DH = Dear Husband
The Christmas rush is on, and DH is working nonstop. This November, like last November, has been a strong financial month. Money has been flowing into the business account. Our household account has been beefed up because I had three rather than the usual two pay periods, and DH collected his annual expenses claim for working from home. As a result of the healthy household account, DH didn’t have to pay himself a salary in November – and he won’t have to in December either – meaning more money is left in the business account to pay down the business debt. DH went to the bank today and put $7,000 against Debt #3, bringing it below the $50, 000 mark to $49, 340.
It’s the end of November, and that means it’s time for our third semi-annual report. Here are the numbers:
Start of June 2012: Total Debt = $257, 400
#1 New Car Debt – $8,600
#2 Old Car & Course Debt – $12,800
#3 Business Debt – $80,800
#4 Mortgage – $155,000
End of November 2013: Total Debt = $191, 460
#1 New Car Debt – $0
#2 Old Car & Course Debt – $0
#3 Business Debt – $49, 340
#4 Mortgage – $142, 120
Our total debt reduction to date adds up to almost $66,000. A quick look at the three six-month periods that we’ve had so far in our journey out of debt suggests that the most recent six months have been the least successful.
– 1stsix months: $26, 000
– 2ndsix months: $24, 000
– 3rdsix months: $16, 000
But we had to pay for a new roof this time, as well as a tree removal. If I add the $12, 000 cost of those expenses to what we managed to pay off of our debt, it turns out to be the most successful half-year yet. I think that the best thing we did in the last six months was to avoid getting sucked into yo-yo debting with our big expenses. We saved up and paid for them outright.
I’m feeling fierce as I look ahead to the next six months. I want to do Christmas on a budget. I want to get my discretionary account in order. I plan to counter the likely spring slow-down in DH’s business by cutting expenses and selling off items that are cluttering our house. I’ve recently started to read Mr. Money Moustache’s blog (more on that later), and I’ve been inspired to dig deeper in our debt-reduction efforts. DH, who for years felt frustrated by my non-engagement in our finances said this morning that he was going to start writing a blog called “Being Married to Prudence Debtfree: What Have I Created?” I don’t think I’ll be that scary, but you never know. The next six months will tell.
DH = Dear Husband
DD1 = Dear First Daughter
Most people who are trying to reduce their debt realize that they have to build into their budgets some room for manoeuver – some kind of discretionary money that allows them to go out to a movie the odd time or to buy a great gift for someone on impulse. It’s like a little sphere within the regimented world of debt-reduction where you can operate outside of the regimen. A little oasis. I think that people’s management of discretionary money is an indicator of how they’ll manage finances when they’re debt-free. And that’s a problem for me.
Even before we began our journey out of debt eighteen months ago, DH and I decided to set up his and her discretionary accounts. It was DH’s idea, and I was in full agreement. His motivation was to set some boundaries around our – and perhaps more specifically, my – spending on certain essentials (like clothing and soap) and non-essentials (like restaurant meals). My motivation was to gain more spending freedom. If this experiment has proven anything, it’s that DH is so much better at managing his discretionary account than I am at managing mine. Humbling fact – I really do need boundaries around my spending.
A Sad History
Here is a brief history of my poor discretionary account:
- The very first month, in the fall of 2011, I plunged into debt.
- That debt deepened and became entrenched over the next few months.
- At the six-month point, we started our journey out of debt, and I made a deal with DH. We had decided to stop hiring house cleaners, and I said I would do all of the cleaning if I could put the money saved in that department against my discretionary debt. DH agreed.
- By the one year mark, I had worked my way back up to zero. We shared housework again (more or less), and our savings went to a mutual discretionary fund (for things like furniture).
- My big goal for year two, starting in the fall of 2012, was to put aside enough discretionary money to go on a trip to visit DD1 in August 2013.
- I managed to stay above zero all year, but I didn’t manage to save. I went on my trip to visit DD1 thanks to the generosity of DH and two friends.
