Escaping the Prison of Debt

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I have a complicated and fraught relationship with money, to put it mildly. As I recounted in an essay that appeared on both the Mental Illness Happy Hour blog and Gawker, at one point I found myself in around thirty six thousand dollars in credit card debt

Looking back, that seems like a preposterously high number. How the fuck does a guy rack up that level of debt? But that’s the tricky thing about debt: it sneaks up on you. I fell into a trap where I would pay only the minimum due, so instead of diligently paying down my debt, I was essentially just covering the interest, if that. 

So I started wracking up four or five or six thousand dollars worth of debt on each credit card, without being cognizant how much it was costing me to maintain that level of debt. I had one of those horrifying “Oh God, what have I done?” moments when I did some calculating and realized that I was paying six hundred dollars in interest a month alone on just my credit cards. One of my biggest expenses not only didn’t give me anything concrete in return; it keep me poor and struggling and dependent upon evil credit card corporations to sustain even an exceedingly modest lifestyle. 

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Feeling lost and overwhelmed, I signed onto a dodgy, criminal debt consolidation company that promised to free me from the tyranny of debt in as little as three years, for a steep fee. When I say “criminal” that’s not just me being bitter or making a value judgment. No, I received a check for 78 dollars after the company was found guilty of ripping off clients and was forced to financially compensate people for their criminal financial shenanigans.  

The people I foolishly paid to get me out of credit card debt somehow managed to be even more amoral and unscrupulous than the credit card companies I’d been dealing with. 

My debt consolidation misadventure concluding with me getting sued by American Express for non-payment and me calling up my debtors and negotiating a settlement myself. It turns out that what I was paying the debt consolidation company to do (or rather not do) someone with absolutely no experience or know how, like me, could literally do himself in ten minutes. 

I was deeply proud of myself for paying off thirty-six thousand dollars in credit card debt in 2013 but in the ensuing five years it’s crept back up to about eighteen thousand dollars. I told myself that was an okay level of debt to carry until I once again crunched the numbers and realized I was still paying three hundred dollars a month in interest so I decided to stop using my credit cards altogether until I once again paid off my entire debt. 

 Me, eventually. Minus the hair. And the suit. And the money. But hopefully having paid off some debt. 

Me, eventually. Minus the hair. And the suit. And the money. But hopefully having paid off some debt. 

When I was younger, and the world more full of possibilities and hope, I fooled myself into thinking that I would pay off this debt somewhere down the road, that I’d get a big lump sum as an advance on a book or successfully blackmail an adulterous businessman, or, alternately, befriend an eccentric rich old lady and convince her to leave her fortune to me instead of her cat. 

At this point, the “big advance for an upcoming book” option seems only slightly more feasible than either blackmail or cozying up to a dying heiress. So I figured I would have to resort to something just a little more practical to pay off my debt: once again shunning credit cards until my debt once again returns to zero. 

It has been a thankless task, in no small part because my expenses have doubled, thanks to fatherhood and the ten thousand dollars in freelance taxes I’ll be paying this year for the first time. 

Yet I’ve still managed to pay off about ten thousand dollars worth of debt in the last year or so but I’ve still got another eight thousand dollars left to go. It’s been tough. At the end of January I found myself with exactly 200 dollars to last me a little over two weeks until my big Patreon payday on the sixth.

This fucking sucked, and I regretfully used one of my credit cards to get me through that financial drought. Life is so much easier when you have the luxury of credit. Swearing off credit cards for me right now also essentially means swearing off re-building a nest egg. It means living paycheck-to-paycheck and feeling happy if there’s more than a thousand dollars in my account at any time. 

Spending other people’s money (specifically the credit card companies’) makes you feel more comfortable and financially successful than you actually are. It gives you false, deceptive confidence. Swearing off credit and only using the money I make really drives home how little I ultimately have. 

I am dedicated to paying off my debt in its entirety, and then, God willing, staying off credit cards and maintaining a debt-free lifestyle in the years ahead. It’s a way of taking control over my finances and my life. Yet I’m all too cognizant of how little control I have in the grand scheme of things. On Monday, for example, I got a letter from the State of Illinois saying that I owed 497 dollar in unpaid taxes from 2013 plus a hundred dollars in fines and a hundred dollars in interest. It seemed like total bullshit, but the world is full of that kind of shit. 

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By paying off my debt, I’m trying to control what I can because I am all too aware just how little I control, and how quickly and easily things can take a turn for the worse. 

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