At The Root, Demetria Lucas writes about a phenomenon that is happening among young adults: “fronting,” or running up deep debts to project the professional success they aim to achieve (“fake it till you make it,” “dress for the job you want,” etc. etc.). Lucas tells the story of a friend who wanted to launch himself as a nightlife entrepreneur:

He was convinced that in order to be taken seriously, he had to look like “the people” who already had what he wanted. It was a classic mistake of trying to have at the beginning what someone else had after years of hard work… [T]o my friend, “looking the part” meant designer T-shirts at $150 a pop, custom kicks and five-day weekends at every major music festival around the country.

My wake-up call came 18 months later when my friend called me in a panic, not knowing what to do next. He was around $30,000 in credit card debt and had student loans. That friend ended up moving back in with his parents for a year-plus so he could save money to pay off his credit cards. (More than 10 years later, he’s still paying off student loans.)

Lucas’s focus is on black twenty- and thirty-somethings in arts and entertainment, but she seems to have diagnosed a broader malaise. After all, Lucas points out that African Americans are more likely (94%) to have some kind of debt than the general population, but even 82% of the general population carries debt, and the average credit card debt among households that have such debt is around $15,000. In other words, this is a problem that, like so many economic problems, may hit the black community harder, but hits everyone.

Obviously, part of this is a symptom of long-term economic trends. It’s not surprising that young adults find it harder and harder to achieve the levels of economic stability and material comfort they got used to as children: real wages have been stagnant for over fifty years while college education costs have far outpaced not only wage growth but also inflation—that’s a recipe for long-term debt, even without the flashy spending that Lucas decries.

But how do our expectations play into the equation? Lucas’s examination of this question starts with the hyperbolic economic success of rappers and the unrealistic expectations they create. But what about the more modest expectations of the good old American dream? My own story of amassing debt in pursuit of an idealized middle class lifestyle—law degree, suburban house, car, children—doesn’t seem as absurd as the plight of Lucas’s would-be nightlife impresario, but it’s really no different: hard work and big dreams can’t necessarily overcome poor planning, deep debt, and a lousy economy.

So my question for you, dear readers, is this: Are there financial or material attainments that you always reflexively assumed would figure in your future, but that honestly may be out of reach? Many millions of people are finding that home ownership isn’t the guarantee we once imagined it to be (I’m so over it). Others are already asking seriously whether college and its attendant debts are necessary. What else did you have as a child or reasonably expect to have as an adult that now seems unrealistic? Tell us in the comments, while listening to “Frontin’” by Pharell and Jay Z (and yes, this video depicts exactly the kind of unrealistic excess mentioned above, but it is a catchy song).



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.

Photo: Alden Jewell


46 Comments / Post A Comment

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

For me, it’s a PhD.

I love learning and school, and in my field (and in most of the tangential fields that interest me), a PhD is part of the price of admission for a certain tier of jobs. I have always been a big nerd, and young me couldn’t imagine a life where I wasn’t eventually Dr. Caitlin with a C.

That said, PhD funding isn’t a guarantee in my field. Since I don’t have any long-term inclinations toward academia and since I just had middling undergrad and grad school grades, my odds at funding vary by year but are never fantastic. Even more daunting to me is the prospect of jumping into a PhD and forgoing my admittedly nice income during the years where I am most likely to be attempting to save for marriage and babies, get rid of my student loans from grad school part 1, and start banking money for savings and possibly finding a housing situation where I don’t move every year or two. Oh, and potentially missing out on 4-7 years of big matched retirement contributions? Scary!

…so maybe someday, but it’s hard to see that one panning out.

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

@Caitlin with a C Related: grad school is a HUGE example of this. I know tons of people who get master’s degrees in fields they love, that they fund with loans, that have next-to-no external value compared with just getting work experience in that field (looking at you, international development friends who have never been outside of the country!).

andnowlights (#2,902)

@Caitlin with a C No one should ever go into a PhD program that isn’t funded, according to my husband (who is in a program). Most programs that are fully funded are the ones you have a better chance of actually get JOBS out of- if a school is using its students as a source for funds by making them pay tuition, it doesn’t speak highly of that programs reputation! As far as funding, my husband has guaranteed funding for 4 years with a probably 5th, though several of my student employees are in year SEVEN of their PhD program and have to cobble together various fellowships to make it work.

You have to want the PhD more than you want the security of all the benefits you mentioned above, basically. It’s a lot of sacrifice, for sure!

