How My First ‘Grown-Up Job’ Landed Me in Debt

job debtIn our Money Mic series, we hand over the podium to people with controversial views about money. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.

Today, a 27-year-old lawyer tells us how her first big law job transformed her from budget-savvy to big spender—and how she’s managed to get her finances back on track.

I’ve been working since I was 14. Flipping burgers at McDonald’s, hostessing at restaurants, shelving books at the library—I’ve done tons of odd jobs because having money is important to me. Sure, I could be frivolous at times; I like to buy clothes, travel to new places, and go out to eat with my friends. But when I was living with my parents, my basic needs were covered. I attended college on a scholarship and worked then, too, so the combination of spare cash and low expenses meant it was always easy for me to stick to a budget.

Earning Close to Six Figures for the First Time

I began to lose a handle on money when I started law school in 2009. Even though I had student loans to cover all of the major costs (like books, housing and tuition), unexpected expenses popped up regularly—for example, I needed to buy a nice business suit to wear to interviews and mock trials, and had to travel out of town for job fairs on my own dime—and the paltry amount I was making as a part-time research assistant wasn’t enough to cover everything. Still, if I was short on cash at the end of the semester (before my next loan payment went through), my grandmother would usually help me out with whatever I needed, so I didn’t put any debt on the only credit card I had.

RELATED: How I Paid Off a Lifetime of Credit Card Debt

When I graduated from law school in 2012 and landed an entry-level law job, my expenses really skyrocketed. I moved from Indiana to Dayton, Ohio, where I’d accepted a position as general counsel at a great firm where I’d interned between my second and third year of law school. I liked the company, and they offered me a salary just under six figures—significantly more money than I’d ever made. I was excited to start my “adult life,” but I felt almost guilty getting that first paycheck, because I just wasn’t used to being compensated for my work that way.

  • ajlovesya

    Thanks so much for sharing your story!

    This reminds me a bit of the career advice to “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Of course, what this looks like varies from industry to industry, but I sometimes find myself going through the same thing. My job often has me speaking to more people, networking more, and attending events more so I feel compelled to look as best as I can (and, like you said, when I look good, I feel good). And the reinforcement you get—the ooohs and aaahs and the better treatment—can encourage you to keep on spending!

    One thing my boyfriend has recommended is to set aside money to buy clothes instead of random splurges that leave my bank account dry. By giving myself an allowance, I’ve become much more thoughtful about how I spend. Also, being a bit savvier about where I shop (I dont even bother walking into certain stores outside of my price range) and when I shop (have you noticed most stores have major sale cycles?) has helped me reign in spending.

  • Skip

    Wow, you sound like you have it really rough what with having 6% of your gross income in credit card debt.

    • KateSF

      Wow, bitter much? Looks like you’re suffering from comparisonitis. Things aren’t defined as “hard” or “rough” in relation to other people’s experiences. Life is just hard and rough sometimes and it doesn’t have to be worse than your situation in order to be relevant.

  • Cassie FC

    What a true perspective on starting off with a decent job but having a lot of start-up costs. You can’t get away from needing good clothes for work. I ran into the save problem after grad school. I learned to keep to decently tailored suits and just switched up the shirt underneath. I saved a lot when I started out by asking for hand me down furniture from friends and family. Just make sure that it won’t cost you more to rent a truck and move it than To buy something cheap and have it delivered. People are pretty forgiving about your apt being a bit mismatched and you likely will want different furniture for your permanent home.
    Really realistic piece. Good job.

  • Kelly

    Interesting story, but no doubt not uncommon. You state that you will not likely have to make a major clothing or furniture purchase of that magnitude at one time again. Life happens. You may gain/lose weight. Move to another climate. Have a catastrophe in your apartment. Any one of these can be a reason to “have to” shop like that again.
    I hope that one day you will find something besides clothing that makes you feel good about yourself. But alas, retailers want you to feel that way for a long time. It’s to their advantage.
    By the way, I have a Calvin Klein suit that I still get tons of compliments on every time I wear it. Store: Ross Dress 4 Less. Price: $69.99. Purchase Date: 2006

    • Shannon Lee Gilstad

      I get the need for clothing, furniture, wheels, etc. but I think even with that salary, she was clearly not spending wisely and living beyond her means. I have friends who are young lawyers and none of them spend nearly hat much money on clothing- and we live in NYC. You can get a decent used car for a fraction of the price that she paid for one new. Mind you, she was getting help from her family, so she was not accustomed with what things actually cost when you have to pay for them on your own,

