on school vs. work
October 18, 2010, 9:16 am
Filed under: advice, career, education, financial, life | Tags: , , ,

So I’m 24 and its about time I get my act together. I am little to no credits towards a degree because I have always been worried that If I don’t work full time I won’t be able to pay my bills. I’m really at a point in my life where I would love to work minimally and be able to dive into school full time. The problem at this point is that while I qualify for student loans, thats about all I qualify for. I know there are a ton of scholarship options I could look into but I don’t see anything being susbstantial enough to not have to take on full time work. I don’t qualify for private student loans on my own and don’t have a co signer and my federal loans are not enough.
Where should I go from here?

Wanna be educated

hey wanna be educated,

an age old question, one I have fielded many times. a tough one to be sure. the answer is not any gentler: you will probably have to keep working, or stop going to school.

if you do not have the ability to get private loans (which, by the way, I think are basically the devil incarnate and tell everyone not to get, even if it means it takes you 10 years to finish school), and no scholarships, your only option is to supplement federal loans with hard-earned cash. you can apply for grants or work study (typically you are entered for these when you fill out your FAFSA), but other than that, there isn’t much to be done. there is no real magic bullet, short of a sugar-daddy, that will pay your bills for you. if you want to go to school full time and not work, then you’ll have to find a school (and life) cheap enough that it can all be paid for with about $3500/year in stafford loans. if you find that, please let me know. I’ll be right there. otherwise, you’ll have to work.

every solution to this is a little different, depending on your situation. I’ll tell you a little about what I did to give you an idea. when I was an undergraduate, I went to school usually 3/4 time and worked part or full time. depending on when your classes are, you can sometimes find a job with flexible hours. I worked at AAA in the emergency roadside department, which is open 24/7, so I was able to work nights and weekends and save my days for classes. I have also found a surprising flexibility with employers in terms of hours (assuming it is the sort of things with shifts, such as retail or call centers) when you are going to school. now that I’m in graduate school, I supplement my loans and scholarship (which luckily, cover almost all my expenses) with petsitting and more petsitting. another nights & weekends gig, usually. check out and to find dogjobs. they also have listings for child and elder care, housekeeping, stuff like that. if those sorts of things aren’t your deal, I recommend selling your body on the streets.

so all that said, I wish I had better news for you. now is a good time to think long and hard about your long-term goals. do you need to go to college to achieve them? could you do an apprenticeship instead? college is a very expensive way to figure out what you want to do in life (just ask my student loan companies). if you’re not sure you need it, put it off for the time being. if what you really want is to not have the job you have, or the life you have, college isn’t necessarily the answer. check out my previous post, on college, to see my views on this, as an overeducated and underemployed person. a word from the wise: I am just a few months away from my MBA, and I’m pretty sure I just want to move into the woods and make crafts and have some goats after I graduate. except I have $999999999999999999 in student loans, so now I can’t. let that be a lesson to you.



on going to grad school
September 11, 2010, 9:46 pm
Filed under: advice, career, education, life | Tags: , , , , ,

dear spoonah,

I finished my BA a few years ago and have a decent job, but am feeling unsatisfied with my life. I don’t make very much money and there’s no real room for growth in this job. I love working with young people, especially high school age people, so I have been thinking about becoming a teacher. I applied for an accelerated M.Ed graduate program and was accepted, and am supposed to start in a few months. Recently I’ve been feeling like maybe this isn’t the right choice, and that I am not sure that I want to be a teacher or even stay living in this area any longer. Am I signing up for a life of debt and disappointment?