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

@andnowlights I don’t know if I agree with that 100% of the time (because I don’t know enough to speak about other fields), but I certainly wouldn’t be okay with paying for a PhD. Thankfully, my field is moving in a direction where more schools are making “we only accept PhDs we can fund” vows, but that didn’t really start until after I finished getting a master’s and got away from the academic world. I guess the point that I intended to get at with my novel up there was that I used to be more okay with the idea of giving up 5 years of good income at a young age for that, but now I think it would make a lot of the other big financial hits I am interested in (getting rid of old student loans quickly, having kids, paying for a wedding, maybe buying a place to live since rent control isn’t much of a thing where I live) impossible — or would at least hinder my SSO’s financial dreams while he floated me for 5 years.

garli (#4,150)

@Caitlin with a C I ended up ditching my PhD program because the employment prospects were worse with one than without one. To the point where people I know were leaving it off of their resumes to be considered for non-academic jobs when academic jobs were not out there.

I’ll always be annoyed that I missed out on it finishing it but it was a better life choice in the long run.

andnowlights (#2,902)

@Caitlin with a C I think it depends on a lot of different circumstances. I’m floating my husband through his school and it does mean giving up a lot of different things, BUT I (or he) cannot imagine him doing ANYTHING else in the whole world. I’ve heard that’s the measuring stick for whether or not you should get your phd: if you can see yourself doing literally anything else other than getting that degree, do THAT!

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

@andnowlights I think I’ve heard that advice about marriage too…

sherlock (#3,599)

@andnowlights I work with a lot of Phds and they definitely give that advice, along with the corollary: “unless, on your deathbed, you will be filled with regret that you never got a Phd, don’t do it.”

A-M (#4,317)

@Caitlin with a C But I think it totally depends on fields. My friends in the hard sciences often/almost always go to grad school because if you want to move into a number of professions you need it. And in those fields, you are almost always better off getting a masters/PhD since it is very likely you’ll get a higher paying job after. (Plus most places give you some meager funding.)

eatmoredumplings (#3,808)

@Caitlin with a C I think this can happen at other times of life too. I’m (hopefully) coming toward the end of my PhD program before the end of my 20s, but I honestly can’t say that it was necessarily the best decision. I’ve always been open to non-academic employment, but it never occurred to me going in that more education could possibly hurt your chances for jobs, and apparently it can. Also, less savings is a reality – even with funding, it’s hard to max out retirement savings or save for a house, although marriage and kids can be totally doable on a stipend. You end up feeling a little behind in some ways when you’re 30 and your friends have been working for years.

On the other hand, if you do establish a good career, you can always go back to school – either as a part-time student subsidized by an employer, or even as an older student. I know two women who started PhDs in their 40s-50s after hitting a level of financial stability and deciding to move on from their first careers, which I think is really cool. Life is long!

andnowlights (#2,902)

This reminds me of the girls on the campus I work on that are full-blown conspicuous consumers to fit in with the OTHER girls on campus. I would guess that at least 75% of them can’t actually afford (either by themselves or on their parents credit cards) the Longchamp bag/ LV purse/Hunter boots/ Northface fleece, but they feel like they have to have these things to be successful on campus as a peer. Most of them are financing them with student loans or credit cards themselves, but I imagine there are some parents who put it on their credit card are in debt as well.

Personally, I thought I probably would own a house by now, except the husband turned out to be an academic; we won’t be buying until he’s done and we’re in the same place for more than 4 years (personally, I think these PhD students that buy while they’re in school are nuts. I know too many students that have had that backfire on them).

garli (#4,150)

@andnowlights I’m an old and uncool and I have to know what the appeal of the Longchamp bag is? They don’t look particularly nice. Are they super sturdy, or just trendy?

andnowlights (#2,902)

@garli I think they’re just trendy! I think they’re really boring and look like travel bags for shoes! Longchamps leather bags are lovely (and $$$), though, so there’s no accounting for taste I guess?

@garli As an owner of a few Longchamp bags, I will say they are remarkably durable. Part of the appeal is definitely the status symbol element, though once I graduated college and got over that I have continued to use them because (1) I like monochromatic, simple bags and (2) I will pay $125 (what I last paid for one, like 5 years ago) for a bag that can fit my laptop plus all my general purse contents and will last literally forever.

sherlock (#3,599)

@Vodka Queen Yes, this. If anything, I am embarrassed to carry mine in DC where they are so common as to be a bit tasteless. But I love that mine is 1) durable, 2) zips completely closed, and 3) is extremely waterproof. I don’t have a car so I am often walking in the rain/snow/whatever, and it is so nice to just zip it up and know that any papers/books/whatever won’t become a soggy mess, and I won’t worry about wrecking the material like I would with a nice leather bag.

garli (#4,150)

@sherlock Waterproof says it all. Good water proofing is totally worth some extra cash (when you have it).

emmabee (#2,008)

This made me think of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s amazing essay on why people (especially people of color) spend more than they can afford on designer clothes, etc.:

I think her argument might make sense here, too – it actually sounds pretty logical for someone who wants to work in club promotion to wear designer T-shirts. In my context (white girl in a “creative industry”), this stuff takes a different form, but it still exists. It’s pretty standard for people to be like, “I’m so broke. Let’s go to the happy hour with $3 wells,” but you still need the obligatory J. Crew uniform and an apartment in a “charming” and/or “cool” part of Brooklyn. (I still haven’t given up on this future.)

