The Awl's Choire Sicha: 'I've never bought anything I didn't have cash for'
Location: New York, NY
Why we care: When he graduated high school at 17, Choire Sicha had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. After more than a decade working in the non-profit and art world, he started blogging and landed a job as one of Gawker Media's early editors, where he worked off and on until he felt he needed to break free. In 2009, Sicha started The Awl, a blog dedicated to discussing the most engrossing issues of our day.
You didn't go to college. Why not?
My parents both changed their lives through going to college and through academics. I'm pretty sure they were the first to pursue college in their family, and I was like, "Psh, whatever!" I did really poorly in high school, and I was not a good planner. I graduated one day and was like, "Whoa! I guess I'm not going to college."
Did your mom sit you down and talk about what you were going to do after high school?
I expect that happened. I don't think I was listening. She was very forthright about lots of things: About sex, drugs, alcohol, and planning for things. She got those skills out of thin air and I was like, "Don't pin me down, man!" I was a total schmuck as a teenager.
Most people figure out their careers in college. How did you figure out what you wanted to do with your life?
Not going to college does delay getting on a track if you want to do certain things. I worked for years, sort of accidentally, in non-profits. I got a job at a homeless shelter and at AIDS organizations and did that for a number of years. There's actually a career track there for people who have an education in that field. I could have pursued that and gone to school at night, but I would have been really poor for the rest of my life.
A lot of college graduates leave with a heavy burden of debt. Were you accruing any during this time?
Nope. When I look at the debt people I know and work with have, it kind of freaks me out. One of the things that's weird about me, is that I never accrued any debt. I haven't had credit cards or a loan of any kind in my entire life.
Really? Are you trying to build a credit record at all?
I literally do not have one. When you put me in Equifax or whatever, they're literally like, "NO RECORD!" I've never owned a piece of property, and I've barely had my name on leases. I've never had a credit card or a store charge account. I've always operated cash-only. I have a single debit card and a single bank account. And I've never bought anything that I didn't have the cash for. People look at me like I'm crazy when I talk about this.
But that's great! You shouldn't buy things you don't have the money for.
Yeah! The only problem is that you end up in a scrape sometimes when you don't have cash.
Do you imagine owning a home or a car or other things that sort of require you to have a credit record?
I have a car! I bought it from a friend. But it's a really good question. When you don't have a traditional financial life as we look at it in America, you sort of think, "Well, clearly, I will never have an IRA." And it's unlikely that I'll have a credit record, so how does that work?
In a way, that sounds a little refreshing given the amount of debt a lot Americans have now.
Yes, but every now and then I'll wake up in the middle of the night and remember that I don't have an end game or retirement plan. That's one of the reasons we started building our own business with the website - to own something, and not be subject to the working world now where you're really disposable. Especially in the last couple of years! In the vast majority of the fields out there, there's no stability there whatsoever. I don't think having those kinds of jobs is good financial planning either.
So how did you decide to become a writer?
The first writing job I ever got was Gawker. I sort of got to know Nick [Denton, Gawker's founder] online. And he hired me to start their porn site, actually. Unlike a lot of people in that field, he was willing to take risks, willing to hire someone who never worked in the field before. And for that I'm grateful.
Well, at least you didn't have to do unpaid internships.
In a way, I sort of did my own internships. I ran a website with a friend for a few years online. We worked really hard at it. We took our personal blogging very seriously, and we wrote every day. I was a really messy writer. I had all the bad habits. That initial experience of writing online taught me how to write better. And when I started working as a writer, I had those kind of jobs that don't really exist anymore where you learn how to write. About a year or so after I did Gawker, I had this job writing arts listings for the New York Times - 25 words on 20 or 30 different events throughout the week. It went through three or four layers of editing, and I was like, "God! I hate you people. Leave me alone!" It was like the best bootcamp in the entire world. Everything was about clarity and facts and expressing basic information. It was a wonderful experience. And I'd never do it again. I'd rather stab myself.
So you sort of got your own education.
I actually had the experience of getting paid to learn, which doesn't happen anymore. And this wasn't very long ago. When I first started at the New York Observer, and the first crop of interns showed up there, half were from Harvard, and half were from Yale. And I was like, "So, there's no other way into this system then coming from Harvard or Yale and getting an internship where you don't get paid?"
How did you end up at the Observer?
I got my first writing assignment from the Observer because a woman read something I wrote, and I got a phone call saying, "Listen, it's me, and you'll report to this person tomorrow." And I was like, "Who are you? But OK!"
Well, that's lucky, and doesn't happen anymore!
I've never done anything smart in my life. I'm just a really lucky person who hangs out and tries to say yes to everything. It's not like I have a lot of money, I haven't done a good job at accumulating worldly things, but I've had a good time.
