So in my last post I said that shopping day trips were a source of happiness and associated with good memories, and that frugality was a virtue I couldn’t help but learn. These are foundations upon which my financial future unfolded.
So out of the nest I flew. I needed a car to go to college so the last month of my senior year in high school I got an old car, a $1,000 car loan and a monthly insurance payment. I was officially in debt. And, I was on my own. College was my choice, but it was a choice I had to pay for myself. I got a job to pay for my car and insurance and sundries, I had some grants for school and maybe some tiny scholarships…and I got the maximum student loan allowed. I was putting myself through school. And at some point I can’t recall, I got a credit card. I think what I took from all this was that this was normal life in “the real world”…you get what you need with loans and you work to make the payments. There didn’t seem to be any other path.
Two years later I had a convergence of crises. First, I had been dating a guy, thinking he was “the one” and it ended. Second, I realized that I was two years into Bible College with no real direction on a career (since my desired career was Wife). And third, the student loan debt was piling up. So I ran away. I got a nanny job on the East Coast and moved out there to “live-in” with a family and make some money and figure out what to do next. But oh it was so lonely. I had no friends. I worked 12 hours a day Monday through Friday. Then they would let me use their car on the weekend and all I wanted to do was get out of the house. But the only places I had to go were church on Sunday, and out shopping the rest of the time. Whether I bought anything or not, shopping was something to do that I really enjoyed. And you can bet that if I bought anything, it was a “really good deal” from a sale rack!
Up to this point, from what I remember, my credit card had been the back up plan…the “emergency” fund. I had to buy everything for myself – my parents couldn’t help out. I’m sure it was used for car repairs and the occasional “need” for something. And then as a nanny, I didn’t start to go crazy with my credit cards, I think my time there just made me remember my love for “shopping”…just as an activity. And so after this point I probably did that more. The creeping of the debt was so slow…but steady.
I returned back to school the next fall with a renewed goal of making a career for myself no matter what my marital fate would end up after college. And with that goal, my thought was that “when I get a full-time job, I will pay off my debt” just like everyone else. And so I finished 3 more years of school with more student loans and more creeping credit card debt.
But this is the part of the story where the debt starts to wield its control over my life and decisions. As graduation approached, I started to crunch the numbers of what it would take to make my credit card and student loan payments, as well as my car payments (was on my 3rd car by then…the “beaters” kept dying) and living expenses. My employment decisions became limited. Many of my peers were taking one year internships in large churches. It was a great way to get real experience as a young person and become a “sought-after” hire at the end of that year, since you had worked in this well-known mega-church for a year. I thought that type of situation would be ideal for me. I applied to some, and was even offered a few that were really exciting opportunities. But I soon realized that I could not possibly live on an intern’s salary. I also was very interested in parachurch work, but again, it would not pay the bills. Children’s Ministry was my most marketable path (although I never felt it was my ministry passion), but very few jobs were available in the Midwest, especially for someone fresh out of college. So I ended up taking a job in southern California…2,000 miles away. It was a great job, for a church of 800 people with a vibrant Children’s Ministry. It would pay the bills. Money was controlling my path already.
So off I went again, alone…my friends and family all a plane ride away and me with only 2 weeks vacation, no weekends to fly off for a quick visit (had to work on Sundays!), and really no extra money. Although there were plenty people around me, there was only one single girlfriend and one married girlfriend my own age in the whole church…and no men my age. The job was fine, but my social life was painful and lonely. Slow and steady was the downward spiral. I just managed my debt payments each month. And although I was making payments on my credit cards – more than the minimums…I didn’t stop using them.
I never was a shopaholic, but I loved the “hunt” for a good deal and the activity of being out and about. For some odd reason (probably my childhood), just the activity of getting out and about shopping for “nothing”…browsing around aimlessly…recharged me. There were amazing thrift stores there and I combed them weekly. The lure of the good deal got me. The “frugal” in you can get the best of you when you can’t control it…you still buy things even if you don’t need them or can’t afford them. It was all a “good deal”. Although I had a job and could pay for most things, I still let the credit card debt creep.
But it was becoming too much. Every life decision I made was chained to this debt. I wanted to move back to the Midwest and again was faced with financial obstacles in what jobs I could take. It was controlling me and I knew that I had to get control over it…over myself…
By the end of the “creeping debt” period (9 years), my credit card debt was equal to my student loan debt, and the total amount was equal to 1 ½ times my annual salary. It felt insurmountable. It was a secret that I carried alone. I felt immense personal shame. It was my biggest failure. That was the end. Next is a new beginning… (to be continued)