Just as I was finishing up yesterday’s post, the Man came upstairs into the study and said, “I want to read you something that will make you feel much better about our finances.” He then sat down on the bed and read me this article, from the Guardian Saturday magazine. It’s a long and excruciating tale of financial and personal meltdown, and I won’t go into great detail (yet), but the idea is this: Edmund Andrews, experienced economics reporter for the New York Times, finds himself, at the age of 48, in a bit, but not much, of a pickle. Recently divorced, and engaged to Patty, another divorcee, he’s paying his ex-wife $4000 a month in alimony and child support, leaving him, he says “just $2,777 a month to live on.”
The Man and I exchanged a glance–if either of us had close to $3000 a month to live on we’d be beyond thrilled, but then again, we don’t have kids or years of living comfortably already behind us–and then he carried on. Patty is a mother of four, and Andrews gets his two children at weekends, so they decide that in spite of Andrews own doubts about his financial situation and Patty’s current unemployment, they should…buy a house! Because that’s what adults in these situations do, apparently. Look at the price tag ($480,000, in this case), realise they’ll never be able to afford it, and then go ahead and buy it anyway. In Andrews’ case, buying the house involved a mortgage loan officer and a few interesting snags–carrying too much debt in spite of his $130,00 salary because of a second mortgage, under his name though his ex-wife was responsible for the payments–and the assumption that Andrews would be able to refinance because the value of his house would be higher in five years.
So there he is, digging this hole. A few months later he goes to the ATM and discovers he’s got just $196 (his allegation that “we didn’t have enough cash to cover more than a week’s worth of shopping” did puzzle the Man and I for some time–even for a family of four it seems a little extravagent to drop $200 a week on groceries), and thus begins a long few years where he and Patty spiral into debt, maxing out every credit card they can get their paws on until they owe $50,000 “in credit card debt alone.”
And so here they are, now. Still struggling along–“I have no idea when I might be able to get credit again,” writes Andrews, “much less retire.” He claims it hasn’t been a total loss, that having the house was good for his family, that he and Patty are as close as ever. And at least he’s got a book out of it, which will presumably appeal to millions of credit-starved hole-diggers and victims of economic downturn alike. And as an economics reporter he has a better handle on the situation in its wider context than most.
But I can’t help but feel a little sick reading the story. The Man was right, at least: it did make me feel better about our own, often precarious financial situation. Student loans aside, neither of us is in deep debt, and I berate myself when I go more than £10 into overdraft on any given month–say, £20 into overdraft. Recently I found myself mired in credit card debt, which my parents were thankfully able to help me out of. But I didn’t borrow the $15,000 that Andrews had to from his family–my bill was for $600. Andrews would probably laugh at us, and our pathetic little money worries.
So I have to suppose it’s about scale: someone used to earning upwards of $100,000 a year has a completely different idea of how things work than someone who literally lives paycheck to paycheck. The middle-aged high earner has lost all sense of what it’s like to really economize. It’s been so long since things were stripped down to their essence, since it was survival and not luxury which mattered, that it’s impossible to revert to that primitive way of life. Or maybe the kinds of people who find themselves $50,000 in debt at the age of 50 never lived paycheck to paycheck. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the downside to landing yourself a solid and dependable job straight out of college. If all you’ve ever known is security, how can you make yourself think differently?
Make no mistake, the Man and I are not in an enviable financial position, but there are things about the way we comport ourselves during these lean years that make me think it’s a temporary position, and that, in fact, our having struggled as we do will ultimately turn out to be a good thing.
Because I’d like to think that even if we find ourselves struggling, twenty or thirty years down the line, with kids and needs that extend beyond eating, drinking, sleeping, and being together, we’d know when–and, more importantly, how–to stop. Living on the edge of financial ruin–and surviving–has been an enormous experience for me. I grew up in the lap of relative luxury. I never thought, let alone worried, about money. (Especially as a university student, that classically tight time, when I was earning an income from part-time jobs in addition to the allowance my parents gave me, and didn’t pay a single bill.) But it’s been good for me to find myself where I am now, and the Man and I have mostly been alright. I have a hard time imagining that should we come up against serious financial hardship later in life, we wouldn’t be able to sacrifice everything, just as we have now, in order to avoid descending into that dark place that Andrews and his wife find themselves now.
Or maybe that’s just my youth speaking. In any case, the article did exactly what the Man promised it would, and as I spent the next few hours reviewing my own finances, I found myself laughing a little. We’re all allowed some smugness, aren’t we?