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How a Young College Grad Handles Money

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Mike: Alice, so you are a young person who told me you were interested in talking to me about money! Tell me about yourself.

Alice: Sure, I am 20. I’m a creative writer (copywriter) for two medium-market radio stations owned by the same company (though I also write for three other radio stations also owned by the same company in even smaller markets). Being a creative writer in radio means I write the scripts for radio ads. I also occasionally do voiceover. I make about $27,000 a year. Oh, and I live in Canada. So everything I say is relative to that.

Mike: When did you graduate?

Alice: In April. I’ve been working at my job six months yesterday. I always knew what I wanted to do and I got my act together really quickly. I started applying for jobs before I even graduated.

Mike: Is this your first salaried job?

Alice: Yes.

Mike: So tell me about how you decided that working in radio and writing ads would be what you wanted to do after college.

Alice: I always wanted to be a writer. I thought I would be an English teacher maybe, or write novels, but I have the attention span of a child. And writing scripts for radio is 30 seconds to showcase your best idea, which means you don’t have time to waste words. You have to be concise and clever and just go! So, this is what I wanted. And I looked into my schooling options while I was in high school. There is no specialized program for what I want to do, so I went to radio broadcasting school. And then as soon as I finished that, I started on my career path. I just knew which points I had to hit to get to the “fun part” and so I did them. I write mini radio plays every day, basically.

Mike: When you say radio broadcasting school, is this a school specifically for careers in radio?

Alice: Well, the school I went to designated itself as a “institute of technology.” They have a specific program for radio. They also have programs for computer programming, television, engineering, business etc. We have three main schools in the western half of Canada that cater to technology specifically.

Mike: Tell me about how you went about getting the job you have now. Did you do internships, or anything like that?

Alice: I guess there are kind of two parts to this: What I did; what most people do. In the program that I took, you have to do a four-week internship to graduate. It’s worth credit, and it’s very important. To my knowledge, all programs similar to mine work this way, though we have the shortest required internship period. Some schools ask for up to six months. This is time where you are paying for school and paying to live somewhere else (because for radio you have to move to a much smaller market than where you’re going to school). You’re paying to eat/bills/etc., and you’re obviously not getting paid.

AND as we’ve all been hearing about lately, interns get overworked regularly. I mean, a few months ago, it made Canadian news that a guy died during his radio internship (he was from a different school than me) because he was so overworked and tired that he fell asleep while driving and moved into the oncoming lane. SO, you’re supposed to have an internship, and I actually set my internship up, but the entire time I was applying for actual jobs. There is a job board website just for Canadian radio jobs and it covers the entire country. It’s the handiest thing ever: Milkmanunlimited.com. So I applied for the job I have now, and I knew someone who already worked here, and she put in a good word for me. And suddenly I was hired. But most people have to wait a lot longer, and work a lot harder than I did. I was just lucky I suppose. Though, to be fair, I did apply for about 15-20 jobs before I got mine. And it counted as a “paid internship.”

Mike: Why is that in scare quotes?

Alice: Well, it was an actual job. Which I still have, and am badly paid for. But the school pretended it was my internship.

Mike: Oh, I see—which was probably better? It was paid, so is that how you were able to pay for the expense of living somewhere else during that time?

Quick move from school to job

Alice: Yes. It was the best thing, because I was just getting hired out of school. There was no downtime between graduating and gaining employment. I went from going to class every day to going to work every day in about a week. Most people aren’t this lucky. My boyfriend, for example, wants to be a jock (on-air personality). And it took him six months to get a part-time job on the weekends that’s a two-hour commute from his home (because he can’t move for a part-time job). He makes $11 an hour hosting a radio show on the weekends. It’s more lucrative to be a waiter. But because I’m a writer, there are less qualified people for writing positions in this industry and less competition. So, because I was willing to move a 10-hour drive away from him, I was able to get a salaried position.

Mike: You mentioned that you are badly paid, is this because they aren’t paying you, or is it because that’s just the starting salary in your field?

