Twelve 20-somethings chronicle their lives for WBUR. Learn more.
At almost thirty years old, my only major debt is currently from student loans. While I do feel fortunate in this regard, looking at my current financial situation through the debt I owe tells a very limited story about the financial stress I have felt over the past year.
My financial stress for the last year has been about trying to stay out of medical debt, the toll it has taken on my finances, and how it has left me feeling far away from where someone turning thirty should be.
Since graduating college, I have always prided myself on being financially responsible and making prudent, financial decisions. I never made a ton of money when I was just starting out, and politics is a field that is notorious for paying entry-level staffers low salaries, but I made enough to get by and often held a second part-time job to give myself a little extra cushion.
I never made extravagant purchases I didn’t need, lived with roommates to reduce rent costs, opted for vacations to visit friends rather than paying for a hotel room, and brought my lunch to work most days to cut down on unneeded food costs. I made these decisions so that I could have enough money left over each month to build a small nest egg in my savings account, be able to pay off whatever limited credit card debit I might accrue, contribute steadily to my 401(k) plan, and pay off a little more each month than what I owed on my student loans.
I was not living the grand lifestyle by any means and it was tough being young and living in a big city on a sometimes meager salary, but for most of my twenties I felt like I was right on par with where I should be financially. It felt empowering to know that I was creating a responsible future for myself.
My financial situation all changed during the summer of 2011 when I became ill and left my well-paying job with benefits. Since becoming ill, most of my finances have gone to keeping myself out of medical debt, and even then I was only able to do so with the help of my family. People say that life can change in a flash, but as an invincible twenty-something I never really believed that until I experienced it first hand.
When I left my job in the summer of 2011, my medical condition was very unclear. The only thing that was clear was that I was sick and needed some time away from the stressful life I was living.
At no point did I think that I would not be readily returning to gainful employment within a few months, so I opted not to take a leave of absence or file for disability. I guess it was one of those decisions you never expect to make in your twenties, and I probably should have paid more attention during my HR orientation, but for some reason I always felt like the information in HR sessions was for decisions you would need to make later in life.
As I became sicker and it became clear that I would need more than just a month or two to get healthy again, the cost of my medical bills fell squarely on my shoulders. As a former Democratic staffer working to pass national healthcare reform, I would hear from hundreds of people who were unemployed, sick, and struggling to get by. While my heart went out to them, it was a place I never imagined to find myself in.
My medical bills consumed my life. My COBRA payments alone totaled over $400 a month. This was in addition to the weekly doctors visits; the extensive testing I underwent, most of which was not covered by insurance; and the overwhelming costs of supplements and medications, many of which I was only able to take for a few days before determining it was not the right combination for me.
It was a scary place to be; sick and figuring out how I was going to pay for it all.
The only way I was able to avoid spiraling into medical debt was to use up the little savings I had, with some assistance from my family and going back to work in a low-level job. I was lucky enough to have a little bit of savings to get me through until I could start making some money again, but if it wasn’t for my family letting me stay with them, chipping in for a COBRA payment, or covering the costs of some testing, medications, and supplements, I honestly don’t know what I would have done.
When I did go back to work, I had to take a job waitressing that was obviously beneath my qualifications, and it was a risk doing so before I was completely healthy again, but I didn’t really have a choice. I needed a job that would allow me flexible hours, was quick money, and less stress than the field of politics. It was the only way I could continue to seek treatment and pay off all the other monthly bills I still had coming.
Getting sick has taken a toll on my psychological well-being. I feel as though I have lost my social place in the world. I am no longer a successful twenty-something, but rather someone who holds the type of job I had when I was twenty-two, in college and with no real responsibilities.
It’s a lonely place, feeling like your life has stood still as others keep moving forward. It’s a lonely place, being almost thirty-years-old and watching as my social network gets married, settles down, advances in their careers, buys homes, and has children — and knowing that as the last year of my twenties comes to a close, I have never been financially further away from that place. It sometimes feels as though I had it more together at twenty-three.
I can no longer afford to contribute to my 401(k), cannot afford to pay rent, struggle to meet what monthly bills I do have, and recently used the last of my savings to follow a gut feeling and enroll in nutrition school. I can no longer hang out with friends and attend social events on the weekends. Instead, I go to work and serve people who are out to dinner and enjoying their weekends — all the while remembering how that was the life I used to live, too.
I’m working on replenishing as much of my savings as I can, so that if I decide to open my own wellness business I will have a little capital to start off, but I am one car repair or major medical bill away from wiping out again what little savings I have been able to accrue.
Life has set me back a few notches, but I refuse to be knocked down. It is just going to take a little while longer than I would like to pick myself back up again.