(I still have changes planned for my blog. It’s just taking longer than I thought it would : )
DH = Dear Husband
A couple of weeks ago, Debt Debs left a comment for me. “Saw you were Canadian and had to drop by,” she had written. “. . . I think we might even be from the same city.” After messaging back and forth a bit, we discovered that we were practically neighbours. Our children had even attended the same schools. Small world! We arranged to meet at a local Tim Hortons after the August long week-end and talk about all things debt.
I arrived first and ordered my tea and muffin, scanning the other customers as I did. I saw a woman who fit the description Debt Debs had given me. “Are you Deb?” I asked uncertainly. “Pardon?” I repeated the question. “No,” she smiled. “Sorry,” I said. Rather sheepishly, I sat down and checked my phone. There was a text message. Debt Debs was on her way – a little late from an extended stay at her father’s cottage.
From Online to In-Person
This was certainly a unique situation. What exactly would we say? What were the boundaries when debt bloggers got together to chat about personal finances? How would it feel to talk face-to-face about things we had only written about? These were untested waters. A woman came through the door, her head on a bit of a swivel as she looked for someone. That’s got to be her, I thought. I smiled and waved, and we introduced ourselves. “Go ahead and make your order,” I said. Debt Debs splurged on a breakfast. “I never do this,” she said as she returned to the table with her meal. I understood completely. “Enjoy it.”
We launched right in. “What was your ‘Ah-ha!’ moment?” “How did you get into debt?” “What changes have you and your husband made?” “How are your kids responding?” The boundaries were pretty well non-existent, and the questions, answers, insights, and theories flowed freely. There was so much we had in common. We had each made the mistake of leaving the finances completely to our husbands and putting our own financial heads in the sand. As a result we had each experienced communication disconnects in our marriages, resulting in significant stress. Each of our husbands had experienced job loss. Both of us expressed regret at how long we had allowed our respective finances to sicken, and both of us started our journeys out of debt in the spring of 2012.
There were differences too. Debt Debs doesn’t share my bias against credit cards. Her “guru” is Gail Vaz-Oxlade. Mine is Dave Ramsey. DH and I are simply paying our debts off one by one – smallest to largest. Debt Debs and her husband are doing more fancy footwork – like moving money around strategically to pay down higher interest debts first – all with fierce discipline. It became clear that Deb and her husband started out with a larger total debt than we did. It was equally clear that their household income is higher than ours and that they have managed to pay off greater amounts of debt than we have. Deb thinks that she and her husband will be completely debt-free in 2018. I think we’ll be there a year later.
But whether we were discussing the similarities or the differences between our respective situations – whether we were expressing agreement or disagreement on a point of view – it was all carried out in genuine interest and complete respect. “It doesn’t work if people with debt troubles just get financial advice and then go on their way,” I said at one point. “They need to revisit it regularly – like AA meetings.” I noticed two young men look up at us wide-eyed. I’ve got to lower my voice, I realized. As we discussed, with total engagement, the impact of job loss on men, I heard a woman behind us say to her husband, “Well this is interesting.” Ooops! Got to talk more quietly, I thought again. Of all the conversations happening in Tim Hortons at that time, I would have to say that ours was the most animated. I had planned to stay for about an hour, but we easily passed the two-and-a-half hour mark.
Cultural Shame in Matters of Personal Finance vs. Open Discussion
An anonymous comment in response to my post last week included these words: “I would die before I would reveal to anyone IRL (in real life) that I have a debt problem.” While I was glad that this person was sharing frustration in an online forum, I was saddened by this reminder of the climate of our culture – one in which struggles in personal finance are shameful, causing so many to carry them in silence. “I like talking to you about finances,” a friend told me recently. “I don’t usually talk with anyone about that sort of thing. I just go about my business feeling stupid.”
I think that what Debt Debs and I experienced at Tim Hortons is a sample of what is possible. Disclosing troubles with debt or personal finances in general does not have to be a matter of hyper-sensitivity or deep mortification. Sharing strategies that have worked to lower debt, describing setbacks that have been discouraging, and discussing possible solutions to baffling financial problems – this kind of openness on its own can relieve so much stress. It has the potential to divert a flow of energy away from the vicious cycle of angst and towards a hope of resolution.
I never would have guessed that one of the debt bloggers I’ve noticed online would turn out to be a neighbour. And if I had seen Debt Debs apart from this context, I would not have thought that this woman was struggling with debt. How many of the people we see on a day-to-day basis are silently holding in their financial stresses? Feeling ashamed, stupid, powerless? And how many of us would open up if only we knew the power of a frank talk at Tim Hortons?