A lot of writing has been devoted to how difficult the economic landscape is for young college graduates these days, how they are realizing that their big city dreams must give way to affordable second-tier city realities. I should not relate to these stories nearly as much as I do.
At 36, I am not a Millennial. I graduated from high school 19 years ago, when it was possible to get into NYU with a 3.4 GPA and high-but-not-stellar SAT scores. Both of my parents were poor and unemployed when I went to college, so I paid very little, and even though I was scraping by on my post-graduation AmeriCorps stipend and tips from waiting tables, I was able to pay off my loans in just over a year. I had a large two-bedroom in Brooklyn, splitting the $800 rent with one roommate, and when I finished AmeriCorps, I easily found a decent job doing something I liked.
In 2001, I was making $35,000 and had the potential to move up at work and make more over time. I had amazing health insurance (I worked for a labor union), a healthy 401(k), and no debt. I was living with my fiancé in a lovely little place in Brooklyn and planning a wedding that I didn’t even have to pay for, because her wealthy parents insisted on footing the bill. In short, my prospects were looking pretty good.
And then I tried to get grown up all at once.
Let me be clear—I do not regret the career path I took. I love being a lawyer. Not quite 10 years after graduating law school, I make a good salary, I have flexible hours, and I do what I always dreamed of doing: I help poor people every day. But for me, going to law school was the first step in a quest for a conception of middle-class life that was always slightly out of reach, a quest that proved financially disastrous. I don’t know whether this was simply a question of biting off more than I could chew or whether I was led astray by easy credit and an unrealistic notion of how I ought to live. But there must surely be some lessons here for the 23-year-olds who seem to share my financial profile.
When I was 23, I got married and moved to Boston, because my wife got into Harvard for graduate school. I applied to all the law schools in Boston and went to the one that gave me the most money. I didn’t even ask about loan forgiveness, because the idea was not to take out any loans. I had been employed continuously in one way or another since I was fifteen, and it was inconceivable to me that Boston, a smaller, less important city than my native New York, could possibly be more expensive, or that law school wouldn’t allow me time to wait tables or move furniture. (It will not surprise you to learn that I did absolutely no research on the financial or practical realities of law school.)
So I ended up going to the one Boston law school with no loan forgiveness program, even though I knew I would go into public service. And it proved appreciably harder to find a cheap apartment than it had been in Brooklyn. And it turned out that success in law school demands more than simply attending class—everything is geared toward finding extra activities that will bolster the first-year resume that will land you the cushy summer job that will usher you into a world of money and prestige that will justify (and extinguish) whatever debt you might have incurred to get there. I found work, of course, but not as much as I’d hoped. Credit cards became indispensable. I took out a small student loan to cover the tuition that wasn’t paid for by financial aid.
I soon learned that for aspiring public interest lawyers, the most coveted, door-opening, first-year summer jobs were all unpaid, and often required taking up residence in another city. So long, Innocence Project and ACLU. I found a down-to-earth summer law job in Boston that paid $15 an hour, and a house moving job that brought in an extra few hundred a week. My wife and I stayed optimistic. After all, we never thought this would lead to a $125,000 gig straight out of school, but we were confident that I’d settle into something around $50K and move up steadily, that we could have kids before we were 30, buy a house before 40, be debt-free and saving in no time. Our credit card debt kept growing.
The day I graduated from law school was the same day we came home from the hospital with our first child. We were all excitement and optimism and joy. I had an appellate court clerkship lined up for the next year that would pay $45K. With my wife’s grad student stipend of $30K and her mom across town to help out with childcare, we figured we’d be fine. I took out a private loan to pay for a bar review class (because law school actually doesn’t help you pass the bar!) and cover my expenses for the summer. I sat in the shade of our Somerville apartment’s little patio and studied property law with my baby son in my arms. Our credit card debt, joined by our bar loan debt, kept growing. The student loans waited patiently.
It turned out that the increase in income was outstripped by the increase in costs associated with having a child, especially when combined with loan payments. We were holding steady, but not getting out of debt. Nevertheless, we started to look at condos. We entered the Somerville affordable housing lottery, twice losing out on beautiful, impossibly affordable apartments. (They did the lottery for each apartment by putting envelopes with each applicant’s name in a big, cylindrical hopper with a crank on one side, like the kind used to pick bingo numbers. On one occasion, there was only one other family there, childless forty-somethings. I was there without my wife, chasing my toddler son around the room, and when their name came out of the hopper, they looked almost sad about it.) When I finished my clerkship, an unusual opportunity came my way to work as a public defender—my dream job, and one that is hard to get in Massachusetts. I took the job even though it meant an initial pay cut, expecting to move up. My wife was working on her dissertation and would soon be pregnant with our second child. Our debt was growing a lot.
