The year I turned 21 was the most tumultuous of my life. It was a year of surprises and disappointments. In many ways, that one year shaped my life more than any other and determined the direction of my future.
To quote Dickens:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …”
Charles Dickens – Tale of Two Cities
The Age of Foolishness
I bought a sports car.
I had never carried any debt before I bought my Dodge Daytona. This was my third car and I had paid cash for the first two. Signing up for 4 years of payments was a totally new experience for me. It was one I wasn’t prepared for. Within a year, I was completely broke and the bills were due. I remember trying to decide if I should pay rent and give back the car or keep my car and move back home. I eventually paid all the bills and got back on track. But, I never forgot that crushing feeling of debt. The four years of car payments were so brutal I became wary of payments and kept the car for 13 years. I haven’t had a car payment since.
I quit my job.
After taking some programming courses in college, I had an overwhelming urge to quit my boring union job and work in the computer industry. So, I typed up a resume and got a job at the local ComputerLand store. I kept both jobs for a month and then I quit my job at the supermarket. Unfortunately, entry-level commission sales don’t pay nearly as well as the Hiring Manager leads you to believe. Even worse, I wasn’t very good at sales. I made only a fraction of what I expected and my income dropped precipitously.
I got a DUI.
This is something I’m not proud of. But, there is a lesson in my foolishness. So, I feel obligated to share. After I turned 21, I liked to hit the night clubs with my friends. Sometimes, I cruised home after a few too many and thankfully nobody got hurt. Soon enough, the odds caught up with me and I got pulled over and hauled off to jail. I ended up walking for six months, while my car sat parked and I made the payments. I went to court, paid lawyers and attended alcohol school. I also lost two of my friends in alcohol-related accidents, within a couple of years. Drinking and driving isn’t worth the risk.
The Age of Wisdom
I started my first investment.
I had always been a good saver as a kid. But, as an adult, I spent my money as fast as I earned it. I lived paycheck-to-paycheck, drinking up most of my money on the weekends and scrimping by during the week to make it to Friday. One day, a friend of mine called and he talked me into attending a meeting. He was involved with a company called A.L. Williams (now Primerica). I declined to join the company as an associate, but they did talk me into investing in a mutual fund. It turned out to be a really bad investment and I was only saving $25 per month. But, the important thing was that I got started investing. From then on, I began to save a little bit of my paycheck for myself each month. This habit grows more valuable every day.
I quit smoking pot.
There isn’t a whole lot that needs to be said here, except that I recognized it wasn’t benefitting me in any meaningful way. So, I quit. Quitting helped me tremendously in my focus on college. It also seemed to help me in completing those important little tasks I let slide in the past. It helped me in my career, as I transitioned into a technical job. This was the first time in my life I realized I needed to do more than just work and party to get ahead. As the smoke began to clear, I knew I needed to develop a plan for my life.
The Worst of Times
The combination of mistakes hit me all at once. I could have easily survived one miscue, but three major money malfunctions were too much for my juvenile budget to absorb. My flippant attitude and inexperience with finances delayed the reality of my situation, until it became a full-blown crisis. By then, there were no quick and easy solutions to my problems. I had to dig myself out of a big hole and it took a couple of years.
I quit my sales job and started working for my brother’s landscaping company, so I could count on a steady paycheck. I didn’t have to commute to work, which helped with my driving situation. But, I really didn’t want to be there. It wasn’t the work I hated. It was the fact that I had nowhere else to go. I only hated mowing the lawns, because I failed to gain a foothold in the computer industry. And, I had all day to think about it.
Six months later, I caught a break and got a job working in technical support for a printer company. I answered the phone all day, facing a continuous series of baffling technical problems. It was a high-stress job for low pay. At least one or two people per day were either screaming into the phone or on the verge of tears. But, I learned more about computers in the first couple of months than I could have learned in a couple of years of college.
The Best of Times
Two important things happened to me during the darkest of times.
First, my worried mind was spinning a mile-a-minute, which brought about some important moments of clarity. This made me realize I was the primary cause of my problems and also the best solution. I started to think beyond payday and I changed my ways to avoid future problems. I became stronger and more resourceful. I counted on myself, instead of leaning on others.
Second, the people who cared about me sensed my desperation and they helped me in ways I didn’t expect. Two people in particular had a huge impact. My older brother, who was my boss and roommate at the time, can be extremely critical. There was nowhere to hide from his lectures, which sliced through my excuses and exposed my habit of blaming others. My downstairs neighbor comforted me with compassion, wisdom and understanding. At the same time, she held me firmly accountable for my actions.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that tough times rarely last, but tough people do. Most problems, whether self-inflicted or caused by circumstance, will often turn around. The key is to think of solutions, instead of dwelling on problems.
“Although it’s not much fun to go through hard times, sometimes, they are the best thing for you. They keep you from getting too cocky and from believing the times are always going to be good.” (Paraphrased from memory)
Rhonda – Former neighbor and second Mom