-worried at work

dear worried at work,

it sounds to me like you are stuck in a situation that may not be all that bad, but is not where you want to be right now, regardless. my advice when you are stuck is to move in any direction, even if that direction is backwards (or feels that way). it’s like if you’re in quicksand, you can’t be picky about branch that pulls you out. the key is to get out of the situation so that you can see things more clearly, and make a decision without feeling bound to it. perhaps that graduate program really is what you want and will be happy with, but it sounds right now like you aren’t in a position to make that decision. if you go into it thinking you might be making a mistake, it will color your whole experience, and an accelerated graduate program is no place to be if you aren’t committed to the outcome.

my advice is this: do something that is nothing like what you are doing now, for a little while. maybe you want to move, try out a different kind of job, or travel. spend a few months to a year doing something you think you might want to do more, and find out. if your worst case scenario ends with you moving back and going to that program in a year or so, I think you’ll be fine. there’s no point in doing anything that intense (emotionally, mentally, and financially) while spending the whole time wishing you were working as a waitress in Mexico. I mean, you’d probably hate that, but at least you’d know.

on how to quit your stupid job
March 22, 2010, 6:39 pm
Filed under: advice, career | Tags: , , , , , ,

Dear Spoonah,

I have never had to quit a job before and want to know the proper etiquette. I have tried everything to make it work and have reached my last wit. I have started losing sleep, and praying for an illness just not to go in! I have had problems with my boss for a while and when I confront her it’s like talking to a brick wall and I’m told “I never said that or you’re just being over dramatic…” I no longer want to go there and I feel that the only way to keep my sanity is to leave. I don’t want to burn any bridges (even though I never will return) and want to leave on good terms if possible. Any advice would be excellent!


Sick & Tired In Maine!

dear sick & tired,

first allow me to say that you have the right attitude about this. leaving on good terms, while really difficult to do when you’re so fed up, is really important. if you leave on good terms you can use that person for references in the future, and just generally it will feel better to be nice, if you can.

the other thing that is really important in leaving a position (that you didn’t mention here) is to have something else lined up before you leave. I don’t know if that’s something you’re working on as well, but (especially in today’s economy) I can’t really stress it enough. if you’re not sure what you want to do, check out my previous post, on what you should be, now that you’re all grown up. even if you hate it there, quitting without another job lined up is almost without question a terrible idea. it will take probably a good several months to a year to find another one (no joke) and unless you quit because of a really good reason (i.e. you have filed a claim with the Department of Labor that it is a hostile work environment) you will not be eligible for unemployment. line up that new job first. I can’t stress that enough.

but to get to your question—how do you keep yourself from blowing up and just quitting when your job is terrible? how do you stay nice when you are leaving due to real problems in the job?

the first issue here is that while you’re looking for a new job, you may have to stay at this job for a while. so in the meantime, how do you keep your cool? I’d suggest trying to find things about the job that make it somewhat bearable. perhaps things used to be better and you can remember those things. or maybe you have great co-workers that you can enjoy this time with before you’re done. this might be a good time to think about the aspects of your job that you do enjoy (and what you don’t) so that you can be sure to find a job next time that works better for you. if there isn’t anything about your current job that puts even a little smile on your face, I’d suggest daydreaming about what it’s going to be like when you don’t work there anymore.

the other side of this is the actual quitting. depending on how much and how often you’ve talked to your boss about problems you’ve had before, it may not be much of a surprise to her that you are leaving. important: wait until you have a new job lined up before you tell her you’re quitting. you want to be able to give her a firm date that will be your last, and to have strong ground to stand on if she tries to get you to stay. when you do get to that point, I’d suggest writing down what you want to say ahead of time. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time remembering my points when I get flustered (such as when, say, I’m quitting a job that I hate and that makes me upset to think about). write down the date you’re leaving, and be prepared for her to ask why you are leaving. she may not ask–again it may not come as much of a surprise–but be prepared if she does. I would not advise telling her “this place makes me crazy”, which is something I’ve told bosses before when quitting places I hated. it didn’t go that well. you might say something like “I have been offered a position that I think better suits where I am in my life right now”, or “I no longer feel that [insert name of your company] is the right fit for me.” if you can muster it, I’d let her know too that you have enjoyed working there (whether true or not). you probably already know this, but it is appropriate to give at least two weeks notice (or whatever is specified in your company’s HR policies, if any). when you’re ready, make an appointment to speak with her in person, and tell her (simply, firmly) that you have decided to leave the company to pursue other opportunities.

