Debt Free(dom)

cutting up cardLike a recovering alcoholic sampling the taboo taste of a beloved beverage, I handed the cashier my plastic. The ease with which I did so, accompanied by my effortless smile gave absolutely no hint to the hesitation lurking just beneath the surface. Though the purchase was justified and the actual money in the bank, there was a tiny place inside of me that still remained uneasy.

Once you’ve climbed out of the deep, dark hole of credit card debt—finding yourself back in the black—the former aches and pains of actually digging that hole occasionally come back to haunt you. I am not proud to admit that I was in debt — having only recently brushed the remainder of that dirt off my less-than-stellar credit report. But I am relieved to say that those days are behind me.

Sifting through stacks and stacks of old mail over the weekend reminded me of those darker days. Except that while I was living them, I technically didn’t know they were “darker.” It would be awhile before I actually realized how deep I had dug. I was in fact, living it up back then! I was happily buying new furniture, clothes and shoes, paying for manicures, pedicures, salon visits, gym memberships and housekeeping services.

A close friend did occasionally ask me whether or not I should be spending so freely. But I brushed it off as them being too “conservative” with their own money and “fearful” of bad things that would “never happen.” I was gainfully employed, single with no dependents and the proud owner of a seemingly endless supply of credit. It never occurred to me to be concerned because I was always able to keep up with the payments. If I could pay the bills every month, then this was all stuff that I could afford. Until it wasn’t.

Being young and stupid, I never gave much thought to all of the uncertainties out there. I’d done my homework, gotten a degree and been blissfully employed since graduation. Things like personal illness and the company you work for going under weren’t even on my radar. Until they were.

Back then—during this hedonistic time of living like some kind of entitled Hilton or Kardashian—I fell ill with a serious case of pneumonia. On top of that, just prior to the pneumonia, I’d left the security of a lower paying government job to accept an exciting new position at a rapidly-growing publishing company and had zero sick leave in the bank. On doctor’s orders, I missed an entire month of work and wages. Suddenly making those bills was a little bit harder.

And then the “rapidly-growing” company folded. Making paying those bills all but impossible. I managed. I didn’t file for bankruptcy or anything, but I did have to move 2,000 whole miles back east to live with mom and dad, working a minimum wage job until I could find a better one. Going through the ancient mail was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. First there were the bank statements, bills and invoices… a.k.a. Evidence of All the Fun. Followed by a trickle and later a heavy stream of medical bills, debt consolidation packages and various hand-written notes of lists I’d made inventorying all of my debts and monthly bills.

But it was good for me to see how the entire ordeal had actually unfolded. What started out as a simple housekeeping exercise wound up being a true moment of reckoning. I’d often wondered, through the years, as I struggled to pay down the balances on these debts: How did this happen? How did I rack up all of this debt? And now I know. I can see it all from a distance. It was as though it had happened to someone else… because in a way, it did happen to someone else. I am no longer that person.

Thanks to the support of my parents, a couple of really good friends and an extremely fiscally responsible soon-to-be husband, I am learning the value of having money IN the bank before I have any fun with it. I still love furniture, clothes, shoes, salon visits and travel and I would LOVE to pay someone to do all of the unpleasant, laborious tasks that accompany adulthood. But since I’m neither a Hilton nor a Kardashian, I’ve lain to rest my Visa Gold & Mastercard shovel and am enjoying the freedom that comes with “living it up” — within my means.

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Less is more.

Last night as I unplugged the tree I couldn’t help but notice how much less was beneath it compared to last year. At this realization, I smiled the whole way up the stairs and while I got ready for bed.

Yep. There are fewer presents beneath my tree this year and I couldn’t be happier. Sure its always fun to see a beautifully decorated tree with colorfully wrapped presents adorned with shiny bows and ribbons cascading out from under. But sometimes those mounds of gifts that may bring joy NOW, bring nothing but stress and misery in the months to follow when the bills come due.

I have known such misery. Maybe you have too. I have heard the scraping sound of the shovel digging deeper into the soil of my hard-earned resources. And I have peered into the hole as it grew deeper and deeper and deeper based on my poor decisions or lack of restraint.

