The best and worst decision of my life

By Emily Petraglia

When I was 18, I thought that working in a bar made me the coolest kid on the block.

Few students my age were trusted with the kind of responsibility and maturity that it takes to operate in a bar successfully. I hit the bull’s eye the first try and accepted a position at the first bar I ever applied to. I thought that made me a hot topic.

For a while, especially in my undergraduate years, it really did. People from high school envied me for not only being able to walk into a bar, but behind it as well. I had the power to facilitate a party or push it to a grinding halt. I still do.

In many ways, working as a bartender throughout college was the best decision I’ve ever made. Sure, I’ve had to work holidays, concerts and football gamedays, but it was worth it. I’ve worked in three bars across downtown Athens, Georgia, and I have made increasingly more money at each one.

I’ve managed to save over $15,000 while in this profession and still have another year left in college to save more. I’ve had money to buy whatever I want and need. Also, I’ve managed to make it to my senior year without a dime of student debt. Very few students I know can say that.

Bartending has introduced me to boat loads of people — good, bad and ugly. Some of my closest friends I’ve met at a bar. Some of my worst enemies too. The amount of money I’ve earned over the years will never replenish the pieces of my soul tainted by this same profession. I’ve discovered peace and learned forgiveness in time, but I have not always been this way.

In other ways, bartending has been the worst decision I’ve ever made. A study done by One Fair Wage showed that 71% of female restaurant workers have been sexually harassed at least once during their time in the field, the highest rate of any industry. I am one of them. It is a devastating issue in this line of work, and these experiences have left me at my lowest, both emotionally and financially after having to make the tough decision to leave my job.

In this trying period, money was constantly on my mind. Would I ever find another bartending job in Athens? How was I going to make ends meet? Would I feel safe and supported in this line of work ever again?

I left the industry entirely and worked as a lifeguard during that time, making a fraction of what I used to make. The financial impact was treacherous; I had to re-budget all my expenses. However, I quickly learned in this job, as cliche as it sounds, that money doesn’t buy happiness. I would not have learned this while bartending. I had to financially crumble in order to reconstruct.

After months of reflecting and the lifeguarding season ending, I decided to re-enter the bartending scene. I felt a new sense of strength and physical empowerment, but I also really needed the money. In the second position I accepted, not much was different. I still felt unsafe and unsupported as a woman. It was right when I was ready to throw in the towel that the perfect opportunity fell into my lap.

I landed in my current bartending gig about two years ago, recognizing early on that the management was unique from those I had worked under before. They respected my worth as more than a pretty face and prioritized my safety first. Through trial and error, I have found a place of work that gives me the financial freedom I desire while not compromising my integrity and well-being.

You should never settle in your place of work. Money is essential for prosperity; however, it is impossible to achieve success in toxic environments. Have the strength to leave what doesn’t feel right and the courage to venture into the unknown.

Despite everything that has happened to me — the good, the bad and the ugly — I still love working in a bar. I know that this is not the long-term career I want, but the lessons I’ve learned as a college student working towards financial freedom will always remain with me. Money will always come and go. The experiences you endure, though, will impact you forever.

Because of that, bartending was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Emily Petraglia is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.

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