book excerpt

How Phoebe Robinson Hustled Her Way Out of $65,000 in Debt

Phoebe Robinson. Photo: Mindy Tucker

Comedian Phoebe Robinson has written a new collection of essays titled Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay, which is slated to hit stores on October 16. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the book, in which she reflects on going through a horrible “seven‑year‑debt saga” while trying to get her comedy career off the ground and what the experience taught her about money. You can catch her at the Gramercy Theatre on October 15.

So the boyfriend, who was also struggling with money, and I moved in together, and almost immediately, our relationship fell apart. Every single incompatibility was clear as day, and eventually I broke up with him and we agreed that since I ended the relaysh, I would move out. But I ain’t have no money, y’all — despite getting an advance for my first book and soon‑to‑be bestseller, You Can’t Touch My Hair. “How can that be?” one might ask. “I thought authors were rich?” Ummmm, the lucky few like J. K. Rowling and Stephen King are. But lil ole me, an unproven author who will probably only be able to afford to shop at Forever 21 when I’m sixty‑one? No. “But not even with your book advance?” Again, no. You see, advances are divided into installments: You get a chunk when you sign the contract, more cashola rolls in when you turn in the completed manuscript, and the final third arrives to your bank account shortly after publication. My advance for #YouCantTouch was $25,000 before taxes and before my manager’s and lit agent’s commissions. So when all was said and done, what I received from my advance was somewhere in the ballpark of $18,000 … spread out over twenty‑two months. Yeeeeeeah, you know when you get a box of decadent cookies and the serving size on the back reads, “Excavate one chocolate chip from one cookie like Indiana Jones unearthing an artifact, grind that chip down to a fine powder, and then whisper, ‘Sssh, it’ll be over soon,’ and vacuum up the powder with a Dyson”? That’s how it felt to have this paltry advance divvied up.

Since the Fuse show was over, I was auditioning for on‑camera work and applying for writing jobs, so I used up the first $6,000 to stay afloat. I explained to my publisher my dire situation. They put a rush job on depositing the next batch of money to me and I used it all. Most of it went towards securing my new apartment (the three months’ rent worth), so I opened another credit card, and combined with the last of that 6K, I hired movers, bought plates and an air conditioner (that UPS subsequently lost and never replaced) and a bed frame and a terrible mattress that eventually jacked up my back. Turns out getting rid of all my possessions to move in with ex‑bae was not such a good idea, but thank Jesus aka Tina Turner’s wig collection I got to take one thing with me, the couch I bought for us, because in my new place, it’s what I slept on for two months while I waited for my bed from CB2 to be delivered.

So there I was. Almost thirty‑one, heartbroken, making $150 per blog post, if I was lucky, with the most debt I’d ever had in my life: $46,000 in student loans and $19,000 in credit cards. And all I could think was, “How did I get here again?” I mean, the same financial troubles that were dogging me in 2009 were still knockin’ at my door in 2015. But this time, they were worse.

I remember one night, when I was going over the mountain of bills a few months before my book came out in October 2016, I said aloud, in my empty apartment, “Who do you think you’re dealing with? I’m not one of your nappy‑headed friends.” And I gotta tell ya, talking to money the way some black parents reprimand their kids may feel good in the moment, but it didn’t change my situation. I was scraping money together, taking horrible stand‑up gigs at colleges, accepting tiny loans from a couple of friends, relying on the kindness of strangers such as hotel employees when I’d ask them not to charge me for incidentals because I didn’t have enough in my bank account for that and to pay for a taxi to get me to the airport the next day. I felt horrible. And I certainly couldn’t tell my parents at this point. I was too embarrassed and, more importantly, I was livid.

I believed money had it out for me and was the enemy who was always getting the best of me no matter how hard I tried to outsmart it. And you best believe I was trying. Yet I was failing every single time to get ahead. Why me? Every single day, I would ask why. Why am I going through this financial situation when other people I know aren’t? Why can I never get ahead of this debt? Why am I struggling in New York City, eight years into a career that still isn’t paying off? Why will no one hire me? Why does no one believe in me? I don’t deserve this, so why is this happening to me? Why can’t I have money? Why does money hate me? Why is money a stupid heaux? And then, on a particularly low day when I was doing pre‑book‑release press with a smile on my face even though I was stressed AF, something in my brain took over and I asked the following question: What am I supposed to learn from this?! Pause.

