Sunday, January 2, 2011

Debt, A Hard Bargain

Debt used to be a way of life for me. I started with a student loan, added a department store card, mixed in a gas card, and then a few regular credit cards. I guess I just figured it was what people did. We needed stuff, we had jobs, and the bills were paid as they came in. The bills were paid as they came in but we also allowed many of the cards to carry a balance which tended to grow.

We had kids and we were poor, so we had earned income tax credit which gave us back a nice income tax check. This income tax check became our emergency fund. Cars were forced to limp along until February or March when the extra money would be available briefly for repairs. We tried to save some of it sometimes but those pesky bills kept showing up in the mailbox.

The bills kept coming but we had an addiction to stuff. We liked kid stuff, and kitchen stuff, and pretty stuff. Sometimes, working retail, we found fantastic deals on deeply marked down, previously quite expensive stuff. If we didn't have enough cash we would put some of these great bargains on credit, thereby cancelling out the "bargainness" of the product.

My stuff was super important but I didn't notice the value of my husbands stuff. My husband didn't understand just how clever I was to buy all of the stuff I found on clearance. We filled our house with bargains, not to the point of hoarding but to the point of realizing finally that we had too many of everything and a nice vacation and a savings account would have been a better use of our money. We were caught up in lower class consumerism, keeping up with the Smith's.

We've reversed our thinking. It took a while, we had a long lesson to learn. I was raised by Depression babies but they never discussed money, or why they lived as they did. They never explained why they only went to the dollar theater, or wore old clothes, or rarely went out to eat. They never said why they bought toilet paper in bulk, on a super sale, or why they kept their old car running. I was young and didn't know any better. I just thought they were cheap and sometimes stingy. They never really shared their quiet lessons.

I was told stories of my mothers youth. I knew about her owning two dresses, one to wash and one to wear. I heard about the one room schoolhouse and only having shoes in winter. How quaint. They never really shared their current stories. They sat smiling while we joked about a nuclear holocaust where wounded people would beat at our door for our toilet paper hoard. They never once said, "This is why we do what we do..." I wonder if they would have spoken if the lessons would have been learned earlier in life or if some lessons just have to be learned the hard way.


  1. My parents never really spoke about their upbringing either, but my father was a CPA. From the moment I began to receive an allowance, .25 in first grade, I had to be able to account for every penny of it before I was given any further allowance. I was taught to keep a ledger in first grade.

    At least one paragraph here reminded me of George Carlin's comedy routine, "Stuff." You might be able to find it on YouTube.

  2. Terri, Wow I can't imagine a first grader with a ledger. You might not have thought so at the time, but how cute. Did you learn a financial lesson early on or rebel when you became a teen and spend like mad?

    I've heard George Carlin's routine. Matter of fact, my husband has all his books, one of his albums, and we went to see him one year when he performed in a nearby city. Now that you mention it, hope I didn't copy him too closely. :) We are decluttering like mad now and "stuff" has become a common word in our vocabulary. As in, "What are you doing with this box of stuff?"

  3. My parents were teenagers in the Depression. It's strange to me that my maternal grandmother did 'well' in the Depression - she rented a big house cheaply and then rented out rooms with full board to couples. In her later life she was broke, being a spendthrift and unable to made ends meet on Social Security. She went to live with my Mom, who could make pennies scream she squeezed them so hard.

    My Dad's parents lived carefully and frugally all their lives. They left a fairly fat savings account ($7000 in 1973) for living on savings and Social Security. My Dad was a spendthrift and left thousands in debt on credit cards at stupid rates of interest. The things he bought were essentially trash.

    I'm frightened to be a spendthrift. I've been poor and I don't like it much, so I save. I realise not everyone has that luxury and I try to be grateful that I do.

  4. Isn't it interesting what we learn and what we believe about money?

    If only we KNEW better, we'd DO better.

    Thanks for another great post!

    Mother Connie

  5. My mother was born in 1939 and rationing did not end until the mid 1950s - people were poor in the UK until the 1980s, when I began my working life. I thought owning stuff was the route to happiness, it isn't! People were happy even when they were poor and not happier for having more money!

  6. Shelley, it is wonderful that you have had so many examples to learn from. From what you wrote I can see you did a good job of observing and then making decisions in your own life.

    Connie, a newspaper just interviewed a man who runs a food pantry near here. He said that many people are in trouble because they have no idea how to budget and they can't cook the simplest of meals from scratch. They usually need help with things like this in addition to food packages, things that used to be taught at home not long ago.

    Frugal Queen, would more communication about budgeting and life have helped, or did you (like me) just have to grow up first?

  7. Great post -My mother told me Grandma had a new go to church dress that she had made herself around Christmas time. She wore it proudly every Sunday, unfornately no one noticed till Spring because the church was so cold she had to keep her coat on!
    There were so many stories she has told me, I guess I was lucky like that (I wrote them down).
    We come from a family of five -some are penny pinchers and some not.

  8. Vickie, it was so smart of you to write those stories down. After the original story tellers are gone you have to scramble to remember everything because you can't ask them to tell it again. Are you adding these stories to a photo album for future generations?

  9. WP: "Stuff" will kill a budget! And a lifestyle.

    One of the big topics locally relates back to your comment about people coming to food banks and not knowing how to budget, how to cook cheap, nutritious, delicious meals, etc. Many of us who volunteer a lot see this all the time in the "new" poor--(a) many of them never learned it and (b) when you have always had a decent job and not "had" to be frugal (or chose not to be), it is hard to come to grips with the reality of a tight budget. We talk about setting up classes on basic "life lessons:" like cooking from scratch and money management. Stay tuned.

    Here's to 2011--take it day by day!

  10. Wow... I can totally relate!!! I am in my 40's now and just have one child left at home, I have lived in my house for 19 years with all my "stuff". I am paying off my credit cards like mad... and de-cluttering my house and my life. Great Post!!!!