- I have been dipping back down into debt in my discretionary account this fall.
A Sense of Powerlessness
Last night I spoke with a friend who is struggling with weight loss. “I’ve tried so many times,” she said, “but every time I’ve lost weight, I’ve gained back more. I know I should try again, but I’m afraid I’ll just disappoint myself.” She was so evidently discouraged by a sense of powerlessness. I believe it’s the same sense of powerlessness that discourages people facing a whole range of issues – from overeating to gambling; from porn addiction to drug abuse; from smoking to chronic debt. I feel it too, in relation to my discretionary account, and I’m baffled by it. Why can’t I get this under control? Like my friend, I know I should try again, but like her, I’m afraid it would just lead to disappointment.
It’s so much easier to advise other people than it is to take that advice yourself. I encouraged my friend last night not to give up. I advised her to take a different approach – to partner up with people in exercise and diet – to reap the benefits of the accountability and motivation than come with team work. She said she needed time to process it all, and apparently I’ve been processing it too.
Trying Again: A Goal and A Strategy
So I’m going to try again. My goal is to have a balance of $1,000 in my discretionary account by the end of the summer of 2014. (Why? I’ll explain when the time comes.) I will do something different this time. At the end of each month, I’ll tell three of my close friends how I’ve managed, and I’ll post my progress on this blog. I’ll start with the belief that there will be an accountability and motivation this time that wasn’t there last time. And maybe that will make the difference. Maybe there will be a turning point in the sad story of my discretionary fund. I want to be able to see in it an indicator of growing financial competence. I want to gain from it the confidence that our larger journey out of debt is a one-way proposition. So with some trepidation, once again, here I go.
Debt Reduction vs. Wealth Building
I have written in previous posts about the fact that I read blogs of other people fighting debt. These readings serve to help me keep my resolve in focused debt reduction, and I access them through the people and organizations I follow on Twitter. As I search for articles that relate to where we’re at in our journey out of debt, I often sift out those to do with investments and savings. There is an overlap between writings on the subject of debt reduction and those on the subject of wealth building, and while I’m 100% in when it comes to eliminating debt, I struggle with the concept of building wealth. Where I associate debt reduction with becoming responsible, exercising discipline, and cleaning up my act, I have a stubbornly ingrained (and false) association of wealth building with greed and selfishness.
Delving into Faith
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote the post “Debt Reduction and Guilt: Facing the Sabotage from Within”. In it, I explained how faulty interpretations of certain Bible passages had taken root in me long ago, leading me to associate money and rich people with all that is bad. It’s slightly risky, at least in Canada, to quote the Bible when sharing a personal issue – like personal debt – because it can alienate the listener or the reader. But debt reduction is many-layered, and leaving out the spiritual side of it gives an incomplete picture of the experience. A colleague of mine who reads this blog and who is not Christian told me last year, after reading the post mentioned above, “You’re one of the few people who can quote the Bible without leaving me angry.” That gives me some encouragement to delve into the subject again, risky as it is to do so.
Physical Fitness ǁ Financial Fitness
I remember once listening to a Christian radio show as I drove my car. The guest was a man well into his sixties who was talking about physical fitness and the need, with age, to include in daily work-outs progressively higher ratios of weight-bearing exercise, as opposed to cardio exercise, in order to remain strong and healthy. People were able to phone in, and one man who did so said, “As Christians, we are called upon to serve others, so how can we be so selfish as to justify spending a half-hour or an hour a day training for fitness?” The question irritated me. Of course you have to look after yourself if you’re going to be of any use to anyone else, I thought. And how does it serve others to become out of shape?
I get that concept with physical fitness, so what stands in the way of my adopting the same attitude with financial fitness? With debt-freedom and steadily building savings, I would have more flexibility to give generously to my church and local charities. I would have more power to donate to international efforts, like the emergency relief now underway in the Philippines. These are good things. And they can more readily be done by people who have built up some wealth. Of course you have to look after your own money if you’re going to be of any financial support to others, I should be thinking of my own bias. How generous can you be when you’re debt-ridden?
