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From banker to janitor -- all in a day's work

To get herself out of debt, one banker had to take a very different kind of job.

Kai Ryssdal: American consumers find themselves stuck on the horns of a fairly existential economic dilemma. Spend more so the economy gets going again. But hey, don't go too far into debt. Our segment this week for Money Matters, about the news affecting our wallets, is the story of a banker who solved her own personal financial crisis by taking a very different kind of job.

From the Wealth and Poverty Desk, Krissy Clark reports.


Krissy Clark: Celie Niehaus woke up one day with a spending hangover. She was in her late 20s at the time, and in deep, deep credit card debt -- $10,000. half her annual income. The hangover was especially brutal for her since she was, well? She was an officer at a bank.

Celie Niehaus: Had been in financial services for many years and knew better, and still made the same mistake that many consumers make. Just too much consumption. I had a little too much fun, got myself in debt and of course at the end of the day you have to pay it back.

As a banker Celie was well versed in the mechanics of paying off debt -- reduce spending, increase revenue. First she worked on the reduce spending part -- went on a shopping freeze, stopped going out to eat.

Niehaus: I started walking to and from work.

The rasing revenue part? That was a little trickier. Her job at the bank was full time, and salaried.

Niehaus: So I couldn't work extra hours at the bank to increase my income, which led me to the second job. I was fortunate enough to know some people that worked for the Fayette County school system and they had told me about a janitor's job.

And she took it. Five nights a week, four hours a night.

Niehaus: I learned a lot about cleaning, believe me.

Fifty offices, every day...

Niehaus: Empty their trash cans, vacuum, get on my hands and knees to clean the table. The glass would need to be finger print free. The mopping, that's not an easy job.

Then one day, she was rushing back from her banker job in her business suit...

Niehaus: Trying to get home to change my clothes.

When she ran in to a woman who worked in the school administration offices she cleaned.

Niehaus: She made eye contact with me.

Celie waved at her, said hello.

Niehaus: She looked at me, there was no recognition. And I said, it's Celie.

Then Celie thinks -- oh, right.

Niehaus: You don't recognize me without my garbage can. That's when she realized that I was the janitor.

The woman asked why she was dressed so nicely, and Celie explained the whole situation. By the time she got in for her janitorial shift that evening, everyone who worked in the office seemed to know about her secret life as a banker.

Niehaus: As I went from office space to office space with my garbage can and vacuum they would start asking me financial services questions. Questions about loans, questions about debt. When I left they gave me a going away party and someone said they've never given a janitor a going away party.

It took Celie two years to pay off her credit card debt. Today, nearly 20 years later? She's a vice president at E-Trade. In her spare time, she teaches young people about personal finance. She uses this story as a lesson. Looking back, she says, there's no shame in taking a ground-level job to get yourself out of money trouble. She hopes maybe those office workers she met as a janitor learned that lesson, too.

I'm Krissy Clark for Marketplace.

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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