Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sliding Back to Employment

I watch the show Hoarders on a regular basis.  One episode dealt with a former homeless lady.  One of her friends made a seemingly innocuous statement about the lady's fortune, but it was the most understanding I've run across in a while.

(Paraphrasing) "She went from homeless to owning her own house in five years.  That's pretty amazing!"

Indeed, it is amazing.

I have made the slide back into employment land.  That shouldn't be interpreted by anyone to mean that things have improved as far as general job prospects.  I hear reports from the front lines on occasion.

However, people think that when you start making your salary that you immediately go from 0 to 60.

They like to think of sports stars who run out and buy a brand new Porsche the minute they get signed to a big contract, and they think that it applies to you--the lawyer.

First of all, let me point out that athletes have a tendency to file for bankruptcy, even when people throw millions at them.  Sadly, it's like a reenactment of the movie The Jerk where everyone with a "great investment idea" comes along to pray on people who--let's face it--had help graduating from high school.

Even so, I was a tad surprised at my own situation.

Over the years, I had grown accustomed to living off of air.

It wasn't merely cooking cheaply or learning to use every last scrap of something that I previously would have never considered using.  It was about usage of time.

When a person has copious free time, they become skilled at filling the long, long day with cheap or no cost activities.

There's nothing like going to a coffee shop, ordering the cheapest coffee on the menu, and taking a book that I had sitting on my shelf for 2 years and finally forcing myself to read it--even after I had lost a bit of interest.

Why?  Because the alternative required spending money on a new book.  That seemed a tad bit scary because it all added up over months.  Today, I may buy a new book, but what would I do tomorrow?  See a movie?  Buy a purse?  All it needed is that one chink in the dam before I went crazy.

Such a person learns to live off of ramen noodles and imagines that it will be no sweat to simply keep doing the same after assuming employment.

Yet, things change.  All of the clothes that you own are old and inappropriate for work.  Some have a few permanent stains from who knows what and missing clasps.  Dress shoes have such natty insoles that they stick to your feet.  Bras have such poor elastic that you look like your grandma.  You've deferred maintenance on your car and now its demanding your attention.  People at work want you to donate to the party fund and bring goodies and gifts.  You start buying "real" birthday and Christmas gifts for people after essentially giving construction paper colored with crayon for the past few years.  You pay for bar-related expenses.  Instead of eating spaghetti and sauce that you boiled at home for lunch, you are spending money on TV dinners and take out.

Suddenly, you realize how you lived so cheaply.

It's like someone soaked one of those little green horse things in water and watched as it expanded to 200 times its size.

Thankfully, other people who owe tributes to the student loan queen understand this.  It's a bigger group than those who understand that people with law degrees can be unemployed for quite some time.  The group feeling the effects of student loan debt come from all shapes, colors, and backgrounds.  You can go to the University of Phoenix.  You can go to Harvard.  It doesn't matter.  Someone wants money.

On a lighter note....

As I mentioned previously, being employed means that you suddenly realize that your wardrobe is very impoverished.  However, having some income means that you are confronted with a bewildering choice.  Before, I stuck with J.C. Penney's because it was better than big box stores, but was still affordable.  I knew what I was getting.  But when I made new friends, I was introduced to the concept of outlet malls.

Yeah, yeah, I knew the old criticisms against them.  They were intentionally put in out of the way locales to encourage the shopper to not leave empty-handed.  The items sold were not actually marked down, so they weren't a "deal."

Do I think that a shirt at JC Penney's that was marked as originally costing $40, but now costs $28 means that I got a $40 shirt for $28?  Of course not!  However, I knew I was getting a $28 shirt.  It's not like paying $100 for a shirt and have it fall apart like a $4 shirt after three washes. 

Even so, I felt like I was having a harder time finding clothes that I liked.  Call it extreme pickiness, perfectionism, snobbery, or old ladyism:  I felt like I was sifting through the racks and finding little that I wanted to wear.