  • Allie

    This is so true! After college, I spent 7 years living on 18k, working 60 hour weeks, to earn my phd without any debt. During this time I kept thinking that eventual fat paycheck would solve all my financial woes. Then when my income jumped, so did my lifestyle and I still felt like I never had any money. Luckily, about 6 months in I bought a personal finance book on a whim and had an epiphany. Everyone needs a budget and a plan, even those earning six figures! Two years later I’m in a much better position, but temptation for a splurge on a fancier xyz is always right around the corner…

  • Patch Rowcester

    To begin with, the title is incorrect. Your job did not land you in any debt. No way. You did.

    I refuse to believe that people are so shallow that you need to spend thousands of dollars on clothes to impress them. Why not let your work do the talking? Are you saying that your managers and clients spend all their time trying to figure out where you bought your suit? That’s not true, and lets say they did care about it, would it really affect your performance appraisal? Are they going to force you to go into debt? I am going to guess the answer is no.

    Also, $5000 on furniture? That is insane.

    This post post makes me angry. It represents all the things that are wrong with this country. Trying to live beyond your means, and then blaming someone/something else for the consequences.

    The things you purchased on a loan, are things I wouldn’t buy if I had the money (let alone take a loan for it).

    If the purpose of this article was to highlight how not do things, then mission accomplished.

    • Shirley

      Thank you! There’s a lack of accountability written all over this article.

      Receiving a paycheck doesn’t mean you can throw budgeting responsibilities out the window.

      Her comment about how “a lot of my expenses were unavoidable” made me angry. Almost all the expenses were avoidable, or other less expensive options are available. There is no need to immediately upgrade/own everything at once. There’s a complete disregard for spending within her means, and using “need” as a justification.

      • Shannon Lee Gilstad

        I 100% agree with both you and Patch. My parents were definitely not rich and at times I had to survive on very at my first job (a much needed generic brand jeans vs. food was one time a decision I had to make.) However, though I may nowhere near $100K, I buy things on sale or at Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, etc. All the furniture in my APARTMENT combined did not cost $1,000. I live in NYC, where things are much more expensive and I still don’t spend this kind of money.

        I love the LearnVe$st articles, but a common theme throughout seems to be people who are upper middle-class or affluent, or were raised that way, living beyond their means and/or blaming others for their poor financial choices.

    • emmaly

      I must respectfully disagree… It appears to me that you haven’t known many prestigious lawyers. Unfortunately, that is a profession where appearances do make a difference. Also, I don’t find $5000 on furniture to be terrible unreasonable, if starting from nothing like the author says. Basics like a mattress, dresser, couch, and kitchenware add up fast, even if you’re buying cheaply made, such as Ikea.

      • Patch Rowcester

        You are entitled to your opinion.

        Whether or not I have met any prestigious lawyers is really besides the point. The question is, the author claimed that it was her job that landed her in debt.

        I am simply stating that, that is incorrect. Her job did not land her in any debt, her bad spending habits did. The fact that attorneys spend this ridiculous amount of money to keep up an appearance might explain why legal fees are so insanely high.

  • Amy

    I am an attorney who graduated recently also and was in the same boat for my first year – working at some big firm, making good money, and needing the clothes to match the position, which was in Las Vegas where image is everything there. I learned to shop at Ann Taylor judiciously when they had big sales. I got lots of compliments on the clothes I bought there. I also shopped at upscale consignment shops, where I was able to land unique quality pieces for cheap.

    I learned to not worry about my apartment so much – I never entertained so that made it easy and again only bought things on sale not when I thought I “needed” it. At the end of the summer – I bought a patio set from Cost Plus World Market for $50!! I ended up saving a few grand from that job and was glad I did.

    By the end of my first year, I was burned and stressed out by a peer who was trying to throw me under the bus (who eventually got herself fired). Then I tried to break up with my boyfriend who started harassing me at work, threatening me and generally made it his life’s mission to ruin my life at all costs. After all that, I was glad I had my savings which helped me get out of the situation. At the end of the year, I moved home to Michigan and ended up throwing away most of the stuff. Once home, I realized how liberating it was to be free of that life, that stuff and those requirements. I am now making half as much, got my savings back in line and am now trying to figure out how to pay back loans and save for retirement on my new income. If I can do it, you can do it. The more furniture, décor, clothing, etc. you collect the more you will have to pack/donate/throw out/move when you move to your dream job. Don’t let others expectations of your appearance hold you back from your dreams.