Remembrance Day and “Freedom”
Last Sunday in church, the service began with a segment in honour of Remembrance Day. “They died for our freedom,” is the message we hear at this time of year, and for me it’s moving because both my father and my grandfather served in war. It is an especially powerful message for a Christian in church because Christ served and died “to set the captive free” (Luke 4:18). I looked up the word “freedom” in three different dictionaries (I realize that’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), and in each, there are two parts to the definition:
1. having power to determine action
2. the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved
Freedom is a gift that many of us squander. It’s a gift that we undermine by being careless with our power and becoming captive to things like addictions, materialism, pride, fear . . . and debt. So how do we honour this gift and the sacrifices made for it? “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). We honour the gift of freedom by living it fully and in gratitude – and by “standing firm” in vigilance to maintain it. Carelessness means slipping back into captivity.
I want to shake off my discomfort with the concept of wealth building. I know rationally that the negative connotations with which I associate it are false. And I know that the freedom inherent in financial fitness has the potential to be good. We’re still a long way from paying off our debt and getting our financial house in order. Time will tell if we maintain the discipline necessary to keep things going in a positive direction once we’re out of the red. Time will tell if we use our growing financial freedom well and generously or if we squander it foolishly. My hope is that we will embrace it and that we’ll “stand firm” to maintain it – because I don’t like captivity. It is for freedom that we are set free. I want to live it.
DH = Dear Husband
DD3 = Dear Third Daughter
DD2 = Dear Second Daughter
DD1 = Dear First Daughter
Every summer, DH goes to a city in the U.S. for a “get-away” with other franchise owners in his business. It’s an intensive series of workshops with a few special dinners and an awards night included. I accompanied him after his first and second years as a self-employed franchise owner, but since we started our journey out of debt, I have not joined him on his trips for years three and four. In February of this year, DH learned that the location for the 2014 get-away will be Orlando Florida. Hmmm . . .
I remember being amused last year when a fellow teacher commented on the fact that she and her husband had not yet taken their daughters to Disney. Their daughters’ friends all seemed to have gone with their families, and she was struggling with a sense of having deprived her children. She was resentful too, knowing that the guilt was false and manufactured by marketers – but she still felt it. My daughters are much older than hers, and I tried to give her some reassurance. We’ve never taken our children to Disney World either. I cheered on her resolve not to spend exorbitantly just to keep up with the Jonses. I encouraged her not to cave to the brilliant pressure tactics of the ads.
But when DH and I found out that his company would be holding its annual event in Orlando, we both started to think the same way. Let’s take the family to Disney World! DD3 has always wanted to go. She’ll be thrilled! It will be cheaper in July than during the winter. The hotel costs will be low because of DH’s business. Maybe the CEO will arrange for package deals to Disney for franchise owners bringing their families . . . In February, when we found out about the Orlando location, our debt-reduction was in high gear. DH’s business had been going strong for months, and we had been able to put almost $15,000 against our business debt in the previous two months alone. By July of 2014, we’ll have paid off the business debt, I thought at the time. We’ll be debt-free except for the mortgage. It will be a perfect time to celebrate with a family trip. When we told DD3 about our plans, it was like she was hearing angels sing. She was so happy! DD2 and DD1 were also keen to go, as long as the timing worked out for them – and it looked like it might.
After February though, came March and April, and they were the slowest business months DH had had in a long time. We started to feel a panic. Was his business going to succeed? Through the late spring and summer, things picked up, but our roof needed to be replaced ($10,000) and our huge, rotting tree needed to be cut down ($2,000). To add insult to injury, our van needed a repair ($900) and our dog got kidney stones ($1,500). We avoided going back into debt to pay for these huge expenses, but we made no progress on debt-reduction for four months. It’s pretty clear now that we will not have the business debt paid off by next July. It’s pretty clear now that we shouldn’t make a family trip to Disney out of DH’s Orlando get-away. The best thing to do is to stay the course. DH will go on his own again. The girls and I will remain at home, and I’ll teach summer school.
