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How a Dog Walker Paid off a 37K Student Loan in 6 Years

Me and the Dogs

At 25 I made the naïve mistake of getting an MFA in Creative Writing at a private college in New York City. I had moved to Brooklyn, NY when I was 22 from Florida after finishing my BA in English at Florida State University. For three years I floundered around in various jobs at a tattoo shop, TV and film, public and private schools, baby sitting, dog walking, selling produce at street fairs etc. You name it I did it. One thing that’s great about New York is that you can always find work, it may not be the work you want but there are plenty of odd jobs. Somehow I paid the meager rent in my sub-basement apartment (that’s right, below ground, one small shoebox window under a sewer grate) and was able to eat. There were night I couldn’t sleep because I was so scared about money and the future, but I had hope because I was in New York and it seemed anything was possible here.

In 2003 I thought it would be a good idea to get an MFA to hone my craft and build a local writing community/ connections. I didn’t want to leave New York so I applied to three schools—two local and one low residency. I only got into one school, so that’s where I went.  There was no thinking about how I’d pay for it. The school helped me apply for and set up a student loan program.  They had no teaching assistantships or scholarships really, though I think I was able to get a yearly 2k scholarship. They didn’t care how I paid back my loans either as long as they got paid.

I hadn’t done any research on schools with funding or really given it much thought at all. I thought when I graduated I’d just sell my novel and pay my student loans with the book advance. Needless to say that didn’t happen and when I graduated in 2005, I had $37,000 to pay back. Not only that but the MFA program was super unsupportive—both the faculty and students. Despite doing well in the program and really trying to connect with people I finished feeling no better off than when I’d started. A few years later when applying to residencies and then PHD programs I couldn’t even get letters of recommendation from most of my former teachers. I had to hit up my undergrad professors who are thankfully lovely generous people who have always been supportive of my work.

In case anyone is unaware, the job market is not pounding down the doors of people with MFA’s—shocking, I know.  After graduating, I worked in publishing production for about 5 minutes. I got a job at McGraw Hill in the building above Madison Square Garden. My parents finally thought I’d made it. I had an office job with benefits and a somewhat decent starting salary. I commuted everyday to the clusterfuck of Penn Station during rush hour. I tried my best at a job I wasn’t properly trained for. I routinely got yelled to the point of tears at for making mistakes though I was really doing my best. The florescent ceiling lights and soviet block architecture had me sitting on the steps of the main library on 34th street eating my lunch with the passed out bums just to be outside of that place. I got laid off 3 months later, had to move out of my apartment, and got dumped. 2005 was a stellar year.

When things fall apart sometimes it’s for the best. Some of the most painful times in my life have lead to the best changes.  I applied for deferment of my student loans. I thought about all of the jobs I’d had so far. The only one I somewhat enjoyed was dog walking. I called up a few dog walkers I knew in the neighborhood and told them I was available for work if they needed help. Luckily one did. I worked for her for a few months then started my own dog walking and pet sitting business full time since I’d always been doing this on the side anyways.

I was so angry at the world and the writing community for not publishing my book or being supportive that I quit writing and just played in punk/noise bands for a few years. Once I was making a little money I started doing minimum payments on my loan though I was really resentful and angry. I felt like the school had taken advantage of my naiveté  by charging all this money for essentially a useless degree. Resentment though is like drinking poison and hoping the other person (or school) will die.

My dog business continued to grow as my bands fell apart, now I was angry at music for the same reasons as the writing community. I even resented dog walking despite loving the dogs, because I felt like I was this super educated person picking up dog shit for a living. The truth was I was afraid it was all I could do and that it wasn’t  “good” enough in my eyes or in the eyes of the world. I started to have problems with my health- chronic ankle pain, a burst appendix that landed me in the hospital for a while, and then getting hit by a car. Thank god I’d started to hire people to work with me at that point with the dogs or I would’ve completely lost my whole business.  I’d also met and started dating a really nice supportive guy around that time which helped me get through it.

