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I've got my B.A.! Now what?

Frugality kept the dream alive. Now, frugality provides a little breathing room.

By Donna_Freedman Dec 18, 2009 1:02PM
Three days ago I handed a 97-page undergraduate thesis to my advisor, then took a copy to the Comparative History of Ideas department. There I was allowed to ring the "thesis bell," a brass handbell that the academic advisor keeps on her desk. I made that son-of-a-gun wail.

It's finished. I've spent the past four years on a dead run: full-time class load, dense and copious course readings, academic projects, long bus commutes, research papers, a two-month fellowship, an undergraduate research symposium and a thesis that morphed twice before finally taking shape.

What's next?

I have no idea.

On Dec. 31, 1999, I was walking around the subzero downtown of Anchorage, Alaska with a notebook and pencil, reporting on New Year's Eve festivities and half-wondering if the Y2K bogeyman were real. If you'd asked me then what I thought the next decade would be like, my answer would have been "more of the same" -- living in Alaska, being a newspaper reporter, racking up another 10 years of marriage, watching my daughter finish college and embark on a career.

Instead, I followed my then-husband to Chicago, quit the print journalism business a year later, helped take care of my mother at the end of a horrific battle with cancer, ended my marriage, moved three more times, supported my daughter until her disability claim was accepted, worked a clutch of part-time jobs, slowly went broke, became first a personal finance blogger and then a PF columnist, and returned to college for the degree I never got as a younger woman.
While going to school I handled a long-distance divorce, worked a couple of summers in Alaska, dealt with some health issues and lived ultra-frugally so I could pay off my debt. For months I helped my daughter with the logistics of a frugal wedding; the day of the ceremony took more than 12 hours of work, from setup to cleanup, and I had a Spanish exam the next day and the research symposium two days after that. But I swore never to turn in "good enough" academic work, and got an A in every course except for a high B in algebra and Fundamentals of Information Technology.

Through it all I put out a thousand (figurative) fires at the apartment house I manage, and never missed a freelance deadline. (Between September 2007 and January 2009, that meant three deadlines a week.)

In short, I could let go only long enough to spit on my hands. Now, at 52, I'm bone-tired and have decided to take my brother's advice: Don't instantly rush to fill the time once taken up by school. Glenn recently retired from a career in law enforcement and is now pursuing his avocation of freelance comic book inking and fantasy art and design work. Upon retirement, Glenn took on too many projects and found himself spread just as thinly as when he'd been working a full-time day job and doing artwork on nights and weekends.

He cut back, and now is much happier and healthier. Thus he had one suggestion for me: "Take at least a month off and just breathe."

I can do that, for two reasons. First, I was able to avoid the college loan trap because I paid for all four years with grants and scholarships. Just as important, living frugally has allowed me to stretch my salary and build a savings cushion. But I won't have to spend those funds because my basic expenses are still less than $12,000 a year.

I won't be completely idle, since I'll keep writing the "Living With Less" personal finance column, contributing to this blog and running the Smart Spending message board. But I'm looking forward to a short period of (relative) calm.

In time, maybe I'll start my own site. Maybe I'll find a substitute for the apartment management job and take off for some frugal travel.
I've agreed to do some gratis newsletter work in 2010 for the education fund at the community college that got me back into higher education, and for a nonprofit agency whose food bank helped me a lot during my first year in school.

The point is, frugality has given me options. While I'm grateful for the chances I've been given in the past four years, I'm even more grateful that I now have a little time to stop and savor them.

And I'm most grateful for the chance to sleep eight hours in a row on a regular basis, to read books for fun, and to not use words like "hegemony" or "pejoration" unless I really want to. School's out!

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