This Is not My Story

Andrew Cotto has his story about middle-class debt, but that’s not what this is about.

I was born middle class. My father was a music teacher who drove a Greyhound bus in the summer. As a housewife, my mother worked toward her Bachelor’s degree and also became a teacher. I wore hand-me-down clothes and had sneakers with holes in them. The kids in my neighborhood were of similar circumstances. We played on the railroad tracks and threw rocks at each other. I was aware of other kids at school who had more—birthday parties, VCR machines, and stereos instead of transistor radios. I had my first job at the age of seven. Still, we had a good life.  But my parents must have felt the strain. My father went into business, and we began to move. Our houses grew larger with every city. Eventually, I knew what it was to be one of the “haves.” But this is not my story.

I attended a private college in Virginia. There I discovered literature and a knack for creative writing. After graduating during a recession in the early 90’s, I dug ditches in rock-hard, California clay and plastered houses for a year or more while saving money for a move back to New York. My plan was to substitute teach in Brooklyn while pursuing a Master’s degree in literature. I wanted to teach. And write. And have a good life. But someone offered me a steady job—a job with benefits, a salary, and a chance to make some serious scratch if I worked hard. I knew hard work. But I was confused. Everyone I asked told me to take the job. So, I took it. After a few years, I began to make some real money. But I remembered my roots and never lived above my means. I married and began a family. After a decade of solid earnings, my desire to teach and write came calling. So, I quit my lucrative job and ventured into the realm of teaching and writing. But this is not my story.

♦◊♦

I earned a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and began to teach on the college level. The pay was miserable. I wrote a lot but earned very little. My wife, who was also a teacher, and I cobbled together an income, for years, that was simply not sustainable. We refused to delve into our net worth (real estate, investments, savings from the boon years), so we budgeted and lived, as best we could, off our existing income. Even with this austerity, for the first time in our adult lives, my wife and I began to accrue debt. Thus began the spiral into credit purgatory, the reliance on credit cards to absorb the monthly expenses that exceeded our so-called middle-class income: daily necessities, common bills, student loans, health insurance, home insurance, child care, child enhancement, mortgage payments, property taxes, college savings, and the myriad of never-ending minor expenses (each parking ticket was a kick in the kidneys). I did the math a million ways and could never come up with a figure that left us in the black. But this is not my story.

After years of ascension as successful educators, my wife and I finally made enough money to be comfortable. But still, the debt lingered.  No matter how I partitioned the incoming revenue, I could not get rid of the debt. It was a horrible trap. The rates changed and general expenses rose; at the end of each month, I was left wondering where all the fucking money went. Of course, I knew, it went toward the rising cost of living and those horrible credit card bills that lingered like a Groundhog Day hangover. But this is not my story.

I decided to break my vow of austerity and to delve into our savings. The debt will be paid, our net worth hardly dented, and we will live month-to-month with some extra on the side for savings or luxury. We will be fine. But this is not our story. This is the story of the people out there, just entering the work force, or already immersed, who have to endure a system that is rigged, in large part, to deny most of them the common comfort associated with the middle class. What would I tell someone coming out of college who, like me, aspired to be a teacher and a writer?  I was lucky in those early years—there was another option for me, and my dreams could wait. But those options are rare these days, and this is not my story.

photo: qmnonic / flickr

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About Andrew Cotto

Andrew Cotto is the author of THE DOMINO EFFECT and OUTERBOROUGH BLUES: A BROOKLYN MYSTERY. His novels can be found at Amazon and Barnes&Noble.  Learn more about Andrew at his website.

Comments

  1. You get it. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Tru. I appreciate the thought.

  3. You DO get it. It is my dream to write and read, but I am already accumulating debt (some of which is not mine) so my family is pressuring me to get a career in making a lot of money fast.

    Thank you.

  4. nice article, Andrew. It’s a hard to accept that the system is a game manipulated by very few at the expense of so many. It needs to change. The future of our middle class is the key to this country’s future.

  5. Thanks, Kevin. You are right: it does need to change.

    Best,

    Andrew

  6. This hits home in a major way for me. I am 36 years old and I live with my parents and one sister who has several health problems. My sister has a masters degree and is adjunct faculty at a local university but can’t get on full time because the school requires a PhD for a professorship, and pursuing that degree at this time–besides being an expense she can’t afford–would compromise her mental well-being. She doesn’t have, and can’t afford, insurance and has to be on some pricey medication in order to function. There are some health problems that will only get worse as she gets older and we can barely pay for the care she needs now.

    I didn’t get my degree until I was 31 (life got in the way) and I work a low-paying desk job at another university. I haven’t been able to get a better job, and I know I’m worth at least twice what I’m getting paid now, but quantifying my wide skill-set in a way that attracts potential employers has been difficult. Working for a state university has definite perks–my job is steady and secure and I have great benefits–but because of budget concerns I haven’t had a raise in 3 years. It kills me every day that I can’t claim my sister as a dependent in order to get her the care she needs. I’ve put off even thinking about a graduate degree or buying a home of my own or replacing my aging car.

