When I reached out to Scooter, I got the following email:
“Not a high value conversation for me. Nothing personal; remember Seth Godin. Best of luck with the piece.”
His signature contained the words “Sent from my Google Glass” and a link to his TED Talk, “Can Tactile Icons Survive in an Integer-Driven Environment?”
Skeeter, on the other hand, was more than willing to chat over Skype. “I’m not like my twin brother,” she laughed, when I told her about Scooter’s email. Then she explained how her financial and personal life had taken a very different trajectory.
Scooter and Skeeter’s paths started to diverge in college. He studied theater, with a concentration in arts administration; Skeeter was originally going to study sports medicine, but after a single particularly compelling course, switched her major to archaeology.
“That’s what’s supposed to happen in college, right?” she said. “You discover something new and it changes your life. Well, that’s what happened to me, and it ended up taking me an extra year and an extra $30,000 of debt to get my degree.”
Not that Skeeter was really worrying too much about the debt; she was young, and had a whole lifetime ahead of her.
The summer after Scooter graduated and Skeeter didn’t, he started a theater company. Skeeter actually helped him get it off the ground.
“He asked me to stay,” she said. “I was useful, and he needed help. But I wanted to finish my degree.”
Skeeter ended up getting her BA and then her MA, and met the man who would become her husband while on an archaeological dig — “the unpaid internships of the archaeology world,” Skeeter explained.
Then Skeeter said something interesting: “I knew that by getting married I was starting myself on this series of choices. I mean, he and I both wanted to pursue PhD programs and go into teaching and research, and I knew that by getting married I would be less likely to achieve that dream. The two-body problem meant one of us would always have to stand by while the other one moved forward — we would be extremely lucky to both get accepted into the same PhD program, and even luckier to get academic jobs in the same city.”
She smiled, and twisted the simple gold ring on her left hand. “Scooter told me once that navigating the world becomes harder when you’re a team. I don’t think that’s true — my partnership and my parenting have both added so much to the way I experience the world — but he’s not necessarily wrong.”
Two grad students meant twice as much debt, which both Skeeter and her husband knew going in. They lived the barest minimum life — “think a mattress on the floor” — so they could start paying down their debt right away. They agreed that Skeeter would do the PhD program first, for two reasons.
“So I was supposed to get my PhD while my husband worked, because we wanted to have children and being a grad student is one of the few careers that is flexible about that. Like, you have health insurance, you can’t get fired, and if you time it right you get this nice three-month chunk of maternity leave. Then, once I was done, I’d get my academic job and my husband would start working on his PhD — we read some study about how fathers got a job interview boost, so we figured he’d still do okay even if he had a few years’ gap outside of academia.”
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“Life,” Skeeter said, still smiling.
Skeeter’s currently ABD and doesn’t plan to finish; her husband never started his PhD program. They have two children and live in rural Iowa; Skeeter’s husband continues to work for the same company he did when they moved for Skeeter’s PhD — “which is not actually that surprising, when you live in the Midwest” — and Skeeter works as an office manager and fundraiser for the local theater, opera, and symphony association.
“I know, right?” Skeeter laughs. “Scooter somehow transitioned into this job at Google, and I’m the one working in theater and making $25K a year.”
I realized, in the course of our conversation, that Skeeter hadn’t really answered the question of how she did money. “One 401(k), one 403(b), one Roth IRA that we never actually fund, two 529 plans that are mostly funded by the grandparents. Public school, lots of trips to the library, our kids share a bedroom, we drive used cars, and we’ll be paying off our degrees for the rest of our lives.”
She smiled again. I don’t think she’d really stopped smiling throughout our conversation. “At least that’s the plan,” she said. “But we all know how much you can trust a good plan.”
Previously on How Muppets Do Money: Oscar the Grouch