You recently wrote about how you save for emergency situations. It seemed very financially responsible of you.
It's one of my few financially responsible good things! One of the things that was weird was that I always carried a little bit of stock that had a tendency to split. Every once in awhile, I could take out like a thousand dollars, and I always kept it in a reserve system. I always had $10,000 or $20,000 tucked away. Because when you don't have a credit card, and you don't have health insurance, and you get hit by a truck or you want to quit a job, you gotta have something.
But you have stocks! How did you learn to invest?
The thing about doing what I do and living in New York is that you meet a lot of rich people, and rich people will teach you, if you talk to them, how to handle money and deal with financial transactions. And you should ask them! You have to be like, "How does this work? What do you guys do?" Take the tips from the rich people, because they like to keep money! I've always been interested in the stock market anyway. Now, I did get completely hosed in the stock market for the most part, in the last couple years. I have a tiny bit of stock left, and much of it is unsellable due to its current condition.
Because having money also allows you to have things like health insurance.
Health insurance is like this exotic animal to me. Every once in awhile it will come into my life and I'm like, "Wow! I can go to the doctor!" And then it leaves, as it always does. I hate participating in systems that are so broken, so that's why I never have credit cards, because I think credit cards are just a terrible system. And health insurance I feel for most people is such a terrible rip-off. But, I'm totally obsessed right now with those Christian health sharing organizations.
Right! Well, you can't be in one if you drink. Or do anything that God hates.
I know. My friends were like, "Well, we could start our own!" But I was like, "You're all fat and drunk. I'm not paying for you! I love you guys, but you're terrible to your bodies." But nobody's going to have me either.
Do you even want lots of money?
I have extremely good taste. So I like things that are expensive and have lots of value because they're valuable. But having worked in the art world for several years, I'm sensitive to the arbitrary value of things. The price of everything is pretty much made up! I want to be responsible and be in a place where I can support myself and my cat and my family. But I guess I see people get in this fugue state when they're looking at nice houses or nice things, and they get a little glassy-eyed like, "I. WANT. THIS." And I'm like, "Why, what for? And then you're going to sit in your house and be happy?" It doesn't work like that.
Did you know that know that writing was going to be such a struggle before you decided to make the leap?
I knew I was putting myself in a position of serious financial insecurity. Things were different back then. People would just call you and ask, "Hey, do you want to write this?" And then they wouldn't publish it, but they'd pay you a lot of money. Magazines were phenomenally wasteful with money, and it's not like that anymore.
How difficult was it to start The Awl?
The one thing I tell everyone starting out is to go into business with a business person. And we have. Two of us are editorial, and one of us is business. The two of us on the editorial side could die and everything would be fine, because we don't really matter. Being in newspapers, nobody ever knew the mysterious people on the business side. That's because we're all stupid and don't know anything about business. And we've done ourselves a disservice by not knowing that stuff.
And you're also working on a book!
Yes. It's late! Writing books is great because when you start doing it you realize, "Any moron can do this, why didn't you do this sooner?" Like, there's no rules and no standards. Just write a book, who cares! I'm serious, don't fret about it. Just write one and write another one six months later. They're not even that long! If you've written a couple of magazine-length pieces, it's just a couple of those and a couple more, maybe. The nice thing about writing a book, is that I felt excited for a few minutes. It demystified a whole world to me. I always thought book writers were special and magical, and it's just not true. Any jerk can write a book.
Your book is about what it's like to be young and living in a corner of New York. Have any insights?
One thing I think I've seen is that the stress level is so much higher today than it was a couple of years ago. And these young people are carrying insane, massive loads of debt. I feel like that stress is so onerous and so counter-productive to people's lives. I think it's very sophisticated for people to work in their chosen fields and live while functioning under decades worth of interest payments.
One of the things I've learned at Bundle is how much you can learn when you talk honestly about your finances. Do you feel the same?
I once worked at a place with two good friends. Two of us were men and one was a woman. Finally, one day, we were all like, "It's important that we as co-workers know what we make." The only benefits to us not knowing was for our boss. The two men were making the same dollar amount, and the woman was being paid $10,000 less! So she was like, "Oh, I'm being hosed, in a clearly sexist proposition. And I would never had known that if I didn't have the foresight to talk about things we should keep private for no good reason."
Do you think you're living comfortably now?
No. I'm broke. But I can afford cigarettes! I believe very strongly in the bets I've made. The business is doing great. I'm having a good time. I like what I do. I have a roof. You know, everything's going better than what I can expect. Now, I ain't 28, so I do try to think like a grownup. But I can never do that for long.
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