the next thing you will probably have to do is submit a formal resignation letter. this is usually for HR purposes, and should include your name, the date of your last day, and the fact that you intend to stop work on that date. this letter should be professional and polished, but generally contain no more information than the fact that you are leaving and when. here are some guidelines for writing a resignation letter and some sample ones.

finally, the most important things to remember are to be polite and firm. keep your real feelings about the job and your boss to yourself. do not brag about your great new job. thank her for the time with the company. say goodbye to everyone when you leave. and hopefully, if you find a great new job, you’ll never have to quit a job again!

on what you should be, now that you’re all grown up
February 14, 2010, 9:12 pm
Filed under: advice, career | Tags: , , , , , ,

Dear Spoonah,

I’m a 32 year old college graduate. I got my degree in electives (general studies) but I’ve never known what I “wanted to do when I grew up”. I really want a career path, or direction or something, because I just don’t feel like I’m doing the work that I was destined to do in life.

I’ve thought about seeing a career counselor, or maybe even a psychic? I seem to be terrified of going back to school ie: I keep signing up and then backing out.

Do you have any advice for someone who has been in the work force for 10 years but needs a drastic change?

Thinking Rearranging Aspirations Viciously In Situationo

dear thinking,

I think there are a lot of ways you can approach it, but all of them start with some serious self reflection. there are a lot of resources out there, as well, that can help make this a little easier. a great book (if a little cheesy) is What Color Is My Parachute by Dick Bolles (can we just talk for a second about how this man’s name is Dick Bolles?). this is a book you can get at any library and the really great part about it is the practical exercises it suggests. I’ve seen these exact same exercises as the basis for semester-long “focus your career” workshops offered at universities that are well known for their career prep skills. in fact, I just participated in one, and it helped a lot! but you don’t need a workshop to do the exercises. they’re easy, not embarrassing, straightforward, and really helpful. basically they ask you to think about things you’ve liked doing, and see what they have in common, with a little more discipline. I definitely recommend that as part of your game-plan. don’t overlook non-work things too (like volunteer things, hobbies, etc.)

as far as tools go, there are a lot of good ones out there. one that I’ve used and been really happy with (particularly as far as depth goes) is CareerLeader. now, on it’s own this costs $95 to get a report done and have access to it for 60 days (you can print it, as well). however, a lot of college/university career centers license access to it so that their students (and alumni!) can use it for free. I’d contact your alma mater and see if they have this (or something like it) available for you to try out. there are also thousands of free online career tests (but much much less in depth).

other things to try out are general diagnostic tools for figuring out your work style, personality, skills, etc. myers-briggs tests are strewn all over the internet and are generally pretty good at giving you an idea of the types of environments you like and the way you operate, which often can point you in a direction career-wise. skills-inventories are usually helpful, as well (google has a million). I personally have a whole inventory of these things that I’ve done, and found them pretty helpful, but I’m just that kind of gal. one great one (that is free and doesn’t require any googling) is to just make a list of 10, or 20, or 30 job titles you think you’d like, regardless of what you think you’re good at or are qualified for. when I did this, it made me realize I would never be happy as an accountant (goodbye, admission to a world-renowned accounting master’s program! goodbye, six figure salary! hello, nonprofits!).

yet another great way to figure this out is to do some talking to people that know you well, i.e. your friends and family, or co-workers. they are in a unique position to tell you how they see you operating, and what they remember you enjoying (maybe as a child, for instance, or a work setting), and what they think you’re particularly great at. often we are too close to our own experiences and selves to really see clearly what we are like and what we are skilled at. keep a list going of things they say, and things you think of. then maybe ask some people (possibly some of the same ones, plus some professional contacts you may have, or a career counselor) to look at what you’ve come up with and see if they come up with anything you hadn’t thought of.

