As the holidays approached, I found myself emptying my savings account on a rent check instead of gifts for my loved ones. 2020 is the first year that I’ve had extra income, which ironically came as unemployment assistance after being temporarily laid off amidst the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in March. The millennial generation’s financial struggle is real – most who were laid off this year made more money from unemployment and crisis relief than in a career and it’s already gone as quickly as it came.
Millennials are sold a fairytale that no longer exists. I was raised to believe that if I put in four years of college and earned a degree, it would earn me a well-paying job in my field, leading to a comfortable lifestyle. “Work hard in your 20s so you can play hard in your 40s” is a mantra I believed in until I realized that no amount of hard work was ever going to afford me the luxury of slowing down. How can I save up to play later while I’m deferring half of my bills until they are late because if I don’t, I can’t afford food? Even an “in case of emergency” fund has always been a myth to me.
When the pandemic hit the U.S. and stay-at-home orders were issued in March, I was temporarily laid off my retail job at the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri. Every weekly unemployment check I received was more than I received in two-week paychecks from my retail job as well as any previous career. Over the course of the summer, I was able to open a savings account with the extra income that did not cover rent, bills, and necessities.
The largest amount I had saved was enough for a modest used car. I donated my rundown Saturn Aura to the charity Cars for Kids in March after I no longer needed it to travel to work (due to being laid off) and not having the money for the necessary repairs. Unfortunately, I never purchased a new car, despite having the outright cash, because my credit was so poor; the only payment plan approved for me included paying twice the car’s value in interest over eight or more years. Although I now have a new job working from home, I am still living without a car and without the safety net of a savings account as every dollar immediately drains into bills and necessities.
The COVID-19 pandemic pulled back the veil of illusion and showed how unattainable simply existing day to day is in America, let alone the idea of the “American dream.” We’ve convinced an entire generation that as long as they put their minds to it and work hard, they will be rewarded with a life of comfort and opportunity. In reality we are pressuring 18-year-olds into making the largest and most potentially irresponsible financial decision of their lives, culture shocking them with the American college environment, sending them into an oversaturated and underpaid job market, and then shaming and blaming them for the rest of their lives for being irresponsible with money.
I never thought seriously about college until halfway through my high school senior year when applications opened. It was non-negotiable; I was convinced by family and friends that it was a necessary steppingstone to success and even though I surely could have explored less traditional options, I felt like a four-year university was the only acceptable route. I considered majors that excited me but eventually settled for ones the adults in my life believed would have the most available jobs. I reviewed schools in states I felt would allow me to branch out but eventually settled for the one with in-state tuition prices and lots of available scholarships. Every deciding factor regarding which college I’d attend and what I’d do there revolved around what would be the least of a financial burden on my parents (as my father helped with the tuition) and would most set me up for financial and professional success in the future.
However, there was far less involvement in making sure I was actually prepared for college life. My first year at the University of Kansas (KU) was a culture shock – I failed out of the school before my sophomore year because of my grades. Suddenly I was accountable for myself, living in a room with three strangers on a floor with 40 more, constantly navigating pressures to drink and do drugs and hook up while school seemingly took the back burner for every person I knew. Throughout my six years at KU, I failed out once more and dropped out a third time; moved at least once a semester after fallouts with roommates or partners; suffered multiple emotional and mental breakdowns; survived numerous sexual assaults; and graduated with few friendships and no professional connections. Because the distress caused my grades to suffer, I continuously lost scholarships and financial aid, which led to me plead my case to the KU Financial Aid Appeals Committee multiple times. I’ve experienced a high amount of shame, but nothing felt quite like the third instance of begging the same group of people to please believe in and support my return to school because if I don’t finish with a degree that will land me a livable salary – what was all of this suffering worth?
What makes my situation and the lesson learned more frustrating is that I held a career throughout my undergraduate years that I easily could have continued to climb without a degree. The only reason I was able to eventually return to KU and finish is the routine I established while working full time. I was taught that part of the point of school (outside of gaining knowledge) was to understand having a routine, following a schedule, completing tasks, and responsibility for yourself and your work. I quickly found success doing this at my job while I never did in school. Even though I could blow off college classes or homework, the consequences weren’t felt until the end of the semester when grades came in. If I didn’t show up to work on time or have my items completed, the consequences could mean not having a roof over my head.
During my sophomore year I became a leasing consultant at a student apartment complex and I eventually rose to the leasing and marketing manager. As a manager, I received a rent discount for living on-site under the condition that I would be available on call 24/7 should any emergencies occur. Even as a manager of the property, one of the most nationally-recognized leasing managers in the company, the 24/7 available on-site emergency contact, and even with my manager discount, I could not apply to live there on my own, let alone afford monthly rent by myself.
Many student apartment complexes require proof that you earn a monthly income equaling at least three times’ the monthly rent to be able to apply for a bedroom within a multiple-room apartment, meaning to live alone you would have to provide this proof for as many bedrooms. These places also don’t typically offer the ability to use cash income as proof, meaning college students who rely on serving or bartending jobs with small wages and majority cash tips aren’t always able to apply.
Outside of proof of income, there is also a credit check. During my time working in this complex, a co-worker paid off his student loans – a celebration quickly turned sour as the final payment made his score plummet, stopping him from making major purchases that required a high credit score (thus part of the reason he paid them off in the first place). The credit system is inherently flawed if our successful payments do nothing (paying rent and utilities has no effect on credit scores) and prevent us from obtaining necessities (my credit score interfering with my ability to buy a car). Student loan offices promise to help make the payback process painless, yet I’ve never made a payment because their “income-based repayment plan” factors in my parents’ income, not mine, and the result is a monthly fee that I cannot afford on top of rent, utilities, food, and other necessities. High school students are pressured at age 18 to sign a loan they don’t fully understand for an amount and interest rate that will likely take the rest of their lives to pay back and will ultimately cost more than they ever originally borrowed.
As I settle into living alone for the first time since college, my parents keep teasing me about my flighty history with roommates and live-in boyfriends and how I should have done this a long time ago. What they don’t understand is that I could not have applied for an apartment, even the ones I managed, without their co-signature and income. I could not have paid rent at any previous apartment, even when I received an employee discount, without the help of a roommate. I could not afford food without someone else picking up the grocery tab every other week. I could not work or go to school without someone lending me a car when I didn’t have my own or money for gas.
I can only pay December rent because I emptied the $1,000 of pandemic unemployment relief remaining in the savings account I started less than a year ago. I am not an irresponsible millennial who spends money on brunch instead of bills and then cries for a hand-out. I am one of millions of members of a generation who is set up to fail, blamed and mocked for our struggle to survive, and chastised for daring to ask for help.