Like just about every young woman with an internet connection, I have been watching HBO’s series "Girls" with a mix of hope and terror. I read one writer’s response to "Girls" on LearnVest; she identifies with the show, and says everyone she knows has received financial support from their parents.
But I’ve had a different experience.
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While I definitely relate to the main character's experience of coming to New York as a young grad and being offered “jobs” that are just unpaid internships with no promotion potential, I find the show's assumption that there is no other way—aside from parental supplementation—to make it in the big city galling. After all, there’s one question that no one is asking: What if the issue wasn’t that Hannah’s parents wouldn’t give her money but that they couldn’t?
It’s frustrating for me to see the adult-child “I still take money from my parents, but I’m self-righteous and it’s okay because I’m an artist” mentality perpetuated on TV. After all, I managed to make it in the city without any family money to help me out.
My Start to Big-City Life
I arrived in New York shortly after graduating from college in 2004 with a BA in English Literature (which everyone told me would be worthless). I was looking for work in book or magazine publishing, preferably as an editorial assistant; it took me eight months to find a full-time job as an administrative assistant.
If my parents had offered to pay my rent, I wouldn’t have been too proud to say no, but that wasn’t possible. My family lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. My dad's job is in computers and my mom is a homemaker; they love me but didn’t have extra money to spare.
I did get lucky in one big way: zero student loan debt. Thanks to a combination of scholarships and an on-campus job, I managed to escape from a public university in my home state of North Carolina without any loans. But that’s where my smart money decisions ended for a while.
I had ideas that I wanted to be a writer, and that I had to be in New York. My parents thought I was going to waste all my money in a big, scary city, and I knew it would be tough to stand out when I didn’t have any contacts or connections … but I also figured if I didn’t go for it when I was 21, I never would. I would rather be a New York failure who had to come home than someone who never tried.
I spent most of my senior year hoarding the money I earned from my campus job, but when I left for the big city, I still didn’t have a huge cushion. My parents drove me to the airport, waved goodbye and told me I could have my room back whenever I wanted.
A Rocky Beginning
My first apartment was definitely a humble abode.
For two years, I lived in a Brooklyn building built illegally on a commercially zoned block, wedged between two factories. Four of us lived in an apartment designed for two, with railroad-style bedrooms. We often barged in on each other while sleeping, reading, having sex. The post office refused to recognize our address or deliver mail. Crack deals sometimes took place on our stoop.
My rent was $500 a month, due in cash. Since I was unemployed at the time, I came up with that $500 by teaching SAT prep classes, temping and maxing out a credit card. There was usually enough left over to cover some groceries, a MetroCard, my share of the utilities and the occasional thrift-store sweater.
When there wasn’t enough, or when I got drunk and decided that, despite my negative bank account, I needed those tacos, I took out cash advances on my credit card. In total, I dug myself into a $2,000 hole.
How I Turned My Poverty Into a Book Deal
Poverty, as Ernest Hemingway pointed out in "A Moveable Feast," is a great motivator for an artist.
My first job was as an executive assistant at a media company. Although I was happy to have a job, my constant worry about being broke didn’t disappear. Though all assistants were paid $26,000 a year, there was a clear line between those who supported themselves on that paycheck and those who used it to supplement the money they got from other people. One was being supported by a wealthy older boyfriend, and several had families who paid their rent or other living expenses.
The remaining few of us who were fending for ourselves would meet in an empty conference room at lunch, eating our brown-bag sandwiches and complaining about how much better it would be if we were also spoiled. After one assistant got a lecture from her boss about wearing cheap shoes, she came over to cry in my cubicle.
I worked my way up from administrative assistant to editorial assistant, and up the ladder until I was the editor-in-chief of a website. The jobs got increasingly better, but that first entry-level one eventually paid dividends: The sense of confusion and bewilderment I felt around office politics inspired me to launch a blog called Save the Assistants. It gained a following and eventually became a book, "Save the Assistants: A Guide for Surviving and Thriving in the Workplace."
Finally Making Financial Progress
I paid off my credit card and eventually realized it was okay to upgrade my life because I was debt-free and finally earning enough. I ditched my roommates and moved into another apartment on a better block. My room even had a door.
Although I’m more financially secure now, I’ve never fully shaken that feeling of perpetual panic from my broke days. Today, eight years out of college, I still buy most of my clothes from eBay and stay in hostels on vacation.
If my parents were supporting me, I would have quit the moment someone did something mean like lecturing me about buying more expensive shoes. But then I never would have learned workplace coping skills, and I definitely wouldn’t have thought to create a website where assistants could connect with each other. And that wouldn’t have led me to the success of getting my book published.
Where I Am Today
I got a decent advance on my book, but it actually came around the same time I was laid off from a job, in 2010, so the financial impact wasn't as great as it could have been; it also meant I didn't qualify for unemployment and had to live off the advance instead of saving it.
Last fall, I finally quit my job to become a full-time freelancer, and I love it. It was terrifying at first, but I didn't leave until I had a few regular clients in place. I earn slightly less now than I did when I had a full-time blogging gig, but I am also able to write off a lot more of my expenses (for example, part of my apartment is an office), which helps balance everything out. I budget carefully because, as a freelancer, some months are better than others. Nowadays, I pay my credit card bill in full every month, and still eat boxed mac 'n cheese sometimes. (What? It’s good.)
Although the protagonists of "Girls" are women, I find that their reliance on help from others keeps them suspended in adolescence. The main character, Hannah, isn’t just immature about money; she has trouble advocating for herself in a bad relationship and wrecks a job interview by making unprofessional jokes.
Remaining financially dependent on her parents keeps her from needing to fully grow up. Although I wonder how I ate so much mac 'n cheese without turning neon orange during those early years, I also look back with pride in myself and my work. If I hadn’t done jobs I hated, I probably wouldn’t have found the one I love.
Though I didn’t know it then, I was laying the foundation for the rest of my adult life.
You know what I’d watch? A show called "Women."