you might also take some classes without enrolling somewhere, officially. you can do this by taking adult ed classes, auditing courses, or simply signing up for one or two classes at a local college. if matriculating (officially enrolling and stating your intentions to pursue a degree program) is what is scaring you, this can be a good way to get your feet wet and try out some “crazy ideas” for what you might want to do and see if you actually like it. take a guitar lesson, a basketweaving class, or a grant writing seminar.

one more! if you have friends (or friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends, use that network!) who have a job that you think you might like (or that has aspects of it), see if you can do a job-shadow for a day or two. most places are totally open to this unless the job is dangerous, very technical in nature, or interacts with confidential information. chances are, there is someone (or several someones) in your network that has a job that is like one you might love. can’t hurt to ask, right?

the basic rule is this: explore things you already know you like, figure out what they have in common, find something you love, and then get gung-ho on it. worst case scenario, you’ll keep doing what you’re already doing now.

happy learning!


on how to look professional but also really, really cool

my dear spoonah,

i come to you in a time of need. like many of my queer comrades, i have the constant issue of having my age drastically underestimated. it has not, to this point, been necessarily a problem so much as an inconvenience. however, i am approaching a point in my career where it is important that i am taken seriously. luckily, most of that depends on community perspective on and ideas about my work, and will not be as affected by my physical appearance as by my ability to propel myself forward into what i am doing.

here’s the problem: i love body modification. i am pretty covered in tattoos, have a facial piercing, and often sport some funky hairdos. my last position required me to remove all facial piercings, but my new job has no such rules. spoonah, i want my lip re-pierced. i want to dye my hair again. i want to wear short sleeves. i, in fact, would like to continue doing these things for presumably a long time. but when is the point in life when i need to stop being creative with my physical appearance and sigh as i don another pair of khakis and adjust my comb-over? are mainstream perspectives on body modification shifting enough that i could potentially enjoy all of these accoutrement and still be taken seriously in my professional life?

please, show me the way, oh spoonah.

yours til the kitchen sinks and niagara falls,
benjamin unbuttoned

dear benjamin unbuttoned,

this is an issue I struggle with myself. personally, my response has been largely to just dress pretty professional all the time (though less so now that I am in school and jeans are par for the course). I have my nose pierced but it’s tiny and most people don’t notice and no one has ever cared. my hair is a normal color again, gone are the studs and patches from my jacket, and the cleavage line has risen dramatically as I’ve gotten into higher echelons of work-life.

in making these kinds of decisions, one of the most important factors is the area you work in. that includes your industry as well as your actual chosen (or desired) profession. there is a rule of thumb that you should dress for the job you want, and not for the one you have. therefore, if you desire to wind up as a director of something, or in some traditionally Business with a capital B job, then I’d say you are probably better off forgoing the visible piercings and wacky hairdos. If your hopes, however, lean more towards something like “director of fun!” or as a camp leader of queermos, or perhaps something that you would be working largely from home at, then by all means. bodymod away.

the other really important factor here is how much you care about bodymod and odd hairstyles and whatnot. is it hard for you to maintain your identity without them (and if so, perhaps that’s an issue to bring up to your therapist)? typically bodymod is an effort to express one’s self to others in a way that is immediate and gratifying and often radical. you might do some thinking about why your expression of self has to come written on the body. are there perhaps other ways you can satisfy that inherent human need of identity expression while still fitting into conforming norms? in bodymod there is also, obviously, a major component of attempting to achieve what we see as the most beautiful/hott/smokin’ self we can be. fashion can often do this, and can be taken off during the week in a way that bodymod cannot. if it’s crucial to you, however, to present yourself as a radical who looks like a radical, then you should consider changing your career plans to fit that.

there are certainly some industries or positions which allow greater flexibility, and I’d say that society as a whole is becoming more accustomed to “alternative realities” of what a professional can look like. and no matter what you do or no matter what age we live in, there will always be someone who doesn’t like your look. that’s a given. the fashion industry, many non-profits, and careers that are more casual in nature (for instance, many home-service jobs) do not have the same level of conformity. currently, however, the higher you go up in any industry, company, or career path…the more likely you’re going to be required to put on a three piece suit.

