Last weekend, a friend texted me and asked if I wanted to go out for drinks. It was a Saturday night and I was tucked in bed re-watching Season 5 of “Scandal” on Netflix because I had nothing better to do. Given the week I’d had, I definitely could’ve used a drink or three that night, but I politely declined the invite and explained to her that I didn’t have any extra money in my budget for margaritas with friends at the time. She texted back, “Ok.”
The week before that, another friend messaged me on Snapchat, asking if I had any plans for New Years Eve. I messaged her back and told her that I didn’t have anything planned at the time, but that I probably wouldn’t be doing anything because I was currently in between jobs. My friend let me know that she was planning a NYE party and that she wanted me there. She was sure to iterate that the party was free so money couldn’t be my excuse for not showing up. I told her that I’d try to make it and asked that she let me know all the details once they were finalized.
“MY POINT IS TO ILLUSTRATE JUST HOW LOW AND FUCKED-UP IT FEELS TO BE THE BROKE FRIEND IN THE BUNCH.”
Then, back in October, a college friend and I met up at Panera for a catch-up session. Our meet-up was long overdue given that we hadn’t seen each other in person in a couple of years since we’d finished graduate school. After agreeing on the day and time, we had to figure out where we would meet at. This is when I had to admit to her that I couldn’t afford to go anywhere too pricey, so it would have to be a cheaper spot like Panera or Potbelly (yes, I’m aware that both of these places could be considered expensive). Thankfully, my friend was more than willing to meet and eat at Panera, so everything worked out.
While there are a dozen other examples I could give about times when I had to disclose my financial woes to friends in an effort to explain why I had to pass on an invite to dinner, fun birthday celebrations, or out-of-town vacations, those are the most recent examples that I care to share.
My point in sharing these instances are to illustrate just how low and fucked-up it feels to be the broke friend in the bunch. Being the friend who always has an excuse as to why she can’t go to that concert, or afford to go to drinks for so-and-so’s birthday, or attend next summer’s girls trip to Jamaica because her money is funny. Being the friend who has to cancel a dinner date at the last minute because her paycheck was short because her boss had to unexpectedly cut her hours at the job that she hates but that she can’t quit because she needs the money to keep her head above water. Being the friend who can never afford to buy birthday gifts for friends or pay friends back after they’ve loaned her money or treated her to lunch.
Existing in this space of constant financial insecurity and experiencing the shame attached to this struggle is uncomfortable and maddening all at once. At times, it’s forced me to question why I went to college for six years to earn two degrees that have yet to guarantee me a salaried position in my field or even a stable job with basic benefits. Then, when I think about the relatives and friends I know who have way less education than I do, who are in salaried positions where they’re able to save money, shop, and still afford to live comfortably, I worry that I made the wrong decision to pursue college.
“STARTING FROM THE BOTTOM MEANS THAT I HAVE TO ACCEPT THAT IT’S GOING TO TAKE ME WAY LONGER THAN IT TOOK THOSE OF FORMER GENERATIONS TO SETTLE INTO A CAREER…”
In fact, there are days when I have fleeting thoughts about what my life would be if I’d ditched my college scholarships and offers, stayed home, and kept working odd jobs in the customer service industry. At the very least, I wouldn’t have to worry about swimming in student loan debt and have more of a valid reason for my financial struggle, right?
Deep down, I know that going to college was the right decision and the best thing for me in the long-term. My degrees are mine; I earned them and no one can take them from me or invalidate them. Sure, my college education and experience has yet to land me a good-paying, 9-5 job in my field with the 401k plan and health benefits as the American Dream promises us. And no, I’m not in a place where I can pay all my bills, shop ’til I drop, go out every week with my girls, and still have enough money to throw towards my savings account.
But quite frankly, as someone from a working-class family who is a first-generation college graduate, I know that I’m starting from the very bottom. When I walked across the stage for my Master’s degree in 2014, there wasn’t anything back at home waiting on me. There was no trust fund, no car, no amazing job prospects. None of that. It was just my childhood bedroom that my mom was gracious enough to allow me to return to until I found a job and landed on my feet. (FYI: I’m still living at home with my mom because the cost of living in Chicago is too damn high.)
“…I KNOW I’M MAKING THE RIGHT MOVES TO BE IN A BETTER, MORE FINANCIALLY SECURE PLACE IN THE FUTURE.”
This is real fucking life, though. Starting from the very bottom means that I have to accept that it’s going to take me way longer than it took those of former generations to settle into a career, to pay off my student loans, to build wealth and capital, and to buy property. While these things are not impossible, they’re much harder to do for someone like me who comes from an immediate family that doesn’t own any property, never graduated from college, didn’t built solid careers in any particular field, and didn’t have access to jobs that allowed them to save a whole lot of money for their offspring.
I doubt I’ll ever get to a place where I don’t feel some sense of shame or guilt about my financial situation, especially when I have to tell a friend that I have to miss out on drinks and appetizers because I just cannot afford to spend money on fun, frivolous shit right now. But, at least I know that I’m making the right moves to be in a better, more financially secure place in the near future. And really, that’s all that I can do.