Seven-year-old me loved when adults would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew exactly what I’d be: the sixth Spice Girl. Tragically, that didn’t happen. But I did become a lot of other things: a pizza girl, a mall employee, office assistant, resident assistant, tour guide leader, unpaid intern and, finally, professional writer and editor. By the time I graduated college, I had taken more odd jobs than I could count on my fingers. And I wasn’t alone — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most young workers hold an average of 6.3 jobs between the ages of 18 and 25. Looking back, I can see how these early, less-than-glamorous part-time positions prepared me for life as a financially independent adult.
1. Food service
A week after I turned 16, I donned a blue polo shirt and joined my older brother at the local Domino’s Pizza. He showed me the ropes, and before long I was taking orders, addressing complaints from unhappy customers, organizing delivery bags for drivers and even tossing dough like a pro. Best of all, I had access to free pizza.
Despite the freebies, the job was by no means glamorous. I came home covered with cornmeal and pizza sauce. The pay wasn’t great (just above minimum wage), but the modest checks that I picked up every two weeks made me a more conscientious consumer. For the first time, I knew what it felt like to make and spend my own money. But the biggest change in my money habits came in the form of generously tipping everyone who had a hand in my food service—especially pizza delivery drivers.
2. Public service
For four summers, I worked in the public records office at my local sheriff’s office. It was a solid gig for a new high school graduate: the pay was better, and I didn’t have to come home smelling like pepperoni.
I also got to witness the minutiae of how the outcomes of annual budget meetings affected the lives of others. The Clay County Sheriff’s Office is the sixth-largest employer in my Florida hometown. When rumors about budget meetings circulated at the water cooler, it wasn’t just my pay that was on the line. Neighbors, friends’ parents and my own mother worked there too.
When the recession hit, hiring freezes were implemented. Raises stopped. In 2011, salaries were cut by 3%. Despite the tense financial atmosphere, I was amazed at how the CCSO employees banded together to make the most of our limited resources. My summers in the records office taught me about how spending works on a societal level—and how it affects my everyday life.
As an employee of American Eagle Outfitters, I loved making money by selling clothes to high school friends when I was home for the summer. I also enjoyed the employee discount … perhaps a little too much.
After spending countless hours with a roll of markdown stickers, I learned just how fluid retail prices can be. Now that I’m no longer a member of the retail army, I rarely buy anything at full price. As for those store credit cards that I used to advertise? Take it from me: You’re better off without them.
4. On-campus jobs
Most students at Stetson University in Florida fell into one of two categories: those who came from families that could afford the private liberal arts school’s tuition, and those who did not. I fell into the latter category.
Luckily, scholarships and $20,000 in federal student loans (which I’m happily repaying) allowed me to significantly bring down the upfront cost of each semester. I deferred payments for my first year in the real world, so my balance is only slightly smaller today than it was three years ago. Thankfully, now that I’m making full payments each month, that debt is steadily shrinking.
I also qualified for a work-study permit, which allowed me to work in different departments on campus. One semester I was an office aide in the Career Services Office. I became a resident assistant, which granted me free room and board in exchange for a few nights of work each month. Another year I worked in the admissions office as a tour guide. These positions taught me the value of networking and maintaining those connections. To this day, I still turn to my first editor at the school newspaper for professional advice.
5. Unpaid internships
My first real taste of life as a professional writer came during my journalism internship at Orlando Magazine. I worked there three mornings a week, building a portfolio of published clips to carry me into the working world.
The internship put a serious dent in my budget for last-semester shenanigans. I was spending an additional $50 a week in gas alone to make the 80-mile, round-trip drive each day. But all that work paid off. Within a year of graduation, I was offered a full-time position at Jacksonville Magazine. In retrospect, those tight weeks eating PB&J sandwiches were worth it.
Those experiences also taught me a valuable career lesson: it’s important to help the younger professionals coming up behind you. As I rose in the ranks at the magazine, I realized how much time and attention my former editors had poured into my internship. I made it a point to give my interns projects that would help them learn and grow. I still keep in touch with a few of my former interns. One day, I’m sure, they’ll do the same.