    My dad works as an independent consultant in corporate real estate and investment (among other things), but the market seems to attract people who want lots of work for nothing or who walk away from contracts for no reason. I am, frankly, no longer shocked by the dishonesty and fraud we encounter. He also teaches as adjunct faculty, but has no insurance and no guarantee the university will want him full-time even though he is one of the most talented and knowledgeable instructors there.

    My mother has been able to stay home for many years and be a much-needed support to us in that way, but she’s recently acquired a part-time teacher assistant position at a small private school in the area. For two or three hours a day, she helps with lunch time and in various classrooms, putting her teaching training to work outside her family. The likelihood of her getting a full-time position is remote at best, and she has some pretty intense church responsibilities right now.

    Collectively, we are in thousands of dollars of debt not including the house. I pay the mortgage and put almost everything left of my salary after that toward family bills after I pay my own necessarily small expenses. My sister’s pay goes to household groceries, her credit cards, and medical expenses. My dad’s pay goes to some medical debt, their car, and utilities. My mom’s much smaller pay goes to whatever is left. Some months we barely make it. Some months we have to decide which payment is going to be late and risk a penalty, which just makes it worse next time.

    I have another sister and a brother, but they have their own families and debt.

    I feel guilty when I have to buy new shoes. I feel guilty that I have insurance and can’t cover my family. I feel guilty that I haven’t been able to get a better job. I feel guilty thinking about my future. On the other hand, I am so grateful to be able to help as much as I can. I am grateful for the system we have–it wouldn’t work for everyone, and I know it. I am grateful that we have each other no matter what. We are blessed, but I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this situation. It is hard to have hope when you realize how fragile all of this is.

  7. Hi, Lynn.

    Thanks, so much, for sharing your story. You did a wonderful job depicting the enormity of challenges that face so many families these days. Great writing and storytelling. I applaud your courage in the face of such uncertainty and wish you and your family the best. I’m glad that you have each other, and I have hope that better days are ahead for the many, many families like yours.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  8. you ever figure out where all the fucking money went? good read.

  9. Thanks again Andy for sharing your wonderful talent at writing.
    I am greatful for the faith and hope in God that was passed down to me. It keeps me going through whatever tough times that come into my life. I am greatful for those who in their own way, in whatever small ways they can, are there for me to encourage and help me on this journey of life. I am greatful for the ability to live simply and not worry about keeping up with things that this world tells you you have to have. So far I have still managed to live with things that others told me yrs ago that I couldn’t live without.
    And I am greatful for the wisdom that comes with age. It wasn’t til the light bulb went on over my head at the age of 49 that many things had nothing to do with me…..it was just the way they were……….it was sad……it was freeing. Now I am happy to be me and continue to trust that God will be with me to carry me through whatever down times I have in this world….and with that faith and hope I find I have a much simple and happier life.
    I wish the same for everyone……although I know each of our paths are different.
    Sending my love to you, Pam, Sophia and JJ.
    Barbara

  10. Arlene McCarthy says:

    Andrew
    Once again (via your dad) I read your articles and marvel at your insight….Keep the writing up and the debt down (if possible) Iremember those days very well and can honestly say that until ALL my kids graduated from college did I free myself from debt. Then through my great wisdom I invested in real estate with a mortgage!! Wonderful planning.
    My best to all of you and please add me to this list of friends and family

    Arlene

  11. Thanks, Arlene!

    I appreciate the thoughts and support.

    Best,

    Andrew

  12. Hi Andrew.

    As usual a highly readable, insightful piece. I enjoy your work very much.
    I like too, that you don’t use curse words in a gratuitous way, but with just the right emphasis.
    Sometimes you just gotta say fuck. (I think that’s the first time I ever wrote that). It feels scandolus.

  13. Thank you, Pat. Your comments are so appreciated (and right on…).

    Thanks for the insightful recognition of the less-is-more approach to cursing in writing. And thanks for allowing me to share in your first foray into profanity on the page. Sometimes scandal feels good.

    Best,

    Andrew

  14. supertuscan says:

    Very thoughtfully written Andrew. Thank you.
    Lynn up above… my heart and best wishes go out to you. Be brave, stay strong, find comfort in your family & friends, and drink up everything good that life has to offer. My family is in a good place right now and I say thanks every day knowing that a simple twist of fate can completely change our lives.
    In these times, we should live large when times are good but always do our best along the way to be mentally and financially prepared for the grey days.

  15. Thanks, Super T.

    And thanks for your supportive words for Lynn.

    Best,

    Andrew

  16. Well said Andrew….whatever ha ppened to our world. The middle class is disappearing . Life was never easy but it sure seems so much harder, these days….Mrs.O

  17. Thank you, Mrs. O! And you’re absolutely right, it was never easy…but it seems so in comparison.

  18. Great post. So relevant. I got that job too and am still doing it and earning a nice living. But the dream of writing still burns inside me. Someday.

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