I Received My Doctoral Degree, Then Was Forced to File For Bankruptcy

As an educated, professional woman, how could I be bankrupt and broke without somehow also being a complete idiot?
Publish date:
August 1, 2014
shame, finances, debt, bankruptcy, doctoral degree

The same month that I received my doctoral degree, my father gave me, as my “graduation gift,” the money I needed to file for bankruptcy.

I was $35,000 in debt, and could barely afford to buy groceries.

As I was “hooded” (the official doctoral ceremony) and surrounded by my proud family and loving girlfriend, one of the proudest moments of my life, I was also deeply ashamed. Less than a week before that picture-perfect moment, I was on the phone with my father, sobbing uncontrollably, admitting to him that I was in too deep, and didn’t know how I would make ends meet. That conversation was one of the hardest of my life.

I was 31 years old, with a full-time salaried job, in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan that I live in alone, telling my father that I could barely afford to eat, and needed his help. As I listened to him tell me that he would help me pay the attorney’s fees, I felt both extremely privileged and grateful, and also lowly and ashamed, and wondered how the hell I had ended up here.

The short answer? I had decided to try to really be happy in my life. The long answer is…longer.

At 29, I left an almost 10-year relationship, a marriage, a husband, a house, and a dog, because I realized that I could never be happy with the man my husband had turned out to be, and because I also realized, with great surprise, that I wanted to date women. The decision to leave completely upended my life, and led in large part to the crippling debt that drove me to bankruptcy.

It was also absolutely the right decision.

Sometimes, though, I am so angry about the high price I had to pay to do what was right for me.

I separated from my husband while still in graduate school. I had no real income. I hadn’t worked in years, because the plan was always for my husband to support me until I had my degree and was gainfully employed. He would always be there, of course. I would always be with him, of course, so there was no need to worry about having no money of my own. I had him -- everything would be fine.

Instead, I suddenly needed to pay rent when I didn’t actually have any marketable skills (yet) with which to get a high paying job. But I needed a bed. And food. And to pay my car insurance. So I charged it.

For almost two years, I scraped by using all of the credit that I’d been granted during those years when my husband paid the bill in full each month. I am extremely lucky that I had that credit. And it quickly became the albatross around my neck.

After about a year, I landed a job with a salary and benefits. I foolishly decided that I just couldn’t live with roommates anymore, couldn't rent a room at 31. I found a small one-bedroom apartment that I thought I could afford. Looking back now, I was so very wrong. I had thousands upon thousands of dollars of credit card debt to pay back, and wasn’t considering those payments when I thought, “Oh, I can handle that rent, no problem.”

My pride had won out. I had seen my friends living in nice, “real” apartments, when I was living in a room in a crappy apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where the bathroom and kitchen were on a different floor than my bedroom and there was an entire family (complete with screaming infant) living in the bedroom across the hall.

It was a bad situation. I felt I deserved better. My (much younger) friends had it better (or so I thought). I’ve always had a huge issue with envy, and in this case, my envy won out over the common sense that should have reminded me that those friends were living in those nice apartments with roommates, and didn't have the enormous debt that I had. I was happily in my very own “junior” one-bedroom for over a year before I realized what I fool I'd been.

For that year, I kept swiping those cards and paying the minimums, with no one to warn me of the huge black pit I was digging. I thought I was such a big shot, with my own place in the city and a decent, salaried job. I went out all the time, bought fancy dinners and too much wine, and took trips that I knew full well I couldn't afford, but always justified with the thought "I'll definitely be able to pay that back, later, when the time comes. I have a job!"

Two years later, I was completely underwater and more stressed than I had ever been in my life, including the months when I was walking out of my former, straight, married life. One fateful night, after several weeks when my girlfriend literally had to buy me groceries, I sat down and did the math.

I knew what crunching the numbers would tell me -- that there was no way for me to pay back my debt, pay my rent, and also eat.

I remember vividly the feelings of shock, shame, and fear that weighed me down from that moment until the day, some six months later, when I got word that my bankruptcy filing had been approved. The shame that hung over me as I accepted my doctoral diploma, and smiled for pictures with my family. The bitterness I felt as most of my friends continued their lives oblivious of the deep, stressful hole I was in, because I felt that I could never, ever tell them the truth of my situation.

Maybe they would have been understanding, but I couldn't bear to see the look of pity that I knew would follow my confession -- these friends own homes, remodel those homes, travel, and are able to order take out without forfeiting their entire grocery budget for the week. I felt deeply ashamed that I, at 31, was bankrupt and broke. As an educated, professional woman, how could I be those things without somehow also being a complete idiot?

The answer of course, at least in large part, is that I realized I was gay and left my already unhappy marriage when I had no income, no savings, and no way to live without credit cards. But I should have known better!

This is how I felt -- how I still feel -- most days. I should have known better.

So what could I have done differently? Should I have had a backup emergency fund from the age of 25, putting money away from the moment I moved in with my ex, already planning for the possible end of the relationship as it began? I’ve always found that to be a terribly pessimistic way to live, and I still think that, even though if I had done that, I’d likely be in a better financial situation now.

The only thing I feel I should have done differently, really, is how I spent after my divorce. I should have known better than to spend so much money that I didn’t actually have yet. I was foolish and idyllic, delusional to think that I would be able to pay off mountains of credit without a plan in place.

I actively resisted planning out my financial life as a single woman. This is the mistake I could have fixed, and the only real piece of advice I have for anyone in a similar situation. In the years after leaving my husband, I spent a lot of money that I shouldn’t have spent -- to keep up with my friends, to impress the women I dated, to save face, and to try comfort myself when I was feeling down. I avoided the reality of my situation until it was impossible not to, and I paid the price.

Even as I feel angry and bitter that my choice to be honest about who I am and what I need to be happy (and some of my own dumb decisions) led to my current financial situation, I know that it was worth it. Of course it was worth it. I am living more honestly than I ever have before.

I just wish I had planned ahead.

Find Edie on Twitter @edie_wyatt.