I pulled DD3 aside yesterday and told her that the Disney trip was not going to happen. Her eyes went wide in surprise and she asked why not, but as I explained everything, she just nodded her head. “It’s OK,” she said. “I understand.”
Fortunately I’ve observed that children, no matter how old, are eager to be treated to a vacation by their parents. It will be a fine day for me when DH and I can gather up our offspring and head out to wherever it is we’ll go. But it won’t be Disney next year.
Comments are welcome!
I would love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to share your thoughts, offer advice, disagree, or ask questions. (Disrespectful comments will be deleted.)
DH = Dear Husband
After four months of being on hold with our debt reduction, this week we were finally in a position to take another slice out of Debt #3, our business debt. DH looked at the spreadsheet on which we track all of our expenses and said that we’d be able to put down $5,000 for the month of October. I felt great about ending our stalemate with a number like that. We made an outing of it, driving over to the bank together to deposit the cheque. While DH did the banking, I walked across the parking lot to Tim Hortons to pick up some celebratory coffee. Cheers!
If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that DH and I have had huge expenses to take care of lately. The rotting sugar maple in our backyard had to be cut down, coming in at $2,000. And our roof had to be replaced for a staggering $10,000. When DH studied that spreadsheet last week, the tree expense had already been paid, and our balance indicated that we were in a position to pay our soon-to-come roof bill handily. The only problem was that the spreadsheet was wrong.
Shifting Patterns of Relationship
I’ve noticed a slow shifting in the patterns of our relationship when it comes to financial management. I think that with most couples, it is accepted that one person is better than the other in dealing with household finances. Usually, that person is the one who does the leg work in paying the bills. Usually, that person has the stronger voice in decisions about what to buy and when to buy it. It’s natural and even desirable, when it comes to couples, for respective strengths and weaknesses to complement one another so that the combination of the two partners makes both stronger. But it’s not so desirable when an accepted weakness in one or the other is reinforced by patterns in the relationship. And I think that’s been the case with us. Subtle eye-rolling frustration expressed by DH; my own playing the “cute” card in an “I just don’t know how the money leaves my wallet so fast,” kind of way; DH’s tendency to be impatient when I’d try to discuss something of a financial nature; my avoidance of conflict by spending in a sneaky way. Not healthy.
Since we’ve been on our journey out of debt, I have confronted my financially inept “inner cutie-pie”; I have been upfront about my spending – whether good or bad; and I have yanked my head out of the sand to engage in the management of the details. In facing my own financial faults, my eyes have been opened to something else: DH’s financial faults. He’s always been better that I have been with money. But he’s not perfect. One weakness in particular that has come to light has been his lack of will to meet with me regularly to look at our budget. When that budget is neglected, the numbers stray. And that’s why our balance on the spreadsheet was wrong – out by about $1,500.
We’d already put our $5,000 against the debt, so now we wouldn’t have enough for the roof. Ugh! Early in the week I came home from work to find out about our shortfall, and as the representative from the roofing company was driving to our place to collect payment, we were trying to figure out how we would make up for it. We hadn’t once increased our line of credit since starting our journey out of debt, and I was disheartened to think that now we would have to. Then DH thought of our mutual discretionary fund – the $200 per month we’ve been putting aside since we’re not hiring house cleaners any more. We use it to pay for “wants” as opposed to “needs”. Since the spring, it had been growing untouched. And it amounted to $1,500. We had our sights set on a new sofa with that $1,500, but I’d much rather put up with worn out furniture than go back into debt. And that’s how we paid for our roof in its entirety, despite the slip-up in budgeting.