Unlike many, I am fortunate that I have not lost my job or experienced a large financial shifting of any kind. But I am proud to say that the practices and wisdom of people like my mother and Lee—being my polar opposites when it comes to financial discipline and discernment—have begun rubbing off on me. The encouragement from my father to make smarter choices has helped as well. I am truly seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel! And it feels both peaceful and exhilarating!

Fewer packages beneath the tree means I did not overextend myself by buying things I can’t afford or borrowing from my future to pay for my “present.” The people I love will still receive gifts from me, just not quite as much. Since when does the amount you spend reflect the amount of love you feel for someone? Since always I suppose. Since we’ve learned to worship the almighty dollar and ALL the “things” it can garner us… if only we had MORE.

I like having things and taking trips and spending money. In fact, I LOVE IT. A little too much. And just like everyone else… I want more. But I have to ask myself: How much more is enough? When does more cease being more if it comes at such great a price?

It has taken me almost 37 years, but I think I finally understand how less may actually be more. In learning to love the having of less… we make room in our lives for the enjoyment of financial freedom, peace of mind and so much more.

Spike my Egg Nog… Please

Tis the season for beautiful twinkle lights and fancily-wrapped presents… A time to celebrate the joy of giving and count one’s blessings whilst surrrounded by those we hold dear. Yet for many people… Tis the Season of Overcommitment. Overcommitment of time. Overcommitment of money. Overcommitment of energy. Overcommitment of worry and resources.

Years ago, for me, this used to be (sing it with me, you know the tune) … The Most Stre-ess-ful Time of the Year… They’ll be much over-charging and customers barging for the Greatest Deal… Yes the most Stre-ess-ful Time of the Year!

I know it doesn’t exactly rhyme, but I think you get the idea.

In two words: It sucked. There were cards to be sent… Shopping to be done… Pageants to rehearse… Concerts and live nativities and office parties and gatherings with friends and gatherings with family to attend… Obscene amounts of food and wine and chocolate followed by more obscene amounts of food and wine and chocolate to be consumed… and before I knew it I didn’t know what was buldging more… The bags under my eyes, my muffin top over my favorite pair of jeans or my Visa envelope come January.

I am now on a personal mission—you might say—to restore the joy and peace that is, by the way, SUPPOSED to be the purpose of the season in the first place by ridding myself of the commitments, obsessions and stresses that typically accompany holiday-related things.

I don’t send cards. My friends and family don’t need to hear me paint a far-prettier-than-reality picture of my life by reading some fluffed-up letter full of superlatives and exclamation points.

I set limits on gifts and I stick to them. And when in doubt about what to give to my seven (COUNT THEM… S-E-V-E-N) nieces and nephews… money is always a safe bet — and an amount of money that I can actually afford as well.

I don’t do pageants. Someone else can stay up until midnight every night for the three weeks leading up to Christmas and sing the solo. I’m done. I much prefer the sleep. I might attend the pageant… if I feel like it.

I choose carefully the events that I commit to. At 36, I am beginning to understand my physical and mental limits when it comes to the amount of myself that I have to “spread around.” If I feel too thinly spread. I just say no.

The food, wine and chocolate… OK… THOSE are OK. They are called “coping mechanisms” and that’s why I’ve learned to keep a larger size of jeans in the closet. That can be our little secret. Let’s just call it Christmas Grace, shall we?

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not a scrooge or anti-holiday. I do find infinite joy in lounging on the couch and staring at the twinkle lights on the tree late at night while watching Cousin Eddie slurp egg nog from a moose cup in his black dickie / white sweater combo on National Lampoons Christmas Vacation

I do find infinite peace in closing my eyes during the Christmas Eve candlelight service while the soloist (who isn’t me) sings my favorite Christmas Hymn, Oh Holy Night

And I absolutely find infinite enjoyment in watching my nieces and nephews glow as they show me their loot on Christmas morning with all the excitement they can possibly muster after only four hours of sleep.

But just in case you DO see me at a party or pageant or family gathering this holiday season, please do me one solid favor… and spike my drink already. Trust me, it’s really best for all of us.