With the end of one decade and the start of a new decade, I thought now might be a good time to take a look at the past ten years of my life and reflect on where I came from and how I ended up where I am today.
A decade is sort of a strange unit of time when you’re not that old. On the one hand, it doesn’t really seem like that much time has passed. I’m 32-years old as I write this and even though it’s been ten years since I graduated from college, it still doesn’t feel like that long ago that I was a 22-year old recent college grad living at home, working two minimum wage jobs, and trying to figure out what I was going to do next.
On the other hand, this past decade is a long period of time that covers essentially my entire adult life, including some of the biggest moments of my life such as getting married, becoming a lawyer, and getting my first real job. That makes it a very significant and formative decade for me, and my guess is that for many of you reading this post, this past decade might have been one of the most impactful decades of your life as well.
Looking back, it’s remarkable how much my life veered off the path that I thought I’d been following. I graduated from college with a very traditional view of what a successful life meant. That is, go to school, get a good job, buy a big house, then work for the next 40 years and retire when you’re old. When I went off to law school in 2010, I thought I had taken the first step towards that. And I spent most of the decade chasing that idea of the good life.
When I think about it, that might be what really changed the most for me over the past ten years – my view of what a good life looks like. Rather than valuing the traditional markers of success, I started to value the intangible things – time and freedom specifically, above all else.
With all that said, let’s look back over the past decade of my life and see how I ended up where I am today. My hope is that this trip down memory lane might help you too as you enter this new decade.
Note that due to the length of this post, I had to divide this decade-in-review into two posts. This post is Part 1 and covers my time after I graduated from college and went off to law school. Part 2 will look at my life when I started working, discovered financial independence, and then made the big decision to quit my job in early 2019 to do my own thing.
Graduating Into The Great Recession
When I think about the term millennial, I usually think about those of us that were most heavily impacted by the great recession – i.e. those us that graduated from college right in the heart of the great recession from 2008 through 2010.
That’s where I was at. I graduated from college in 2009, just a few months after the bottom of the recession. When the new decade started, I was living the way a lot of my peers lived – at home with my parents and vastly underemployed. In this case, I worked two-minimum wage type jobs – one at a golf course and the other at a currency exchange at the mall. I’d taken the LSAT the previous year and was applying for law school, so my plan was to work these jobs for a year, then head off to law school in the fall so that I wouldn’t seem like a failure.
In retrospect, 2010 was one of my better years in terms of feeling fulfilled with what I was doing. I worked a lot of hours – 6 or 7 days a week and 60 hours per week between my two jobs. But even though I worked a lot of hours, it never really felt like I was working. When I think about it, it’s because both of these jobs – even though they weren’t “real” jobs – did something really important for me. They gave me autonomy and they let me do what I wanted to do. It also helped that I found these jobs to be pretty fun.
Here’s what I mean. At the golf course, I basically just ran the entire pro-shop by myself and I didn’t have a boss that looked over my shoulder. Indeed, the vast majority of the time, I was the only one working. The currency exchange was the same thing. I ran the little currency exchange kiosk by myself and when there were no customers, I was able to work on my own things. Indeed, in 2010, I actually started up a blog since I had so much time on my hands at work – a fan blog about Sean Bean in which I analyzed his movies and explained how he was misunderstood in them (this blog no longer exists, but maybe I should try to bring it back).
I think it’s these jobs that made my legal jobs so unsatisfying. I had so much freedom during the early part of my life – and then I didn’t have it anymore when I got my first real job after law school.
In terms of money, none of my pre-law school jobs paid well. I made minimum wage at the golf course and I think I made about $13 an hour at the currency exchange. The key, however, was that because of how much autonomy these jobs gave me, I was able to essentially spend all of my time at work doing my own things, which made these jobs feel much more valuable. I studied for the LSAT while I was working and I completed all of my law school applications at work as well. It was like I was getting paid to study for the LSAT and apply to law school.
In 2010, I ended up making a little over $10,000 working until July or August. It obviously wasn’t a lot of money, but I had basically no expenses since I lived at home. Of course, since I knew nothing about money, I spent just about everything I made (although to be fair, I also made basically no money).
My First Year Of Law School
The next defining years of my 2010s were from 2010, when I started law school, to 2013, when I graduated from law school. Law school itself was an interesting beast. I was miserable during my first year, mainly due to personal issues that I was dealing with, along with the stress of law school and moving to an entirely new city that I was unfamiliar with.