Two Milestones Passed
It was a sloppy re-entry into debt reduction. But we did it. And that $5,000 brought us past two milestones. Our business debt, which started out at $80,800, had hovered above the $60,000 mark for five long months. That barrier has now been broken. Debt #3 is down to $56, 000. And our overall debt, which started out at $257, 000, is officially under the $200, 000 mark. We’re at $199, 200. These are still very big numbers, but the milestones are significant. And as our debt goes down, in fits and starts, DH and I are morphing through the mess, forming new and healthier patterns of relationship.
The Canadian political scene is offering remarkable levels of drama these days. Four senators charged with fraudulent claims for living and travel expenses; a personal cheque for $90,000 given by Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s former chief of staff, to help out Senator Mike Duffy; Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused of covering up his own awareness and tacit approval of the Wright-Duffy cheque exchange; the resignation of Senator Mac Harb amidst investigations; colleagues said to have had personal vendettas against Senator Pamela Wallin; Senator Patrick Brazeau claiming back-room deals . . . Hundreds of thousands of tax payers’ dollars are alleged to have been misspent. And somehow, this is distracting attention away from the fact that former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s gas plant fiasco is costing taxpayers a billion dollars instead of the forty million he originally claimed it would cost. A billion is a thousand million in Canada, so it’s costing twenty-five times more than Premier McGuinty said it would. Hmmmm . . .
I think I’m supposed to be feeling outrage. “How can they justify using our tax dollars so arrogantly?” is the expected response when politicians abuse the public purse. “He lied to us! He should be held accountable!” “Their story keeps changing. You can’t trust any of them!” These types of comments make sense given the unfolding narrative – in all its variations. But the feeling that strikes me most when I listen to the news these days is a distinct lack of indignation about it all. I don’t find any of it shocking.
Our journey out of debt has necessitated an honest look in the mirror. As I’ve acknowledged my own faults in dealing with money, I’ve learned to forgive myself and move on. Having done so, I’m not inclined to thirst for revenge when it comes to the faults of others – even politicians. Some senators have apparently overstepped the bounds of justified expenditures. I’ve done that countless times. Many powerful people are denying that they’ve done anything wrong. I know what it is to be in denial. Accusations are flying as different interpretations of complicated spending regulations are put forward. Didn’t I just write about financial bickering last week? Senators are claiming they’ve followed the spending regulations as well as advice from their superiors. Their superiors are backpedalling, and the spending regulations are being exposed as a quagmire of confusion. I’ve contributed to the financial chaos that results when communication is lacking and understanding is uncertain. That’s why I’m in debt.
I know that there are limits to a comparison between my personal financial foibles with those of public figures who are using public funds and who must be held to a higher standard of accountability. And of course I want justice to be served. Of course I believe that those who have breached public trust should receive appropriate consequences. But I also hope that there will be no politically expedient scapegoating. And I hope that we won’t indulge ourselves in eager, bloodthirsty assassinations of character.
Here is my advice to our political leaders:
- Let the investigations continue.
- Let due process take its course.
- Clarify regulations regarding expenses and make sure they are effectively communicated.
- Acknowledge bad practice and formulate the remedy for it.
- Recognize systemic problems inherent in the current scandal. It’s not just about a few lone senators.
- Mete out appropriate consequences to individuals, but avoid a witch hunt.
The mess surrounding this Senate Scandal is familiar to me personally. And given the fact that Canadians’ average debt-to-income ratio is 165%, I think it should be familiar to most of us. Outrage misapplied does nothing but lash out its blame and accusations as it defends itself in stubborn denial. What’s needed here is a disengagement from the chaotic rage-fest. What’s needed is honest discernment and openness to change. What’s needed is sober second thought.
DH = Dear Husband
Last night, I was in a shopping mall, and I decided to buy Halloween candy. I felt rather wise. There have been many years when we’ve scrambled to the store in search of candy and a pumpkin after work October 31, and here I was being proactive. Getting ready in advance. Taking the time to consider where I’d buy and what I’d buy. Last year, it had been mini-chocolate bars and bags of chips, but we’d had too many left-overs November 1, so yesterday I limited myself to the chocolate bars. There were 90 in the box, and if we gave two to each trick-or-treater, that would do it. Done! Halloween candy taken care of for a grand total of $16.43.
