Monday, December 29, 2014

Slip Sliding Away- My Relationship with Debt

I still remember in 4th grade doing a library assignment where we were put in groups according to our birthdays and asked to research our astrological sign. One of the first things I found about the supposed characteristics of a Sagittarius was "Money slips right through your fingers, but you always seem to have some"

I remember it so clearly because as life has gone on this one phrase often plays like a chorus refrain in my head when I find myself yet again miraculously bailed out of some financial jam or another through no actual financial planning or foresight of my own.

I grew up a lower middle class home that slowly became an upper middle class home through the hard work and smart choices of my parents. My undergrad was paid for by  a combination a fund set up by an elderly aunt with no children of her own, money my parents had carefully set aside for college, and an assortment of part-time jobs I had. I went to a state school which back in the 90's cost about a $1 to go to and that all combined with scholarships I received my last two years allowed me to graduate with zero college debt.

However I did get my first credit card in undergrad. I mean they offered me a T-shirt if I signed up. How could I resist? And thus began a VERY unhealthy relationship with debt.  

Debt promised me the moon and stars. For approximately $10-$50 a month (a minimum payment for me back in the 90's) I could eat what I wanted, drink what I wanted, wear what I wanted and travel where I wanted to travel. How would I pay the WHOLE thing off?? Who cares! I had the rest of my life to figure that out.

As an actress I had a bunch of weird day jobs that paid the pills.  My income fluctuated, but in the wild hey day of the dot-com boom, there were always weird day jobs to be found, often that paid quite well. And whenever the credit card balance would start getting up to a number that made me a little nervous, I would some how, often miraculously, get some kind of financial boon (booking a commercial, small inheritance, etc.) that would allow me to pay a large chunk down.  

Then came my decision to go back to grad school. Now let me state, and this sentiment may be wildly unpopular among the financially responsible set, but I will NEVER regret the substantial debt I have accrued for graduate school. The program I attended was the perfect program for me. It has made me into the artist, educator, and person I am today. I have a job I love, that I find both artistically fulfilling and financially comforting. And I would NEVER have this job, this life, if I hadn't gone back to school. That being said, I went into it with a less than realistic attitude of how I would handle the debt I was accruing. I remember cavalierly announcing to my parents "I'll be fine. So I'll have some loans! There's no such thing as debtors prison anymore! What's the worst that could happen?! I'll figure it out!"

 So I spent 3 glorious years in NYC in school- living off loans and credit cards. And then I graduated. And then I got a little older. And a future where I had a family, a house, a retirement account- which had seemed so far off, so unreal, so unnecessary, so silly- started to feel like maybe, just maybe, it might be nice, might be a good fit. But I had this monthly credit card statement, I had these loan payments. The money I was making barely covered my NYC rent. I was racking up more credit card debt to buy groceries, even pay bills. And I was deferring my loans. And suddenly it all started feel overwhelming and insurmountable.

So we got out of Dodge. And by Dodge, I mean New York. I took a university teaching position in a small city in Missouri.  Our cost of living PLUMMETED. It felt great! We not only had a house with a yard and health insurance, we were paying down debt like it was going out of style. I started to learn to be more responsible financially, but I didn't have to be TOO responsible because it was easy living in good ol' Missouri. We lived there 5 years- paid off all our credit card debt, saved up some money, and bought a house. We still had a mortgage and student loans, but we had great rates on both and were making steady progress paying them down.

But life is funny. My husband got a fantastic job offer back where we grew up and where our family still lived. With a new baby and a nagging feeling this was not where we were supposed to raise him, he took the job, we moved and I became a stay at home mom. Another baby came. And life in a suburb of a big city was significantly less easy financially. Our cost of living basically doubled while our income shrank about a 1/3. I may not be good at math, but even I know that spells doom. 
Living within our means began to feel impossible when we factored in our monthly student loan payments and medical bills from our 2nd sons birth and an extended hospital visit for our 1st son. Credit card debt returned. And life was no longer at a place where "Who cares!?! We'll figure it out someday!" let me sleep at night.
Disney's Dwarfs, tellin' it like it is.

Hi ho, hi ho, it was back to work I go. (A future post for sure) I was lucky enough, just as panic had really settled in, to get a dream job at a university in the area. So we are back to two incomes. But it's going to be a long slow slog. 

So my goal for 2015 is seemingly simple- pay off the credit card debt and medical bills. But there's more to it than that. Because I not only want to pay off that debt, but I want to learn how to make sure that kind of debt doesn't happen again, even when life has other plans for us. I want to learn how to budget like my parents did, how to live within our means, and how to be smart financially instead of just riding the waves and hoping for the best. I want to be in a place where my goal for 2016 can be to pay off our student loans and for that to feel attainable.  I want the money to stop slipping through my fingers. I want to grab hold.

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