By Justine Patino
On the morning of my college graduation, most girls I knew were having brunch with out-of -town families, hot curlers in their hair, eyebrows tweezed, eyelashes curled, lipstick applied, primped, primed and picture ready for the day that would forever symbolize a huge milestone in the life of any 20-something year old. Me? I was sitting on a sterilized bunk with a needle under my skin watching ink and blood collide only 10 minutes before I was instructed to be in my seat. Concealed by a pair of gold heels and the human tent called a “gown” that I wore, my ankle was still bleeding as I walked across the stage. But I was still grinning. I spent my last 50 dollars for the foreseeable future on this tattoo, the pigeon on my left ankle.
You see, I have this favorite band, and this particular pigeon happens to be their mascot. When asked so many times “Why the pigeon?” they pointed out how pigeons are widely seen by humans as a nuisance. They disrupt you at the beach, they steal your food, they (literally) crap on you, and they do so despite all of your efforts to swat and send them off. They are persistent motherfuckers and no matter how many people see them as a nuisance or try to keep them down, they are just as strong in numbers. They, as the band put it, thrive in spite of it.
On the morning of my college graduation, at the end of a four and a half year chapter, I paid my last fifty dollars to have this pigeon permanently manifested on my skin. Not a birthmark but a life mark – a significance of the struggle and a reminder to thrive in spite of it.
The day I was awarded my degree, there were three things I knew for certain:
- My chapter in Orlando as a college undergraduate was definitively over.
- My lease was ending, and I had to make a decision to renew or not.
- If I renewed, I would be in the same city for at least another year, doing relatively the same things I had been doing with the same people I had been doing them with for the past few years.
As you may have gathered, I decided based on number three not to renew my lease. I recognized that one adventure was over, and it was time to start another, whatever that meant. I made a list of experiences I thought would be beneficial to me, and at the top of that list were two items that fit together perfectly – moving to a city that had always called to me, San Francisco, and going on a cross-country road trip with two of my closest friends.
The next two months of post-grad life were a blur of bar-side goodbyes, playing a life-sized game of Tetris trying to fit everything I owned into my anything but spacious Camaro, and doing everything I could to file my taxes as soon as possible.
But how exactly does the girl who spent her last fifty dollars on a tattoo afford a road trip across the country and a move to one of the most increasingly expensive cities in the world? Primarily and arguably most importantly, she doesn’t let anyone tell her she can’t. The nay-sayers, the non-believers, the people that had more questions than encouragement, they all saw one thing when they looked at me – a pigeon. After blocking out the negativity, the next step was to be realistic. I estimated exactly how much I was going to need, but also realized I could take steps to make this trip as cheap as possible. I didn’t rent a U-Haul and instead spent a couple months purging my belongings as much as possible. Everything went until I could fit the majority of them into my car, considering that two other people would be in it as well.
I estimated gas costs and mileage and split them three ways with my accompanying friends, and contacted friends along the road who would let us crash with them for a couple nights when we needed to. In cities we didn’t know anybody, we stayed in hostels for under $30 a night, and at the end of all the budgeting, I figured I could do this trip in $700. My tax return came back the first week of February with that much plus a couple hundred more, a nice cushion that I used to treat myself to an extra barbeque sandwich in Austin and that second fruit juice in a glass diluted with rum in Las Vegas.
Three weeks and 3,000 miles later I pulled into the driveway of my San Francisco in-law with only a few dollars left and just a couple weeks until rent was due for March. I had no job lined up, but after 48 hours of being in San Francisco I was employed and on a pay roll. A bartender with swallowed pride for a restaurant on the pier, one of the busiest tourist traps in the city. I have met a handful of people who are ashamed to say they have a college degree and still work as bartenders or servers. I am not one of them. I am of the belief that while this is not the most desirable field, or even what I see myself doing a couple years down the road, it is also not below me. It is a job that I obtained within hours of arriving in a new city when my bank account and body were both demanding to be fed, a job that allows me to continue to exist in and experience this city that makes me happy. Ultimately, it is a sacrifice I made.
That is my “secret”. Sacrifice.
As a general rule of thumb, I allow myself to spend any amount of money, whether it empties my bank account or not, on something as long as it is an enriching experience. Instead of the fleeting purchase of clubbing for the night or alcohol at the bar, or that jacket I’m going to grow out of next month, I work to spend my money on two things: survival/loan repayments, and experiences. I have never been acquainted with a savings account in my life, and I am all too accustomed with the “five dollars until Friday” diet. I’ve backpacked a month in Australia to come home with 36 cents; volunteered in Africa with only seven dollars left to my name at the end. I gave up morning coffees and fast food and phone upgrades and those new Jimmy Choo’s so that I could spend every last penny on these experiences, only to come back with nothing and save up enough money to do it all again.
These are the sacrifices I made and continue to make because I believe at the end of the day, these experiences are more valuable than anything else I could spend money on.
Logging in to my bank account online and seeing four digits before a decimal point is something I’ve only experienced once, and while it is comforting and might feel safe, I have found it was not nearly as fulfilling nor as motivating as the days that I saw only a decimal point and two digits after.
I’m not saying that I go out and spend every penny or take out massive amounts of credit card loans for the pure sake of doing so. But I also refuse to be a slave to my debt. The knowledge that I have bills to pay for and student loans gaining interest is always present, but I refuse to waste my young years (and possibly my only years – there are no guarantees in life) solely existing to pay off these loans and not actually living.
In some ways, I do feel our government has failed us. Our generation has been told that we must take out loans to afford the inflated expenses of going to college, so we can get a decent enough job to pay off these same college loans. In reality, post graduation, increasing numbers of degree holders are choosing to work full time hours in part time jobs because pouring drinks and taking orders results in a higher paycheck than that unpaidinternship our field is offering anyway. Obviously that is a frustrating reality.
Do I enjoy making minimum payments on my absurdly high student loans every month? Of course not. Is it harder with this debt to save enough money for all of my endeavors? Undoubtedly. Would I love to be free of my student debt? Absolutely.
But that doesn’t mean in the meantime I’m not free. It just means I’m going to thrive in spite of it.