I used to enjoy getting mail ― back when I still lived with my parents and my biggest concern was whether the shoes I had ordered would fit. It terrifies me now. Will I find another collections notice for a doctor’s bill I had forgotten to pay? Or maybe another letter from the IRS reminding me that because my identity had been stolen, I now need a PIN to file? The credit card offers are the worst, as if they aren’t a part of the reason I’m in this mess in the first place.
The pit in my stomach is familiar. I felt it nine years ago when my boyfriend (now husband) and I couldn’t afford rent on our run-down two-bedroom apartment. I felt it again when a bill came that would be with us for years. I can vividly remember lying on the hallway floor with my boyfriend as he told me I should cut my losses now and leave. That he would only drag me down. He couldn’t have been further from the truth.
We met nearly 10 years ago at an auction. I was 22 and bright-eyed, working part-time as a data-entry clerk so I could tack the experience onto my resume. He was 42 and fresh out of auctioneer school, looking to redirect his career. The first time he asked me out for coffee, I refused. But the more time we spent together, the more I realized the age difference didn’t matter to me. In fact, I hardly noticed it.
I was, perhaps naively, thinking that we would be fine. Sure I was a college junior working weekends and nights in a mall, but I would have my bachelor’s degree soon. And with my degree companies would be clamoring to hire me. After all, a degree in English meant I could work nearly anywhere (wrong). Truthfully, my major was based on the fact that I loved to read and write. The fact my math skills were so dismal only seemed to point me further in that direction. It didn’t take long before I was making lists of publishing companies and genuinely excited for a fictional city office I had built in my mind.
Sure I was a college junior working weekends and nights in a mall, but I would have my bachelor’s degree soon. And with my degree companies would be clamoring to hire me.
Within a month of graduation, I had a very promising interview in New York City with a publishing company. I was ecstatic. This was it! A follow-up email a few weeks later informed me that they promoted someone from within. I was gutted. The trend continued. I worked for a woman whose dog would use my cubicle as a toilet. My paychecks were sporadic ― when they remembered to pay me. I answered an ad on Craigslist and interned for an author in Costa Rica. I moved from one mindless retail job to the next.
In 2012 ― nearly two years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree ― I finally landed steady work as a receptionist for an orthodontist’s office. It was a thankless job, but it was at least getting me closer to putting that degree to use.
A year of scheduling patient appointments paid off: I had finally landed a job in marketing. I thought this was it and things were going to start looking up for me. However, it didn’t take long after that to acknowledge the fact that a marketing assistant salary was not going be our saving grace. It wasn’t enough to pay the bills, let alone the rent in a seedy apartment complex behind a Wawa outside Philadelphia.
My nights were often filled with the sounds of fighting, police sirens and the POP-POP of guns being fired. Our mail slot was ripped off our front door, the knob wobbly where someone had tried to tool it open. A man with an ankle bracelet climbed into our neighbor’s window and swiped a wallet off the table. I rarely answered the door.
My husband and I argued often. While I struggled to build my career in marketing, he was adapting and forever changing with the ebb and flow. He went back to school to get his certification as a sign language interpreter. I couldn’t stomach the thought of adding to my student loan debt ― not when my degree meant nothing. I still recall the look of shock on my supervisor’s face when he realized I had a bachelor’s degree. If you’re wondering what a degree is worth, the answer is less than $1 ― the amount of the raise I received when they realized I had an education.
I still recall the look of shock on my supervisor’s face when he realized I had a bachelor’s degree.
It wasn’t until we started looking into purchasing a home in 2016 ― six years after graduating college ― that I realized just how little I was contributing. Within the span of a few months, our offer was accepted on what we had come to view as our dream home. A gorgeous Victorian with a wraparound porch, it sat neglected on a handful of acres tucked back from the main road. It was an absolute disaster inside ― a fact we can appreciate more fully now. I ignored the crumbling walls and mouse droppings in favor of the window seats and upstairs balcony. I didn’t flinch when a dead bird fell at my feet when I opened the attic door. This was fine, I had convinced myself. And truthfully, the state of the house was only reason we could afford it.
The nightmare began soon after. Our mortgage company would call us regularly as they worked on our paperwork. Having only ever rented, we blindly followed along as they requested bank statements and documentation. The calls became more intrusive and almost accusatory ― Why had I co-signed on my sister’s car loan? Could we get copies of signed apology letters from estranged family members to corroborate our story on some old loans?
After dumping thousands we didn’t have into inspections, we lost the house. Months later we learned the mortgage company had been purchased and it had put a stop on all loan approvals. When it called us back with assurances we would now be approved, we hung up the phone.
Devastated, we returned to our rental with the jacked-up door.
I was frustrated and angry. Angry that my degree meant so little. That I could barely afford groceries or our heat and electric bills. Everything went on a credit card ― a card that nearly three years later I am still struggling to pay off.
Desperate, I begged for hours at the auction house where my husband and I had met. They gladly took me back, although a part of me had selfishly hoped they wouldn’t. I didn’t want to work another job. My vacation time was quickly whittled away as I spent long hours keying in sales to make some cash for groceries. And it still wasn’t enough.
I found the address for another auction house and drove there to beg for work. Dozens of unemployed laborers meandered on the dock, offering clumsy help for tips. I was the only one there begging with a college degree. When they told me they didn’t really need the help, I volunteered my time for free. Anything to get my foot in the door and to help ease the press of anxiety on my chest. My persistence paid off, and I added another small but steady stream of cash to my wallet. And still the three jobs weren’t enough.
My life revolved around work. If I wasn’t at the office pushing papers, I was jumping from one auction house to the other. I was lucky ― there’s almost always a need for data entry clerks. Perhaps because one must be in a true state of desperation to voluntarily sit in front of a DOS system for hours on end without a break.
My degree sits mainly untouched and forgotten since I earned it in 2010. It’s hardly the topic of any conversation and it’s certainly not a point of pride.
I felt like I was missing something important. Something monumental that would turn our situation around. While working these auctions, I started to pay attention to what was selling and the prices I was keying in. I was no stranger to thrift stores or yard sales ― I shopped them often for myself. But what if I started flipping for profit?
I filled our living room with mountains of merchandise and taped ripped, faux brick wrapping paper to the wall. A half-collapsed, umbrella light stand provided just enough light for me to photograph my purchases and then stow them away in a second pile of bins. Mrs. Piles my husband called me, but it couldn’t be helped.
My consistency paid off. As sales slowly began to roll in, I could only feel relief.
I still don’t make anywhere near what someone with a bachelor’s degree is expected earn. I don’t have the cushy New York City office with a view. I don’t even make coffee runs for executives in the hopes that one day I’ll move up the ranks. My degree sits mainly untouched and forgotten since I earned it in 2010. It’s hardly the topic of any conversation and it’s certainly not a point of pride. My bachelor’s is almost an afterthought on my resume. A tiny blip or an accent mark buried at the bottom of the second page. It’s the auction experience that employers seem to take notice of. The degree itself is glossed over just like my name at the top ― they know I have one, but they’ll forget it once the interview is done.
It didn’t occur to me in high school that I didn’t have to go to college. Why would it when half of my time there was spent testing to prepare me for just that? I don’t regret my degree, even with my student loans hovering like a storm cloud over my head. If nothing else it was a great block of filler text for the bottom of my resume.
For now, I continue to burn the midnight oil. Tomorrow morning I’ll head off to work at a job that pays too little with a degree I do not use. As my husband leaves for yet another overnight shift, I wonder if we’ll ever get around to starting that family we so often talk about. Maybe someday, but not today.
Have a compelling first-person story you want to share? Send your story description to [email protected]