better off now than I was then in every way. My teaching job provided health insurance, but I was uninsured during that year because I never turned in the form. My current job does not provide health insurance, but I am insured. Most days, I even feel worth insuring. I live in a part of Queens where no subways run. I got married, and though my husband earns less than me, we split the rent evenly: $700 each. I read blogs entries with titles like “Buy a Week’s Worth of Groceries for Only $50” and I buy what they tell me to buy. I have neither student loans nor children, though I foresee taking on both in the next decade. I check out books from the library and go on runs. In short, I live like someone who makes $45,000 in New York City.

My salary is the same now as it was then, but I can fall asleep without my heart pounding in my ears. I can hear my phone ring and expect it to be a friend rather than a creditor. I can pay for something without crossing my fingers. Eight years ago, my depressed brain believed that I deserved a lot of things, but it did not believe that I deserved any of that.

Sarah Jaffe is a lawyer who likes to take long walks and stop at numerous bakeries along the way.

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