A PRICE WORTH PAYING
During the summer after my sophomore year of college, I interned in Washington, for then-Senator Al Gore. Although I was ecstatic about this opportunity, my parents were less than thrilled by it. Practicing conservatives, they were disappointed that I’d be working for a Democrat – and going unpaid for it. Furthermore, they regretted that I was walking away from a highly competitive internship program at a statewide bank. The program, which lasted four summers, was designed to groom me for future employment with the bank, and I had participated for only one summer.
But they let me go. I think they knew how excited I was, and on some level, they must have believed that living and working in Washington would be a good life experience. It certainly proved to be.
While I was in Washington, I learned some very practical lessons, like how to live on a meal allowance of only $10 a day, and why I shouldn’t park by a yellow curb on a busy Washington street. I became an expert at using public transportation and navigating the city. Quickly, I discovered that I needed to walk confidently and carefully, no matter the time of day.
At work, I saw the value of a strong role model, and I realized that if you aren’t being challenged by the work, you owe it to yourself and your colleagues to speak up. By reading the senator’s mail (my job one afternoon each week), I learned how complex any one issue is – that everyone has a story, and that every story deserves an audience.
But the hardest lesson came during the last days of my six-week internship. Senator Gore’s staff had invited me to stay on for another six weeks, and I was delighted by this prospect. My parents had agreed – until I received mail back home from Lord & Taylor, a high-end department store in my hometown.
When the envelope arrived, my father felt compelled to open it, particularly because it resembled a bill. What he found certainly didn’t please him. So he picked up the phone and dialed Senator Gore’s office.
When the receptionist buzzed me to say my father was on the phone, I knew that nothing good could be happening. He wouldn’t normally call me there.
“Kathleen, it’s Dad. Get in the car and get home now.”
Uh-oh. I was in deep.
He continued. “I opened the bill that came from Lord & Taylor. You owe them over $250. You need to get home now and make some money.”
“Kathleen, it’s not up for discussion. Drive home this weekend. And on Monday, I expect you to call the bank and see what you can line up.”
When I hung up the phone, I was angry, ashamed, and heartbroken. I had been looking forward to those next six weeks. I had fallen in love with Washington — everything from Georgetown, where I lived, to the Russell Building, where I worked. I was energized by the city, and for the first time in my life, I had felt so grown up.
But someone who is grown up also knows how to manage her money better. Even though I hated that my parents were insisting that I come home, I also was slowly realizing that making no money (while spending a fair amount on rent, food, transportation, and entertainment) was more than ridiculous.
Before I had left for D.C., I had felt that I needed some new clothes. Instead of talking about this with my parents, I had gone to Lord & Taylor, opened a credit account, and charged some dresses. My plan had been to line up a babysitting gig when I returned to college in the fall. Then I would pay off the dresses little by little.
I clearly had no understanding of how credit worked. I did not realize that the longer I waited to pay, the more additional fees I would accrue. My plan to pay only the minimum each month was pricey and irresponsible.
As a financial manager, my father realized that I was in dangerous territory. While he did not plan to bail me out, he did intend to set me on the right path.
To make matters worse, as I drove home from D.C. that weekend, I hydroplaned and was in a bad car accident. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but my car was definitely worse for wear. You can only imagine how excited my parents were to see my damaged car pull into the driveway.
That Monday, I called the bank and spoke with a woman I knew in Human Resources. Liz said that she could not re-enroll me in the intern program – I had forfeited that opportunity when I opted out for six weeks – but that she did have a short-term job for which she thought I was well qualified.
“Kathleen, what I really need is someone who can help us edit our credit training manual.”
“Your credit training manual?”
“Yes, it’s used by our customer service representatives in all the branches. It explains the ins and outs of all of our credit products — like credit cards, debit checking cards, mortgages, etc. Essentially, I need someone to help edit what we have developed so far.”
As I contemplated what Liz was saying, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was some sort of a joke… or if my father had already spoken with her. It was all a little too ironic. But the good news? She clearly wasn’t looking for a subject matter expert.
“Sure, that sounds like something I would enjoy. I’d like to hear more about what it involves.”
We talked more, and I started the next day. By summer’s end, I had made some money and had learned a lot about credit. I had a whole book to show for it (as well as some decent paychecks).
Eighteen years later, I am grateful to my father for intervening as he did. I am glad that I learned about credit during college, and not years later. The lesson could have been much more painful than it actually was. To this day, I maintain only one credit card and pay it off in full each month!
~Kathleen Whitman Plucker
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles
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