Worshiping the Porcelain Bowl

by Tabitha Rasa

>All I have been thinking about besides that is my
>process of getting out of debt — which is very
>exciting to me but not to the general public.
>Kind of like writing about your bowel movements,
>and about as tasteful.

this is a great topic if you ask me. money is like
one of those last taboos, like sex and politics
and religion used to be.
excerpted from a recent email discussion between xian and me

Lately I've been working on getting fiscally fit. Increasingly in recent years I have been making a decent salary, yet I have continued my life-long practice of barely eking one paycheck out to the next, with no cushion, no savings, and no security.

I've always justified this penurious lifestyle by pointing to the fact that I live in New York City, a place only rivaled by San Francisco for its exorbitant rents (and I hear you get more space for the money in S.F.). Any time anyone (like my dad, especially) would question my money policies, I could just fall back on that fairly reasonable excuse.

And yet I know from surreptitious surveying and direct methods of questioning that some people do save money. The first few times I heard this admission, I received it as a preposterous falsehood, something akin to a claim of superhero powers. As time went by it occurred to me, however, that there might be ways of managing money that worked better than the ones I had cobbled together from TV sitcoms and the occasional Vogue magazine article.

Frankly, as I get older, I'm a little embarrassed to be living still at a 20-something standard. I'm 34, and I'm still acting like I'm ten years younger, while many of my peers have long owned their homes. Of course, I was hiding behind the 8-ball for a long time, what with my drinking and all, and I've spent the last eight years putting my life back together after the damage was done. I feel like I've recovered much of the ground lost, but I also keep noticing ways in which I perceive myself outside the potential for normal experiences, things most people just assume they can do. I'm still perpetually chipping away at the image I have of myself standing on the outside looking in.

Last year, my boss bought a house. She's only a few years older than me, close enough to my age to be a peer. At first I resented her for being so rich and lucky. Then I began to wonder whether I couldn't make such a transaction myself. She shared most of the details of the process with me -- I gather it's pretty frustrating at times, and she needed a sounding board to deal with the stress of it -- and I learned a lot about it from listening to her. Most importantly I realized, if she is old enough, I am too — old enough to begin thinking of myself seriously as a potential homeowner.

Recently several friends of mine began reading a book called How to Get Out of Debt, Stay out of Debt, and Live Prosperously by Jerrold Mundis. It's basically the techniques and principles of Debtors Anonymous encapsulated into a (surprisingly inexpensive) paperback. I was too afraid to read it myself, so I made a co-worker buy it and read it, and when she also became a quick convert I finally got my nerve up and bought a copy of it too. It's extremely helpful and gentle and has helped me start facing my fears about money.

I started using some of the tools they talk about in the book, and even went to a few Debtors Anonymous meetings myself. They were scary, and for me they were intense, but I did find them pretty helpful. Of course, some meetings were full of freaks, while others were populated with sensible, thoughtful individuals. I'm not ready to join just yet, but I'm also not going to say I'll never be a regular attendee at their meetings, either.

One of the things that I found most surprising in a DA meeting was people talking frankly about how much money they make. I was not brought up to talk about these things in public. And I'm not about to spill my salary and benefits package here on the 'net. But I do talk openly with my friends about these matters now, and they do with me too. It's a way, I think, of demystifying things, of taking them out of the realm of the shameful and secret, airing them out a bit, and maybe then changing the parts I don't like too much.

I have a pretty high amount of debt; about half of it is from when I went back to school to take pre-med classes, and the other half is plain old credit card debt. For a long time I had the idea that if I couldn't pay big chunks on the debt I'd never get the thing paid off. Now I am realizing that it's consistency that matters more than the size of the individual payments. Oh, and not using the cards anymore.

I eventually had to make the sorry sacrifice: I had to cut up my credit cards. I was assured that I could get them back if I really wanted them. The main thing they kept saying was, if I don't use my credit cards, my debt will only go down. I know, it seems extremely facile ... and yet, I never thought of it on my own. And to my surprise it began to work. I cut up all my cards except one. And I started paying them down. And then what happened was, I began making a dent in the debt, and somebody charged something automatically to the only card I hadn't closed, and I had begun to get some pride in the fact that the balances were coming down, and I got all protective of my debt reduction program, and I got pissed off at the fact that I'd messed up, and I cut the last card up before I could get too scared to do it.

Then I went through a lean time, where I started a new job, and it took them two months to get me on the payroll, and I didn't have a whole lot of cash around, and I struggled hard and got through that lean time, which lasted six weeks or so. And after getting through that without racking up more debt, I felt like I had been chased in a crucible, and was ready to stand up to a regular life.

Since beginning this program of fiscal "recovery," less than six months so far, I've put together a plan for getting entirely free with my debt, saving money a little at a time, and even putting some money by for fun purchases. I want new rollerblades, for instance, and I've got the money for that now, even though I am still paying off debts. My goal is to put money down on an apartment within the next year. I'm not sure I can do it quite in that time frame, but I am steadily making progress toward my goal.

Copyright © 1998
Path of Least Resistance