Therefore, I became more intrigued at the prospect of shopping at outlets.  It was new.  It was different.  It was part of my reinvention.  Even if they weren't "deals" as in that they cost what you might pay for them elsewhere, they should still be quality wares, right?

This brings up another aspect of essentially being unemployed for four years:  It's a bit like the Shawshank Redemption out there.

What I understood about the quality of outlet store wares is based upon knowledge procured in 1998.  I could be wrong, but my understanding is that outlets used to carry the same merchandise as they did in the main store.  Now, they have created a cottage industry where they find lesser quality items and price them in a way to make you think that its about the same thing you'd find in the retail store.

At first, I felt that my change in shopping habits were rewarded.  I bought what I felt was an awesome pullover sweater that was made well and evoked the look of an English professor at Oxford.  It's not authentic in look, but made me happy nonetheless.

However, I was a bit troubled at the price tag.

"Similar design, $___. ___.  Your cost, $___.___."

So, what was the price tag telling me?  That this is a knockoff of their own item?

When I realized this, I wasn't too bothered.  I bought what I thought was a relatively nice item for a price I was willing to pay.

Yet, upon multiple returns to the stores and seeing what other people were buying, I became less impress over time.

I bought a couple of shirts from a particular place that had fairly thin material.  I also noticed that the labels always suggested hand washing or line drying.  Since I am not very educated on these matters, I wondered if this is how "nice" clothes are supposed to be treated.  I couldn't help but think that if I had bought even "nicer" clothes that I would only be able to wash them in faerie dust soap powder and dried by the gentle wind generated by the wing beats of unicorns.

Despite hand washing or flat drying as recommended, they started getting fuzz balls.

Some people I knew showed up in dresses from one particular place and bragged that they got it on close out for $15, and I secretly thought to myself that they looked like $15 dresses.

In fact, when I went to that store and looked at the non-marked down dresses that were being sold for $70, I thought they looked like $15 dresses.

I realized that I could buy something nicer at J.C. Penney's.

And what can you say, really?

Sometimes, you go to these stores that sell purses and see women congregated around the close out section.  They can't afford the "real" thing, and they can't afford the knock off at "full price" (assuming they know that it's a knockoff of the "real" thing, but they probably don't care since they're only there to purchase the name brand).  None of this stops them from becoming way too excited about plastic-y looking things or items covered in visible scuffs that still cost over $100.

On that note, I wonder what the insides of some of these peoples' houses look like.  Would I see rafters filled with scuffed items with the price tags still on them?  Would I see a stack of credit card bills?

And that's where we come full circle.

It's hard to judge people's actions without knowing their motives.

The fact that a person would  buy such an item has a back story that would probably rival that of the story of a person who wouldn't buy such an item.

Even if money management drove some of the decision, buying things after not having a job for so long is a bit scary.  Not simply because I have to worry about whether I will need that $50 to eat should something happen to my job.  Student loans play their own part in the equation.  I simply can't walk away from debt loan like I could a mortgage.  Most importantly, it is bewildering after a long period of austerity to know what to do.  Some people buy houses, cars, or go off to Europe the second they get some cash.  I'm still in the mindset of making due with very limited resources while acknowledging that things became neglected.  It's weird.  I have to tell myself it's ok to buy an outfit.


  1. That was a very enjoyable read. Thanks and good luck.

  2. This is a good read. I say continue to live frugally and set some money aside for something you would really like to do.

    Have you traveled out of the country before? Do you have a desire to?

  3. Good post. It's true. Having more money makes life more complicated. Even though unemployment is scary it takes you back to the basics.

  4. You have to be committed to frugality. Helps if you didn't come from money or learned those skills. Knowing how to comparison shop & distinguish quality from crap helps. I'll still be making my own food once I have $, though. My cooking simply tastes better & if I can make it better at home with my preferences intact, why would I have it at someone's restaurant where it may not be as I'd want it? Not to mention my own cooking won't make me sick.