    • ac_blaster

      I think your story would be a much more worthwhile one to tell. You faced the same pressures (and then some) and still managed to spend judiciously. I don’t disagree that in some professions, image is important, but no one knows whether you bought a suit on sale or that your furniture is from craigslist. You can buy high end pieces and look like a million bucks without spending that much. It doesn’t sound like this author even tried to comparison shop. I refuse to pay full price for almost anything, even if I can afford to. Buy quality pieces and have them well tailored, wait for sales, look for items that will last, and take care of your stuff. You’ll still be spending more than the average person, but you won’t be throwing money out the window.

  • PS

    Glad you are changing your ways…..good for you! Do yourself and attack that student loan with all your might. It will be around FOREVER if you don’t!

  • BubblyBlackGirl

    I think the author made of mistake of immediately frontloading a lot of her expenses for her new job. We all do this, whether with time or money. When we start a new job, or get a new house or apartment, our reaction is to buy buy buy (new outfits, car, furniture, what ever) Instead, the author should have splurged on one good piece of a suit (or a whole one) and allow her self to gradually build up the rest of her wardrobe throughout the years. The same goes for furnishing the apt. I’ve been in my new apt for 10 months now, and I wanted to buy new furniture from the get go. But I couldn’t afford to (I have ethan allen taste) So instead, I’m taking my time with it. And the same could have been applied to the purchase of a new car. Get what you can afford on your own, and later purchase the classier and pricier car. If you’re maxing out your income now, then your future income will never seem like enough.

    • 20smthgirl

      Yes! Exactly!
      I had cardboard box furniture when I moved into my new apartment.

  • No.

    I don’t know if the title is the editors’ fault or the author’s, but no one put the author in debt except the author.

    It’s great she worked through school and got a good job, but the $22k car, high-end wardrobe, apartment furnishings, and expensive weekend travel were not required.

  • Renee

    As someone who actually lives in Dayton Ohio, this makes me upset. I know the standard of living, even in the ritzy places like Centerville or Beavercreek, and there’s no reason why an income at almost six figures isn’t sufficient to live a decent lifestyle. There was nothing about this job that caused her to be in debt. She created her own debt.

    • pamb

      I agree. The title of this article should have been “How I learned that I need to manage my money better” not “It’s my job’s fault that I’m in debt”.

  • AMK27

    I understand that this is a tough subject to write on, but I get the sense this person just didn’t know what to do with her money when she started earning. I’m also a little astounded that a recent attorney thought it was more important to spend everything she was making instead of diligently saving, given the terrible shape of the legal industry right now.

    I’m also an attorney and I am in-house at a large organization in a city slightly bigger than Dayton, OH that has about the same cost of living and I earn about $10k less. I graduated in 2011 from a Top 20 school, when the legal market was terrible for new grads and as a new attorney, I am fully aware that the job I have today which I’ve had for 2 years may not be here tomorrow, given how slow the legal industry has been recovering. I’m just a little surprised she missed how volatile the market for attorneys is and never thought that she might need savings to fall back upon.

    Maybe the author of this piece did not title it correctly, but I do not blame by job for any lack of savings or debt –if anything, my job scared me into doing the opposite. I judiciously troll for sales at Macy’s, LOFT & Ann Taylor, as well as DSW, Marshall’s and TJ Maxx. I don’t spend more than $2000 a year on clothing (including several suits) and try to buy only quality pieces that will last for at least 2 years. I contribute about 8% of my income to my 401k with a 5% match (working my way up to 10%) and have doubled up on my student loan payments so that I can save on the interest over 5 years. I put about 30% of my income into a mutual fund/savings account as well and I do it by living with a roommate to split the rent, packing my lunch every day, shopping at ALDI or ethnic grocery stores, not eating out all the time, not having an expensive cable package, buying a used car (No one should care what you drive! You don’t meet clients or other counsel in the parking lot, you meet in a conference room), and by saying no to big-ticket purchases (like a $600 handbag). I live well enough and while I feel the pain of sometimes seeing a classmate or another attorney at a CLE event with a nice Hermes bracelet or a Movado watch, I also really truly believe in being frugal first so you don’t fall victim to your finances. To me, that is a bigger hell than not having something nice.