Some time on my ass in hospitals and at home helped me be grateful for the things I did have instead of always looking at what I didn’t have. Up till then I’d had my health, a family who loved me, and a job that supported me. I started to realize the least common denominator in all of my problems was me and my thinking. I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself for all the things life wasn’t giving me and start being grateful for what I had. As for my job I was clearly in this dog walking profession for a reason and maybe instead of thinking it was beneath me, I’d just try to do the best at it I could. I finally grew up and accepted life on life’s terms and decided to go out there and do the best I could with what I had. This is when things really started to change for me.

I began to learn about dog training and help clients train their dogs to make their relationships and lives easier. I let go of the rock scene. It didn’t really do much for my mental health—it was more of a spiritual vacuum than writing ever had been. I began writing again, working on a book of poems about Brooklyn and the dogs to give a voice to this odd life of mine, and the characters, animal and human, I encountered everyday.  My boyfriend began photographing the dogs to go along with my poems to help me with my book.

I took responsibility for my student loans and began to attack them with everything I had. I paid as much as I could every month instead of paying the minimum and being depressed thinking that I’d never pay them off. The dog walking business fluctuates—some weeks it’s great and some weeks are slow. When I’d have fear about money I’d pay more on my loans, or give an employee a raise, or contribute a little to a charity. I call this daring God to financially take care of me—faith in action. I wanted proof that I’d be taken care of. Initially, I’d do it and sort of cover my eyes afterwards waiting for the ceiling to fall in. It never did. Inevitably, I’d get a new client or business would pick up with training or pet sitting. I learned that instead of holding on so tight to money, if I trusted the universe that there would be more money, there actually was.

The most amazing thing that happened was that one day my parents (who are not rich) called me up and said they wanted to help me. They wanted to give me a yearly contribution of 5K for my student loans. I was really proud and hadn’t asked my parents for money since I’d left Florida and felt weird about it. I told them I’d think about it. After thinking about it I told them I’d take it, but only if I could match it every year. I figured it would be tight but I could try to pay $400 a month or more towards loans. This was in 2008, I think. I still had 30K in loans so I figured if I did this for 3 years I’d be done.

Dogs of Brooklyn cover designed by Claudean Wheeler

In 2010 I finished the poetry book I’d been working on and started submitting it to publishers. I got the same lackluster response as my novel did, though I had some poems published in magazines and even got paid for one by Dog Fancy Magazine. After a year and a half of this I was done. I talked to a friend in publishing about self-publishing and she actually said it was the best way to go these days. I hired a book designer and worked hard with friends to edit it etc. The result, Dogs of Brooklyn, can be bought by clicking here!

I had all these notions that I wouldn’t be accepted by the publishing world if I self-published. Maybe I won’t, but I’ll have something tangible to show for all of my work and that’s all that matters to me right now. I’ve had friends publish with major publishers and barely make any money or get any help with promotion from them—it didn’t solve all their problems in other words. Once again I found I needed to change MY thinking about things. I seem to be the only one limiting my own success with narrow ideas of what success means.

Dennis, Me, our dog Phoebe at Wedding in Prospect Park

This year I also married the supportive, non-punk rock/artist, but wonderful man I’ve dated the past 3 years. I never thought I’d marry someone who works for the government, but I guess two crazy/moody artist types just makes for double the crazy. Again, not who I thought I’d end up with, I had to be open-minded, and am so glad I was. He accepts me, and my crazy animals and is smart, funny, and easy on the eyes.

I sent in my final student loan payment last night. I only had to accept 2 of my parent’s contributions. The rest I paid myself and I’m proud of that. I believe so much is possible if I can just be more open-minded. Sometimes when one door closes or won’t open, you got to take a window.  Next on the agenda, trying to buy an upstate property for dog and Susie sanity, seems impossible but who knows! Happy 2012!!!

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Filed under Brooklyn, dog training, Dogs, Poetry, Self publishing, Writing

I Hate Being an Adult!

