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Young woman at work. Gen Y and career

Thanks for reading our Gen Y money blog, where a recent grad chronicles her real-life journey to becoming a financially independent adult.

I wasn't prepared for the post-grad struggle.

After completing my undergraduate arts degree from the University of Toronto, I thought I had a pretty good idea as to what to expect, both financially and career-wise. I knew that I wasn't graduating from a professional program and had little work experience. I was perfectly aware that I wouldn't be making a six-figure salary in an entry-level position. And I was prepared to have debt.

And yet, I was surprised when my expectations of post-grad life - namely, the notion of sliding into a position of financial comfort - turned out to be lofty, unrealistic and, in retrospect, laughable.

Instead of being welcomed into "real personhood" with the secure embrace of a steady paycheque, I was punched in the gut with the frustrating reality of job hunting. Once I landed a job, I found myself adjusting to work responsibilities and struggling to save on an entry-level salary, while dedicating 20-30 per cent of every paycheque to repaying my student debt.

Up until this point, I had easily transitioned from one phase of life to the next, both mentally and financially. So, why did I expect everything would seamlessly fall into place after I got my fist real job?

I did my due diligence in high school, securing a $20,000 scholarship and making the grades required to get into my choice university. The only career advice my high school guidance counsellor passed along was to "do what you love," "follow your passion" and "find a job where you'll never have to work a day in your life." He failed to mention that getting there requires a stint in financial purgatory.

University was a bit better at helping to prepare me for the other side in that it offered a handful of financial counselling services and occasional career events. And although job fairs are a great resource for discovering opportunities, I personally can't name a single person who can attribute being hired to a recruiting pamphlet from Company X's job fair booth.

Despite the university's efforts to help us prepare for the drop-off, I was also used to being fully immersed in the "starving student" culture. Having debt in college or university is the norm. It's motivating to live an affordable lifestyle on campus, where no one has excess spending money and every establishment on campus graciously allows you to wield your student ID like a "get out of jail free" card.

The inspiring "follow your dreams" message didn't exactly disappear, either – in fact, it followed me right up until my very last day of undergrad. The advice imparted by the keynote speaker at my convocation ceremony was not "Be realistic and pay down your debt," but rather, "Friends are more important than money." And yes, she gave credit to the Lululemon bag.

To me, becoming a "real person" with "real income" seemed a distant feat until the day it inevitably arrived. And, having been inflated with the idea that starting my career was as easy as adding "HBA" to my resume, I believed my finances would follow suit, quickly blossoming into a state resembling health.

In an ideal world, my job hunt would have been motivated solely by my excitement to start my career. But in the real world, it was equally prompted by the fact that I had to start paying off my student loan.

I now understand that I'll need to bail myself out of this debt hole before I can realistically move on to the next thing and start "following my dreams." However well intentioned my high school guidance counsellor and convocation speaker were, they both skipped over the vital chapter between "graduation" and "career." If there's one thing I've learned about this phase of financial purgatory, it's not to simply "follow" my passion, but to add value to it.

Unlike high school, university and even student jobs, the real world isn't ready to greet you simply because you've gone through the system and ended up there. Every small career success I've experienced in my brief time in the work force has happened because I've hustled to prove my worth.

What I've realized is that achieving my future dream job requires me to push through the challenges of my current entry-level job. Eventually, I'll have the skills and experience I need to also achieve my dream salary. The slow pace of saving money and paying off my debt can be discouraging, but it's a sub-plot that needs to be acknowledged in the career-launching chapter.

I just wish they would put that on a Lululemon bag.

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