do not, however, let that totally discourage you. I love wearing suits. I feel great in them, and nothing looks better than feeling great.

farewell & dress well,


on giving discounts to friends
January 22, 2010, 2:44 pm
Filed under: advice, career | Tags: , , , , , ,

Dear Spoonah,

I’m a freelance artist who does both personal and commercial work. I often have friends approach me asking if I’m interested in doing some work for them. As much as I love my friends, I dread getting these requests because a lot of people who aren’t familiar with my skills/industry assume I charge much less than I’m worth, and seem surprised at my costs. Of course I love doing what I do, but I’m trying to make a living here! I also have costs for my equipment, transportation, marketing, etc, and that doesn’t even include the actual labor. When I give friends discounts, I eat a lot of those costs.

When a friend is interested in hiring me, I always give a discount, but also explain what my usual rate is and what it covers, so they understand the deal they’re getting. My problem is that very rarely do people ever follow through once I quote them a rate. I’ve had a few great gigs working for friends, but mostly I find myself in one of these scenarios:
a) spending large amounts of time quoting and explaining rates to friends who never end up hiring me
b) working for almost nothing just to avoid awkwardness with someone who doesn’t really understand what my skills are worth
c) not doing my best quality work, because I’m rushing or cutting corners so I don’t lose money one the job

I know I charge a fair rate compared to colleagues, and the discounts I offer friends are HUGE (I probably overcompensate). I don’t want to undersell myself, but I would love the additional work or just an easier way to deal with the potential awkwardness of financial negotiation between friends.

Do you have advice on explaining costs and offering discounts to friends of yours when they hire you? And on the flip side, what you should do or expect for a discount if you’re hiring a friend? Also, do you have to offer discounts to EVERYONE you know? Does a mere acquaintance or a friend-of-a-friend count as discount-worthy? Thanks!


Rich in Friends But Broke in Business

dear rich in friends,

this is quite the conundrum, and one I’m sure a lot of people run into. I know I run into it sometimes when hiring friends and when doing things for or selling things to friends (or even just really friendly acquaintances). I do a lot of crafting and frequently get “hey can you make me one of those? I’ll pay you!” requests. the hard part, of course, is telling them that if they really want to pay me to make them X, it’s going to cost probably two or three times what they could buy it for at Target. I also do petsitting and dogwalking for work (and have for 10+ years) and sometimes get requests to do labor-intensive pet care for free because I’m a pal. it’s one thing if it’s a good friend, or you just need someone to look in on your cat a few times. it’s quite another to watch your aging dog with IBS for a week while you’re away and walk him every four hours–that’s a service a client of mine would pay upwards of $400-500 for.

being hired by friends

I think there are a few ways to combat this. the first and possibly most useful is to make a concerted effort to have your friends see you as a professional artist, and not just as someone who is good at it and who sometimes gets paid for it. invite them to your professional shows, maybe talk up how expensive your equipment is, give them business cards, etc. I know that I’m a lot more likely to approach hiring a friend who I think of as “just starting out” or doing that thing casually than I am friends who I think of as making a living doing something. personally, I make a point of referring to the people whose dogs I walk or whose pets I care for as “clients”, for instance, and to the actual work as a job. I used to get a lot more long-term petsitting gigs from friends and family before I did that, but I also used to get paid about 1/10th what I do now, doing the same work.

