woman with a suitcase walking by the sea

I Worked In a Bank When I Was 22 and Wanted to Walk Into the Sea

At 22, I was professionally flailing. I’d spent my three years since dropping out of college working at a hardware chain and then at a clothing store, finally realizing after too much managerial drama that I didn’t want a future in folding jeans. So, after too many shifts spent crying over the cash register and educating my 17-year-old employees on the symptoms of a quarter-life crisis, I asked a friend for an in at the bank across the street. She worked there, she liked it, and she thought I would too. So I bought a fancy interview outfit, updated my resume, and found myself hired for a new branch about 20 minutes away.

This was my destiny (I told myself while spending far too money much on office-appropriate wear.) Now, I was going to be successful. (I repeated, realizing within a week on the job that I’d made a mistake.) I didn’t need retail. (I missed it.) Especially when I was about to become my family’s first financial wizard. (My credit card was maxed out on new work outfits).

I lasted two months at the bank before crawling back to the mall, asking my manager if I could work the evenings I wasn’t scheduled to close the bank. I needed laughter. I needed camaraderie. I missed being able to reference The Office (it was 2007) and using my outdoor voice in an indoor setting. Also, I needed the money: I’d gotten into university after upgrading my marks and was heading back to school in September 2008.

Plus, a discount on jeans is never a bad thing.

I grew up in a blue collar family. My mom and dad kept me clothed, fed, housed, and loved, but we didn’t holiday (aside from day trips), buy big ticket items, or toss around terms like “investments” (and I still don’t really know how they work.) Which was fine by me: the only “rich” person I knew growing up was the daughter of the man who owned the company my grandpa once worked for, and all of us were in awe of the fact that her house sat on top of a hill. I went to public school, knew I’d have to pay for university myself, and shopped knowing whatever I bought was also on me. Which is how I landed in credit card debt at 19, 20, and 21. High off the power of my first Visa, I’d maxed it out on low-rise bootcut jeans and logo hoodies, so working at both the bank and the mall promised to solve all my problems: one paycheck could go towards minimum payments, the other would go to tuition, and I’d leave a certain amount for “regular spending.” Easy.

But nothing’s easy when you would rather walk into the sea than go to work. I’d started at the bank in September 2007, and by December I dreaded starting my shifts. But not because of my coworkers (most of them were so lovely), but because of what the job entailed: as a teller, you have to sell credit and products to customers. And I didn’t want to. First, because I hated my job (and didn’t want to do anything), and second, because it felt gross selling credit to people who didn’t want it (especially when I barely had any left to my own name). I’d hear myself talking rates and limits and minimum payments, and felt like a hypocrite. Especially since I not only had no idea what I was talking about, but because as an irresponsible credit user myself, I didn’t care. I felt like I was in the financial bell jar.

Which was made worse because aside from my inability to move product, I was really good at everything else. I was good at the admin work, good at talking to customers, good at organizing large sums of money (despite being nervous and scared around it constantly), and good at navigating our computer system. And that would’ve been fine, had I worked with a supervisor I actually liked working with: instead, I worked with a supervisor whose moods changed on a dime, leading to hours spent walking on eggshells and/or forcing ourselves to laugh at bad jokes, in hopes of preventing outbursts later on.

Of course, at 30 I would’ve handled it better. I would’ve reminded myself that this job was funding my future and that I was lucky to have it and that every hour of pay was closer to the end of my stint there. But I was 22. So instead of logic or rationality, I just checked out. I started wearing the same outfits every day, started snapping back at my temperamental boss and any/all angry customers, and slowly morphed into Jim from The Office without the camera to mug to or compelling love interest (minus the mortgage expert who lived with his girlfriend — but he wasn’t interested). And after a while, my sales were so bad it was branch legend: I was the first teller to hit -30% revenue, making my future there a near-impossibility.

So I quit before I got fired. Realizing I’d rather make money where I felt good about my job, my coworkers, and who I was at that job, I realized I’d rather work more hours for less pay than work under someone who wouldn’t let me leave a shift early to beat a blizzard. (Which, for the record, I almost got stuck in.)

“It’s not who you are,” my supervisor’s supervisor said in response to my two weeks’ notice. “You’re just being true to yourself.”

Which, ironically, was the most valuable lesson I learned when working at a financial institution — a place built entirely on numbers and business and logic and money and affluence. And arguably, it was also the only lesson. I clung to that idea so tightly — the idea that I was figuring out who I was, that I had to make mistakes, that I had to learn hard lessons, that I had to live messily and recklessly — that after saving for tuition, I ended up racking up even more debt in the wake of starting school. And I eventually dropped out again.

Which were also lessons I had to learn. So while money can certainly make things easier, it doesn’t always lead to fulfillment. Or answer the questions that wake you up in the middle of the night. I may have had to work more shifts at the mall than is healthy for most people (and then dig myself out of a literal money pit a few years later), but money — whether counting it in the vault or trying to convince people to spend more to make your sales goal for the month — cannot buy you happiness. Not when you’re just wearing the same outfit to work out of spite, anyway.

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