The Myth of the Yacht

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!

20 Comments

  • Reply 1 Month Update + Two Blog Awards - Simply + Fiercely October 10, 2015 at 5:14 AM

    […] The Yachtless – Sarah is another personal finance blogger. I love how she describes the Myth of the Yacht. […]

  • Reply Jaymee October 12, 2015 at 1:15 AM

    Wow this is great. I wasn’t aware of “the yacht” mentality until today but it totally makes sense 🙂

    And you’re right, it’s never too late to start… reminds me of the quote “The best time to start was yesterday, the next best time is today”… hehe sorry to get all philosophical on you Sarah!

  • Reply Sarah Noelle October 12, 2015 at 7:42 AM

    Actually, I hadn’t heard that quote before, but it’s extremely relevant to this situation!

  • Reply C@thesingledollar October 16, 2015 at 8:56 PM

    Hi! I followed a link and found your blog — I’m commenting on this post because much of what you have to say about being a humanities-oriented person circa 2000 resonates with me pretty deeply. I grew up in a middle class family too — kind of bohemian intellectual in that we didn’t have much money, but did have a ton of education/cultural capital — and went to college from 1997-2001. We always had a tiny house in not the nicest neighborhood, and a used car or two — but a house! and a car or two! And enough food and clothing and books. I *almost* majored in English-by-default, but wound up switching into another humanities field I fell in love with, and also didn’t have much of a clue what I wanted to do but figured I’d figure it out and eventually have the little house and the car. Well…that all got derailed. Partly by the rising costs of those things, and partly by my becoming a one-income household instead of getting married as I’d always figured I would, and partly by my getting a PhD and therefore spending eight years either barely breaking even or slowly sliding into debt, instead of putting money away. Welp! Nowhere to go but forward. I actually do love what I do, and the good news is that once you are out of school you really *can* take control of your life and finances and make substantial progress rather quickly, because you’re no doubt used to surviving on much less than you’ll make at any kind of non-student job 🙂

    • Reply Sarah Noelle October 16, 2015 at 9:20 PM

      Wow, it sounds like you and I have a lot in common! Thanks so much for commenting and for sharing a bit about your story. I am actually finishing up my PhD right now — not in the humanities, but rather in a health-related field where the job landscape is slightly clearer.

      It’s really, really interesting to me that you mention the single vs. married factor in all of this. I’ve actually been thinking of writing a post about this at some point. I’m pretty sure that when I was younger I assumed in the back of my mind that I would probably get married at some point and so [insert additional highly gendered assumptions here] I might not ever really need to financially support myself 100%. And I think that those assumptions — wherever they came from — unfortunately had kind of a strong influence on my financial choices. Rather embarrassing in retrospect, but there you have it.

      Anyway, I’m so glad you stopped by, and thanks again for your nice comment!

      • Reply C@thesingledollar October 16, 2015 at 9:40 PM

        I don’t blog about it all that much, really, but being single is one of the big themes of my financial life, for better or for worse, as it were. I’d definitely be interested in what you have to say about it.

        A medicine-related field sounds excellent for financial progress 🙂 Even with my not-in-demand degree, I’ve gone from around a -$20000 net worth at graduation (June 2013) (when I first decided it was time to get my financial shit together) to nearly $30000 now — so a $50000-ish gain in not much over two years. It’s amazing how well you can do when you go from a stipend to an actual job. Courage 🙂

  • Reply Sarah Noelle October 16, 2015 at 10:10 PM

    Thanks, that is definitely encouraging!

  • Reply Jillian October 25, 2015 at 1:15 PM

    I think we have a lot in common. I’m guessing from your college dates that we’re around the same age (I’m 34). I majored in theatre, which I was told over and over would get me the same kind of job as a “communications” degree. To me graduation seemed so far away. I didn’t really know what a communications degree was, but if no one else was worried about getting a job, I shouldn’t be either, right? 🙂 I did work several jobs in college, often at the same time.

    When I graduated, I had about $20k in student loan debt. I had trouble getting a job, but finally got a low paid office job. That year I decided to go to graduate school and get my MBA, thinking that I needed a more impressive degree. That cost me another $40k in student loans.

    I did still work when I went to school the second time, but I still had trouble getting a “better” job. It was only four years ago that I got the job I have now, which I love.

    I have saved for retirement along the way, because I’m very paranoid about ending up poor in my older years. I am single with no kids. I also have paid off my $20k loan completely, and now only owe just under $2k on my graduate school loans. I certainly haven’t lived within my means at all times, but I’ve tried really hard. Getting beyond the mindset that things will just come to you is hard, and I wish I had someone back when I started planning what to do in college to advise me. Still… Even if we had, would we have listened? 😀 probably not!

    • Reply Sarah Noelle October 25, 2015 at 1:23 PM

      Hi Jillian,
      Wow, I feel like I’m reading about my own life here. Yes, I am also 34, and everything you’ve written here totally resonates with me. It sounds like our total amount of debt was about the same as well, although mine is unfortunately not paid off, as I’m still in grad school (currently finishing up my dissertation and getting ready to start loan repayment in a couple of months).
      Your statement about being paranoid about being poor in retirement is also something I can very, very strongly relate to — this is something I worry about on a daily basis. You were smart to contribute along the way; I just started contributing in earnest to my Roth IRA recently.
      So yes, I agree that we have a lot in common! And yes, I also agree that we probably wouldn’t have listened! 🙂
      Thanks so much for visiting and for your thoughtful comment.