Wouldn’t you think that H would be happy with his wife’s careful consideration? In our journey out of debt, we’re trying to make more conscious decisions about where our money goes. I in particular am trying to break old habits of chaotic spending. There was no chaos here. “I bought Halloween candy last night,” I told H this morning. “Why did you do that?” he asked. Silly question. Halloween is coming up. We’ve bought candy for October 31 for decades now. But somehow it all degraded. “You treat our common money like it’s a bottomless pit. I want to set things up so that you see that money has an end . . .” I’ve included the emphasis on “you” to make a point. When the discussion turns into a blame game, I check out. I left the room, fuming. “You can’t run away from this!” I heard through the closed door. Watch me! I thought.
I went downstairs to the kitchen and started cleaning up dishes that had been left overnight. I picked up some of H’s mess and then paused. He can clean up after himself! I thought, putting it down in triumph. I reconsidered. No, I’ll be the big one here, and with self-righteous indignation, I furiously cleaned away. H eventually came downstairs. He made a weak effort at light-hearted humour, but I maintained a stony silence. “You’re mad at me,” he said. “Yes I am,” I responded. “Well talk to me,” he said. “I don’t speak to negative people who just want to complain and not find solutions,” I snapped. “I want solutions,” he said as he picked up a towel to dry the dishes. “Give me a solution.”
So we talked. “The problem with our common money,” I said, “is that we don’t sit down and budget together regularly enough. You always think you have more important things to do.” Now who was blaming? I stopped myself. “I follow a guy on Twitter who schedules two budget meetings per week with his wife – every Wednesday and every Saturday. We can’t even manage one per week.” H conceded that this was an area we should work on. Listening, drying the dishes, agreeing – he was DH again. For his part, he said he didn’t think that expenses for Halloween should be paid from our common money because they weren’t essentials. He suggested that we each split the cost from our respective discretionary accounts. (See “Discretionary Money: His and Hers”) I was fine with that.
Are DH and I the only ones who bicker about money? I don’t think so. Troubles with personal finances combine to be the number one cause for marital break-up, and I for one can see why. Managing household accounts is not always pretty – particularly when there is the stress of too much debt or not enough income or unexpected expenses or a combination of any of the above – and maybe a bad night’s sleep or a stressful week of work thrown into the bargain. The peace-makers among us can make the mistake of avoiding conflict and compromising too much. The bull-headed among us can make the mistake of shutting out any point of view but our own. Most couples will face some harsh lessons in emotional intelligence as they take on the challenge of reducing debt. We clearly have.
But all is well for now. The tension of this morning has given way to harmony. And for any children who come by our house for Halloween, there will be two chocolate bars ready and waiting.
DH = Dear Husband
I was interviewed by the host of CBC’s Ottawa Morning on Tuesday, and many people have checked out my blog as a result. I’d like to welcome those of you who are new readers. As you know from the interview, my husband and I have been on a journey out of debt – $257,000 worth – since June of 2012. I’ve written 75 weekly posts since that time, noting progress, obstacles, and lessons learned along the way.
We paid off $50,000 in our first year. That’s more than 300% what we had paid off the year before. There was not a significant difference in income between these two years. There was a huge difference in focused intention.
Obstacles to debt-reduction fall into two categories: Those that are beyond our control and those that are within our control. Beyond our control have been the obstacles of slow business months for DH, who is self-employed, in the spring, and huge expenses, including a new roof and tree removal, in the summer. Within our control have been obstacles like my excessive love of eating out and DH’s rare but powerful compulsion to splurge on something decadent.
