I'm just under two years out of college now. Much of my personal work during school was focused on creating a solid base that I could build my life from. "Base" here meaning the fundamentals: mental stability, broad set of life skills, physical health, meaningful relationships to people and land. I struggled a lot with several of the above, especially mental health and social competency. You could say that I spent the first half of college teaching myself about theory of mind, and the second half muddling my way through systems thinking. My classes were useful in terms of introducing new frameworks for thinking and doing, but the doing on my own is where most of the lasting (experiential, internalized) knowledge has come from.
I got myself into $38k debt getting my degree. I made this decision as a teenager, but I didn't have the foresight to reconsider it as I learned more about myself and the world. I could have chosen to switch into a certificate or apprenticeship program as soon as I noticed those ways of learning worked better for me, which likely would have resulted in a better return. But no matter - I'd make different decisions for myself now, and I hope to have the vast majority of my life ahead of my to apply & improve those decision-making patterns. I also 100% do not regret spending more time on establishing healthy patterns than on my coursework - those patterns have paid off many times over in life satisfaction.
The past two years:
- I've paid off about $22k of that debt, working one year in design/communications for $42k pre-tax and one full season in farming (9mo) for $11k pre-tax, plus odd jobs
- I have $16k remaining; $13k at 5% and $3k at 3%.
- I am focusing on paying off the $13k in the next 12-24mo while maintaining or increasing a cushion of savings
- I've saved about $6.5k in a retirement fund and have $4k liquid (6mo core expenses plus $1000 sinking fund)
- I made the considered decision to buy a car for about $3k - something I've been against all my life but decided to do given the circumstances and a target end date for car ownership.
During my first post-grad job, my average monthly expenses were like so:
Student loans - $1300
Rent + utilities - $600
Public transportation - $380 (long rail commute plus bike or bus)
Groceries - $130
Discretionary consumables - $120
Health - $180
Travel - $150
Donations - $100
Clothing - $30
Misc - $70
Total sans student loans: $1760
Very poorly optimized on the big three. My long commute and poor fit for this office environment also created stress and reduced personal time.
The understandable question on this forum: why shift to a much lower-paying occupation? For me, small farming was a good choice because:
- It's a great place to exercise systems thinking in the medium to long term while engaging in a variety of mostly physical tasks on a day to day basis
- No office politics or need for social masking (the latter can be more draining for me than the job itself)
- I'd tried it before (as a intern) and liked it
- Connection to family background and fields of study (social, environmental)
- Very concrete way to respond to large-scale challenges (climate, food, water, inequality, economic and social instability) on a human/local scale
- Good for learning through experience while being paid
- Opportunity to drastically reduce expenses
My average monthly expenses while farming (transition period):
Student loans - $210 (cut down to maintain cashflow)
Rent + utilities - $500
Car expenses (borrowed) - $90
Groceries - $70 (plus free veggies and eggs as part of work compensation)
Discretionary consumables - $45
Health - $40
Travel - $5
Donations - $100
Clothing - $30 (good rain gear was most of this)
Misc - $100
Total sans student loans: $980
Better, but still could be improved.
My average monthly expenses while farming (current):
Student loans - $300 (to increase to $700)
Rent + utilities - $50 (now exchanging a few hours a week of childcare for housing)
Car insurance - $115
Gas - $50
Maintenance and repairs - $75
Groceries - $60 (plus free veggies and eggs as part of work compensation)
Discretionary consumables - $20
Medical - $40
Travel - $5
Donations - $100
Clothing - $20 (if I don't spend it, it goes to fund for replacement boots)
Misc - $50
Total sans student loans: $585
Core expenses: $315
After debt is paid off, living on $7k a year feels very reasonable to me. $3k would be a challenge, and $11k would feel luxurious.
The near future
I now live about 11 miles from my place of employment, which I've biked a few times but would hesitate to do 5 days a week on top of a physical job. Maybe working up to a couple days a week? My boss also has given the option of semi-sheltered camping at the farm a few days a week, but not living there. These two things combined could significantly reduce my need for a car (maybe to the point that my employer would be okay with me selling it), but at the cost of more flexibility for social engagements in the city.
I like my housing situation and would like to stay in it for as long as I'm able.
I've recently been promoted at work, so starting next season I will be making $14/hr instead of $12/hr and will have closer to a full-time x9mo schedule. I've also started picking up side work in landscaping and odd jobs, which pays about $25/hr on average. I have tutoring and design experience that I'd also like to use on my own terms - many of the posted gigs are the fairly depressing "boost your scores and get into college" type, but my interest and experience tell me that lots of students might be interested in getting support in applying their learning to their lives in useful ways, and overcoming common mental blocks that arise in achievement-based learning environments. Perhaps something to test on a small scale, since I have more flexibility during the fall thru spring (overlapping with the school year). And even one consistent client makes a big difference at my current income level.
Skills: Related to the above, I'd like to learn more about landscaping with native plants and working with different types of soil (and soil-dwelling creatures). Also dealing with farming under more inconsistent climate conditions - my boss has farmed for about 20 years and has been seeing a trend of heavier storms, less consistent seasonal precipitation, and more intense heat waves. Other long-term interests are lettering, building, and strength training. I generally prefer analog and "soft" systems to digital or mechanical ones, and I figure I might as well work with that tendency instead of fighting it.
My experience in the past couple years has shown me that quality of life, community, and living according to my values are by far the most important thing to me, and that I have the skills and flexibility to make even a low income work well. I feel more confident about my ability to make my chosen way(s) of life work than I did in college, when I felt a lot of anxiety about being able to make it in a typical degree-requiring job for years on end.
Phew! That's my very long intro, for now. I don't know how often I'll be posting, but it's a very useful way to reflect and consolidate my thoughts.