After a financially trying year for me as a public defender, my wife was offered her first tenure-track professor position, at a small, prestigious liberal arts college in Connecticut. I was able to find a job as a staff attorney at a well-respected non-profit in Hartford. We were each making about $60K a year. This should have been the moment when we regrouped—we could have found a modest apartment for us and our two sons, spent a few years getting our debt under control, and been back on the track we had foreseen for ourselves all along. But this was in 2007, just before the mortgage crisis, and who wants to postpone their inevitable middle-class comfort when they have solid jobs and access to inexplicable amounts of credit? Not us! We bought a house in an upper-middle-class suburb and a new car. Mortgage + car payment + bar loan + credit cards + daycare costs for two children = American Dream.
My job ended up being fascinating and challenging, but it involved two things I’d never dealt with before: a difficult relationship with my boss and a miserable commute. The addition of a second child and a mortgage had swallowed the gains our salaries should have provided. Money and work stress and hours of driving were straining our marriage. After three years, I left my job for something closer to home with a slight pay cut but less stress and the promise of a raise after six months. Instead, there was a state budget crisis and I got laid off. It was 2011. I tried to get a corporate law job, but my seven years of non-profit and criminal defense work were no match for a market glutted with newly minted lawyers willing to work for next to nothing. I ended up opening my own small firm, doing wonderful, compelling work and making even less than before the layoff. After a year, the mortgage, the car loan, the bar loan, and the credit cards were joined by the $13,000 of self-employment taxes I hadn’t figured out how to pay.
And then, finally, the reset button: at the beginning of 2012, my wife and I separated. I moved into an empty three-bedroom apartment in a Hartford triple-decker that my friend owns. The place was empty because he hadn’t had the money to fix it up enough to rent it, but I managed to plaster and spackle and paint and trashpick it into a condition where I didn’t feel bad having my sons there half the time, and my friend the landlord, happy to have any income at all from the place, charged me just $400 a month, cheap even for Hartford. In the fall, just as my divorce was getting finalized, the state agency that had laid me off before, now recovered from earlier budget woes, offered me a job that paid $70K a year. That was a lucky thing, because the suburban house had become unsellable. My ex couldn’t afford the mortgage on her own, and we didn’t want to uproot our sons from their school and neighborhood at the same time we were getting divorced, so we agreed that I would help her out with the mortgage for a couple of years while she went through the tenure process and the kids settled into the back-and-forth of divorced life. My 1/3 share of her mortgage was double my Hartford rent.
And now, fifteen years after graduating from college, I’m living very much like I did back then, and very much like recent college graduates today. My girlfriend and I just moved into to a 2.5-bedroom apartment in a converted factory building. Our rent is $900 a month. We live in the second-poorest neighborhood in one of the poorest cities in the country. We love New York and Boston, but are satisfied with Hartford’s small but accessible art and music scenes. We play in a band. We share a 17-year-old truck that we almost never drive. We slowly pay our debts.
Of course, I make more money than most Millennials, but my expenses include not only the usual $400 monthly loan payment, but an $800 monthly subsidy of my ex-wife’s mortgage and a $208 monthly installment payment to the IRS. And my girlfriend and I have two deadbeat roommates who eat a ton and don’t pitch in at all: my two sons, six and nine years old.
I’m not bemoaning my situation. Quite the contrary: for the first time in years, I feel like I have a workable plan. I’m paying down my debts. I don’t have a credit card. I’m saving exactly enough so that my savings get wiped out every time unexpected expenses come up (brake lines! dental work! mooching relative!). When I stop helping my ex with her mortgage next year, I can start saving in earnest, or make some real progress on my debts. When my ’96 Ranger dies, I will buy something from 2006. My apartment is big enough for my kids to live in until they leave for college (or prison, or whatever). I have no plans to buy a house.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from my decade and a half of treading water, it’s to resist the pull of material things. I don’t mean that we should all renounce our possessions and become ascetics—I like smartphones and cool sneakers and going to the movies. I mean that it’s worth questioning our assumptions about what it means to be grown up, and about how we measure success. In the nearly two decades since I left home, I have lived in $400 ghetto apartments and a $325K three-bedroom house in the suburbs, and I am certain that the house and the suburbs made me no happier than the apartments and the city. I have driven a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Scion and an aged truck with no radio, no power steering, and no automatic anything, and the new car made me no happier than the old (except for the power steering; parallel parking without power steering is hard work). I’ve been lucky to find work I loved during most of my adult life, and I’m lucky to have two wonderful, healthy children. Those things have consistently made me happy, and I realize now, I could have had them without a lot of the debt and stress and suburban ennui.
Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.