How Following My Dreams Set Back My Life
My life goal was to join the Peace Corps. I spent ten years working to get enough experience. I served as an AmeriCorps volunteer, and gathered real work experience, in addition to college classes. Every major choice I made, was in service of getting enough experience for the Peace Corps.
One day, I realized I was in a good place financially, and could probably qualify for a mortgage loan. I wanted to settle in and be a real adult. Babies didn’t seem so… off-putting anymore. They were cute, even when they were crying. My ovaries did things when I saw them.
I also realized I had enough experience to finally meet the high standards of a Peace Corps volunteer, so I applied.
And I got in.
It was a magical two years and four months. Completely life changing. I left the United States scared and shy. I came back home feeling confident, and capable of finally advocating for myself.
My good credit that once could have gotten me a house, was destroyed.
I couldn’t find a job. Unemployed, I lived with my mother for a year.
Plus, I was sick. So, so, so sick.
A solid year passed by before I was able to get a handle on my health.
I had to move back to my former residence in order to find a job. Something I swore I wouldn’t do. It was literally like going back to square one. As grateful that I am for the opportunity to return, it just wasn’t what I wanted.
It took a while to figure it all out. To get my life back in order and to be the financially self-sufficient adult I was before I left for the Peace Corps. Even though I’m doing better now, 18 months after my return, my credit is still shot, and getting caught up is a struggle.
There are definitely some things I wish I would have done differently during my Peace Corps service. I hope, dear reader, if you take anything away from my experience let it be the following lessons.
Make sure you sign a power of attorney if you’ve left the country for more than 6 months. My mom could have handled so much of this random credit stuff for me. Almost everything listed below is something my mom could have helped me with, if she had power of attorney.
Get your bills in order before you leave. One of the things that destroyed my credit was my phone bill. I tried to cancel it and waive the ETF, but because of their hard sell, and my really high stress levels, I let them put it on hold for 3 months. Once those three months ended, I meant to cancel it then, but of course, I was in the middle of the desert in Africa by then. They charged me for an additional 3 months before canceling the account and sending it to collections.
What you can do: If someone had power of attorney, they could have continued this fight for me after I left. Many companies have (or had) a clause that states if you are breaking your contract early because you are leaving the country, they will waive the fee.
Lock your credit down. While I was away, a credit card was opened in my name. I didn’t find out about it until I got home. It is a difficult process to dispute claims with credit bureaus.
What you can do: You can apply to the major credit bureaus to put a lock on your SSN, which keeps companies from pulling your credit. There is a fee for this service, but it’s nominal to finding out you owe $1500 on a card you’ve never seen.
Have a rainy day fund. I didn’t have much in my personal savings when I left for the Peace Corps, assured that my stipend would be enough to live on. It mostly was, but I enjoyed having extra money for trips with my friends. But it would have been really nice to have an extra $5000 or so upon my return. Yes, the Peace Corps give you a readjustment allowance, but if you’ve been supporting yourself for 10 years before your service started (like I had), feeling forced to move back in with your parents is a hard blow to your ego.
What you can do: Start saving now. You’ll hear it a million times, but let me tell once more: start saving now. Take 10% and stash it the F away. (You can use an app like Digit.co, Acorns, or Stash to make it painless.)
Get your health care in order. While I was gone, the Affordable Care Act was fully integrated and I did not take full advantage of its services. Mostly, I was too sick to think straight, and even though I qualified for medicare upon my return, I didn’t sign up until I desperately needed a week long dose of antibiotics. I paid for that again in 2017 when filing my taxes and I received a penalty for the months I wasn’t covered by medicaid. But the most important part of that for me was, I have an undiagnosed health issue that based on my current lifestyle, I cannot get diagnosed without causing severe illness. If I had gotten my healthcare in order before I left, or upon my return, I could be saving myself thousands of dollars every year.
What you can do: Find out what you’re eligible for. And then sign up for it immediately. Don’t delay. There are volunteers who can help you guide through the process through 211.org.
It’s going to take me at least another year or two to repair my credit, and who knows if I’ll ever get my health issues diagnosed. But when I think back to those hot days in Botswana, I know I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Sure, starting over is hard. Picking up the pieces of your destroyed credit is hard. Even learning to take care of health in this new way is hard. But I have this experience of a lifetime in my memories.
I followed my dreams, and joined an elite group of Americans who sacrificed two years of their lives to spread peace and love across the world. Like, reality can always wait.