    I’m glad the author learned this lesson, even if it was the hard way. I think the main thing for new grads to know is no matter how high the initial salary may seem, in this job market, it’s especially important to invest in yourself through a financial plan in case that coveted job you have today is no longer there tomorrow. You don’t have to be as frugal as I am, but you should always (ALWAYS) live within your means.

  • emmaly

    I really don’t think this exact situation is applicable to most of us reading financial advice, but I still enjoyed this article. The author’s perspective is very refreshing in someone so young and in a higher-earning profession. It is great to see how she has managed her money and the solid plans she has for the future.

  • RoseJB

    In some ways I could relate to this article. I agree that when you’re a student and your expenses are low, it’s easy to get into the habit of seeing any earned money as fun money. I worked all through university and spent every dime I earned on things I don’t even have today, and I regret that choice. I thought I was being frugal by buying clothes at second-hand shops, but every purchase was made on a whim and I donated things right back to the charity shops after wearing them just a few times. I was so wasteful.

    When I got my first job after being a student, I also went a little crazy and bought a lot of clothes and housewares because I thought that anything I had left over after paying my bills was okay to spend. The difference is, when I saw that $6000 credit card bill I got into a panic and wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible. I earn 1/4 of what this article’s author makes and paid it off within a year. At our different salary levels, we really shouldn’t have the same financial goal. My advice: take that debt more seriously and pay it off quickly instead of giving yourself “several hundred for expendables” each month. If she focuses on only the credit card and car debt, she’ll only need to live a little leaner for a short time.

    My crazy credit card bill scared me enough to put me into the mindset that debt is toxic and get me into a habit of saving. I really hope this author can learn the same lesson at a considerably lesser cost to her.

    • Michelle

      I agree with the author. I worked at a big image- grabbing law firm and even though I was only a Brand ambassador and a not a lawyer, I was paid to dress to impress so that when you looked good and did not wear the same old fading suit with a new shirt every day, people/clients took you more seriously and the culture made you feel the need to look good every day in order to prevent yourself being made to feel the clown or gossip of the day, so you basically play along to keep up with all the appearances. That and all the doctors bills from all the stress and meanness and still having to smile all day even when someone treated you like dirt, run around wearing high heels, working ridiculous amounts of unpaid overtime and weekends (it’s highly frowned upon if you refuse and they just make your life even harder for you as you are supposed to be married to the company if you are an employee), put up with fear management, loss of self esteem and neglecting my loved ones who never understood what was wrong with me, and my doctor recommending that I see a therapist, I finally realised that after 8 years feeling like I am in “entrapment” my health and happiness were more important to me than being the highest paid “glorified receptionist” in my country. and when I left all I got was a certificate of service and no reference after all the sweat and blood I gave and sacrifices I made, I had to wait 4 hours to get permission to leave work early when my dad passed away but when a water pipe burst in my apartment, I was allowed to leave immediately. I should have left then but I was so afraid as they installed the fear of God into you. And the best part is that everyone (clients and colleagues thought I was the happiest person in the company-nobody had any idea (except the people close to me) had any idea of how unhappy I was and how I was getting panic attacks at one point when I had to go to work and wonder what was in for me that day, as well as putting up with all the backstabbing, jealousy and lies from fellow employees. I am just glad that I never succumbed and became like them, as I know that Jesus would never do that and I always asked myself “what would Jesus do?” when I am faced with mean people and come home upset most nights and besides that, I think that I will definitely go to heaven one day as I have done my time in Hell!!!!

      • Kenishia

        Ummm… Ok, you really do need to see a therapist. You started off on the right track, then it all went downhill, fast. Just a reminder – we were talking about debt, finances and appearances.

  • Valerie Van Dyke

    I’d like to see an article about how a job got you in debt because of added “work” expenses. I travel for work, but am expected to cover food…I NEVER eat out at home because of cost, but I have to on the road. Even though this job is great for my goal career path, and pays more than my previous job, that is getting widdled away by food costs, pet sitters (I used to be home in time with my last job), etc. There has to be advice out there on how to manage these expenses without always eating off the dollar menu…