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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

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Winning Tomorrow

In the middle of our Saturday afternoon in St. Louis, I logged into our checking account, and had a mini anxiety attack upon realizing that the actual balance was somewhat shy of my estimate, my estimate being based on a complicated algorithm of optimism and denial. Patrick had made a deposit earlier in the week, and instead of getting out a pen and paper, and budgeting the money, which is a very good idea when neither of us draws a regular paycheck, I went about blithely spending it.

It was hardly a spree. We had take out meals a couple of times more than usual. I gave the boys twenty dollars each for getting straight A's on their report cards, no doubt setting a dangerous precedent. I bought some fall clothes on sale at the Gap. I didn't bathe in Cristal, or charter a jet, or buy a diamond-encrusted iphone. But I felt guilty anyway.

Patrick noticed the wind come out of my sails. Later, he asked me about it. I had regained perspective by that time. I confessed what it was that had me briefly tied in a double knot: my intertwined fears of too much, and not enough. It's a problem, but it's not a numerical problem. I can get all tangled up in my money fears, no matter what's on the balance line.

I am getting better at getting myself untangled. I teased out the twisted strands of guilt and panic, and I remembered something really wonderful: the dim sum, the t-shirts, the trip to St. Louis, were all paid in full. We've been living without credit cards for two years. It's been gratifying to watch the balances come down, erasing the mistakes of the past, but I hadn't really considered the impact on our present and future, until Saturday.

Our revolving debt wasn't accumulated by living the high life, but by the kind of moderate expenditures I'd made last week: food, gas, clothing. We put those things on credit cards when there wasn't money in the bank, deferring hard decisions for another day. Writing about that saga for Good Housekeeping magazine was almost as traumatic as living it, so I won't go into it again. But if you are just tuning in, you can read the whole story here.

Today we don't get to defer. Choices have to be made in real time. Corrections have to be made quickly, not long after we've gotten off track. If we overspend one week, we're forced to underspend the next. An outfit bought on sale impulsively may be a hundred dollar mistake, but it stays a hundred dollar mistake. It doesn't accumulate interest that cancels out the sale price by the time it's paid for. Extra restaurant meals one month might mean a few more crockpot meals next month. Debt, and the regret that accompanies it, doesn't follow us into the next month, and the next, and the next.

When I looked at our bank balance and panicked, it was a reflex left over from the days when we consumed first, paid later. When I calmed down, I realized I was looking at a small surplus, not a big deficit.

That's a great feeling, one I want to keep carrying forward.

I average a couple of emails a month from people who have read my article about our financial restructuring, and wonder how to find a reputable credit card repayment program. It's a smart question, because there are plenty of agencies who are less than scrupulous. You should start as we did, with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, who have guidelines and accreditations for their member agencies.

By the time we got there, we were maxed out on six cards, with interest rate percentages in the high twenties, unable to make even minimum payments. As dishonorable as the penalties and fees were, I wanted to resolve our debt honorably if we could. It looked impossible. We signed onto the counseling service not certain if we'd be able to make the new monthly payment they negotiated with our creditors. But the first step led somehow to the next one, and every time I get a statement in the mail, showing shrinking balance, it feels like we've won back another tomorrow.

I don't ever want to sell them again.



Blogger lar said...

We were in the same boat seven years ago, charging groceries and struggling to make the minimum payments. We, too, went into credit counseling, and it was the best thing we ever did.

We are much better off now, with savings and no credit card debt. But I still get a nervous chill every time I check my bank balance, and my husband *refuses* to know how much money we have. He still remembers those days when he had to wait until payday to get gas in his car, and the haunted look (and foul mood) I'd get when I'd pay bills, and we never, never want to go back there.

Your article in Good Housekeeping was great, and I admire you for being brave and open enough to share your story.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not as hard to be honest with ourselves as it is to keep deceiving. (That's one bill of goods we don't ever quite buy.)

4:38 PM  
Blogger Lindsay said...

"deferring hard decisions." I think that is EXACTLY what is at play when my family is spending unwisely. Gotta keep constant tabs on the situation, and yet keeping constant tabs and going without is better than the alternative.

7:01 PM  
Blogger Jomama said...

Yeesh, with you on this one. As many people probably are in this economy, no doubt. DH and I are on an allowance, as we have not been all of the years we've been together. We always made more than we needed, and while we didn't save enough when we could, we never carried a credit card balance.

But our fat cushion has dwindled since moving into the house of our dreams. Not a mansion by any means--just a nice, comfortable, suburban cookie cutter house. But OURS.

We never adjusted our spending after moving into the house with the mortgage that doubled overnight, and suddenly realized that if we kept down this path, we would have to think about selling it. GULP. Suddenly I can hear every quarter that slides down the back of the couch. Not a fun place to be, but better than packing boxes to move.

12:39 AM  
Blogger Stickhorsecowgirls said...

What an important topic. Thanks for sharing your journey on this. And, yes, it is painful to remember, but good to know how much better your situation is now. C

3:03 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

You are so honest and brave to have written about your experience.

"When I calmed down, I realized I was looking at a small surplus, not a big deficit." Isn't that a wonderful feeling?

We're on thin ice right now. I needed to read this.

9:04 AM  
Blogger nicole said...

I, too, made some overspending blunders this weekend. I have been beating myself up over it...until now. This post helped me remember that it's something we all do, and we have to let go, move on and LEARN from it. Thanks, K. Also, we are paying (little by little) for our wedding in full, hence our long engagement and small guest list. Wish us luck (we'll need it!).

11:40 AM  

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