How One Recent Grad Staged Her Career Comeback

Hobbled by debt and poor job prospects, 22-year-old writer Liz Funk moved home and moved on.

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By age 20, Liz Funk had already published her first book, Supergirls Speak Out. She earned a decent living as a freelance writer in New York City and dreamed of moving to Hollywood and making it in the entertainment industry. “It was at the apex of the housing bubble, when people were feeling really rich. We’d go to happy hour, drink martinis, and get appetizers,” she says. And then it all came crashing down.

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Funk, now 22, moved to Los Angeles to pursue her Hollywood dream in the midst of the recession, and discovered that it was almost impossible to land an assistant job at a production company. Given the fact that she had already written a book and written for major publications such as USA Today and The Washington Post, she thought it would be relatively easy. Instead, she ended up working at a salon for $10 an hour and struggled to pay her $1,300 per month rent. Almost all of her earnings went toward rent, and she used credit cards to cover food, gas, insurance, and even toiletries.

“It was a disaster,” Funk says. “It’s really hard to find a job where you’re paid what you’re worth. Assistants are making $20,000 a year, and you really can’t live on that unless you’re eating Ramen for two meals a day and living with four roommates.”

After five months, Funk felt demoralized and had racked up about $12,000 in credit card debt. She was forced to accept that her Hollywood dream wasn’t going to happen. So she moved back home with her parents in upstate New York to regroup and launch her comeback. Here’s how she did it:

1. Funk paid off her debt and changed her spending habits. Her credit cards were charging up to 22 percent interest, so paying them off was her top priority. She stopped getting her nails done, avoided buying salon hair products that cost over $50 each, and looked for cheaper ways to entertain herself than going to the movies. She started meeting her friends for pizza and beer at a dive bar, which replaced her more upscale martini and salad dinners. “Now that’s the last way I’d want to spend $40,” she says.

2. She took a job that she didn’t love to get back on top of her finances. Funk found a job as a personal assistant, which she wanted to quit by day three, but stayed because she knew she needed the money. She was eventually able to leave that job to handle publicity for a start-up and work part-time as an online community manager.

3. Funk continued building her writing and speaking career. She was so exhausted from hustling in Los Angeles that she didn’t have time to pitch herself to colleges to make her usual round of speaking engagements. She ramped up those efforts once she returned home, and now has fall events on the calendar. She also launched a new website, Coming of Age in a Crap Economy, and will soon release a related E-book; part one debuts next week. The website and book are about the challenges young people face when trying to find their way in such a tough economy.

“I met kids scraping by who couldn’t afford to have their car registered ... That financial instability makes them so emotionally fragile, because you feel like you can’t take care of yourself,” she says. The book, she says, helps young people get over the embarrassment they feel from living at home, carrying debt, and being unable to find a full-time job. “I heard it over and over again, that [young people] feel they personally did something wrong, even though they know it’s the economy. But they feel it’s a reflection of their effort,” she says.

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Funk urges her readers to find ways to create new opportunities for themselves. “If you want to be a fashion designer but no one’s hiring in the industry, then you can come together with other young people with design and marketing backgrounds and make an Etsy store. The way to make a bad economy work for you is to create your own career,” she explains.

As for her own experience, Funk says, “It’s been equal parts awful, character-building, and rewarding, because now I’m finally realizing that some of those things I used to buy that I thought were essentials aren’t intrinsic to my happiness. So I guess that’s the silver lining,” says Funk. She has paid off two-thirds of her debt, and still has about $4,000 left.

Most importantly, she regained her emotional stability. “I feel like I paid $12,000 to live in an overpriced apartment with a crazy landlady who bullied me, and then I got yelled at at my stupid job. Those bad things were made even worse by the fact that I was paying for it all with interest,” she says. But considering the prospects of her new project and all the lessons learned, she says she doesn’t regret the experience.

Kimberly Palmer (@alphaconsumer) is the author of the book Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.