There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.Oscar Wilde
A couple of days before the start of my junior semester at college, I was in the middle of giving my room a total makeover. You see, I had already received my student loan refund check and the dollars were burning a hole in my pocket. After I had set aside money for rent and books, I had about $2,000 left over. A broke college student with disposable income? The big local discount retailer provided a new flat screen TV, new bed linens, a coffee table, curtains, and everything else to make my room look like a king suite at the Marriott hotel. Stuck in a reverie of all the world dignitaries which I would be hosting, I was brought back to reality by a blaring car horn. Being that the street was rarely busy and the driver kept beeping the horn, I stuck my head out the window and that’s when it happened.
The vehicle was a sleek blue 2002 Toyota Corolla sedan, the driver? None other than my housemate, Anthony*. Being one of my closest friends, we always spoke about “one day” each of us owning our own vehicle, but that day often seemed far off in the future. That summer I had worked as an orientation advisor saving the majority of my checks in hopes of said purchase, and after 2 months of work I had a little over $1,000 saved. Anthony revealed that he got his car at an auction and with the help of family they loaned him $6,000 which he used for all the car related expenses. I was happy for Anthony but my envy was oozing bad. Very bad. I felt he had the “easy way out” with the family loan while I was “slaving away” in the summer. My immediate thought?:
Must be nice. My next thought? How do I turn $1,000 into $6,000 immediately?
I researched cars and had an idea of what I wanted, but I was willing to buy almost any car that remotely fit my criteria because I needed a car. Weeks later I found the solution to the money issue. Throughout the semesters I would receive “offers” from a certain bank for student loans and I was already “pre-approved for up to $18,000.” To rationalize: borrowing $5,000 is less than a third of the pre-approved amount and an extra $5,000 to my student loan tab was not “that bad”. I called the number on the postcard and took a bite of the apple. Within days the check was in the mail and after visiting several car dealerships I was the owner of a new (to me) 1998 Honda Accord. While my car was older than Anthony’s, it was the luxury version which came with powered locks/windows and was wider than the Corolla. I had a mechanic look at the car and had some “recommended work” done to the tune of $1,000 (always get a second opinion!).
To recap: within a couple of weeks: I used a student loan refund to design my room, then let my envy get the best of me and took out another student loan to buy a car and used all the money I made that summer. In all this haste to get a car I forgot to factor in two expensive elements: gas and car insurance. My initial pot of money paid for the first 6 months of payments. Being a new driver with total coverage I was paying ~$500 every 6 months. My only source of income at the time was work-study where I made $75 every two weeks. Looking for a flexible part time gig, I landed a “Team Member” position at the Carmine Cartel* (a big box retailer). I worked twenty hours a week on the sales floor for minimum wage ($7.25/hr). It was a rough $7.25, the Carmine Cartel made sure to get their money’s worth. My main role was making my designated area look pristine by restocking shelves and putting everything in its place. I remember going “above and beyond” in hopes of a promotion. I volunteered for additional shifts, I made my area pristine, I even made sure to iron my uniform before every shift. In my mind all the extra things I did would be noticed come promotion time. New Year rolls around and time for my review. Sitting across from my supervisor he goes on how I am meeting or exceeding expectations in all areas. He then says the words which I remember to this day:
Good news, you’re getting one of the biggest raises here. You’re at $7.25 now, we’re raising you to $7.36
11 cents. I had to take a moment, “one of the biggest raises? Eleven cents? I know this is retail but seriously, eleven cents?”
That summer, I gave myself a $2 raise by switching part time jobs and working at a call center. My friend Daniel worked there and was able to get my resume to the in house recruiter. Once hired and on shift, while the pay bump was nice, the culture was downright toxic. It was a very competitive environment where the only thing that mattered was meeting your sales goal. Your sales goal increased every month and failure to meet goal two consecutive months resulted in disciplinary action. A third consecutive month was grounds for termination. At best the environment was depressing, at worse people were sabotaging their fellow employees in hopes of making a sale. One employee passed out in the women’s restroom, as she had not eaten in several days. She skipped breakfast to make sure she was at her desk on time, worked through lunch and had no appetite for dinner because she was so scared of missing her goal and being fired and losing her livelihood.
Then things got worse
Management decided that failure to meet at least 80% of your goal was grounds for a “verbal warning.” The month this rule was implemented I failed to meet my goal. My manager, Josh, brought me into his office for corrective action. Despite the toxic environment, Josh was a great manager, he was a straight shooter and he treated everyone fairly.
“79.6%. You were close, had a couple more calls gone your way we would not be here but sometimes this is how the chips fall.”
Talk about a gut punch. “How?” Was my thought as he gave me feedback. My eyes catch a glimpse of the parking lot and that’s where I found my answer.
1998 Honda Accord.
The reason I was sitting in that room, having gone from one bad part time gig to another was because I decided to “keep up with the Joneses”. The danger of playing this game is that the goal is always moving, it’s a never ending chase like Wile E. Coyote going after the Roadrunner. The car related expenses seemed to never end too: seat covers, “special” glade air fresheners, tires, $70 synthetic oil changes, tune ups, inspection, registration, yearly campus parking pass. All of this plus the added pressure of a part time job just to be cool? What was this really all for?
Were the looks I received as I drove around campus, seats and rear-view mirror shaking because I had the music on blast worth it? At that moment I decided, enough. As much as having the car was convenient, I wanted the convenience of my time. I did not own the car as much as the car owned me. In allowing my envy to spiral, I had lost sight of the goal. When I left home for college, the goal was to graduate, not to have a better car than my housemate. I gave my verbal resignation, walked out, and never came back.