Alice: Radio is a terrible industry if you want to be paid a comfortable salary. In any job. My friend, who is also a jock on one of my stations, has worked here for over a year and she makes about $22,000 a year. One of our morning hosts has worked here for about eight years, and he makes $35,000 a year. My senior writer has worked here for 27 years, and he makes about $45,000 a year. If you expect to make money in the radio industry, you have to work your way up to a larger city — which many people don’t want to do as they start to have families and settle down, they don’t want to have to move from city to city — and then once you’re in a larger city you have to work your way to the top of your specific job. Radio is a notoriously stingy and tight-fisted industry. Sure, as a morning show host in Toronto or Vancouver, you could make 150 grand. But that’s a handful of people who make that kind of money. And I did some quick research today, and to my knowledge the U.S. isn’t much different. But possibly even more competitive.

Mike: Yes, I did a short stint reporting politics for the radio while living in D.C. — it was short for a reason! And radio is notorious for that, but you wanted to do this regardless, yes?

Alice: It’s pretty shocking. I don’t intend to continue working for radio stations. As my dad so kindly told me the other day “It’s time for an exit strategy.” I want to write ads, ideally for radio. But I don’t want to work for radio stations after I’m, say, 25. I won’t be able to buy a house, get married or have children on my salary.

Mike: And you know what, you are still quite young! You’re just getting your career started and will have plenty of time to hustle and figure things out. You’re already actively thinking about this and I’m sure you will be fine.

Alice: People tell me that all the time. I’m just lucky that I’m doing this now. Radio is often a secondary career for people. I went to school with people in their late twenties and early thirties. I realize I still have time to sort it all out. But the thing is that I’m not the only one who is making less than $30,000 a year for this kind of work. And it’s just not OK. It doesn’t feel like they can’t afford to pay us more — it feels like they won’t. I’ve been arguing (but in a friendly, and I-won’t-get-fired-for-this sort of way) over a $100-a-month raise with my boss since the first of September. He keeps telling me that it’s coming. And it’s not. Why should I have to harass people for that kind of money? I shouldn’t. Also, the other day, my entire company’s benefits got slashed (under the guise that they wanted to get all 40-ish stations they own to be under the same benefits provider). Sure, this is my first job, and I haven’t even worked here a year. But I know that salary-wise I don’t have too much further to go before I hit the highest anyone will pay me.

Mike: And at 20, this isn’t it for you — you’ll have many other jobs down the line, and you’ll start earning more and getting other kinds of experience under your belt to move onto other things. Let’s talk about some of the harder financial stuff. What do your bills look like? Do you have student loans or credit card debt?

Alice: My bills: I have an apartment that I used to share with a roommate, but I’m currently in the lurch for on my own. My parents helped me out the first month but they’ve informed me that if I don’t find a roommate soon, I’ll have to move. It’s $750 a month plus utilities. The utilities work out to about $60 a month at this time of the year. I also have Internet which is $60-ish a month. My cellphone is another $60 a month. I don’t have any student loans because I had family money and then a lot of my own money saved up to cover it. The leftovers of that money are currently in my savings account, which amounts to about $2,500. The only debt I have is about $400 on my credit card (don’t tell my mother), and I owe my parents car payments, which are another $250/mo. I bought my car from my parents; it’s my mother’s old vehicle.

Mike: Are you saving right now?

Alice: I have set up automatic payments from my checking account to my savings account for $50. Which is just embarrassingly small. And I’m trying a new tactic that when I get a paycheck, I move all the money left over from my last paycheck on to my credit card or into my savings account. But if it’s the first paycheck of the month, that’s usually all gone instantly to various bills. I have applied for a job in the city my parents live in so I can move back in with them and save more effectively for a while. But we’ll see if that happens.

Mike: So, I will say that when I was 20 I was definitely not reading sites about money, but you’re reading this site! What is it about money that interests you? What are you working towards in general in terms of financial goals?

