When you’re young, all you want is freedom. From parents, from school, from being broke, from anything that kept you from kissing someone at the townie bar after midnight on a Friday night. The tools start to present themselves: a car. College. An apartment. An internship, then a job. Fumbling steps toward a house, marriage, life insurance, a 401K, babies. Freedom starts to look a lot like something else.
As Admiral Ackbar once said, “It’s a trap.” It’s an insidious one: we see it all around us, hiding in plain sight. It enmeshed poor Taylor Cotter, writer of this unfortunate-for-many-reasons essay, wrapping her up with school debt and pulling the noose tight. This is, by its nature, a privileged problem: the responsibilities of white picket fences give way to more pressing concerns in less moneyed environments. But it’s a problem nonetheless, and a two-fold one: the ideas that stability (a euphemism for possessions) buys happiness, and that life should unfold like a picture-book without any serious decision-making beyond what to wear to church.
I don’t have any school debt. My parents bought my car. This is obviously terrific for me, but I haven’t compounded my debt with credit card bills or bar tabs or an apartment I can’t afford. We live in a one-bedroom and it costs maybe a quarter of my monthly income. We did get a cat, an animal not known for traveling well. And we are a “we.” But within that, there’s a lot of freedom. I make a living in my chosen industry, have time for personal, big-dreaming projects and get to the gym most days. If we wanted, we could move to Europe tomorrow and work on a goat farm or whatever. (We don’t want to.) It didn’t happen overnight, and I didn’t start freelancing without an extensive cushion — which I earned every dollar of — in the bank. I could’ve spent that on gourmet dinners and a chrome rims — maybe I should’ve. But my needs are simple, if “simple” extends to typing on a MacBook Air. If spending makes you happy, that’s what you should do. Status? Go after it. I’m interested in control of my time and my energy, which Cotter, locked into her 9-5 and the school debt it has to go toward diminishing every month, hints at.
But I don’t think an exciting life’s really about becoming a television character or the character-building that allegedly comes with financial struggles. Those are romantic ideas from people who’ve never had to worry about paying the rent. it’s definitely not about home ownership, either. There’s no real “should” in life, beyond saving a few bucks, exercising and being nice so you’re not a total fucking burden on your fellow people: it’s about writing your own script — which requires making decisions, hard ones, and knowing who you are. Or at least what you want. What do you want? Neil Gaiman once described that as “the mountain”: if you’re lucky, all you have to do is let go of the backpack and start walking.