I grew up in a middle/upper-middle class home and went to college from 1999-2003, where I majored in English, mostly by default. I had no idea what type of career I wanted to pursue, and English seemed like as good a choice as any. It was common around that time to hear advice like, “Major in the humanities; it’ll teach you how to think” and “The job you’ll eventually end up with hasn’t even been invented yet!” I figured the career stuff would work itself out at some point, and until then there was probably no need to plan or save or worry about retirement. Unlike some of my classmates who were actively pursuing careers in corporate finance or software engineering, I might not ever be rich enough to own a private yacht. However, that was totally fine because no matter what, I’d definitely have a house and a car, and be able to go on vacations and eat out at nice restaurants (Ha! From my perspective today, these all seem like total luxuries!).
Looking back, I refer to this mentality as the Myth of the Yacht. I assumed, without thinking much about it, that I would probably always be able to afford at least the same lifestyle as I had had growing up. I don’t know where this myth came from—neither my parents nor anyone else ever said anything like this to me. Perhaps it was something I made up myself, or perhaps it was simply floating around in the air at the time.
I also had a sense, during college, that meaning and money were somehow mutually exclusive—that I had a choice between a) being interested in art and music and language and love and literature, and b) selling my soul to work for an evil corporation. To be clear, I got a lot out of my undergraduate English major education: it did help teach me how to think, and how to write. But it somehow never occurred to me that I could major in English and be proactive about earning and saving money. I figured that as long as I could pay my bills and pay off my credit card each month (much gratitude to my parents for teaching me how to use credit cards responsibly), that was good enough.
But things got more complicated than simply paying my bills. After college there was the confusion of simply trying to navigate my early and mid-20s, followed by grad school, and mounting student debt (and with it mounting anxiety). And then the 2008 recession and its aftermath. And then more grad school, and more anxiety as a result, and more student debt, and interest on the debt.
Looking back, I can see how much the Myth of the Yacht distracted me from thinking consciously about money and about how my current financial decisions would impact my future. Unlike some of my fellow yachtless college graduates who made prudent financial decisions in their 20s, I made financial decisions whose consequences continue to keep me awake at night (student loans, I’m looking at YOU!).
But…instead of just lying awake in my bed being afraid, I’ve decided to do something about it. I’m on a quest to learn how to be a responsible money-earning and money-saving adult, to get out of student debt as quickly as I can, and to do both of these things with as much humor and positivity as possible. Money isn’t the most important thing, but it’s still pretty important, mainly because it gives us choices about what we can do with our lives. I don’t feel proud of my lack of attention to money in the past, but I do feel hopeful for the future, and excited. I feel like I have the power to make responsible choices now that will positively impact my financial future, which in turn will impact the choices I’m able to make in my life. It would have been great if I had started thinking about these things earlier. But that’s okay—I’m starting now.
I’d love to hear about your experiences navigating college majors, careers, and money decisions —
feel free to comment below!