What am I supposed to learn from this? Whoa. What. Am. I. Supposed. To. Learn. From. This. Huh. How did that question get in there? I mean, in the seven‑year‑debt saga, I must have asked myself a million questions, and this was the first time I ever asked myself a question in which I wasn’t the victim. It wasn’t about money having power over me, or about distracting myself by worrying about my friends’ bank accounts, or about my comedy career being nothing but fits and starts. It was about me. So what the hell was the lesson? I mean, yes, obviously, don’t blow your severance package. Be conservative with money during trying times. The real way debt gets ya is the interest, so only charge what you can pay off in full; otherwise, it ain’t worth the headache of having. Those are all wonderful lessons. But the real point: Money isn’t the enemy, and if I’m going to spend my whole life fighting it or being mad at it or fearing it, then it’s going to rule me.

Money rules some folks by making them believe they have to spend all the time. It makes others be so cheap that they can never take a time‑out to treat themselves every once in a while. But for me, I tried to pull a fast one on it, thinking I was cute and could get away with taking from an unknowable heaux, and I got caught. And instead of accepting the consequences, I got mad, and the debt became all I thought about, all I thought I would ever know, so I never truly tried to change my ways. I was going to be saddled with this dictator, so I might as well accept it. I might as well hide this part of my life, hide this shame and accept my fate. But what if I didn’t anymore? What if I decided to think about money differently?

So, fine. Maybe money is a heaux, but in a good way. It’s that thing I call on for a good time, but like a BFF, it will also show me tough love, and usually that tough love was in the form of an overdraft fee for overdrawing my account or high interest rates for abusing my credit card. And perhaps money is just like everyone and everything else in the world: If I stop being a reckless fool and accept responsibility for the choices I make, it’ll roll with me. After all, I didn’t have to pursue comedy. That was a choice I made. I didn’t have to quit my day job with a flimsy‑ass backup plan because the alternative — staying in a job and never really going after what I want — is one I’ve seen too many people take. Again, that was a choice. I don’t get to have everything on my terms just because I want it my way, and that includes money. So accept it, Pheebs. Accept the good and the bad that comes with my approach to money. So I did.

One night before my book came out, I called the friend who I had borrowed money from to pay my rent, thanked her for the loan, Venmo’d her back, and told her, “Um, I’m nineteen grand in the hole.” And guess what? She didn’t judge me. She just listened. I told another friend and still another friend. Again and again, no one judged me. They just were there for me emotionally. Still, I didn’t tell too many people. I didn’t want everyone in my grill — lol — and that everyone included my parents. I wasn’t quite ready for Ma and Pa Robinson knowing what I got myself into. I was just content that I could say my truth to anyone, and what I feared — ridicule, shame, disappointment — never came. I could talk openly about money and it wasn’t going to be the end of the world or make people talk bad about me or gossip about me to others. Sure, there are people who will make a feast out of talking about other people’s financial woes, but you know what? You can’t control that, so who the fuck cares? Life is too hard and we’re all trying to stay afloat financially to let what others might think matter just as much, if not more, as having enough money in the bank to live. And if we all just decided to not be so secretive about money, maybe we’d all feel better? I know that once I stopped hiding, I did. So with relief and the empowered energy coursing through my veins, I returned my focus to fixing my financial future.

In fact, I made a deal with myself: You are paying off all your debt in the next two years. I would say this to myself every single day. You are paying off all your debt in the next two years. Yeah, you. No excuses. You can do this. As I started gaining momentum, I amended that statement: You are paying off all your debt in the next two years and then, and only then, can you tell your parents. Having them, not the eradication of the debt, as the final, ultimate goal made me more determined than ever. They became my North Star in a way, and I repeated this goal to myself at some point almost every single day … Wait a minute …

Holy fuck. Time‑out. This is not for show. I am truly freaking out right now! HOLY. FUCK! Okay, you’re probably like, “Pheebs, what the hell is going on?” Okay, okay. Sorry. This is just wild. So October 2016, I made that promise to myself. With the last of the book advance and the determination to live extremely tight and take every single freelance gig I could get, I paid off all my credit card debt by the beginning of 2017. In the spring of 2017, 2 Dope Queens the podcast was blowing up in popularity. So much so that Jessica and I had Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia and Sleater‑Kinney fame as a guest. A week later, I was asked if I wanted to write on the show; I said yes. By the beginning of the summer, that writing gig was over, but I had earned enough money to pay off the entirety of my student loan debt. Cut to right now. This book is being published in October 2018, almost exactly two years after I made the promise to myself to tell my parents what I’d gone through. A promise that I literally just remembered right now as I’m freaking writing this essay that my parents are reading.

Excerpt from EVERYTHING’S TRASH, BUT IT’S OKAY by Phoebe Robinson, to be published on October 16, 2018 by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Phoebe Robinson.

How Phoebe Robinson Hustled Her Way Out of $65,000 in Debt