I think it’s also helpful to hire your friends for professional work and pay a fair price for it. that has the added bonus of getting you potential clients (who will likely pay fairly) as well as letting your friend circle know that you believe in supporting your friends with actual real money, not just emotional support.

a third option might be to have some kind of documentation (on your website, or a brochure, or something along those lines) that show your actual non-discounted rates and let them know if you’re able to give them a discount but don’t initially tell them what that will be. if they start with your regular rates, perhaps they will offer you a higher rate than you would have given them. I’d suggest if someone says “hey I’m looking to hire someone for this project/event/whatever” say “that sounds great, I’d be interested in talking to you more about it. my rate is $X, though I’m willing to give a 10% discount to selected friends. If that sounds like it fits in your budget we can talk further about what you’re looking for.” that way you don’t spend a lot of time talking about things that won’t pan out, and they know what’s up right away.

hiring your friends

I also have a number of super talented wonderful friends whose professional services sometimes I want to hire. this is a problem since even if I wanted to pay them a lot I often can’t, and they often know that. as a result I end up not hiring friends as often as I’d like, out of a respect for the fact that I don’t want them undercutting their prices just because they like me. when I do hire friends what I try to do is ask them what their actual costs are, and making sure I am paying them at least enough to cover those plus at least some labor expense. it also helps to tip. other things I do are to recommend them to other people (including people that aren’t friends of theirs and would therefore pay full price), use them frequently (if it’s the kind of service that it would be helpful to raise their profit margin on me to do it a lot), and generally treat this person like they are doing me a big favor to give me that discount. on a fairly regular basis, I hire a friend to cut my hair, another friend to do my laundry (someone who loves doing laundry), and occasionally I hire friends to do things like give me massages, run errands for me, or do whatever it is that they do for work or pleasure. I love so much to hire my friends that sometimes I pay friends to hang out with me while I run errands or clean my house. I hope to someday have all of my products and services provided by friends–the super-local economy. but as you know, the only way for that to be sustainable is for it to be done fairly.

oh–and NO you don’t need to give a discount to everyone! give discounts to close friends, or to whomever you please. there is no sign on your door that says “if we’ve met you get 20% off”. good friends won’t expect a big discount anyway, or will understand whatever you’re able to offer them.

ok, sorry that was such a long response. here’s hopin it helps!


on college
January 5, 2010, 10:52 pm
Filed under: advice, career | Tags: , ,

dear spoonah,

I am a pretty smart person but am not sure what I want to do with my life. my parents and friends all think I should go to college .  what do you think?


pretty smart person in atlanta

dear pretty smart,

I guess my advice to you is “no, don’t go to college.”  I recommend college under two circumstances: you are going to college because you are really really sure you want to be a _____ (nurse, teacher, accountant, whatever) and you can’t do that thing without having gone to college first.  the other situation is that someone else is paying for college.

If you are like totally sure that you want to be a nurse, for instance, then go to college.  you basically can’t be a nurse any other way.  but be totally sure because if you take out a bunch of loans and go to school to be a nurse and then are like WHOOPS I WANT TO BE A PHILOSOPHER guess what? you’re not going to be a philosopher, and you are going to have to pay those loans back anyway.  believe me, I majored in sociology.  I love sociology, but how many people do you know whose job title is “sociologist”?

On the other hand, if someone else is footing the bill (parents, grants, work, or any other *free* money–loans do not count), then by all means.  go to college.  personally I loved college even when it was terrible and dramatic and I didn’t get a job after.  or at least not a good one.  college is a fantastic place to figure out who you are and what you like and don’t like, what you’re good at and bad at, and how much alcohol you can drink in 24 hours without having to call an ambulance.  It is good for teaching you to finish semi-long term projects, how to do things that matter, whatever.  I got really involved in social activism in a way that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.  I learned a lot about life and I use those skills in work situations (and now, in grad school).  but unless you’re not paying for college or going to a fantastic school, or going for something that is very likely to get you a job, it’s just a really expensive time out.

so, pretty smart, I’d say get a job, see what you do and do not like about it, change jobs, rinse and repeat.  It’s common for young people to change jobs a lot even if they’re not in school so this shouldn’t look too sketchy, especially if you are able to say that you were taking time to find the perfect job and learn about yourself.  you can always go to college later, if you feel like having $30-100K in debt and the same job you could have gotten out of high school.