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I didn’t get a bailout. (And I’m better off for it.)

After graduating from college, I returned to my hometown in Upstate New York, eager to get the f up out of there and begin my professional life as a glamorous marketing girl for a real estate company in Japan. The job I had been banking on ended up falling through though, and my student loan bills were about to arrive in the mail.

I ended up landing a good-paying job in Buffalo in international banking, which afforded me the luxury of living rent-free with my parents while I “saved up some money.” With my new salary I bought a new car that was within my budget and enabled me to not only get to my job, but to visit my boyfriend at college on weekends.

As an aside, I am not someone who loves to drive. I didn’t get my license until I was 21 because I had always managed to catch a ride with friends or ride my bike or take public transit in college.

Fast-forward a year and a half. I was living with my boyfriend in a cute little apartment, eating out more often than not, buying shoes or a new outfit every week, and generally living the life. Then I got fired. This, depending on why it happened and how you deal with it, can also be a big girl thing to have happen.

After going through the five stages of grief (and finding out I’d be receiving severance and unemployment), I found that I was, in fact, glad not to be working for The Man anymore, and took a job as a financial advisor where I’d be setting my own hours, marketing my own business however I wanted, and would be making six figures after two years! Yaaaaayyyy!!!!! Are you excited about my new career? I was! (Foreshadowing!)

So, uh, being a financial advisor was actually super hard. I won’t go into all the dirty details, but I was working 60-70 hours per week, paying for a whole slew of things I needed to run my practice, earning only commission (after splits!), and had to be “on” all the time- family events, out at bars, ugh. It was exhausting. Since my paychecks were spotty at best, I had to do the old bill juggle- pay this one because I missed it last month, pay the minimum balance on this credit card, only pay my phone bill when it got shut off, etc. I felt guilty for putting such financial stress on my boyfriend, so when I hit a big case, I bought him gifts instead of paying my bills. I felt like because I worked so hard, and had just closed a sale, I could afford to get a new suit so I could stop wearing the one with the pilling and fallen-out seams. Another $30 networking event? Sure! Even though I had creditors calling and collections notices arriving every day, it would be an investment in my career, right? (This was the opposite of big girl finances. Yet I was a financial advisor. Irony!)

One super-helpful collector tried to get to the root of my problem. Him: It seems you’ve fallen pretty far behind on your car payments, and this isn’t the first time. Are you still working? Me: Yes, I’m working quite a bit actually, but I am paid commission only, and haven’t really made any money lately. Him: It says here you were making $XX,XXX at XYZ Bank, what happened to that? Me (through clenched teeth): I got fired. Him: Well, why did you let that happen? Seems like you had a pretty good job over there. Me: WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT? THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THE ADVICE!

Inevitably, in the wee hours of a Thursday, my boyfriend and I were woken up by someone ringing our doorbell. He went down to answer it, and came back up with some interesting news. “There’s a guy here for your car. He needs the keys. He says you can clean it out if you want.” I got dressed, went downstairs, and started crying – not necessarily in that order.

I stood on my porch crying, trying to bargain with the repo man to come back tomorrow, let me get some money together, tell his boss he couldn’t find the car, anything. “Sorry Miss, I have to take it. I already have it hooked up, but if you give me the keys you can get anything you need out of it…. Man I gotta get a new job.”

I am embarrassed to say that I could not bring myself to go clean out my car, and my boyfriend (now my husband), went out to get my stuff out of the car (this was not very big girl.)

I called the car company, and found out that now that it had been repossessed, I could only get my car back if I paid the entire amount of the loan in full. Fun fact- even after a car is repossessed and auctioned off, you are still on the hook for the difference between the loan and auction price.

I called my dad to see if he could help. I called my mom. That was about as far as I was willing to call, and quite honestly, I really didn’t want my parents to bail me out. It dawned on me that this was my problem, and I had to face reality, grab my finances by the balls, and put together a new life plan. That Friday, I called a recruiter I had pretty much hung up on a few months before, to ask if she was still hiring.

Saturday, I told my boss I quit. No car meant no appointments meant no money. I couldn’t afford that job anymore.

For months after, I was really down on myself. I felt I had dug myself into such a hole with my debt and bad credit, I would never be able to do the big girl things I really wanted, like buy a house, get married (who wants to be saddled with such a mess?), or get hired at a big company (most employers do credit checks.)

Luckily, the recruiter I called was still hiring and gracefully pretended to forget my prior rudeness. After the inevitable credit check, I started my new job. It was a regular, 9-to-5 salaried gig: lower paying than my first job at the bank, but the best offer I could find. It was also, happily, down the street from my boyfriend’s office, so we could carpool. I got in gear- I compiled a list of all of my debts, and called around to start settling them or work out payment plans. Within about nine months, I had them all paid off, or at least back on track. I felt better every day.

That was six years ago. Today I’m married, and my husband and I bought our first house last year. When we applied for the mortgage, we found out that my credit qualified as “Good to Very Good!” I have two credit cards. One with airline miles for large purchases, and one that has had zero balance for a few years that I should probably just cancel. I do other things that are adult, like volunteer work, making deliberate and strategic career moves, and owning life insurance. Dealing with the consequences of my debt, though, was a time in my life when I could actually feel myself becoming more of an adult. And I liked it.