How Do You Define Success?

Blogger and novelist John Scalzi wrote a moving piece this past winter titled “How I Knew I’d Made It,” about … well, the moment he knew he was doing pretty well in his career. He says it was when he bought a tank of gas and didn’t worry about how much it cost. Just being able to fill up and know that whether he was spending on gas today didn’t really matter. He finally had the cash flow to not be constantly worried about overdrafts.

It reminded me that financial and professional success mean different things to different people.

For example, I once met a financial advisor who worked with people who were already pretty well off. He said almost all of his clients came to him with a goal of increasing their net worth by about 10%. If they had a million dollars, they wanted 1.1 million. If they had a hundred million, they wanted a hundred and ten. The implication is that most people aren’t ever satisfied with the amount of money they have. Just being rich, in other words, doesn’t necessarily equal “success.”

But, if having enough money isn’t the definition of success, what is? And how do you know when you’ve achieved it?

I asked my friends on Facebook what they thought. Here are some of the responses.

My brother, an MBA, agrees with Scalzi. He says success means having enough money to avoid hassles:

“Financial success lets you push problems to the side. The more money you have, the less you have to put up with.”

A neighbor who volunteers actively, in addition to her work at an architecture firm:

“I don’t think you need to be a billionaire to be successful. To me it’s about finding a healthy balance in all aspects of your life (love, work, family, health, diet, friends, etc.)”

A former co-worker who’s moved to New York to make it big in marketing:

“Success for me means ‘I’m in my element,’ which translates to:

    1. I’ve achieved a goal.

    2. The goal that was achieved provided me with a greater sense of purpose, drive, and life satisfaction.”

A friend of my parents (who has held numerous jobs throughout her life and has no intention of retiring):

“A successful life is where you live in harmony with yourself and others, where you manage to meet your own expectations, where your occupation suits your abilities yet allows you to earn enough money to do what is important to you.”

My cousin, a manager at a large hardware store:

“If I could figure out what success was, I’d be able to figure out what I’m supposed to be aiming for. And I probably wouldn’t be in retail.”

My high school English teacher:

“You wake up in the morning looking forward to the day, and you feel you are growing. Both are important.”

As for my own thoughts on financial success: to me it means having enough money to take care of my family and save for the future—but I try to remember that financial success isn’t the same thing as overall success.

What does success mean to you? Share your perspective in the comments.

Every Student Is A Lot More Than What The Admissions Office Sees On Paper

Lori Connor has worked in admissions and financial aid for 15 years. Today, she helps school implement SALT® for parent company, American Student Assistance®. Since we’re right in the middle of college application season, Aaron Weber asked her to tell us about admissions, money, and transferring to new schools.


AW: What are some common misconceptions about applying to college?

LC: There are three things, really, that I think are tricky for families.

First, people don’t always know how important it is to meet face-to-face with admissions and make campus visits. A lot of students think that they’re done once they finish the application. But it’s more than just the application form. Every student is a lot more than what the admissions office sees on paper, and if you can help us get a better idea of who you are, then we can do a better job. If you can, go to campus, meet the representatives, and do interviews. It builds a relationship with the school. You can still get in without a visit, of course, but it can really help a school understand a student.

Second, fit is really important. That’s another reason I always encourage people to visit campus and meet students and faculty. It gives you more information about the school and helps you decide if it’s the right place for you. The more you know about the campus and what it’s like to be there, the better.

Finally, there’s money. This one’s hard to get right for just about everyone. It’s easy to say “look for the best price” and “money is no object, go to your dream school.” But the reality is somewhere in the middle. What if you like one school almost as much as another—do you let the price be the deciding factor? You don’t want finances to stand between you and your education, but you do need to take them into account.

For students who are applying to graduate schools, or transferring to a new college, how is the process different?

They’re not as different as you might think. Graduate school is a more focused process, because you’re not just applying to a college, you’re applying to a very specific program. There are fewer candidates applying for fewer spaces, so there’s a lot more in-depth review, and more involvement from professors and not just the admissions office. I’ve also found that potential grad students are more likely to ask about the career services office, which is a good thing.

