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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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The tone of this story is sort of an upbeat lecture on how to be "responsible borrowers." That is a bit offensive in terms of how it means to tweak public perspective on debt and its flip side: irresponsible capitalism. The idea that people have acquired debt primarily because of binge spending is a prejudice we really need to get over, not encourage. For example, in 2008, I accumulated $12,000 in credit card debt running around the state looking for work, paying $5 a gallon for gas and staying in motels. I'm still paying it off. All that debt could have been avoided with an appreciation for the need for public employment agencies that prevent job-scamming routines, false leads, employee abuse, and the ease with which companies may hire and terminate employees (outlaw temp agencies, for instance). We need more appreciation of the concept of social responsibility, and how it might reduce costs. Thirty years of over-emphasis on individual responsiblilty is what, in part, brought on the financial crisis of '08.

I Did NOT think this was a great story. In fact, I found it quite offensive.

In the story, the banker looks back at her time as a janitor and says 'there's no shame in taking a ground-level job to get yourself out of money trouble.' Well, there's her privilege showing. I truly don't think it was deliberate, but that's what 'privilege' is all about. 'No shame'? Then why call janitorial work a 'ground level job'? And why say it is not shameful, but use the qualifyer 'to get yourself out of money trouble'? There are millions of people who feel very fortunate to have a full-time job working as a janitor.

My father worked as a janitor for decades. He had a strong work ethic, he worked hard, and he took his responsibilities seriously. When he started, at a private college, he was a member of a union, with decent pay and benefits. But the college ended up hiring an outside contractor to do the janitorial work, and they fired all the workers who weren't willing to take a massive cut in pay and lose nearly all benefits.

I worked as a janitor on campus when I was a student at a public college in a small town in Minnesota. It was hard work, and other students were sometimes pretty awful in their treatment of those of us who cleaned up after them. But most were very supportive, and the staff and faculty more so.

When I graduated, I worked for a time as a janitor in an upscale mall. I once saw a woman there whom I had known in another place, and when I said hello to her, she would not even acknowledge that I had spoken, and just walked past me without making eye contact (she was with other 'professional' types). The thing is, I later worked with her again in that original setting, where we were both on the same level of professionalism. She couldn't understand why I was somewhat cold to her, and I really didn't feel like explaining it to her.

Here's another bit that made me cringe: 'The woman asked why she [Celie] was dressed so nicely.' Yeah, why would a JANITOR have a reason to dress up? And because she was a janitor, it was okay to ask her such a thoughtless and rude question. And it never occurred to anyone at Marketplace to think this might be offensive to any janitors listening. Hint: I bet it was.

The most offensive bit of the story was this: Celie says, 'When I left they gave me a going away party and someone said they've never given a janitor a going away party.' Really? If true, that's pretty sad for people in a school district. I've worked in several districts (and recently got elected to the school board in my little town). Janitors are people; like any other people, some are just there, or even grumpy, but some are greatly loved by the people they work with, both kids and adults. I've been in schools where a retiring janitor got an entire day of celebration in his/her honor.

So they gave her a party, but only because she was different from other janitors. And by 'different', the story implies 'better'. Why? Because they all knew that she wasn't 'really' a janitor, but more like someone they could respect? And there is no questioning in the story of whether or not this is a decent way of looking at other janitors. It seems to me, anyway, that that's because it's seen as a given. Well, of course other janitors don't get going away parties; why would they?

Some might think I'm reading things into this that weren't there. Try having a 'professional' janitor listen to this story, and ask what they think.

I find it a bit ironic that Marketplace has this story up on the same page as the one titled 'Houston janitors fight for fair pay in economic boom.' That article points out the injustice of the low pay janitors get in a place where money is plentiful. I guess, if we think of the people doing the dirty work as less deserving of even our notice, let alone our respect and support, then the pay disparity is easy to understand.

Personally, I have a lot more respect for janitors, as a group, than I do for bankers, but that’s another story.

tnx for the great story, and congrats to Ms. Niehaus for making those hard decisions that have led to her financial and professional success.

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