Credit Where Credit Is Due
About six years ago, I made a rather alarming discovery. Thanks to the unexpected costs of researching and writing You Don’t Know Me But You Don't Like Me I found myself in something like thirty-six thousand dollars worth of credit card debt. That is, needless to say, less than ideal. It also meant that every month, in addition to the plethora of usual expenses facing me, I was paying something like six hundred dollars a month in interest.
I wrote about it for a piece that originally appeared on the website of Mental Illness Happy Hour, but Gawker picked it up. According to their website, it's been read over one hundred and fourteen thousand times, or over fifteen times more than the single most popular piece ever to appear on Nathan Rabin's Happy Place. I was paid zero dollars by Gawker. No wonder they weren't able to stay in business.
The six hundred dollars a month in interest was not going down. On the contrary, it was going up. I was barely able to cover the minimum payments on my many, many credit cards and I felt like I was drowning in a sea of insurmountable debt. I felt desperate so I acted out of desperation. As I have written about elsewhere, I signed on with a dodgy, criminal debt consolidation company with a ferocious interest in having me pay them an exorbitant series of fees for what turned out to be non-existent services, but little to no interest in helping me get out of debt in a quick, easy and inexpensive fashion.
I learned too late that the debt consolidation company was more of a massive impediment to financial freedom than a pathway to the economic promised land. I ended up getting sued by American Express and while I did eventually pay off all my debts, the debt consolidation company’s cure for my financial woes ended up being far worse than the disease it was meant to cure.
So for a tiny idyll in late 2012/2013 I had no credit card debt but I also had very little money. So I started using my credit cards again because that option was once again open to me (as part of the debt consolidation company’s plan, I threw out all my credit cards and stopped using credit entirely) but also because I had to if in order to save money.
As I got older and became a parent and a home-owner and unemployed/unemployable, life got substantially more expensive and complicated rather than less. After a while I found myself with about sixteen grand in credit card debt. I told myself that that was an acceptable amount. It was about average, and it was substantially less than the 36 grand in debt that had gotten me into trouble in the first place.
Credit is incredibly addictive. It allows you to live beyond your means. It allows you to acquire things you want but wouldn’t necessarily have the money or resources to buy otherwise. So for a number of years, my life savings and my credit card debt were about the same. Carrying 15 grand in credit card debt when I had 13 grand in savings allowed me to feel like I had a sizable nest egg that would protect me and my family in case of emergencies and the inevitable personal and professional setbacks. But if I was really being honest with myself, the me with 13 grand in savings and 15 grand in credit card debt didn’t have a nice nest egg. It was entirely borrowed. When you came right down to it, even though I had 13 grand in savings, in reality I had less than zero and in addition to my semi-wealth being fictitious, I also realized I was still spending about 300 dollars a month on credit card interest.
I wish that I’d paid off my credit card debt while I was still living in my in-laws’ basement and life was much, much cheaper. But I think psychologically, I might have had a hard time both living in my in-laws’ basement and having almost no money. One or the other I could accept and deal with. Both would have been just too depressing.
Life became so much more expensive when we moved out on own but I remain committed to paying off my credit card debts in their entirety even when it means having almost no money in checking or savings. My debt is down to about eight thousand dollars at this point, which is not terrible, in the grand scheme of things, but is still eight thousand dollars more than I would like it to be.
Here’s the thing: money terrifies me. It confuses me. It overwhelms me. I feel like I have very little control in a lot of respects. I can’t control how a freelance outlet treats me. I can’t control the economy. I can’t control how crazy and erratic and cruel pop-culture media can be. But I can take control of my debts and end them, permanently.
The enormous expenses won’t end after I pay off my debt. I’ll still be paying crazy freelancer taxes and supporting my family, but I can take some measure of control by removing the toxic presence of credit cards, and credit card debt, from my life. True, it entails an enormous amount of financial self-discipline and going without, and months where the checking account dips into the hundreds, but it’s going to be worth it. It has to be. By buying into the tainted system of credit, I let these fucking parasites have power over me and my finances, but by ejecting them from my life and my economic life, I’m taking that power back.
Who knows, at some point I may even have a healthy relationship with credit and debt and money, but for now, I feel like I have to go cold turkey in hopes that my financial future is less bleak than my past.
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