One of the things that made that first year of law school particularly stressful was my student loan burden. I ended up getting a half scholarship, but even with the scholarship, I was still taking out between $20,000 to $30,000 of student loans per year to cover living expenses and pay tuition. Law school also has this weird thing where your first semester seems to define your ability to get the coveted “biglaw” job, which is one of the high paying associate jobs at the biggest law firms in the world.
This was right around the time when student loans were becoming a big deal and getting a lot of attention in newspapers and mass media. My biggest fear was taking out all of these loans and then finding myself with no job and no way to pay the loans back.
What this meant is that I buried myself in studying that first year, literally studying 6 or 7 days a week for 12-14 hours per day. I wasn’t doing great from a mental health perspective. But strangely, I was fine with the actual studying part. School has always been something I’ve liked because it’s a lot like my “fake” jobs that let me do what I want. You have general parameters to work with, but for the most part, it’s up to you to decide when, where, and how you want to do your work.
All of that studying and work did pay off, as I ended up getting nearly straight A’s in my first semester. My second semester also went very well and it put me in a position where, based on my grades and my school, I was likely going to land a big law job, which would make it possible for me to pay off my student loans.
In terms of living during that first year of law school, I lived in a 2-bedroom apartment with one of my best friends, where we each paid $497 per month. During the summer, I moved back home to do an unpaid internship at a big federal agency, but I continued to pay rent back in Minnesota. I made a few bucks during 2011 by working at the golf course on the weekends, just so I’d have some spending money and so I could play free golf. For all of 2011, I made $526 and supported myself for the year by taking out student loans.
Taking It Easy During My Second And Third Year Of Law School
Interviews for big law jobs start in the summer after your first year of law school. In other words, the entire decision on whether you’re good enough to work at a big law firm seems to get made based on one year of grades, which are almost all decided by a single test at the end of the semester. It seems like a silly system to me, but I don’t make the system, I just live in it.
I ended up getting an offer at one of the larger firms here in Minneapolis, which basically made me feel like I was set for life. My second year of law school was busy, but a lot of the stress was gone. I stopped studying 12 hours a day and instead started to enjoy myself more and took steps to get myself back in a healthy mental mindset.
This is when I met my wife, as I started putting myself out there again after spending an entire year doing basically nothing but studying. She was in dental school. I was in law school. We were two 20-somethings that looked like a future power couple.
In my second summer, I worked as a summer associate at the big law firm, making an equivalent of $110,000 per year. By the end of the summer, I had made a little over $20,000. And as I had done in the past, I basically spent it all and had nothing to show for it by the time school started again in the fall.
My third year of law school might have been my best year of school ever just in terms of enjoying myself. I ended up getting an offer to return as an associate at the biglaw firm after graduation, which made me feel like I had it made. Instead of hustling, I could just chill – which is exactly what I did. I spent most of that third year doing my own thing, mainly watching football and playing video games. Had I known better, I would have tried to do something more productive, but I wasn’t woke yet to all of this online stuff. The only thing I knew was that to make money and be a success, I needed a good job. And I had that now.
And then I graduated from law school and after a summer off, it was time to start working and enter the real world after spending three years riding out the recession and taking out student loans. During my last two years of law school, I lived in a house with a bunch of roommates and paid $500 per month with utilities included. After graduation, I moved out of that house and moved in with my girlfriend (now wife). We moved into a 1-bedroom apartment that cost $1,150 per month, which we split down the middle (so I paid $575 per month).
Those three years of law school ended up costing me $87,000 in student loans, which actually wasn’t that bad considering that most of my classmates likely took out closer to double what I had taken out in student loans. All of my student loans were at an interest rate between 6.8% and 7.9%.
Breaking it down here’s all of the income I made after I graduated from college and while I was in law school:
- 2010: $10,822
- 2011: $526
- 2012: $20,160
My job was scheduled to start in the fall of 2013, but first I had to take the bar exam. I spent the entire summer studying for the bar, which I enjoyed doing a lot because of how much freedom it gave me. I’d bike out to a coffee shop during the day, study and take practice exams, then come home and do my own thing in the evening (seems sort of like what I do now).
I had a pretty big student loan balance sitting there, but didn’t know what it was at. I also knew that I had some big paychecks coming soon, but I had no idea what I was supposed to do with that either. Eventually, I’d stumble onto the personal finance world. And that would eventually lead me into the financial independence world. My future would not be the same after that.