There’s a hard truth I need to face: I am not good with money.
I did fine when I was on my own. I paid off my student loans and the car I had at the time; I started paying into a 401(k); I kept my bills modest. But whatever modicum of financial literacy I had that kept me going back then, it has not proven sufficient to the task of supporting not only myself, but a house, significant other, and pets. The 401(k) is gone; the wife’s much heftier student loans stare us down over the arm’s length of deferment; the fraction of my monthly income not consumed by bills has become a sad sliver.
The stigma of that has held me back. Mention “credit card debt” in passing on social media or in the company of successful people, and observe how quickly words like “irresponsible,” “stupid,” and “greedy” come up. It makes it hard to admit struggle, even to oneself, because that way lies the dissolution of one’s self-image as responsible, intelligent, and content.
At one layer of cynicism, it’s clear how the systems in place encourage slow-burning disaster. The declining purchase power of the dollar has made grocery trips more and more expensive despite little change in actual buying habits. The promises of prosperity from colleges, politicians, and futurists encourage optimism despite evidence for the opposite. Why bother teaching us how to stay cashflow-positive when we’re all little Zuckerbergs, each and every one on the verge of winning the American Dream lottery as reward for how smart we are? You need that house to live how you deserve, that game console to stay current with the cultural conversation. Lenders congratulate us on our payment history and raise our limits, providing more rope to hang ourselves with, and suggest zero-interest balance transfers to “get out of debt faster” when in fact it’s all a shell game to distract us from how we’re digging deeper. After all, it’s not exactly to a realtor’s benefit to say, “You know, this mortgage payment could be 30-50% higher in a few years, and that’s not even counting maintenance or improvements. Can your income handle that?”
At the next layer of cynicism, I call all that a social critic’s excuse list, when the real problems are my irresponsibility, stupidity, and greed.
I’m still privileged beyond question. While I’m one of those on the shrinking iceberg of the United States’ middle class, I’m still there, with a roof over my head and a cushy mid-five-figure job and a credit score that even now manages to hover above average. My constant low-grade anxiety about debt and its impact on my future in no way compares to the kind of daily struggle that people of fewer means must contend with.
But I still have to figure out what the hell to do about it, before it’s too late.
I recently made a pledge to write daily, and to tackle this year’s NaNoWriMo. But maybe the imminent death of my savings account should be a call to action to pursue better habits of a financial nature instead, for my own sake and that of my family.