@emmabee My question is, if all of those obligatory trappings seldom bring about the hoped-for success, are they really obligatory? Or maybe they are obligatory, but the odds of success on the whole endeavor need to be reconsidered?

I’m not saying you should give up dreams of success in your creative industry, but it is interesting to see how we (all of us, in one way or another) make financial decisions based one flawed or incomplete data, and only get the full picture when we’re deep in. For example, when I went to law school, I figured that with experience working for a labor union and fluency in English and Spanish, I’d be a shoo-in for lefty public interest jobs. Turns out that the real plums in that world go to people who have done unpaid internships at the same organizations during their law school summers, and unpaid anything was too much fronting for me.

tussock (#1,296)

@emmabee It also made me think of Thomas Shapiro’s work (at Brandeis) about wealth disparity by race in the US, and how reduced family assets have a cumulative effect.

emmabee (#2,008)

@Josh Michtom@facebook Yes, this is very true! I’d say the nightclub example falls pretty squarely in the “necessary but not sufficient” category, for example. In my industry, it might be less important to actually have the lovely brownstone/constant brunches/silk blouses to have a certain comfort level with them (the dread cultural fit.) I’m doing pretty ok in a quiet part of Queens and an H&M blazer–but the pull of those cultural markers is very strong.

And amusingly, I’m dating a lefty public interest law student who’s encountering the same issues you did. She’s doing the unpaid gigs and just taking out additional loans, which though her overall debt burden is low is still a big and scary gamble–even in the best possible scenario, it’s not like she’ll be raking in the cash after graduation.

RiffRandell (#4,774)

I feel this pressure frequently in the clothes/personal appearance mentioned above, thankfully I am a good bargain shopper (no one knows that you bought it used). I don’t have any debt, but I do have an expensive hobby and care about retirement savings, so I’m cool with buying the cheapest thing on the menu/cheapest beer at the bar. I try to limit the fronting to purchasing things I really like that will also give me the appearance of making it, and things (jewelry, clothes) that I will at least use repeatedly.

Unrelated, but I really like everything Josh Michtom writes for The Billfold.

erinep (#4,236)

@RiffRandell Yes, I am glad to see more and more Josh on The Billfold too!

E$ (#1,636)

I feel like either home ownership or a graduate degree fall into this category. Having moved from a very expensive city to a somewhat less pricey one, I am still at the point where a down payment for a place would wipe out all my savings (and thus not be very smart!) In the next 10 years I will hopefully build up more savings, but also may make the choice to have a kid so that will put a damper on my house fund. But growing up in a small town, it was assumed everyone just bought a house. I look back at my parents and think, “How did they do it??”

andnowlights (#2,902)

@E$ Their wages were more proportional to what things actually cost. My parents are horrible, horribly out of touch with reality “well why can’t you just… because in when we were starting out…” because there’s no money, parents.

Kind of the reverse, actually- I grew up in a very expensive city, and I didn’t have a lot of career direction as a Young, so when I was old enough to start thinking about such things, I imagined that I would likely never own a single-family home.

But as it turned out, I figured my shit out career-wise, doing something unglamorous but portable, remunerative, and in-demand, and also married someone whose job requires us to live in places with very low cost of living, so we are about to buy a house (a nice one!) for less than even a condo would have cost in my hometown.

I don’t know what my takeaway from this is; I guess if you’re pessimistic but don’t let it deter you from working hard anyway, you may wind up pleasantly surprised by reality?

Also this all makes me *so* glad that my job requires a uniform for safety reasons and so “keeping up appearances” in personal attire is not a 24/7 thing. And they’re tax-deductible.

Lily Bart (#5,766)

Add me to the list of those who saw themselves with an additional degree that now seems out-of-reach. I earned a Master’s degree in a fully funded program, but always expected I would earn either a MFA or PhD degree instead. Instead, my husband went to law school and I got a job teaching English at a private school, which I love dearly. We own a house and have two pre-teen children. I still fantasize, but I’ll never feel comfortable about taking on student loan debt or taking a break from my career, so those dreams will probably never become reality.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Lily Bart It’s awesome that your master’s was funded!

Maybe as your kids grow up you’ll be able to take a class at a time toward whatever? It could make a huge difference in how you feel about your intellectual life.

Sloane (#675)

@Lily Bart Love the screen name!