For transfer students, we’ll be looking at both college and high school transcripts. Similar to graduate school, we’re looking at a smaller number of applicants and a small number of spaces, so we can really focus on those applicants. For transfer, it’s even more important to visit the campus if you can. If you can’t afford a visit, call and ask if there’s assistance available. Many colleges will pay to bring promising students out for a tour.

Behind the scenes, what do admissions officers talk about?

We swap stories about micromanaging parents, and about our own kids. My son’s a freshman now, and let me tell you, after helping him apply to college, I really understood where the helicopter parents were coming from. I always swore I wouldn’t be That Parent, but it was a struggle to back off.

Grad School In My Late 30s: “The Best Thing I’ve Ever Done For My Career”

Everyone follows their own path for education, and some paths take more twists and turns than others. Not sure where your education is taking you? It can help to see how things went for other people who have been there.

When David B. was in high school, he wasn’t sure he’d go to college at all. Spoiler: He did, but it took a long time. When he was 38, he went back for more, and got a master’s degree. More than a few years after that, he shared his experience with Aaron Weber.

So, what’s your academic story?

I barely finished high school. I was in and out of community college for about 4 years until I was able to transfer to a 4-year college, where I floundered around for way too long trying this major or that major before I just ran out of money and had to quit.

Almost 10 years later, I went back to finish my BA. I enrolled at UC-Irvine and picked the major that would get me graduated as quickly as possible, which turned out to be social sciences.

I was lucky to graduate into a strong economy, and I had some design sense and computer skills, so I wound up as a graphic designer. I found work at the University of Southern California, which meant I got to take steeply discounted graduate-level classes. There, I discovered more or less by accident that RIT, way over in Rochester, NY, had an MS program in graphic arts and printing. At that time, it was the only program of its kind in the country.

I applied on a whim and got in.

How’d you pay for grad school?

I was 38 when I started, and I moved to Rochester from Los Angeles a year in advance to settle in, get a job, and save some money. It was important to me to work the whole time—not just so I could pay for it, but so I could practice what I was learning.

I paid for it by cashing in my meager 403(b) from USC, taking out a regular student loan, and borrowing some money from a friend. At the time, I still had undergrad student loan debt, which I deferred while in grad school. I managed to pay the whole sum off in about 5 or 6 years, partly through selling my house.

How did it work out for you?

The degree has definitely been the best thing I’ve ever done for my career. I work in print training and machinery management now—helping people set up and operate their giant industrial presses and so forth. These days, it’s a shrinking profession, and having the degree definitely has helped me stand out.

Right now, I’m 51. If I didn’t have this degree, I’d probably be a press operator looking over my shoulder and worrying about layoffs. It was a huge risk to move across the country to study when I was already pushing 40, but it went really well for me and I’m glad I did it.

Any parting words for younger folks leaving college today?

I’m so sorry that you are entering your working years in such a terrible economy. Take whatever work you can get that is within your threshold of dignity, but never below it. Save your money. Be kind and support each other. Do not suffer fools or whiners.

Why I Went To Culinary School: An Interview With A Cook

Culinary degrees and culinary careers are hot right now. They’re on TV with things like Master Chef, Top Chef,and The American Baking Competition. Celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse are the old guard by now, and hip new guys like David Chang and Eddie Huang serve up foul-mouthed, back-of-the-house street cred.

But culinary school is incredibly expensive, especially for a career with notoriously low pay, terrible hours, and incredibly long odds of becoming a superstar. What are culinary school and a real cook’s job actually like?

Aaron Weber interviewed a recent culinary grad to talk money, knife skills, and career trajectory.

What Made You Decide To Attend Culinary School?

For the better part of a decade, I’d been working in restaurants and food-service places around Boston. I was a barista for a while, but the overwhelming majority of these jobs were prep-cook jobs: I would be given a very specific task or set of tasks, and be told how to perform them.

I didn’t get to pick tasks, or pick recipes, or decide how or when or how much of something to do. Sometimes the chefs would ask my opinion, or I’d figure out a better way of doing something on my own through trial and error instead of a solid background in the basics. I was doing culinary things, but I didn’t really understand what I was doing or why.

The best job I had was as a kitchen manager, which set me up pretty well for school. That job involved the bulk of basic kitchen skills that later education would vamp.