My kitchen table

When I started a dog walking business several years ago, I never expected to someday be a manager with a few employees. I really care about the quality of work we do more than quantity, which has probably hurt me financially but at least I can mostly sleep at night.

As my business grew I also began to have ankle problems from an old broken ankle injury. At 30 I had to start wearing orthotics in my shoes and while that helped somewhat, I started seeing that walking 5-6 hours a day was causing me a lot of chronic pain. I had to take on employees to help out so I wasn’t in constant pain.

Hiring and managing employees has been such a challenge for me. In this business we have peoples pets, which are like their kids and keys to their apartments. They have to trust us and I hold that trust as sacred. So I have to really train and trust employees that I hire which is tough. I’ve probably had an equal amount of good and not so good employees. I’m a pretty nice boss to work with when people care deeply for the dogs and quality of care we provide. I pay my workers more than other dog walking companies do, give raises and bonuses, try to give them time off when they ask, and thank them constantly for a job well done. People don’t realize dog walking is a tough job, we’re out in heat, rain, sleet, and snow for hours at a time running up and down stairs etc. And I really appreciate my loyal and hard working employees.

However, I’ve had to fire three people for either bad judgment, dishonesty, or inconsistency. Firing people is the last thing an employer wants to do. Lord knows I’ve lost jobs in my early 20s and I used to demonize those employers who let me go. Yes some were kinda jerks, but in hindsight I realized I absolutely had a part in things. I tried to show up and do a good job but sometimes when I was doing jobs that I didn’t care about, I’d have a bad attitude. I learned over time what kind of work I cared about and wanted to do, which radically changed my attitude and ultimately led me to start my own business.

Most of our clients are pretty reasonable, but we’ve definitely had a few who have been hard to work with. Not to mention that dogs sometimes have had serious behavior issues. If their owners are willing to work on the behavior with us we’ll usually work with them, but it’s been surprising when owner with dogs—often who are biting—don’t have time or want to deal with trying to fix the behavior. Needless to say I don’t work with those clients long term, it isn’t worth the risk to me, my employees, or the other dogs we care for.

I have enormous compassion for people in management positions. We are ultimately responsible for everything that goes down in a day even if we aren’t the ones doing every bit of the work. It’s a delicate balance when you have to turn over some of the control and trust others to do a good job when it’s your business/baby. There have been nights I’ve lost sleep, had serious heartburn from stress, and bawled my eyes out when I or one of my employee’s made a mistake. We are all human and doing the best we can, mistakes happen I realize. We do our best to amend any mistakes.

Sometimes I think I care too much about work and doing a good job. I recently had to get rid of my Blackberry email because my quality of life was really suffering. I wasn’t present to my family and friends in my down time. I’d often get emails at odd hours of the day and if I saw that the little red light on my phone was blinking of course I’d check it. I realized most of these emails didn’t need to be dealt with immediately. I check my email a few times a day from my laptop, that’s generally adequate. Clients can text or call me if they have an immediate need or emergency.

It’s really tough having your own small business. I cannot call in sick and I am responsible for a lot. However, I don’t think I could trade it and go back to working for someone else. I can mostly make my own rules that I feel okay with. I don’t want to work for places that have rules and regulations I don’t agree with and have to do it anyways.

I think some of it is that I really dislike being an adult sometimes. I know that sounds funny but it’s hard! It’s ironic because I can remember as a kid just wanting to be an adult and get out of my parents house and be on my own. Now that I am though sometimes I wish I could go back. Don’t get me wrong I’ve always paid my bills on time etc. but sometimes I just wish I could be some trophy wife or something and have someone take care of all the daily ins-and-outs for me. Sadly, I’m too fiercely independent for that. I really believe in being self-supporting and not being over dependent on anyone for money.

I guess we all just gotta deal with it. It’s a tough economy for most of us and  I’m grateful to have a job. I give props to all the other managers and grown ups out there. May you have restful nights and settled stomachs!

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Filed under Brooklyn, dog training, Dogs