So, this month Fargo and I have been hit with a lot of whammie bills (the water price here in Portland, where it rains all the time, is outrageous), and the big tax bill from 2005 set me back in a number of ways. So, naturally, I started talking about setting up my emergency fund. Again. I had just started on one when I got that bill, so it was sort of a wakeup call. So I have scrimped and scrounged and set aside $600 into my savings account. I started looking at it and wondering what kind of interest I make on that, so I pulled up the FAQ on my bank’s website.
0.10%. Not 10%. Not 1%. Zero point one percent. Which means that I officially earn more by picking up change on the sidewalk than I do through my savings interest. So this morning, I opened up an ING Direct Orange Savings account, to stash my emergency fund somewhere it will do something for me. My hands shook while I filled out the app, and I felt angry when it didn’t instantaneously take the money out of my crappy savings account and just be done with it. I was agitated and distressed. My palms were clammy. Opening that account took all my willpower.
My life with finances isn’t love/hate. It’s just hate. I hate dealing with money. I hate spending it. I hate not having it. I hate having to think about it.
My early childhood was blessed with an above average income in an undervalued housing market. We were the absolute pinnacle of conspicuous consumption. We spent a hundred bucks every trip to the grocery store. We threw away bags of unconsumed leftovers. If I wanted a six dollar action figure every trip to Smitty’s? Well, pitch a little fit and then voila: Rock and Roll in the new NightForce paint. Thinking about taking up a ridiculously expensive habit like baseball card collecting? No problem, here’s a case of unopened 1967 Topps wax packs. I had a room that overflowed with crap. My mom later admitted that she would sometimes make daring night raids into my bedroom to throw away toys, in an attempt to turn the tide of my obsessive/compulsive consumer tendencies.
Now, my folks weren’t some puritan ascetics writhing in woe while their demon spawn collected classic baseball caps. They were good boomers too, making minimum payments on their maxed out cards, assuming that a pension or social security would take care of them once they couldn’t work any more. They were well on the way to a life of paying-for-it-twice before I picked up my first Gung Ho at Mervyns. But as with most perfect spending storms, life got in the way. It wasn’t an all-at-once breakdown, but here are some key events.
My dad had a medical emergency.
My sister was born (and my mom left her job)
My dad lost his job.
One of the cars got wrecked.
We went from nicely middle class family of three on a single income to four struggling for lower middle class on two incomes. Mom went back to work. Dad went back to school and worked part time. But this wasn’t really my childhood anymore, these were my high school years. I mowed yards, I got a part time job as a janitor. But this was not the norm, it was the exception. Somehow I managed not to learn any of the lessons taught by this. I blamed it on bad luck or improper collection motivations. Solar flares, anything.
By this time I had my own bank account, constantly overdrawn, my own credit card was not far away. I went to college and tried to replicate my lifestyle, eating as much expensive prepack food as I could. Once I figured out that nobody calls your folks when you don’t show up to class, I just stayed home (the better to eat Ding Dongs my dear, they get smashed up in your backpack if you take them to class). Eventually my constant supply of junk food gathered a swarm of pot heads that became my wards. Now I had a new thing to spend money on. Weed.
Once I failed out, I had managed to sell every single savings bond that had ever been purchased for me, I did the only thing that made sense. I got a job, and applied for a credit limit bump. I used the first paycheck to pay the credit card all the way down, and of course they increased my limit. All I had to do was OK the interest rate to go from a fixed 14% to a variable rate “as low as 10%(like maybe if you are the pope)”. Some jostling. Some life went past. I got a job that paid twice as much, and I got another limit hike. I had all the elements in place, there was only one thing to do.
I bought a brand new car. $16,000 worth of VTEC engined bright red insurance premium wet dream. This car was magnificent. It was fast. It was red. It was a two door so I had to pay higher insurance. Gas had just dropped to new lows ($.97 if I went to the Arco instead of the Mobil). So I took my wet dream and my newer better faster credit card and went on vacation. We couldn’t decide if we wanted to go to Disneyland or Six Flags. I grinned at the card, and it grinned back at me.
“We’ll just go to both”
I maxed out the card. The car got totalled. I bought a car that was a sinkhole. I moved into an apartment that cost three times what I could afford. I bought another car that was a sinkhole. I moved to California.
I think maybe I believed those debts wouldn’t ever hunt me down. Like they’d be trapped at the border, unable to follow me.
In California I lived paycheck to paycheck, but given my prior excesses, that was actually an IMPROVEMENT.
Once the entire technology segment of the stock market was forced to learn the same lessons I should have been learning, I moved back to Arizona. I lived paycheck to paycheck, but instead of paying any attention to it, the money was simply deposited into a shared account with Fargo. I ignored it as best I could, and as long as my swipe card worked to cash me out a pack of generics and a snickers every lunch hour, I was fine.
When I moved up here after visiting my parents, it was a revelation. My parents were back to middle class. Upper middle class even. Steak dinners three nights a week. Always ate out on the weekends. Man, that was the problem. ARIZONA. That was the problem. Oregon is the PROMISED LAND. Where my credit cards will work forever. I’ll always have a positive cash flow. My parents were BUSINESS OWNERS now, with just an uninterrupted horizon of gasoline powered CFC heavy fun. And that’s when life got in the way again.
I lost my job.
Their business didn’t do as well as they thought it would.
My sister went to college.
And I learned some really horrible lessons. I’m still learning them. I paid off old debts. I only use my credit card when I can pay it off the next month. I bought a new car that fits my income level. Fargo and I eat food at home as the rule not as the exception. I bring my lunches to work. I have a 401k that I monitor regularly and contribute to heavily.
But I still want. Oh, I want. I want big TVs and faster computers and sporty cars and all those things that I wanted before. Only now, when I look at my credit card, I don’t see an amount of money I can spend, or an emergency stash of buying power.
When it winks at me I see the fangs on it. I see the struggle to pay it off. I see the ramen dinners. I see a nearly homeless me cashing in savings bonds at lower-than-face value.
When I see the credit limit, I see the truth. That’s not trust, and that’s not money.
It’s the length of rope I have to hang myself with.