Ah, the American Dream. Just over one year ago, I came to the realization that I wasn’t living the life I truly wanted. I was overworked, underpaid and constantly stressed out. I had little or no time for friends, family or personal relationships. Close friendships had been irreparably damaged, not intentionally and not by any specific acts, but rather by the omissions – always being gone, never being able to commit to anything, always needing to back out of plans at the last minute. I knew all of these things, but was so busy with my old job that I had little time to really think about them, the constant to and fro kept my mind off of it. Then, I got sick.
Not the fatal or massive-life-changing-event type of sick, thankfully, but sick enough that I was forced to slow down. I spent nearly six weeks working from home on a reduced schedule – which means I was really sitting on my sofa watching travel shows and documentaries with my laptop open so I could monitor work emails. It was during this downtime, that I really had a chance to think about the previous three years of my life and came to realize that, despite all the high points, I simply wasn’t happy. So I decided to quit my job and travel, hopefully for an indefinite, extended period of time.
So I left New York for India to finish out my work contract. My transitional status afforded me a much-reduced workload as well as mini-vacations on the sun-soaked beaches of Goa and roaming the ancient city of Jaipur. Then, on Christmas Eve 2014 I loaded up my shiny new backpack and jumped on a plane to Bangkok. I planned to travel for at least a year throughout Southeast Asia. I would meet awesome people, explore new cultures, make life-changing memories, build out this blog and my Instagram site. I hoped that – like all of my travel idols out there (Wandering Earl, Kristin Addis, Nomadic Boys, That Gay Backpacker, Travels of Adam, Meg Ten Eyck, etc.) – this would lead to a new career allowing me to pick up and go pretty much wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted.
I spent the next six months backpacking through mainland Southeast Asia – Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I toured the crumbling, breathtaking ancient ruins of Angkor Wat and sucked down steaming bowls of pho from My Little Dollhouse tea sets on the streets of Vietnam. I explored Bangkok and Yangoon with old friends and made new ones in Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, and Hoi An. I said goodbye more times than I care to count and made memories to last a lifetime. I even managed to fall in love with a boy in Saigon.
I even managed to get a few articles published and picked up a small freelancing contract from my former employer. My dreams weren’t very big – I just wanted to make enough money to keep traveling. And it seemed like I was well on my way, I’m a budget traveler after all. It doesn’t take much to keep me going.
Unfortunately, despite all these amazing things, I failed at my goal. I failed miserably, in fact. In June I was forced to give up on my dreams and return to the US. Not because of any family tragedy or because I ran out of money. In fact, between savings and the bits of freelance work I’d gotten, I could have easily kept going into 2016. In fact, when I returned to New York, I was able to continue living off my savings and freelance work for another five months.
So why did I come back? Why do I feel I was forced to do so? The simplest answer is “because of the American Dream.” What do I mean? The American Dream tells us if we work hard then we will move up. Society tells us to aim for things like upward mobility through education and home ownership. We’re supposed to go out there and get a “good” job with a company putting in your 40 hours per week, get married and have 2.5 children. The idea is to lead a nice, comfortable life, better than what your parents had and setting things up so that your children can have more than you did. At least that was the idea when the current version of the American Dream – the one we all think about when we hear that phrase – first came to being during the Great Depression.
And I have to say, I don’t disagree with all of those things. I grew up in a poor working-class family, my education (especially the graduate education) has taken me to places I only dreamed of as a child. I also completely buy into the concept of allowing your children to have more than you did (in essence, making the world a better place). Furthermore, if owning a home and spending your entire working life with the same company is what you want to do, then far be it for me to tell you that you shouldn’t.
But here’s the rub. Times have changed. Our greedy government, the corporations, our educational system, etc. continue to tell us to chase the American Dream and how lucky we are to be in a country where that is possible. (I’ve seen absolute destitution during my time in India, so I agree, I do feel lucky to have been born in America and have a passport that is widely accepted without question.)
So, as a teenager planning to go to college and wanting to go to law school after that, I did what society told me I should do. I worked hard in college, did well and started applying for law school. At this point, I continued to do what society and everyone else told me I should do – go to the absolute best law school you can get into. Don’t worry about the cost. If you can’t get scholarships or your scholarships don’t cover everything, then the Federal Government will be more than happy to provide you with student loans. And don’t worry about the loan burden, student loans are “good debt” and hey, you’ll be a lawyer. Lawyers make shitloads of money. You’ll pay that debt down in no time. You’ll get an awesome job right out of law school, with a six-figure salary and lots of perks. You’ll have a sweet luxury apartment, a high-end car and everyone will be envious of you.
And you know what? I bought it. Hook, line and fucking sinker. I bought it all – going in, that is. I got my 50% tuition scholarship and was happy. Until I read the fine print (which I wasn’t able to get my hands on until after classes started) and realized that it was damn near impossible to keep that scholarship beyond the first year. Year two and three? Much much easier to keep. Why? It was a game. Lure them in with money, then after one year we can take that money and give it to someone else, they’ll be too far in to back out and will pay up in loans. Big win for the school coffers.