“unglamorous but portable, remunerative, and in-demand” … “job requires a uniform for safety reasons” … you’re in the NFL, aren’t you?

@Josh Michtom@facebook

Yep, just another day in the unglamorous football mines over here.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

I thought I’d have an apartment where I didn’t have to do my dishes in a plastic tub in the bathroom.

EM (#1,012)

Can’t stop picturing the “friend” in the leading anecdote as Tom Haverford from Parks & Rec. Entertainment 720 forever!

Allison (#4,509)

@EM can’t forget Jean Ralphio!

SarahRose (#5,702)

I am still waiting to have an adult bedroom as big as my childhood bedroom was. I expect I will be waiting a long time.

DebtOrAlive (#5,233)

Children*, home ownership**, or a professional degree. Pick one.

(I start school in the fall.)

DebtOrAlive (#5,233)

*It’s not that I ever wanted children so much as didn’t think I simply wouldn’t be able to afford them.

**Lettuce be real, I’ve given up on affording to not have roommates, let alone home ownership.

nell (#4,295)

Don’t have anything original to add but just wanted to say that I have really been enjoying Josh Michtom’s writing on the Billfold lately, as well some other things that have been posted about opting out of traditional milestones and generally setting your own priorities (thinking of the APW post that was shared here yesterday about not buying a house). I’m getting married this summer and we’ve obviously been having lots of conversations about financial goals, when/if we’d like to buy a home…the Billfold has been an awesome resource.

lalaland (#437)

When I was a kid, I KNEW I would get a BMW/Mercedes when I grew up – no idea why because I hate driving, but I guess it was my definition of “success.” I recently just bought a new (used) car, and looked at BMW/Mercedes…and then looked at the prices. I could afford the payments, but I would still be just frontin’.

garli (#4,150)

I feel like another side of this discussion is to not always assume that other people can/are affording all of what ever they have. I’m sure we can all share stories of when some one thought you were buying or owning something way out of your reach when you were just borrowing a friend’s or house sitting or what ever the case may be. It’s a good reminder when you look at some one and think “how the dick can they stay on that slope side chalet” and it’s their Aunt’s and all borrowed snow clothes or whatever.


Or they may be in debt up to their eyeballs, or have no retirement savings, etc. Sometimes, as you say, the answer to “how can they possibly afford that” is “they can’t”.

@garli Or as I learned last year during a like fifth round of drinks with some girlfriends, don’t forget that they may be getting money from mommy or daddy or grandpa’s trust fund. Realizing I was one of the only one of my friends who was financially independent was incredibly eye opening.

garli (#4,150)

@JNC Musings Factory Oh, as a function of going to a hard to get into private college (with a ton of scholarships and loans) I default to assuming people my age who live a lifestyle I can’t fathom paying for have a trust fund. I was shocked at the time to find out that most of my friends were getting a million bucks when they turned 25 as long as they finished college.

hooles (#6,307)

What’s been helping me with house-envy is repeating to myself, “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” You just can’t know someone else’s circumstances.

That and not having gutters.

pixiesuperhero (#3,951)

I always thought I’d be able to afford to have a child if I wanted to.

eatmoredumplings (#3,808)

Nobody’s mentioned job interview clothes here?! For the most part I can get by right now with my secondhand dresses or nice jeans and thrift store sweaters, but I think when I have to buy real clothes for real job interviews, I’m going to be “fronting” like crazy. That’s definitely over-spending on appearances.

I might join the chorus on home ownership, but I don’t even know where I’ll be living long term at this point, and that was never really one of my life dreams anyway. It’s not really symbolic to me, if I can afford to rent a nice enough place to live I’ll be happy, but that really depends on locations, which depend on jobs.

The thing that does bother me is that I don’t think I’m going to be able to save up nearly enough for retirement or future kids’ college funds. My parents helped me out so much with college, and I want to be able to pass that on, but the targets people recommend are so high that I can’t imagine being able to save that much without a much higher income that may never come. Boo wage stagnation!

dude (#5,879)

Oh man, I recall hearing that exact statement (“fake it ’til you make it”) when I was in law school. And I fell for it. Having had a job lined up upon graduation, I was confident I could “just pay off the credit cards (and stupid $5000 Sallie Mae bar study loan) when I start working in September,” so I spent like a sailor in third year — eating out, expensive bottles of wine, sports events, etc. But of course it didn’t go according to plan as I wasn’t making nearly as much as I thought I was after accounting for rent, student loan payments and general living expenses in a major northeast city (and after buying all those goddamned new suits). Some $15K or so later (and having already deferred my student loans for a year), I wised up, cut the cards up and got a simple interest personal loan from my bank to pay them off. Haven’t had credit card debt since (though I continued to make other questionable financial decisions for a few more years). Yeah, I’m feelin’ ya on this one.

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