At that point, I decided that it would be not only useful, but just plain enjoyable to hone my skills further. If I knew what I was doing, I’d be able to work more for myself and move up higher in the ranks. Plus, I’m a musician, and food seemed like a compatible and realistic way to actually make a living. Playing a gig late one night wouldn’t interfere with my schedule the next day.

Also, cooks are in high demand and there’s no shortage of jobs, so if I wanted to go on tour for a few months I wouldn’t have to worry so much about finding work when I got back. All of these things combined made the choice to attend school pretty clear.

How Did You Choose Your School?

I toured Le Cordon Bleu, and I think I looked very briefly at the Culinary Institute of America, but eventually decided to attend Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.

LCB required a regular academic program as part of its curriculum, but I’ve already been to college and I didn’t need to do it again. Both LCB and the CIA are also very long programs, while CSCA is a more fast-paced, intensive program. So the schedule was definitely in favor of CSCA.

I also spoke with a few chefs around town, and they said it was a good school and they respected it, as well, so I knew it wasn’t some fly-by-night operation.

How’d You Pay For It?

It was not cheap or convenient, I’ll tell you that.

CSCA is accredited, but it is not part of federal student aid programs and it doesn’t have much financial aid. There’s an essay-based scholarship sponsored by alumni and the Wusthof knife company, and that paid for my knife kit. That saved me around a thousand dollars.

Half of the tuition I borrowed as a private loan from Sallie Mae. I didn’t want a co-signer or guarantor. I’ve done that in the past and felt like it was a nightmare, so I went back and forth with them on the amount until they had a number they’d loan me without anyone else co-signing.

The rest, I put on a credit card. I don’t recommend it to everyone, but it worked for me. The school let me pay quarterly, and by the time I’d hit two payments, my credit limit on one of my credit cards was high enough that I could charge the rest. It was basically all money I didn’t have, but luckily I stayed on track, consolidated bills when the rates were low enough, kept up with payments, and managed to finish paying off the whole thing in a year.

After Graduation, How Hard Was It To Find Work?

It was shockingly easy. CSCA’s staff pool and class sizes are so small that everybody knows everybody. The career placement counselor and I became friends, and she was fantastic about being available to help me with ideas, résumé advice, and even making personalized phone calls to vouch for me. As long as I was working hard in school and keeping realistic expectations about steps on my journey, she was right there to extend her services.

As things were winding down and graduation was on the horizon, I decided I would apply for my “reach” job and see what happened. The woman in career services went out of her way to call human resources at the hotel where I was applying and tell them about me. One of the instructors at our school had worked there, and he also spoke on my behalf. I staged (that’s French for an internship or working interview) and was hired a week later.

My title was line cook II, and that was a pretty big step. Usually, at least at this place, you’d work prep, then be promoted to the cold station (garde manger or salad). After that, you’d be eligible to be promoted to the hot line, and after about a year on the hot line, you can be considered for a promotion to line cook II. I hadn’t worked a hot line or cooked things to order that much before, so having the degree definitely helped me move up the ranks more quickly.

How Did It Pay?

The pay was much better than I’d grown accustomed to. Most kitchen work I’d done had paid $10 per hour with no benefits. This new position paid $14.25 an hour and included health insurance and paid time off. You don’t see those kinds of things in most food jobs, but as part of a large hotel, my employer was big enough to offer them.

The work itself was very, very intense. You ever shuck an oyster? You ever shuck 800 oysters in one evening and make sure they’re all exactly right, no chips of shell, no grit, no imperfections? You’re working shift after shift, no social life, 12 hours a pop. Conveniently, I had no opportunity to spend any of the money I was making, which helped pay those loans off faster.

And I can’t lie to you: This job is painful. For the first 6 months, I looked like I’d lost a knife fight every day. There were horrible burns and cuts all over my arms. You slice a knuckle, superglue it shut, bandage it, and go back to the line. Then you reach into the oven and get a pan of duck too quickly and hot duck fat sloshes across your hands, frying the spot you just cut. Then you have to finish your shift.

I worked there for about 18 months. It wasn’t easy, but it was exhilarating.

What Are You Doing Career-Wise Now?

