I’m somewhat reluctant to criticize other people’s bad financial decisions, having made so many atrociously dumb decisions in my own life. My financial stupidity isn’t even in the past tense — I have a brand-new PS4, but I’m waiting until the new year when my Flexible Spending Account resets to go to the doctor.
On the other hand, sometimes it takes an idiot to spot an idiot (I just made that up). At the very least, I’m somewhat uniquely qualified to identify which financial mistakes are “common” among the financially illiterate, versus the mistakes that take a special kind of dumb.
There are a few articles making the rounds today: there’s a Salon article trying to explain why law schools are comfortable scamming their students, and there’s a Forbes article making the stupid “now is a good time to go to law school” argument (which should make smart people roll their eyes). We’ve been down those roads before.
But we also have an article from a guy who says law school was the start of his financial downfall. He doesn’t blame law school, which is good, because I’m pretty sure he’s got nobody else to blame besides himself. And maybe his ex-wife….
The essay in The Billfold is by a 36-year-old man who says he’s living the life of a Millennial. He’s not, and I think it’s kind of insulting to Millennials. The dude is living the life of a 36-year-old who has made terrible choices… not the life of a 26-year-old who did well in college and law school but now finds himself living with his parents because the economy stinks.
Our guy, Josh Michtom, writes:
In 2001, I was making $35,000 and had the potential to move up at work and make more over time. I had amazing health insurance (I worked for a labor union), a healthy 401(k), and no debt. I was living with my fiancé in a lovely little place in Brooklyn and planning a wedding that I didn’t even have to pay for, because her wealthy parents insisted on footing the bill. In short, my prospects were looking pretty good.
And then he went to law school…
Alright, if I’m going to judge this guy I’m going to go all the way. Let’s grade this guy’s choices: I’ll give an “A” for a good call (even if it worked out poorly), a “C” for a bad call that is common among us financial illiterates, and an “F” for decisions that are bathed in stupidity. No grade-inflated “Bs” in my class.
When I was 23, I got married and moved to Boston, because my wife got into Harvard for graduate school. I applied to all the law schools in Boston and went to the one that gave me the most money.
Grade C: Here’s something I’ve noticed, completely anecdotally. When a woman goes back to school, the husband thinks, “Oh cool, I’ll go back to school too!” When a guy goes back to school, the wife thinks, “S**t, I guess I’ll have to keep working to support us.” I think this is because the guy can’t stand to have his wife’s earning potential eventually outstrip his own. In any event, it’s patently dumb to go from two potential incomes to zero incomes. But that’s how it goes. It’s a bad financial call, but one that is made by many.
On the law school choice:
I didn’t even ask about loan forgiveness, because the idea was not to take out any loans… (It will not surprise you to learn that I did absolutely no research on the financial or practical realities of law school.) So I ended up going to the one Boston law school with no loan forgiveness program, even though I knew I would go into public service.
Grade A: In 2013, going to law school because you want to go into “public service” would be a flat F. But this guy went in 2003, when law jobs were plentiful and nobody did enough research on the financial practicality of law school. This call didn’t work out for him, but from the perspective of 2003, it wasn’t terrible.
Anyway, Michtom goes to law school, doesn’t work as much as he thought he’d be able to, and ends up taking out some student loans and racking up credit card debt. Three years pass. Then:
The day I graduated from law school was the same day we came home from the hospital with our first child. We were all excitement and optimism and joy. I had an appellate court clerkship lined up for the next year that would pay $45K. With my wife’s grad student stipend of $30K and her mom across town to help out with childcare, we figured we’d be fine…
It turned out that the increase in income was outstripped by the increase in costs associated with having a child, especially when combined with loan payments.
Grade F: Jesus Christ, people… it’s called “a condom.” It’s a common tool used by those who can understand “math.” I’m probably the wrong person to talk to about this, but I do not understand people who have kids while they’re both still in school, then are surprised that kids are expensive. I think there are two types of couples: couples who wait to have kids until they’ve achieved a modicum of financial stability, and couples who are like “BABIES!!!” and lose their freaking minds. I don’t understand the latter.
As I’m learning now, once you add a kid, you need to add more space:
We were holding steady, but not getting out of debt. Nevertheless, we started to look at condos… When I finished my clerkship, an unusual opportunity came my way to work as a public defender — my dream job, and one that is hard to get in Massachusetts. I took the job even though it meant an initial pay cut, expecting to move up. My wife was working on her dissertation and would soon be pregnant with our second child. Our debt was growing a lot.
Grade C: Again with the f**king babies! Your wife makes $0 per year, you’re following your dream of making crappy money as a public defender, and you’re both still breeding. Sure, buy a condo while you’re at it!
Financially illiterate people do this all the time. You figure out what you want (“jobs that make us happy,” “a big family,” “a nice house”) and you figure out a way to afford it if everything goes right. What if things don’t go right? Meh, you’ll cross that bridge. In the meantime, it’s all babies and condos and dream jobs (says the guy who left $140,000 on the table because he didn’t like his ouchy job).