Lesson One: The level of personal debt in today’s society is extreme. Twenty-five years ago, the average debt-to-income ratio in Canada was 90%. So for every take-home dollar, 90 cents was owed in debt. Today, we’ve shot up to 165%. That’s $1.65 owed in debt for every dollar we take home. “Everybody” is in debt these days – just as “everybody” smoked in the ‘60s. It doesn’t make it a good idea.
Lesson Two: There is a Debt Matrix out there. Banks, credit card companies, and merchants of goods and services combine to bombard us with messages from which it is difficult to unplug. Often our friends and family add their voices to those messages: You only live once! Buy it now! To get out of debt, you can’t go with the flow – you have to go against it.
Lesson Three: Your debt is likely, at least in part, a result of your pettiness. That’s a humbling thought. I like to think of myself as being bigger than envy and too lofty to need to keep up with the Joneses. But I’ve had to come face-to-face with my less-than-stellar qualities in my fight against debt.
If you’re interested in getting an idea of our journey out of debt so far, I have listed below seven posts that give an overview of it. I publish a new post every Saturday morning. I’ll make a plug for comments here. I love getting comments from people who read my blog. Comments that add insight to the issue under discussion; comments that encourage; comments that challenge a point I’ve raised . . . Your comments make my day.
Thanks for your interest. If you are someone who is hoping to make a dent in your own debt, I’d like to cheer you on. Let’s share the journey.
DH = Dear Husband
DH and I were walking across the parking lot towards the grocery store from our car last week-end. “I wonder if you can Google the recipe for crystal meth,” he said. I burst out laughing because it was such an unlikely musing, and his delivery was completely dry. I knew exactly where it was coming from though. We have recently become addicted to Breaking Bad. In case you don’t know, it’s a TV series about Walter White, a chemistry teacher facing cancer and money stress who goes down the path of “cooking” crystal meth to finance his medical treatments and to provide for his family. The series recently had its much publicized grand finale after five seasons, but we just started watching season one a couple of weeks ago. We’re already well into season two.
Multiple Episode Brain-Permeation
There’s something that happens when I watch multiple episodes of a show in only a few sittings. The tone of the drama permeates my subconscious and ends up spilling out. I’m a high school teacher, and one morning this week before classes began, I had to speak to a boy who had snuck his backpack into the library. It’s a rule at our school that students have to keep backpacks and purses in their lockers. My style of discipline is gentle but direct, so I quietly said, “You’ve got your bag here. You’ll have to take it to your locker.” He stood up, leaving some of his friends behind, and started walking towards the door – very slowly – with that swagger particular to teen boys wearing over-sized jeans. I sensed a little hurt pride and a brewing passive-aggression, so I followed silently but close behind to make sure he actually left. Not about to let me win, he stopped, turned around, looked right past me, and coolly called out to his friend Adam, as if our power struggle wasn’t happening. “Yo yo, Adam!”
The words escaped me, quiet but fierce, before I had a chance to filter them: “Yo yo, get out of here.” Stunned by what I’d just said, I watched for a response. The young man simply turned back towards the door and left. Every high school teacher needs to find his or her inner-tough guy, but this was something else. Breaking Bad was spilling out of me. If you haven’t seen the show, there is a character named Jesse who sells the meth cooked up by Walter. Jesse frequently says “Yo!” and “Yo yo!” My best guess is that it means, “Hey!” – only it’s laden with attitude.
Connections with Debt
Now what does this have to do with debt? Here it is: I realized as soon as I confronted that student with the words, “Yo yo,” that I had indulged in too much Breaking Bad. I’ve backed off the show because I’ve consciously chosen not to subject myself to its influence – at least not in multiple-episode doses. I’ve also directed myself back to a balance in lifestyle that offers more wholesome input – including things like reading and jogging. Similarly, anyone who lives in our western society is subject to “multiple episodes” of consumerism and debt promotion every single day. Billboards, displays, ads on TV, the radio, in magazines, newspapers, buses, popping up online . . . Images of “the good life”- that you can have right now – and messages about the promise of fulfillment through credit permeate our collective subconscious. And it all comes spilling out in the form of our record high levels of personal debt. The slightest nudge of desire initiates a purchasing transaction before you even realize you’ve swiped your credit card.