  • Reply Our Next Life October 25, 2015 at 3:43 PM

    English majors for the early 2000s, woot woot! 🙂 Like you, I did not really think about my undergrad time as being “job training,” and I was young and idealistic and thought I’d get a job as a journalist or a political speech writer, or would stay in academia. As it turns out, I’m glad that I accidentally fell into a slightly more lucrative field that uses the thinking and writing skills that come with studying English (though none of the literature critique skills, of course), but it certainly wasn’t because I was thinking about my financial future. Likewise for the husband, who studied a different field of humanities. We both just lucked out by getting jobs that we’ve stayed in for far too long that have given us sufficient income to plan for early retirement. But financial independence wasn’t something we ever thought about when thinking about our college education, and neither of us really cared whether we’d be able to go into a big money field. I think that’s good, actually, since it shows that the money itself was never what was important to us (like you, we weren’t after the yacht, just the basic middle class comforts). But now we know that we DO care about what money represents: time and freedom. And that’s worth saving up for. 🙂

    • Reply Sarah Noelle October 25, 2015 at 3:48 PM

      Ah, yes, using English skills in a lucrative position — that seems like the best possible outcome. 🙂 I myself have since switched over to a science-y field and so perhaps have more prospects than I did previously, but making this switch involved a lot of extra training (and, yes, more debt). I’m so glad that there are other people who can relate to this mentality from the early 2000s that I’m talking about — it means a lot to me and makes me feel a lot less alone.Thanks so much for your comment!

  • Reply Vic @ Dad Is Cheap November 21, 2015 at 1:07 AM

    You sound like the female version of me!

    I grew up in a decent middle class neighborhood and always assumed that everything would always be ok. I majored in Psychology but didn’t really have any grasp on what I wanted to do with it after college. I feel as though I stumbled my way throughout my career (somewhat successfully I might add). I thought the same as you – i felt like i had to choose between having a happy but low paying job or selling my soul to work for the man. I later learned once I got a hold of my finances that I could put myself out there and look for work that I actually like AND get paid for it!

    • Reply Sarah Noelle November 21, 2015 at 7:48 AM

      Isn’t it interesting how that dichotomy arises in our minds, between being good and being rich? I definitely want to write more about this, as I think it’s a really interesting phenomenon that could be explored more.
      I bet if you majored in Psychology you at least gained a basic grasp on statistics during college — I didn’t learn basic statistical principles (like p-values and standard deviation) until I went to grad school eight years later!

  • Reply Veronica @ secondhandmillionaires December 14, 2015 at 9:00 PM

    The part that really struck me was how we all sort of expect a greater-than-or-equal-to lifestyle to that of our parents. My parents had me later in life, so they were in a much better financial state than they were when my older sisters were born 10+ years before. I have to constantly remind myself to look back at pictures of how and where my parents lived when they were my age, instead of expecting to match the standard of living I grew up in immediately. I think that’s how Millennials get into trouble with debt by trying to skip ahead 30 years to afford their parent’s luxuries.

    You sparked some deep thoughts in me 🙂

    • Reply Sarah Noelle December 14, 2015 at 10:30 PM

      I think that’s such an insightful way of looking at it, Veronica — the idea of skipping ahead 30 years to a lifestyle you can’t yet afford…that definitely resonates with me. I knew my parents had worked hard, but I don’t think I quite made the connection that I might need to follow a similar path, i.e. that I was starting at square one and needed to work my way up. I’m glad you liked the post and that you can understand what I’m talking about — it’s a strange phenomenon that I’ve only begun to think about relatively recently.

  • Reply Alice Cane December 23, 2015 at 7:26 AM

    It never occurred to me that my life in college and my future were linked in any way and that it was a time to set myself up for a job I liked! I ended up getting married and having kids instead of pursuing a career so the disconnect wasn’t financially painful to me, but I love that you are writing on this topic. How do you get the message to high school and college students, though?

    • Reply Sarah Noelle December 23, 2015 at 8:17 AM

      Thanks for your comment, Alice! Isn’t it amazing how disconnected we can sometimes feel from our future adult lives when we’re in high school and college? Like I knew on some level that my choices would impact my future, but I just couldn’t make all the connections on a practical level. How we can get the message to high school and college students is a great question! There should definitely be more financial education available in high school, in my opinion.

  • Reply mrricket February 9, 2016 at 8:12 AM

    Yes, I know how you feel. When I started reading FI blogs and getting my house in order financially, I used to kick myself of not thinking of these things earlier on. But as you say, the second best time today, so I am making changes today.

    Cheers
    MrRIcket

    • Reply Sarah Noelle February 9, 2016 at 8:56 AM

      So true…and I think it’s a very common feeling for those of us who didn’t start paying close attention to our finances until well into adulthood. But there’s a lot of value in self-compassion, and not a lot of value in kicking oneself. 🙂

  • Reply Guest Post: Research Study Side Hustle - From Frugal To Free February 29, 2016 at 10:47 AM

    […] way out of debt. She just got a new job and is navigating the waters of the personal finance world, sans yacht. Read on for her tips on joining a research […]

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