“I’ve done stupid with zeroes on the end.” – Dave Ramsey
I have decided, with the approval of my husband, to share with you a story that is a really big part of who we are as a family and why we make some of the choices that we do. It has to do with the topic of money.
I used to work, when I lived with my parents, and while some of the money WAS saved in an account (thanks to my dad’s insistence), unfortunately I could kick my former self for all the money I spent on size 2 business clothes and eating lunch out and other general nonsense. I worked dangerously close to Fifth Avenue in NYC and I certainly took advantage of it. Brooks Brothers, Saks, Henri Bendel, Banana Republic… sure, I’d shop the sale rack, but I’d still come home almost every day with a cute little shopping bag bearing the logo of a retail establishment.
Naturally, one baby into marriage, I finally had an actual shape, and realized even if I lost all the baby weight I’d never fit into a size 2 or 4 ever again, so sadly packed up and gave away just about my entire wardrobe. Between that, my wedding, and my new car, that was pretty much all I had to show for 6 years in the workforce.
My husband used a credit card, as did I (though I did pay off the balance each month when I was working), and he had a normal size balance on one of his cards when we got married, as well as a car loan on his little Honda. Credit cards had always “worked” for me, in that I made enough money to be able to pay it off, if not this month, then next month. So I really considered it to be a sort of extension of the cash in my wallet, a truly reasonable part of my spending habits.
We had no plan for our money. Basically the way it worked was, we would use our credit cards to buy things – groceries, eating out, clothes, household items, gas for the propane tank, etc. Then we would look at the bank account when the bill came in. If there was cash, we’d maybe do a mental calculation to make sure we’d still have enough to pay the mortgage and car payment at the end of the month, and maybe leave a little buffer in the account, and then we’d basically just pay down on the cards based on the amount of cash in the account. It usually worked out okay and if anything we’d err on the side of paying a little less on the cards, just to keep some cash on hand in an emergency.
And boy did those credit cards come in handy when my husband lost his job. We have a running joke, he and I, that pregnancy on my part causes job loss on his part. He has either run out of contract work or been laid off during every single pregnancy. Even the one time he thought he had a stable, long term job, I totally jinxed it by getting pregnant with Estella. We literally laughed at the news because it was so very predictable. 🙂
The first few times Dave was unemployed or underemployed, I was really ‘smart.’ Offers were coming in every day for 0% APR cards for six months or a year. I applied for and got those cards and because of our stellar credit history (meaning all the revolving debt we constantly had and paid at least the minimum balance on), we were given high limits on the cards. So why not borrow this “free” money to tide us over until we had income again? Some of the cards even came with free or capped-fee balance transfers that you could put RIGHT IN YOUR BANK ACCOUNT. Sweet! That meant I could transfer a few thousand dollars on our limit into my bank account, and then pay the minimum payments on that same card and the other cards we might have had balances on.
So I’d transfer a month’s living expenses into our account, and we’d live on that, and the next month if we were still behind or underemployed I’d do it again. Then finally, Dave would get a paying job and we’d start having income again. And here’s where the even stupider really kicked in. Instead of immediately chunking everything we had left in the bank account back onto the cards we took them from, I would leave them in the account as a little buffer (which we really did “need” as we didn’t plan for any future big purchases like car repairs or propane).
Even though everything seemed hunky dory on the surface, even though we had money in the bank, there was always this constricting feeling, the feeling that we were spending more than we were earning, that we just couldn’t shake. Everything we bought was justified that we “needed” it, and then we’d realize that we should “probably try to spend less money” so we’d, you know, *not* get mushrooms in the grocery shop because it was just too expensive, and buy the cheapest meat we could, and not impulse on candy on the way out, and feel so self-deprived and good about ourselves that we were saving money and “scrimping.” And I’d see a pair of socks at Walmart and think it was way too expensive and not buy it. So even though we really were overspending, it felt like we were in constant self-denial.
So then, with this constant feeling of stricture over our spending, and guilt when we did buy something, something would happen to make it all seem pointless, like getting a speeding ticket. And I’d think to myself, “Really? Did I just NOT spend a single extra dollar at the grocery store for like SEVEN WEEKS in a row, only to use that money to pay for a speeding ticket?” It seemed so futile and such a waste of energy. So I would look at the bank account and realize there was a bunch of cash in there and think, “Hey well I’ll just buy that (__) I have been waiting to buy, what’s the difference anyway?”
Another thing we did was constantly traveling. Moving far away from my family, my husband felt bad for me and allowed me to go back and visit a lot. The first year I was married I made about 6 or 7 trips (mostly flights, some car trips) back home, many of which Dave came back with me. After each successive child was born we cut the trips down by a few times per year, but it was still the cost of plane tickets, or else Dave needed to be off work to drive us, etc. And of course, when I went to NY, I had to “treat” myself to the NY shopping experience. There were so many things I could only find there; there were so many deals not available anywhere else, and really, who better to shop with than mom or sisters? So that is when I would rationalize saying that I really deprived myself most of the time, and this is well deserved, and I really need this item and I was going to have to get it at some point anyway!
Meanwhile, the balances on these 0% cards were looming and growing in the background, but they were sorta out of sight, out of mind, as we were basically living based on what was showing up in the bank account. I had a very “can-do” attitude about it (pretty much my default response to any challenge) and didn’t allow myself to worry, because my husband was growing increasingly frustrated with the debt, and it really had a hold over him in a way I could not relate to and didn’t even realize until much much later. So I found it was best to avoid the topic, keep the credit card bills out of his sight (not to hide them, but to help preserve the illusion of peace of mind with him) and just quietly wait for another 0% offer to transfer the balances to as the intro offers expired. I noticed that when the topic of money came up, my husband (a very happy, outgoing sanguine soul) would become uncharacteristically and thoroughly depressed, and it seemed to really put a damper on our relationship when that happened, so apart from consulting on larger purchases (over $100) we rarely discussed money.
But though the debt was not often discussed, the feeling of doom and hopelessness was really never far from our minds.