Alice: I gotta say, I was initially just a Hairpin reader. But I noticed the icon for The Billfold one day, and I became a regular reader after that. Why? Well, because money is (whether we like it or not) what runs our world. And it’s something everyone has in common. And as someone has like, oh … I don’t know … no money at all, I’m always interested in how others deal with being poor. Plus, the style of The Billfold is really approachable and friendly. My financial goals, are kind of in tiers. I would like to save up enough to stop working for six months or a year and travel. I’ve been on family vacations abroad before, but I’ve never gone anywhere by myself. And as has been said, I’m very young, and I haven’t gotten an opportunity to do anything but work or go to school yet. Then after that, I feel like it would be prudent to actually start an RRSP (which is an account where you put your retirement savings in Canada and it’s not taxable and does some other fancy things that I don’t know too much about yet because I’m 20) and the I guess my next big life expenditure is either starting my own ad agency so I can write for myself, or buying a house. Or both. But none of that is happening any time soon.

Money conversations easy

Mike: Do you talk about these things — wanting to start a retirement account, saving up six months of living money — with anyone? Your parents or friends? You mentioned to me in an email that you talk about salaries with your co-workers.

Alice: Oh yeah. My parents and I are very close, they know about my plans. And they’re happy to provide consultation and assistance. I also talk about money with my boyfriend regularly. He’s 27 and has been contributing to his RRSP since he was 18, and he would like me to start following suit. But my parents don’t think I’m financially stable enough at this point to contribute to an RRSP and live. I also chat with my friends about this stuff. As I say, everyone has money in common. I’m not making secret plans for my future or anything, I talk to my circle of people about them.

Mike: During my brief stint in radio, my social life was mostly trying to find cheap happy hours and finding free things to do in the city. What is yours like? Do you and your boyfriend spend much money going out?

Alice: Well, my boyfriend lives 10 hours away since I decided that I needed to pursue my career and abandoned him (I kid. I made a hard choice because I had to. And I’m trying to get back.) My social life involves taking advantage of the fact that none of the teens who work at the movie theater seem to know that they are only allowed to let in jocks for free (our station has an agreement with the theater that the on air talent can see movies for free provided they talk about them) — so all of us get in as long as we have our business cards. I’m not much of drinker, which is probably how I’m not up to my eyeballs in credit card debt. I don’t really spend a lot of money going out, no. I am more of an invite friends over for dinner and a movie, type of person. Oh, and I watch Netflix at the same time as my boyfriend a lot and we talk on the phone during. It’s a very pathetic/sweet way of going on long-distance dates. (If anyone needed any pointers.)

Mike: Well, that sounds nice!

Alice: I do what I can with what I’ve got. It works :)

Mike: If you decide to leave radio, where would you like to work next?

Alice: Are we talking me still being a writer? I would love to write for a successful blog, or get hired to do a company’s social media or something. OR if I were to swing off somewhere else I would probably follow my parents. They both work in theater. I spent many years in high school basically working as an apprentice wig styler (I realize this incredibly bizarre and niche and kind of random), and I could roll that into a decent career if I worked at it, because so few people do it. But it would involve me traveling a lot.

Mike: Apprentice wig styler! Now that is something I haven’t heard of.

Alice: I don’t even know if that’s a title. But I worked with a costume designer and she would do the designs and I would style the wigs and take care of her 4,000-piece wig stock. But it was always very important to me that I not get into the business my parents are in so I can be my own person.

Mike: Oh, I totally get that. It’s why I rebelled against ballroom dancing.

Alice: I wouldn’t tell anyone if you did a little salsa on the side, Mike.

Mike: So, I’m trying to figure out what I would tell my 20-year-old self.

Alice: It’s really OK. I know I’m not like other 20-year-olds. I don’t party or drink.

Mike: No, you’re doing fine!

Alice: I crochet, and am obsessed with my career.

Mike: And you’re already thinking about retirement accounts and talking about it so you’re definitely ahead of the game. Also, the thing I would probably tell myself at 20 is that “It’s all going to be fine. You will encounter obstacles and will figure out how to overcome them. Things are going to work out.”

This post originally appeared on The Billfold.

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