Broke Is the New Black

By the time I was 24, I owed nearly $35,000 on eight credit cards. Staying on top of the payments was like having a second full-time job.
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"That girl needs some new clothes," says one boy in my grade to another, without realizing I can hear. "Some very new clothes," his friend agrees. I am in sixth grade and my father has been dead for one year. As always, I am wearing hand-me-downs: an oversized purple top, matching patchwork-print leggings and basketball sneakers. I'm about as interested in sixth grade boys as I am in fashion. Middle school is weird; it's like all of a sudden I'm supposed to start wearing bras and makeup and shoes that aren't basketball sneakers.

Two years later, I have grown eight inches and hips. I have glasses, braces, a report card of straight As, and all of the poise of Cosmo Kramer. It is at the end of the school year at my confirmation party that I have my first Cinderella moment. I am wearing a lilac silk sheath dress and shimmery pink lipstick with my hair done up in a French twist. My usual high-waters are nowhere in sight. I feel beautiful and it shows. The prettiest girl in school tells me I look like Barbie and my longtime crush asks me to dance. For the first time, I experienced the transformative effect of the right clothes.

My hometown of White Plains, New York, is a Manhattan suburb that Forbes once ranked as the third most expensive city in America. My father used to say that we weren't rich, but we were rich in love. After he died, my mother and I fought often, especially about money. I wanted a clothing allowance and she wouldn't give me one. Most of my classmates were well-off and well-dressed; I resented our frugal lifestyle. By the start of high school, I was earning enough money from babysitting to buy all of my own clothes. The newly-opened Westchester Mall became my favorite place to go with friends and escape from my house.

I soon noticed that when I went shopping, each look I tried made me feel like a new and different person. With the perfect-fitting jeans or skirt, my awkwardness evaporated. Trying on different tank tops, jackets and accessories, I could become someone -- anyone -- else.

The world is much kinder to a girl with style. A stylish girl knows who she is and where she is going -- or at least looks like it. Having a new bag or pair of sneakers to wear made me excited to get up for school in the morning. One day, two of the most popular juniors in school approached me to ask where I got my cornflower-blue cowl neck sweater (Tommy Hilfiger at TJMaxx). They weren't pulling a Regina George; they actually wanted to know. "It's Tommy," I said casually, squealing on the inside.

Once I got to college, my shopping habit became difficult to maintain. The people around me seemed carefree with deep-pocketed parents and I felt like could never keep up. I couldn't afford to go on spring break or a wardrobe of cute going-out clothes on my student-worker salary. I felt cheated but also lost. I was supposed to pick a major, a path, an identity, but all I wanted to do was go shopping. During my senior year, I started charging purchases here and there, figuring that after I started working, I could pay off my credit card.

A few months later, I started my first job in Manhattan as a financial news editor. I decided that I wanted to write for a fashion magazine, but I needed money and health insurance and could not afford to hold out for my dream job. I was happy to be earning a living, but frustrated and feeling stuck. I felt that my father would have been most proud of me in a business or legal career. I tried to cure my bad days with Marc Jacobs dresses and Chanel makeup.

As a Manhattanite, I felt an intense pressure to dress well, and my bills skyrocketed. A starting salary of $42,000 doesn't go far on 5th Avenue, so I used credit cards to make up the difference between what I could afford and what I wanted. I stuck to the sale racks at first, because no one loves a bargain more than I do, but sometimes I saw a bag or dress I liked on Gossip Girl and just couldn't say no. If I was the only girl willing to stimulate the economy during a recession, so be it. I started a fashion blog about shopping in Manhattan. I'm not sure if the blog fueled the shopping or the shopping fueled the blog, but both felt like my only escape. Celebrity style and my latest purchases were all I wanted to talk about. I kept thinking that one day, I would have a better, higher-paying job and I will be able to pay all of my bills and finally focus on having the life I want. But that day never came.

By the time I was 24, I owed nearly $35,000 on eight credit cards. Staying on top of the payments was like having a second full-time job. After making only my minimum payments, I had almost no money left for food. I spent my weekends worrying and planning how I will move money around to survive each month. My bank account was often overdrawn, numbers in red. The stress was unbearable sometimes. I may have looked fabulous on the outside, but my anxiety and depression got worse than ever, and I worried about money all the time. I came to New York to be a writer, but I couldn't think about that or anything beyond my next paycheck. I tried to keep up appearances, but I was not in control of my life, and I realized that I hadn't been for a long time. I found a credit counselor and set up an appointment. I took a taxi to his office in Penn Plaza. It was the last thing I charged to my Visa card.

