When I was 17, I got my very first job as a Starbucks barista. I reveled in the free coffee and fun coworkers while learning truly invaluable lessons about work ethic and human interaction. I was just as thrilled three years later when I left the cafe for the last time to begin my career in museums. I graduated summa cum laude, moved cross-country to earn my MA from a prestigious institution, and moved back across the country for a full-time job at one of the country’s most well-known art museums.
…and that brings us to today, where after my 8-5 workday, I go straight to a nearby cafe for my closing shift as a barista. Again. My workweek averages around 60 hours, and my days are sometimes pushing 14 hours. A full weekend off is unheard of. There are many factors that led to this, about 70% of which (a conservative estimate) are all my fault.
During grad school, we were expressly forbidden from working due to our course load and required (unpaid) internships. This meant that student loans barely covered rent for a tiny studio in the pricey city I lived in, so every single penny I spent after the loans came from a credit card. Even if I had been fantastically disciplined with grocery shopping and eschewing unnecessary spending, this was an insane situation to get myself into. While I wrangled a very part-time job during the last semester, it was much too little, far too late. This precarious situation was compounded by the fact that my relationship to money was…unhealthy. While I’m no stranger to eating my feelings, my default was spending my feelings. And as the icing on a ridiculous cake, gift-giving is my love language.
My last internship turned into my full-time job, for which I am incredibly grateful. My partner and I were living in an Airbnb while we hunted for jobs and an apartment in the metropolis we decided to call home. I applied for over thirty positions and didn’t hear back from any of them: it still feels like a stroke of ludicrous luck that the job I got was one I didn’t even directly apply to. Each day that passed without a lease or a job offer brought us one day closer to moving back home with nothing. (The emotional support and stability of my family is an undeniable privilege, and they are largely the reason I could throw myself into a predominantly wealthy field, with the only true risks being my pride and dreams.) We found our apartment on the very day we had resigned ourselves to sleeping in our car. It was certainly an adventure — if your idea of an adventure is watching a metaphorical hourglass hemorrhage the sands of borrowed time.
I was always able to pay the minimum on my credit cards, but as my partner was working part-time for minimum wage, I was responsible for administering and financing both of our lives. In January, the store he was working for had to let go a percentage of its employees with no notice, leaving us once again terrified about our livelihood. If I did not have credit card payments — which I had to use to support us both — we may have been fine on just my income, but because we were not adequately prepared for the circumstances we found ourselves in, I had no option but to wake up my sleeping barista with a strong espresso.
In this, too, there are ways that I am quite lucky: it is flexible and enjoyable, a welcome break from the daily mental energy consumed by my “real” job, that supports my coffee habit and keeps our lights on and water running. I have been using You Need a Budget (YNAB) daily for a few months, and am seeing significant improvements in my spending habits and planning for our future. My partner has been interviewing and applying to jobs tirelessly, in the hopes that we can return to financial parity as soon as possible.
But I must be honest with you: I am exhausted. I am anxious and bone-tired and having immense difficulty learning to live without my former coping mechanisms. I’m still not putting every single spare penny I have toward debt, though I am proud that I am going well above the minimum payments each month while covering every single expense. I am atoning for my past mistakes while trying to lay the groundwork for a far more stable future, which are tough roads to take simultaneously, but I believe it is absolutely necessary. It is also a powerful lesson in humility: while I’ve never thought of myself as being “above” anyone in the service industry, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that just because someone has a degree or two, it is never a guarantee that you won’t have to clean a public restroom at some point in your life.
The knowledge — or rather, the confident belief — that this situation is temporary is also a privilege, and this is what propels me through the fatigue. I would not wish our current predicament on anyone, though I fervently hope that if you are going through something at all similar, it is nothing worse than a learning opportunity, however inconvenient or unwelcome it may be.
The author wishes to remain anonymous, but it is not lost on her that she is a simultaneous art degree success story (works in a museum) and art degree stereotype (works in a coffee shop).
Image via Unsplash