Lesson 4: Live Within Your Means

OBABL Year In Review: The Year’s Most Popular Stories

OBABL continues the series The Story of a Georgetown Law Class: The Lessons. Yolanda Young located the nearly 60 black graduates from her 1995 GULC class. Among them: A judge, big law partners, bureaucrats, an Oprah Show producer, two doctors, a middle school principal, and a stay-at-home dad. With few exceptions (the former congressional aide to William Jefferson who vanished following her involvement in his corruption trial; the Fox Network VP who declined to share her experience; and the beloved classmate who died prematurely), they were interviewed and surveyed. Everyday for the next three weeks leading up to her 15th class reunion, we’ll share lessons from their stories.

Monday: You Make You
Tuesday: The Legal Profession Is Not For Everyone
Dream a New Dream
Thursday: Live Within Your Means
Friday: Make Yours a Small World

rcarter_bandPoor, uneducated people where I’m from use the expression “educated fool” to identify those for whom education has choked off commonsense–the public official always sticking his foot in his mouth and the dentist who allows his kids to talk back and run wild in the receptionist area are referred to as such. Most often, this moniker is used to describe educated folks, who parlayed their education into good paying jobs but are unable to manage their money.

When Elie over at Above The Law goes on his rant about how earning $250,000 a year doesn’t make you rich or equip to pay off student loans, I hear my grandmother ask: What’s that you say, chil’? How is it that you earn more money than anyone in this family, but you can’t afford to buy a house or pay your bills? Did you not see the zeros behind the promissory notes you signed?

We both know the answer to that question.

Georgetown Law is an elite institution with enviable facilities—the third largest academic law library in the nation; a high-tech, spa like fitness center; a gourmet cafeteria, and a 5-star dormitory with a concierge service. It’s a school for people with “names.” A Pelosi, a Koppel, and a Barcardi matriculated there during my tenure.

We tell ourselves that because we’ve attained the same degree, we are entitled to the same lifestyle. In doing so, we overlook the thing that distinguishes us. They are the scions of wealth. We are the descendants of workers. Some worked in factories. Others worked in offices, but only one classmate spoke of a trust fund and hers came by way of her husband.

“My husband is French Canadian, and his family has money. [His] grandfather was a miner and found wealth there in the 1940’s. My husband has an inheritance, so now I understand that a lot of white people keep money because they are responsible with it. [For example], we’ve been to Europe with the kids, but it is not something we do all the time; otherwise, we spend money on what we need.”

She adds, “There are two ways we can go. We can say, ‘I’ve got money. I’ve earned it. I’m just like the next person, and I’m gonna live it up.’ [People with that philosophy] are living for the now. The other side is making sure [you’re] secure longterm, remembering that you have an obligation to [your] family and the next generation.”

I can recall the wedding of my friend, Reeves Carter. His New York Times wedding announcement was far more impressive than that of Karen Barcardi’s. It read like a movie script: The couple met in court. She had the sexy tattoo and the coveted Ivy League degrees. He was good-looking, smart and ambitious. There was mention of the celebrity floral designer, the TriBeCa reception and travels to Katmandu and the Himalayas. They were perched to soar, and so they lived sky-high. He wore Pink shirts, and she carried Kate Spade bags. They both wore Prada shoes. That period was magical—they rented an expensive apartment in hip DUMBO and summered on Fire Island. Eventually, there was a landing. Reeves tells it this way:

Listen, I have a very good life—I enjoy my colleagues and my work; my wife and I are buying a lovely apartment; my son is thriving at his private school—but this life is financially challenging. When my wife and I married, we were both at large firms. We lived extravagantly and didn’t save enough. Then we had a child, and my wife stayed home. I moved to a small firm. We don’t make the same kind of money as we did before. We didn’t save enough when we were making it.”

Another classmate, Edens Malivert, did put more into savings and investments than he spent on cuisine and cocktails. At the time, Reeves was dumbfounded. Edens, a Skadden associate for Godssake, was living in Queens with a roommate!

Edens counters with this:

“I’m from Queens…The rent was cheap, and it left plenty of money for me to save, invest in mutual funds, and pay off my student loans [a high five-figure sum] my first three years out of law school. I do what makes sense to me without worry or concern for what other people think or say about it.”

Because Edens gathered hay while the sun still shown, he had reserves when he found himself unemployed for two years. (Note: In an upcoming post, we answer the burning question of how it is a cum laude graduate with an impeccable resume ends up unengaged for such a long period of time even as law firms look under rocks to find “qualified” minorities.)

We should all take this philosophy to heart. One of the most surprising revelations to come out of my survey was to find that regardless of income level or job, most in our class still have significant law school debt. They speak of their loans in tones reminiscent of the Greek figure Echo who withered away from disappointment. ““The debt messed me up really bad for a while”…“It’s depressing”…“I’ll be paying it from the grave”… “no end in sight.”

One grad confessed that because of interest and penalties, he now owes more than he did when he graduated. Another said she was treating her loans like they were a thirty-year mortgage .  (And we see how that’s turning out for the nation).

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