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Financial Passages

Buddy, the Ivy league unemployed.  

Good-bye, Rat race. Good-bye, Bank Account.

New York's perks come with a price -- and when that price becomes less bearable, some call it a career crisis. Buddy graduated from an Ivy League law school in 1994 fairly confident that he'd never want for much. His associate job at White & Case vaulted him above the six-figure mark, but he had a hard time seeing past the twenty-hour work days and endless hazing process. "I became so testy and so aggravated," he says. "There's a line the other night from the Sopranos that made me think about it: 'The money flows up, and the shit flows down.' "

After taking six years to pay off most of his $100,000 in loans, he quit to try entertainment law, and his salary dropped as low as the sixties. Then, last winter, Buddy was one of the hundreds laid off by Cablevision. He's used last year's tax refund to pay his living expenses while his unemployment check covered his $1,620 rent. Now his unemployment is running out, and he's bracing himself for a huge tax liability next year on his unemployment checks. Luckily, his loans are paid off and he has no credit-card debt, but he's 33 with $6,500 in retirement savings. The jobs he's scrambling for now pay 10 to 15 percent less than what he started with eight years ago. So he's looking at corporate work again.

But something's changed. At the height of his corporate-law days, he'd drop between $90 and $150 a night at karaoke bars, thinking nothing of buying drinks for good-looking women. Today, he says, "my cooking's gotten better. I like to entertain at home now. But it's very hard to do that on a first date, so I'm meeting fewer women." Sometimes, he feels taken advantage of. "There may be an impression that even a lawyer who's been unemployed most of the year still has a lot of money. I had someone over. We ordered in. Then when it came time to pay, she didn't make a move! It cost me $30 for her to visit me."

And Baby-Sitter Makes Four

Here's a couple who did everything right and are still feeling the pinch: Laurie and Charlie, both lawyers, bought a one-bedroom in Soho for $180,000 five years ago, before the market peaked, had a baby, and then bought the adjacent studio for $130,000, knocking down the wall. Their 1,250-square-foot place could now sell for $750,000. "We were in this fantasy world where we'd refinance and buy a place on Fire Island," says Laurie. "But that was just a dream."

Each month, they pay a $1,900 mortgage, $1,000 maintenance, and $800 toward $110,000 in student loans and credit-card debt. They found a deal on a $340-a-week nanny -- "unbelievable, on the books and everything" -- but then came preschool. "We had enrolled him in a $7,000-a-semester private school," Laurie remembers, "and I went there and all the kids were running around in Tod's shoes. Those cost almost $200. That's just not a reality for him. I wondered if we'd come to feel, totally unjustifiably, that we weren't giving him everything we should be." They chose a part-time cooperative pre-K instead, costing $500 a month.

Their income has also taken a hit, by their own design: Because of the baby, they quit their corporate-law jobs and got in-house-counsel jobs with better hours. Now in their early thirties, they make about $200,000 between them. Which means they haven't furnished the place the way they'd planned. "Other people throw parties at FAO Schwarz," says Laurie. "We're having his for the third year in a row at a sandbox in Washington Square Park."

What astounds Laurie the most is her Catch-22: Staying here gives you access to jobs she and Charlie would never have . . . but with expenses the jobs can barely cover. "I travel to Shanghai, Bucharest, London, L.A.," she says. "Charlie's doing all this investment in the former Soviet republics. We both know that we wouldn't be doing this if we were anywhere else. But if Charlie had stuck it out at his firm now, he'd be up for partner, making $750,000-plus. That would have been interesting."