At age 28, I hit my financial limit. I was fired from my job boxing pizzas, and I was $14,000 in credit card debt. At that point, the $12-an-hour gig was all I was living on. I went from bread crumbs to salt grains. Not long after losing my job that spring, I found myself standing in line at Arlington County Courthouse paying for a speeding ticket. I had to split the payment between my debit card and a credit card. It cleaned out my bank account and left me a hundred dollars shy of maxing out my credit cards.
Somehow, that same year, I managed to fly to Las Vegas for a bachelorette party. One of my best girl friends was getting married. I dropped $307 on the flight, and birthday cash I’d received from friends covered spending. On our last night there, I played roulette at the Cosmopolitan Hotel until the sun rose. It was NBA All-Star Weekend and Michael Jordan’s birthday. We bet on 23 all night, and it hit five times. The trip paid for itself.
So how did my life get to that point: nearly 30 with degrees galore and somehow boxing pizzas, spending weekends in Vegas and broker than broke?
I spent my 20s living on credit, with no real job. After college, while most of my friends were starting their careers, I was starting a mostly unpaid internship on Capitol Hill. I was going to be a journalist, maybe. I received a small stipend and waitressed on nights and weekends. I spent the money on a flight to Australia that year, spending days in the Whitsundays with my toes in the whitest sand. And then, I moved to Italy for grad school.
By 26, I had a decently stacked resume, but my professional pursuits – life – didn’t quite work out the way I thought it would. I couldn’t get a job in the field that I wanted, and my credit card debt started to mount. So after months of job interviews going nowhere, I made a choice. I prioritized living over debt, over applying for more jobs. I made a choice to do whatever I was doing well.
I started to put living on credit. I didn’t have a 9 to 5 job. I had absolutely no time constraints, and no responsibilities to anyone. I figured as I got older, it would be harder for me to travel. Life would get in the way, so why not go now, and worry about the debt later? So I did just that.
My 20s were sprinkled with memories like weekends in San Francisco with my best girlfriends and surviving drives on the Pacific Coast Highway through winding mountain roads, surrounded by fog. For me, life’s success wasn’t measured by job security (I couldn’t get one), buying a home (my student loans were a mortgage) or marriage (what boyfriend?). It was measured by living in these seemingly fleeting moments. We were surviving sandstorms in the California desert and closing out nights to Empire of the Sun in the middle of the Coachella Valley. We were having conversations on politics and life with strangers in Irish pubs in Florence, and traipsing through two feet of snow in Vienna searching for an underground club in the middle of winter, too poor for a cab.
I couldn’t get my professional life together so I figured the least I could do was focus my energy on living a life worth writing about. And I did. Celebrations didn’t come from new jobs and promotions. They came from exploring new cities and making friends with strangers from completely different cultures.
Don’t get me wrong, I did my best to be smart about how I spent the money I didn’t have. I used credit card points for flights when I had them and checked Kayak incessantly for deals. I figured out how to travel in style, while still being cost-effective.
Growing up, my mother was frugal. I’d buy her birthday presents, and she’d lecture me for spending money. “Twenty dollar expensive,” she’d say. “Ross shirt five dollar!” If it had been up to my parents, I would’ve been a doctor or lawyer. Something that would’ve made a lot of money. And I wouldn’t have gone to grad school because it cost too much. So I figured out how to pay for the lifestyle and choices I was making on my own.
But entering the real world living on internships, I had to start charging my life. By the time I hit my late 20s, I was in dire straits. Most days, coffee was a splurge. I never went shopping, and I’d only fill up my gas $20 at a time because I needed the money elsewhere. I survived happily by prioritizing where I was spending the little “credit” that I had – on the next flight out. It was all a trade off, and I took it.
If there were plans to travel somewhere on the horizon, I went because I knew, no matter how high my credit card debt got, I’d be able to pay it off. I knew when the time came, and I had no other choice, I’d settle.
Then it happened. I was 28 and maxed out. I got a night gig bartending at a Korean-owned bar in the town where I grew up, a place whose only signage out front was a set of flashing neon lights above the door that read “Karaoke.” Then I landed a long-term temp job through an agency, making $15 an hour. I started pulling 60- to 70-hour weeks, and at 29, I started slowly paying off the debt, one tip at a time. My glorious 20s were coming to a close.
I turned 31 in October and officially paid off all $14,000 in credit card debt. I would’ve finished earlier, but Mexico, San Diego and Vegas called. In a span of two months, I became a bridesmaid (twice) and needed to replace all of my car tires. Cost: $1,590 and some flight credit. Then, my temp job hired me full-time.
Now I have a salary and work fewer nights at the bar. I have enough cash for my bills and the hefty student loan payments. There’s even room for savings. “Always pay yourself first,” my smart friend in finance told me.
Next year, maybe I’ll see Italy again. It’s been a long time.
I left my 20s knowing these truths. Anything I ever wanted, I was capable of attaining. There’s always a sacrifice — whether it’s living in your parents’ house as an adult, or working 16-hour days, four days a week. Always be generous. Even on my poorest days, I’d treat my friends to drinks, coffee or dinner on their birthday, and they did the same. I never would’ve managed my title as the “richest broke girl” without their generosity, and the generosity of strangers. These days, I have money in the bank, but I’ve found life and responsibilities are already getting in the way of travels. The last two years, paying off that debt was one of the hardest things I’ve had to accomplish, but I will say, I don’t regret any of it. I spent it on experiences, and for that, I’d do it all again.