After a financially trying year for me as a public defender, my wife was offered her first tenure-track professor position, at a small, prestigious liberal arts college in Connecticut. I was able to find a job as a staff attorney at a well-respected non-profit in Hartford. We were each making about $60K a year. This should have been the moment when we regrouped—we could have found a modest apartment for us and our two sons, spent a few years getting our debt under control, and been back on the track we had foreseen for ourselves all along. But this was in 2007, just before the mortgage crisis, and who wants to postpone their inevitable middle-class comfort when they have solid jobs and access to inexplicable amounts of credit? Not us! We bought a house in an upper-middle-class suburb and a new car.
Grade F: Okay, okay, it takes two to tango. At this point, the brother has followed this woman around from Brooklyn, to Boston, to Hartford. Instead of living within the means of a junior professor and a staff attorney, you’ve got to move to the suburbs and buy a new car? This seems like a good time to re-introduce the wife’s “wealthy parents” which he alluded to earlier. I’m reading a lot in here, but it sure seems to me that we’ve got a classic example of a person who is accustomed to a certain standard of living, but hasn’t made the choices to garner the salary to support it.
Maybe she wanted the two kids and the intellectually stimulating jobs and the upper-middle class lifestyle. But maybe she should have married the investment banker and dealt with his cocaine and prostitute habits and the attendant donations to Mitt Romney, instead of the guy whose “dream job” was being a public defender (dollars to donuts, the “public defender” and the “professor at a liberal-arts college” are liberals who look down on the rapacious greed of those who can actually afford to live in posh Connecticut).
If I’m right, then what comes next was inevitable and entirely predictable. Michtom gets laid off, starts his own practice, and then:
And then, finally, the reset button: at the beginning of 2012, my wife and I separated.
Grade C: You see what happens, Larry? I’d argue that the only intelligent financial call I’ve ever made is my marriage. That’s not just because my wife makes good money, and it’s not just because she’s okay with me making crap money (though both of those things are nice too… thanks honey!). It’s because we both think in the same way about money. Everybody hears the “for better or worse” part of wedding vows, and then promptly forgets the “for worse” part. If you’re not thinking the same way about the costs and benefits of financial security, then the whole thing is going to fall apart. Trust me, you can’t have the PlayStation 4 come home and have your spouse be all like, “OH MY GOD. What were you thinking? We have a BABY! I’M GOING TO TAKE THIS SYSTEM APART AND SHOVE IT UP YOUR ASS!” I wouldn’t tell anybody to marry “for money,” but having the same view about money is way more important than liking the same movies or having pretty eyes and a strong chin. If you are financially illiterate, you best find a spouse who is either just as dumb as you and cool with it, or one who doesn’t mind carrying you while your idiocy holds the family back.
Anybody who calls their divorce the financial “reset button” never got on the same page with their spouse about money. Divorce isn’t a clean slate, it’s a financial body blow:
In the fall, just as my divorce was getting finalized, the state agency that had laid me off before, now recovered from earlier budget woes, offered me a job that paid $70K a year. That was a lucky thing, because the suburban house had become unsellable. My ex couldn’t afford the mortgage on her own, and we didn’t want to uproot our sons from their school and neighborhood at the same time we were getting divorced, so we agreed that I would help her out with the mortgage for a couple of years while she went through the tenure process and the kids settled into the back-and-forth of divorced life. My 1/3 share of her mortgage was double my Hartford rent.
Grade C: I like how this guy slates helping with the mortgage as some kind of loving choice he’s made for his children. In other jurisdictions, that’s merely called “child support.” But yeah, when you get divorced you end up supporting two households instead of one, which I’m pretty sure is why Jesus would rather you stay in a loveless marriage for the rest of your life. Nothing says “living above your means” quite like trying to shield your kids from your terrible financial mistakes.
From there, Josh Michtom goes on to describe how he’s getting his financial house back in order — with a new live-in girlfriend — because apparently we’re dealing with a guy who can’t be alone with himself for a freaking year.
What has he learned from all of this?
If there’s a lesson to be learned from my decade and a half of treading water, it’s to resist the pull of material things… I mean that it’s worth questioning our assumptions about what it means to be grown up, and about how we measure success.
Grade F: WRONG. It wasn’t chasing “material things” that got him into trouble, and it certainly wasn’t that he was trying to act like a 1950s definition of a “grown-up.” In fact, it was just the opposite; this guy broke himself by acting like a kid well into his thirties. Babies and condos and rewarding careers are grown-up things worthy of attainment. But you can’t go after them in an unconnected way based on what you want while ignoring what you can afford. That’s how a child thinks. Grown-ups plan how they are going to afford the things they want. Grown-ups are realistic about how much money they’re likely to make. Grown-ups don’t have kids while they’re still in school and don’t buy houses to keep up with mommy and daddy.
None of this is law school’s fault. In context, it seems like going to the cheapest law school he could find for an identifiable job that he was able to get was his best financial decision. And it would have worked out just fine if he had attacked the rest of his life with the same basic planning.
Trust me, I’m not throwing stones at this guy from inside my glass house. I can’t afford a “house.” I know goldfish with better long-term financial planning skills than I have. But I can recognize fellow illiterates when I see them. This guy wasn’t screwed over by law school or the bad economy, and he’s NOT a Millennial. He didn’t fly too close to the middle-class sun and get burned. He’s just a middle-aged dude who doesn’t know how to make a budget.
Ain’t no cure for stupid. I hope the new girlfriend is better at this than he is.
(Read the full story over at The Billfold.)