Same goes for the jobs. It wasn’t until I started law school that I started to realize that my chances of landing that six-figure salary were almost non-existent. It’s not like I didn’t do the research beforehand. I did. I spoke with lawyers from all over who said that I couldn’t go wrong with a legal education. They said I’d always be able to live a comfortable life.
Even pre-recession, the average starting salary for the majority of lawyers was ridiculously low when compared to our levels of education and debt. The average law student graduates with $150,000 USD in debt and pre-recession, the average starting pay was slightly less than $40,000 USD. Post-recession, it’s been even worse. I’ve seen lawyers taking jobs in NYC for $28,000 USD per year. How the fuck do you live off $28,000 per year in NYC while paying down $150,000+ in student loan debt? Simple, you don’t. Nowadays, I tell people I’m a lawyer, they assume I’m loaded. Well, I’m not. My first job in New York after passing the bar exam and completing an LLM (masters in law, that’s right, I have two graduate degrees and a total of 8 years of higher education) paid me $15/hour, no benefits. That’s about $30,000 per year. My next job – the one I quit to go traveling in SE Asia? $45,000 per year was my starting salary, again with no benefits and no health insurance, which is why I was sick for six weeks. If you don’t believe me – which likely means you’re well over 50 or come from money – read this, it’s just one of many examples. In case you’re wondering, this situation applies to nearly every college graduate these days – regardless of what they studied or where they went to school.
So what does this have to do with how the American Dream killed my dreams? Well, I did absolutely everything they (society, the government, corporations, the educational system, etc.) told me to do. I took out massive student loan debt, which now amounts to over $250,000 USD in principal. Add in the unpaid interest and it tops $310,000 USD. My average interest rate? 8%. That’s right folks, the two pieces of paper hanging on my wall cost me three times the amount of money that my parents paid for their new house in 2009 and at nearly four times their interest rate. And I’ve spent the last four years of my life working for peanuts. Barely making ends meet – I have an additional $12,000+ USD in credit card debt – all of which was racked up on extravagant luxury items like groceries, electricity, and gas. Want to read something even more outrageous, in 2013 the Federal Government made $41.3 billion USD in interest paid on student loans. Let me say that again – in one year the feds made over $40 billion USD off of the back of struggling young college graduates.
And educational institutions are part of the problem as well. In the US tuition has consistently and significantly outpaced inflation, while earnings for college graduates have stagnated or dropped. One of my law professors, who went to my law school in the early 90s says that she paid about $2,000 per year in tuition. When I graduated in 2010 from that same law school, I was paying over $30,000 per year. What’s even more ridiculous is when you consider the rising costs of tuition at public institutions – these institutions are divisions of the government! Yet, despite the fact that the government is making over $40 billion USD per year in interest off of student loans, public universities continue to increase tuition. It is simply insane.
Unfortunately, some of my student loans are private, meaning they have much less friendly and flexible repayment terms than the federal loans. And this is why I was forced to come back to the US and try to get a real job. My private lender sent me a lovely notice saying that as of the end of 2015 all options available to me for putting off repayment would end – FOREVER. My monthly payment on this one loan will be nearly $1,000 USD per month. Even more, unfortunately, my parents have cosigned on this loan, so if I did what I really want to do – which is tell the bank to fuck off – my parents would end up holding the bag. They can’t afford that.
While traveling, and in my previous experiences living abroad, I met so many people from all over the world. I was envious of every single one of them. Not because they were traveling or living abroad (because I was too), but because they did not have the burden of student loan debts hanging over their head. They could afford to take risks. They could afford to start their own company with only a few dollars in the bank, they could afford to take long trips, they could afford to do “radical” things, like be free and independent and devote their time to non-profits or charity work. They could afford to run orphanages in the slums of India and live off next to nothing. Because they didn’t have tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars hanging over their heads – and it’s not like they were uneducated either. These people had college degrees, several with graduate degrees. And yet, they could still do these things without worry.
So, anyway, here I am – back in the US. In Minneapolis, Minnesota – where I know literally two people outside of my co-workers. I moved here because I got a “decent” job and hopefully I’ll be able to pay off that one private loan sometime during the next decade (my entire 30s). Friends and family ask me if I’m happy here. I tell them I am because objectively I should be – Minneapolis is a great city (it really, truly is – I mean that I chose to move here after all), the people I work with are super friendly, my work is interesting enough and I make a decent salary. I’ve managed to get a nice apartment and a nice car.
To the outside world, I’m living the American Dream. But just between you, me and this lovely bottle of Malbec – I’m fucking miserable because the American Dream has completely crushed my dreams.
Ben is an international attorney and consultant, avid foodie, slowmad (slow moving nomad) and cultural explorer. To date, he has lived in 11 cities in 6 countries on 4 continents, while traveling to an additional 30 countries. He is a lover of street food, street art, photography, classic cars, random off-beat adventures and cute boys. His legal and consulting practice focuses on providing legal advice and strategic business advice to entrepreneurs, freelancers, and small businesses - specifically digital nomads.
You can follow him on his website, High Society Hobo.