The next step for me was to find a groove more in tune with my original path before culinary school. Sometimes people forget where they’re really going once they start down the road.

Right now, I’m working at a school in the culinary arts program’s kitchen for the summer. We cook for the teachers, admins, and kids using much of what I learned working in catering. After this summer, I’ll be looking to move on to the next chapter, whatever that may be.

That’s the beauty of being a cook: there’s always something out there waiting for you.

Is Getting A New Car The Right Choice Financially?

My car is a 10-year-old, 2-door hatch with low mileage and a few scratches. OK, more than a few. Like, zip ties hold part of the grill to the bumper.

Last week, the front passenger seat started flopping forward whenever I hit the brakes. That’s an actual safety hazard, and it means I’ve really got to do something.

But what?


Get Rid Of It?
Fewer and fewer people, especially young people, are driving cars at all. They’re expensive, and if you live in a city, you hardly need one. You can always rent one by the hour or for a weekend if you do need it. And you skip all the hassles of parking, maintenance, and gas. The Blue Book says I could get about $4,000 if I sold it, which would buy me a bicycle and a ton of Zipcar and taxi rides.

Fix It?
The cheapest thing is to fix it. I’m spending about $2,000 a year to keep it on the road, but it’s still cheaper to fix than replace. On the other hand, that repair bill isn’t going to get any smaller. If anything major breaks on the car, it won’t even be a decent trade-in.

Replace It?
You can get a perfectly fine base-model econo-box for under $15,000. If I wait until September for the year-end clearance, I could be out the door for not too much over ten grand. I’ve got some money saved up, so I’d barely have to finance anything at all.

Or I could get a certified used car with a warranty. A 2011 or 2010 model would be better than my current car, and I might be able to skip a loan entirely. That’s appealing: Nobody wants ANOTHER loan payment, right?

Then again, that base model looks pretty chintzy. I don’t need alloy wheels, but I’d like a little more than the minimum. And you know, it’s cold up here in Boston in the winter, and I want those butt-warmers. Maybe a moon roof. And definitely a little more zip to the engine. Sure, Consumer Reports says that turbo models are generally less reliable. But you totally need it for a busy highway merge, right? Besides, VROOOM!

I could even go luxe: You can get a barely used (excuse me, “pre-owned”) baby BMW for $25,000. It comes with luxury-car maintenance and insurance costs, but it is a bimmer.

What Would You Do?
How much extra would you pay to go from adequate transportation to sweet ride? Would you borrow it?

The car dealership would say you can keep monthly payments down if you stretch the term of your loan to 5 or even 7 years. If I listen to them, I’ll be paying for my new car long after it’s no longer new. That’s no bargain at all.

From a purely rational perspective, the only reason to borrow money for a car is if you need it to get to work and have absolutely no alternative. Unlike a college education, a new car isn’t going to increase your earning potential. In fact, it’s bound to be worth less money in the future. But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned about personal finance, it’s that nobody is capable of being totally rational about money all of the time.

Personally, I’m hoping to aim somewhere in the middle: something gently used, with a warranty. I’ll skip the navigation and the engine upgrades, but in my book, those seat warmers are worth every penny.

If I Default, Can They Repossess My Education?

Wherever you work, there are bound to be people taping or tacking cartoons to the walls. Sometimes they’re just funny stuff, but more often than not it’s something related to your job.

At my desk, I recently took down the Toothpaste for Dinner comic about applying autotune to your loans, and put up one by Emily Flake about what happens when the student loan people come to repo your BA.


These comics are silly, but I like them, because they point out just how hard it is to really get your mind around a loan—especially when most of the money went straight to your school and you never actually touched it.

I mean, you might be able to recycle a 1980s bassline, but it’s pretty near impossible to turn a 1099-E into a hit R&B single. It’s not at all hard to understand that if you miss car payments the repo man will come and take the car. But what will lenders do about a student loan?

They Can’t Repo Your BA … Can They?

No. They can’t. But there are still some serious consequences if you don’t pay:

  • If it’s a couple days late, send the money and you’ll probably be fine.
  • After 30 days, you’ll be two payments behind, and probably owe a late fee as well.
  • At 60 days, your credit starts to take damage.
  • When you get toward a year late, you can enter default. At that point, things go south quick.

