We all have things we wished we could have done differently. I wish I had never dated him, picked that major, gone to that school. Perhaps not so obvious are the regrets we often have about money and the way they affect our lifepath and self-esteem. In this newest segment on “L Bee and the Money Tree” I am talking to financially empowered, successful women in their respective fields to find out about what they wish they could tell their “college selves” if given the chance.
For my inagural post I had the privilege of interviewing my dear friend,mentor and accomplished author, Jennifer Adams. Jen is the creator of the internationally reknowned blog The Books They Gave Me. The blog (which feature stories from readers about special volumes old lovers, family members, or friends may have given them that hold a special significance) instantly appealed to book-lovers and literary novices alike. In it’s infancy the blog rocketed to international fame after being featured on such media outlets as TIME and The Huffington Post. After all that attention publishing house Simon & Schuster found her–they offered her a book deal to take her brain-child and turn it into a wonderful compilation of her best submissions from the website.
With a much-anticipated November release Jennifer Adam’s star is definitely on the rise and I am tickled pink she agreed to candidly share her wisdom, mistakes and advice with us here at “L Bee and the Money Tree”.
LBee: Tell me a little bit about what you were like in college.
JA: Unfocused. Not very disciplined. I was really into being independent, even though I wasn’t, and was really into play acting being a grown-up. I was in a serious relationship and was more focused on that than on school. Part of this was because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. I think I changed majors three times, and as a result, didn’t even graduate. I never managed to fulfill the credits for my major. I eventually went back to school in my mid-thirties, after I was divorced, and finished in a year.
LBee: What was your approach to finances in college?
JA: Again, I thought I was totally independent, even though I wasn’t. I worked part-time throughout college, and full-time during the summer, but that was barely enough to live on. I took out the maximum in student loans each semester and lived off of that money. I had a huge sense of entitlement, and should have lived very frugally, but I bought clothes and other things I should not have. I also took out credit cards and maxed them out. They made it so easy to get cards, and as long as you paid the minimums, they’d keep increasing your limits. By the time I was done, I was tens of thousands of dollars in debt.(Bear in mind, I was in college in the very early 90s—even at a Big Ten state school, tuition was less than $2,800 a year. Yeah, I know!)
LBee:Tell me where the idea for “The Books they Gave Me” came from? Why did you start the site initially?
JA: I was dating a guy who gave me a book about a band I had loved since high school. I was really touched by his thoughtfulness (he hates that band) and I remembered I’d been given other books by men I’d been involved with over the years. I realized the gift of a book can be really meaningful—more so than other types of gifts. And if you’re a book person, a serious life-long bookworm like me, it’s even more meaningful. Looking over my bookshelves, you can see my whole life story. I wrote a few of these stories down and put them up on a blog, which just sat there for a few months until I decided to publicize it by sending a link to a publishing-world news blog. It took off explosively from there.
LBee: Did you expect it to become so successful? What has your response been to the success?
JA: No, I thought it would just be a cool thing that might drive some attention to my other writing. I hoped to possibly get a meeting with an agent to represent my fiction writing. Instead, I was almost immediately approached by an agent who wanted to represent the blog as a book idea, and we put together a proposal, which sold at auction to a fantastic publisher. While I believe the blog idea is really cool, I never expected it to bring me success in such a direct way. But that’s one thing I’ve learned in life: sometimes life doesn’t bring you what you thought you wanted it to. If you open yourself to possibilities and say ‘yes’ to unexpected opportunities, you might find yourself somewhere you’d never expected to be.
LBee: What is the biggest change (financial or otherwise) the blog has brought to your life?
JA: While I still have my day job, I received a healthy advance for my book, which allowed me to move into my own apartment (I’d been sharing with a roommate.) As a former New Yorker, you know—having your own apartment is a huge luxury! But more importantly, I’m also able to spend more time with my two sons, who live with their dad in Chicago during the school year. This was one of my major goals, and the book allowed me to accomplish it much faster than I’d hoped.
LBee: Looking back, what has been your biggest financial mistake?
JA: Very simple—spending too much money! I have a new motto: “my money makes me happiest when it’s in my bank.” When I was married, I had a big, pretty house with nice furniture, two new cars, lots of clothes, dishes and glassware enough to entertain an army—all the “stuff” that’s supposed to make us happy. Now I live in an apartment that’s tiny by my old standards, and I have exactly enough “stuff” to get through a day. (We’re always washing glasses because there are exactly enough to go around!) I try to spend money on experiences rather than things. (This is an important theme for me. I actually have a novel in progress about a woman who becomes overwhelmed by the “stuff”in her life and takes drastic steps to improve the situation!)
LBee: If you could, what would you do differently?
JA: Now? I still think I could be a little more frugal. I keep a budget, but I could be more diligent in minding where the cash goes.
LBee: If you could only give three pieces of advice to your college self, what would it be?
Don’t let yourself become financially intertwined with a partner until you could each afford to live independently. To some extent, I got stuck in a relationship because I couldn’t afford to make it on my own. If I’d lived with roommates, I might have been more critical of the relationship and really asked whether he was the right person for me. Instead, because we were living together, I just sort of went with the flow. Things were ok for a long time, but we all deserve better than “ok.” I ended up getting a messy, painful divorce in my mid-thirties. And because I’d focused on our home and family and on fostering his career, I was left without a career of my own, no savings, nothing. I started from scratch at 35.
Find a way to maintain financial independence. And don’t overspend. I think a lot of couples think, “together we make X, we can afford this apartment.” If you’re moving in with someone, maybe choose a place that’s just a little too expensive for either of you to afford on your own, instead of pooling your entire housing budgets. That way, you’ve got more wiggle room in case something goes wrong. And in the meantime, you can both be putting money in savings or your retirement accounts. Even once you’re married, I think, you should set aside part of your money for your very own use. That way if you want to get some new clothes for work or give your parents a really stellar anniversary gift or whatever, it’s not really your partner’s business. I think this is true for men, too.
Avoid using credit cards, and try to keep a couple of months of income in the bank. This protects you from stupid mistakes like overdrafts, and gives you a cushion so that if you have some emergency like a car problem, you can afford to pay cash to fix it. I do use credit cards, all the time, I just only do it when I have a firm plan to pay them off in a short period of time.
LBee: What has been the best part about becoming a successful writer? Has there been any way in particular you have celebrated your success?
JA: The best part is that publishing a book is a goal I’ve had since I was a little girl. Obviously it feels really great to accomplish something like that! As for celebration? Actually, no. I didn’t do anything special. One thing I find interesting in my reactions to this success is that it’s just sharpening my focus on the next book, the next success. I’m working hard on the next project…
LBee: Is there anything you miss about college? Anything you don’t miss?
JA: I did college in two phases: my “undergrad” career right after high school, and my back-to-school stint to finish my degree a few years ago. I wish that I’d realized when I was 18 what a luxury it is to get to spend all your time immersed in learning. I wasted that time. I love school, and when the time comes that I can quit my day job, I will go to grad school, just for fun.
My real advice to college-aged women is not to rush. Don’t worry about men or relationships. Take this time to enrich yourself, to prepare yourself. Wallow in the luxury of education—this is a rare and special time.Focus on becoming the person you dream of being—but never forget that reinvention is never impossible. One of my biggest inspirations is Julia Child—she never so much as cooked an egg until she was 36 or 37. Her life’s work didn’t even start until she was nearly forty. So pick something you love to focus on now, and put all you have into it, but never forget that you can change gears later on. I know it sounds trite to say the money will follow, but… if you are smart and frugal and focus on relationships and experiences rather than things,you will probably always manage to have enough money and shield yourself from the chaos that overspending causes.