It’s almost impossible to “back off” from this chronic exposure to consumerism. But it is possible to become critically aware of it so that it doesn’t just flow into your brain and out of your wallet without resistance. And it is possible to counter it by consciously choosing to subject yourself to the influence of voices that weight the balance against rampant consumer debt. Almost every day, I take the time to read an article or two about debt-reduction – usually by one of the people I follow on Twitter. An article or two per day isn’t much when compared with the bombardment of marketing coming at me from banks, credit card companies, and merchants of all kinds of goods and services. But it’s enough. It sharpens my awareness. It helps me to stay on track. It acts in resistance to consumer addiction, and it’s my ally in breaking debt.
DH = Dear Husband
I remember watching an episode of Oprah years ago, featuring the often-visited issue of weight loss. Miss Winfrey talked about the dieter’s “holy moment” – when the cookie jar is right there, the desire is high, and the choice is yours to make. If you decide, For now I will not eat any of those cookies, you’ve grasped your “holy moment” with victory. Success or failure in weight loss is essentially determined by such moments and your cumulative responses to them.
We recently faced a “holy moment” in our debt-reduction efforts. Our wedding anniversary was approaching, and it was a big one. When a couple’s anniversary ends in a -0 or a -5, it’s not uncommon to do something special. A colleague of mine celebrated his 15th anniversary this summer by going to Cuba with his wife. He surprised her by having pre-arranged a ceremony on the beach where they restated their wedding vows. That’s pretty special.
For two years, DH and I indulged in an overnight get-away for our anniversary, at the resort where we had spent our honeymoon. DH’s business was going well, after a long time of under/unemployment, and we felt entitled to this yearly treat. It’s important to invest in your relationship. It’s only once a year. You’ve been through a tough time career-wise, and things are looking up. Enjoy it! You work hard; you deserve to spoil yourselves once in a while . . .It was perfect – complete with champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries, his & her massages, delicious food, pool, hot tub, tennis courts, and beautiful scenery. Although it all lasted under twenty-four hours, it felt like a real break. At a total cost of about $800.
Eventually, we realized that the deep hole of debt we had dug for ourselves – including an $80,000 line of credit to finance DH’s business – wasn’t going anywhere on its own. A friend gave us a CD of Dave Ramsey’s audio book The Total Money Makeover, and our journey out of debt began. We considered every expense in a new light. “You deserve to spoil yourselves . . .” didn’t cut it anymore, and last year, we spent our anniversary at home – for a fraction of that $800. (See “Romance While Getting out of Debt”)
But this year was a big one, and DH was gunning for the get-away. “I work from home, and I don’t really get a break unless I get out of the house,” he said. Our camping trip in July had been marked by cool weather, legions of mosquitoes, and my back-and-forth visits as I started teaching summer school. It hadn’t been much of a break. So wasn’t it a good idea to do the anniversary get-away thistime? Wasn’t it important to “invest in our relationship”? The cookie jar was right there.
It went against the grain for me, but I said it wasn’t a good idea. I brought up the fact that we hadn’t paid anything off our debt for months. We’ve had huge expenses lately ($12,000 worth of new roof and tree removal), and we’ve been feeling the discouragement that seeps in when progress slows down. Was it wise to slow it down even further with an expensive get-away? Hadn’t we enjoyed our inexpensive anniversary last year?
In the end, we didn’t go. But our anniversary was lovely – complete with champagne, delicious food, and even chocolate-covered strawberries that DH discovered at a local business. It is important to invest in relationships, and we did – at a fraction of that $800. I like to think that some day we will go back to our get-away anniversaries. Maybe we’ll even go to the beaches of Cuba. But for now, we won’t. I’d say we grasped our “holy moment” with victory.