If You’re In Default

The consequences of default are way worse:

  • Your credit damage will be severe. You will find it harder to get a credit card, a lease, a car loan, maybe even a job. (After all, employers may not trust you with their money if they think you can’t handle your own.)
  • You’ll be charged collection costs, generally 18%–25% of the amount you owe.
  • You’ll be charged interest on those collection costs.
  • You’ll be charged interest on your late fees.
  • You’ll be charged interest on your unpaid interest.
  • You could face wage garnishment, i.e., a chunk of your paycheck taken for your loans before you even get paid.
  • Expecting a tax refund or Social Security check? Your loans can take that, too.


So, while they can’t take back the education, lenders will get their money one way or another.

If you do default, there are ways to recover, like rehabilitation and consolidation. But trust us, it’s way better to prevent default with a payment plan you can manage.

Budgeting for Vet Emergencies

I never wanted to be the person who spent a ton of money on a pet. After all, as much as the Internet loves cats, providing world-class health care for kittens seems frivolous when actual human children can’t get clean water.

I never understood the sort of person who would spend a month’s pay or more to revive a sick and elderly animal. I figured if I had a pet, I’d take a hard look at the numbers, have my maximum, and not go over it.

Then my cat got sick, and I went way over budget.



In my case, it began slowly. All cats throw up sometimes, but D’Artagnan, a.k.a. “Big D,” started doing it a lot. My wife and I noticed he looked a little thinner, but that’s not a bad thing for a 20-pound cat. And then he looked a lot thinner. He lost about 8 pounds—nearly a third of his body weight, or the equivalent of an entire average-sized cat.

His fur went dull, and he looked like a taxidermist had prepared him for mounting but forgotten the stuffing. You ever see those TV shows where a person loses 200 pounds and needs plastic surgery to remove the excess skin? He looked like that, only less life-affirming. We started calling him Skeletor.

The vet diagnosed hyperthyroidism and prescribed these chewable liver-flavored medicine treats twice a day. The diagnosis cost us a couple hundred bucks, and the medicine was about a dollar a day. He got better almost immediately, and we figured that was totally worth it.

Then he started fading again, and the vet suggested we add liver-flavored corticosteroid treats. Diagnosis and treatment cost about the same again, and again he revived almost immediately, even putting a little weight back on.


After about a year, we’d spent maybe $750 over and above the usual costs of cat ownership—food, litter, annual vaccines, and so forth. We didn’t mind. He was an exceptional cat, after all, and we could afford it. We set up a “Pets” budget on, and it was all fine and manageable.

Then, last Friday evening, he seemed ill. Saturday, when the vet was closed, we noticed he wasn’t eating. Sunday, I went to check on him—he had urinated all over himself and our bed, and was struggling to breathe.

We spent the better part of Sunday at Boston’s 24/7 animal ER. They gave him oxygen for his labored breathing, electrolytes for his too-low potassium levels, IV fluids to flush out his inflamed kidneys, and insulin to reduce his elevated blood sugar. The vet said the kidneys might be inflamed because of an infection and chronic kidney disease. Or because of cancer. They’d need a biopsy to find out.

We decided against the biopsy and took him home.


I didn’t want the biopsy for several reasons, some of them simple and most of them not: I didn’t want to spend the money. I didn’t want to have someone cut yet another hole in my poor cat. We could find out by waiting: If it’s cancer, the antibiotics won’t work. Most of all, and maybe most upsetting, there’s not much point in knowing. If he’s got cancer, we probably won’t be able to afford to treat it.

D’Artagnan is at home now, and recovering well. We’ve got a table full of medication, including a bag of electrolyte solution we inject him with every evening. We’ve become the people I used to make fun of: We’ve turned our dining room into a makeshift veterinary clinic; we spent a month’s pay on one trip to the vet.

Just in case I hadn’t noticed that it was expensive, I got an alert from warning me that I had exceeded my “Pets” budget by more than $2,000.

We don’t know how much more life we’ve bought Big D, but I’ve learned this much from the experience: Even if you think you’re pragmatic and tough about money and pets, you should still probably set aside twice what you think you’ll need for a veterinary emergency.