The credit counselor pulled my credit report and was quiet for a long time. I didn't breathe. In order to be eligible for a payment plan, he said, I would need to bring in an additional $700 per month. "Otherwise, you're looking at a bankruptcy," he said.

The word hung in the air. I tried to envision myself facing a judge in court and, more terrifying, telling my mother what I had done. I couldn't bear to move back home or to give away the cat I rescued. That would mean I had failed. I had dreamed of living in New York for years and I there was no way I was going to leave now. If I was going to live on a small salary in America's most expensive city, I would have to make some serious changes.

My landline was the first thing to go. I get rid of my DVR and, eventually, my cable TV subscription. After growing up without cable, getting it for myself as an adult had been a triumph, but I could no longer justify the $50 per month cost. I used to think $50 was nothing; it was a bracelet at Henri Bendel, a few Juicy Couture hair ties. I gradually sold my designer clothes, realizing how much more I would rather have money for groceries and the laundromat than a designer dress or a sweater. I stopped getting salon highlights ($160) in favor of coloring my hair at home ($5). Gone too are the days of dropping $60 on beauty products every time I hit the drugstore. I started clipping coupons from the Sunday paper and shopping around for the best prices on groceries, food for my cat and cleaning supplies. I applied to a few part-time jobs, but since I already worked late nights, it was too difficult to find anyone who needed part-time help only in the mornings. I was secretly glad about this because my day job exhausts me, but getting turned down by a gym and multiple thrift stores is a new low.

It was only after selling the car I kept at my mother's house ($4,200) to pay off a joint account that I became eligible to enroll in a debt management plan. I enrolled the remaining cards on the plan, agreeing not to use them in exchange for a reduced interest rate. Four years and five months of a no-frills lifestyle later, I would be debt-free. Easy, right?

After I made my payment each month, I had enough money to pay my bills, but little for anything else and no credit cards for backup. I ate macaroni and cheese most nights of the week. For entertainment, I saw movies with a friend using discounted tickets from work. I rarely went out for dinner, or anywhere at all, unless a friend was treating me. I repeatedly said no to get-togethers I want to attend because I had zero cash to spend. It was torture to go on Facebook and see other people at beaches and pools and rooftop bars, getting married and going to graduate school. I thought that being stylish would be enough to satisfy me without those things, but it wasn't. I was stuck in my apartment, alone with my regrets.

With barely enough money to cover my living expenses, I don't have the heart to keep blogging about fashion. I started blogging about my real life anonymously: my weekly fights with the CVS self-checkout machine that won't scan my coupons, my anger over the arbitrary increase in the price of cat food or my discovery that it is not possible to buy a Metro-North train ticket from a machine using only dimes. As it turns out, there were plenty of people who sympathized. I vented about my frustration but also found the humor in it. "You are the last person I would have imagined couponing her way through the Upper East Side," joked my friend Brian.

Writing about my experiences allowed me to be more honest than I've been in a long time. I got over myself and worked up the courage to tell my siblings why I've been so stressed out and explain to my co-workers why I can't come to happy hour. After a year on the payment plan, I decided to come clean to my mother. She came into the city to take me out to dinner and I started crying and told her everything. She wasn't happy, but she was a lot more supportive than I expected. Eventually, as I told more family and friends, I was repeatedly surprised by how understanding they were as well. I'm not proud of my mistakes, but I feel good about how far I've come.

I don't think I'll ever return to shopping at the level I once did, although I will always be keep up with fashion. The only Chanel item I own right now is a bottle of nail polish. Most of my clothes are from the Gap. Their tall sizes fit me perfectly and I feel good in the clothes. I put a lot more thought into my purchases; I'm a lot less likely to buy a handbag or a coat in a color that doesn't match more than a few items I already own. That isn't to say that my heart doesn't flutter when I walk past Bloomingdale's and see the season's new It bags. If I could afford one, I would get one, but I can't, and I'm finally comfortable saying that.

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