Monday, November 06, 2006

My 'neurotic' dislike of debt and spending

I discovered the other day that I am apparently a dinosaur. And a neurotic one at that. You see, I apparently have a neurotic dislike of debt and spending. No, I don’t mean that seriously. At this point I know enough about psychology (and myself) to know that if I am neurotic, it’s not in that way!

What brought this up? Well, the other day I was reading an old article (it’s not online sorry) and I have been thinking about it ever since. This article was about a woman who was really thrifty and had been driving her husband and son nuts because of it. This woman refused to carry a credit card, insisted on saving at least $500 a month, was determined to pay off their mortgage, and refused to give into her family’s many requests for indulgences. (Such as her son’s plea for an expensive game system for Christmas.) Her family decided something was wrong with her and convinced her to see a counselor. The counselor diagnosed her with a ‘neurosis towards debt and spending’ and was going to work with her to help her change. Um, excuse me? Now I haven’t seen this woman’s case file. I certainly haven’t read her chart, met her, or spoken to her or her therapist. But from the information I had, I could only conclude that the woman was exceptionally frugal, not neurotic. (And I couldn’t help but wonder how her counselor had gotten a license, much less managed to keep it, just judging from some of the silly remarks.) Okay, so what?

Well, to me this case is indicative of the state of our culture. It wasn’t that long ago that spendthrifts were considered to be the crazy ones. If you went into debt, it was for something really important (like a house) and you paid it off absolutely as soon as possible. People didn’t shop for recreation. Now it seems that if you don’t do these things, you’re nuts. I am reminded of two of my relatives. My great aunt died when I was in high school. She was well over a hundred years old. For years people had described her as poor as a church mouse and she died without a penny to her name. She also didn’t have any debt. What did she have? A house and some land that was paid for, a classic car that was also paid for, and a whole lot of antiques. All together, her net worth turned out to be more than that of all her heirs combined! This woman who was ‘poor as a churchmouse’ wasn’t poor at all. She just didn’t have a big fancy house or flashy stuff like her relatives. But she also didn’t have payments on all of that stuff, either.

Then there’s my grandmother, of an entirely different family. (She’s my step-grandmother, so our family lines are different.) Last month she turned 85. She lives entirely off her social security check. Most seniors struggle to make it on just that. No her. She lives large, and loves to travel. How does she do that on a measly $600 a month? Quite simple. Her only bills are utilities, gas, and food. Once a year she has to pay taxes on her condo and car. That’s it. Everything else goes to non essentials or into her significant savings account. She eats out all the time and is saving for a trip to Alaska. (God, please let me live as long as she has and be in the kind of shape she is in!) She wasn’t able to do this because of a high income; she was a single mother and worked as a clerk for most of her working life. Nor did she deprive herself of necessities (and a few luxuries) to do this: she is the most traveled person I know, and has been to every continent except Antarctica. She spent six months in Japan and saw the Berlin wall before it came down. Her tactics? She spent little, saved a lot, and stayed out of debt as much as possible.

It seems like all of those who lived through the Great Depression where this way, to one extent or another. Did an entire generation have this debt neurosis? Or did they have a reason for this avoidance? Gee I wonder. And what about all the generations before them, who didn’t borrow even when they had access to debt? Were all generations prior to the current ones full of this kind of neurotics? Somehow I don’t think so. So, what else could it be?

I am not knocking debt per say. It has its place of course. But what is this spend, spend, spend attitude people have these days? They’re in debt up to their eyeballs and they’re still spending. Which ones are crazy here? My great aunt had this “silly” belief that credit cards were a form of usury. I wish now that I had listened to her, lol.

Nor do I think that I am any better than anyone else. I have debt myself, so I definitely understand it. I got a credit card in college in order to help build my credit rating so that when the time came I would have an easier time buying a house or car. In this society all they care about is that magic number –not whether or not you can actually repay the loan! For a long time I was really, really good with it. I would only use it once a month or so to buy gas or groceries and then pay it off when the bill came in. A couple of times I used it for real emergencies –i.e., I got really sick and didn’t have insurance to pay for the $200 antibiotics. Then my mother got diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. She lived halfway across the country, and for the last six months of her life I had to go out there and back nearly a dozen times. I’m the eldest, so it was my responsibility as next of kin to fill out all of the paperwork etc. That was really expensive for someone in college, and I missed a lot of work. So I had to use my credit card for much of that. My sibs, who went with me many times, refused to help pay for anything. When the time came for her funeral they also refused to pay for any of that. So, I was left holding the bag for that too and had to go into debt further to pay for that.

So, I know about debt. And that I think is why I dislike it so much. But I dislike spending just as much. I can’t see any reason to pay two thousand dollars for a tv. That just makes absolutely no sense to me. So, I don’t have a big screen television, or an IPOD, or any of the other gadgets people love so much. Part of that is my eco-kick, but part of it is just the fact that I am a tightwad. I use a clothesline whenever possible, I wear my clothes until they wear out, etc. But what I do instead of buying all those gadgets is put that money towards my debts. I hope to be out of debt by the time I turn forty, or forty five at the latest. I don’t mean just my credit card bills; I mean everything. I’m paying off my credit cards first, then my car, then my mortgage, and finally my student loans. I know that sounds crazy, but I would rather be out of debt than have a house full of gadgets and vacation in exotic places every year. There are a lot of benefits to not being in debt: more security, more flexibility, less work and salary requirements, etc.

My friends and neighbors think I’m crazy though. I wonder if they’ll still think that when I invite them to my I Paid Off the Mortgage party in twelve years or so?


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11/10/2006 7:40 AM  

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