The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I have no debts: no mortgage, no car loan, no student loans — nothing. I have accomplished this by living well below my means, but the roots of my thrift run much deeper than simple common sense.
I learned the value of being debt-free from my family. We never bought anything we couldn’t pay for up front, and, if we didn’t have the money, we either figured out how to make what we wanted or learned to do without. Thus, my family grew or raised fruit, vegetables, and livestock, and made furniture, clothes, bread, canned goods, and even soap. This was all commendable, except that it continued far beyond the point of necessity.
I left home when I was seventeen at the insistence of my father — who, I suspect, was becoming anxious that I might turn into a permanent drain on the family’s “meager” coffers. Although, by that time in my life, I had certainly learned how to do a lot, I did not really know how to take care of myself. What life inside my family had taught me was not to accept anything from anyone else, lest you find yourself beholden to that person. As a result, I was both as naive and as untrusting as it was possible to be at the same time.
I went on to make many bad choices in life: a distant marriage; jobs I took only for the money and the (false) sense of control; friends who weren’t really friends. I finally went into therapy.
It’s been five years now, and I’m still learning how to trust, love myself, and relate to others — all to the tune of a hundred dollars an hour. My family would be horrified, not just at the price tag, but at the very thought of throwing away good money on something so intangible as a new perspective on life.
My parents are now at the end of their lives, and my siblings and I are well into middle age. Looking back, I can’t help but think that a little indebtedness to others, a little neediness, would have been good for all of us. A small amount of financial debt is a lot better than a life of emotional bankruptcy.
My friend Josh and I first met years ago in New York City, when we were both young, handsome, carefree — and poor.
Since then, I’ve returned to college to obtain two master’s degrees. When not enrolled in evening graduate courses, I typically work two or three jobs at once, moving quickly from one to the next as I ascend the career ladder. My business card lists a veritable alphabet of degrees, licenses, and certifications.
Josh dropped out of community college shortly after we met. He worked as a stock boy for seven years, but was never promoted; he was too irresponsible, his boss said. He eventually quit and stayed home for nearly a year, living off his savings. When he was completely broke, he took a night job as a doorman at an expensive Manhattan apartment building, where he still works.
I own a small co-op apartment in Manhattan, a cabin upstate, a twenty-one-foot sailboat, and a four-wheel-drive Toyota — or, rather, my name is on a worrisome stack of mortgages and bank loans that legally bind me to these possessions until I have paid them off in full. In addition, I have bills for telephones, electricity, cable television, Internet service, gas, water, insurance, registrations, parking, and storage. I also balance a precarious house of credit cards.
Josh has always lived at home with his parents in Brooklyn. He occasionally contributes to the household economy by paying the cable bill, which he does in person at the local office. (Without a checking account, it is difficult to pay by mail.) He has never had a credit card. He cashes his paychecks at a storefront check-cashing place on Sixth Avenue. When he wants to save some money, he gives it to his sister, who puts it in her bank account.
I have made only two or three friends over the past decade. I don’t bother socializing because I presume that I will soon be moving on to bigger and better things, leaving those around me behind.
Josh is still loved by the gang at his old job, and the wealthy residents of the building where he works all exchange pleasantries with him as they pass him in the lobby.
Around my eyes, I have dark hollows and the first traces of crow’s-feet. My hairline has begun to recede. I’m thin, pale, nervous, and unkempt. By Friday, I walk with a tired slouch and look stricken, even destitute.
Josh looks well rested and neat. He has gained weight while sitting by the door of that apartment building. His skin is elastic and plump, and he has the hairline of a fifteen-year-old boy. You might even say he looks prosperous.
William J. Harrington Jr.
New York, New York
My oldest sister, Veronica, understood the importance of having a male around for protection. Whenever we moved to a new place — which was often — she would befriend a popular boy and thus secure for her younger siblings a safeguard against teasing or worse.
One time, we moved to a small town in the Midwest. All six of us kids stayed in a rented two-bedroom cottage on the lake while our parents looked for a bigger house. The cottage came with a rowboat, and for fun we would take it out on the lake when a storm was brewing and the wind had whipped the water into a fine chop. The bow of the boat would rise on each rolling white crest and then dive into the trough. It was our way of dealing with the prickly terror of starting over.
On one of our voyages, a handsome boy in a speedboat came alongside and asked if we were OK. Within a week, Veronica was dating him, and we all had easy access to water skiing and a higher position in the school pecking order.
There were some nights, though, when Veronica would come home late and cry softly into her pillow. We pretended not to hear.
Later, as I got older, I heard stories about Veronica swimming alone with groups of boys at all-night parties. I said nothing, did nothing to defend her. Even when we no longer needed protection, she went on with this game she had gotten so good at playing.
Looking back, I see that I owe her big.
When I was nineteen, I cut my wrists, and my estranged father came to visit me in the hospital. I hadn’t said ten words to him in my entire life.
When I found out he was coming, I called my sister and told her I didn’t want to see him.
“If you don’t let him into your life now,” she said, “when will you?”
I had no reply.
And so he came, dressed in a black pinstriped suit. I was wearing a hospital gown. He said I could come live with him. I told him I wanted a cigarette. “Now is the best time to quit,” he said.
Two days later, he picked me up and drove me to my apartment. The first thing I did was smoke a cigarette. He never said a word about the blood on the countertop and the bed. Then he brought me to his house, where I lived for six months. He hugged me those first few mornings, and when the dreaded phone calls from my mother came, he was my strength.
When I was ready, my father helped me move away from there, driving all the way to Alaska with me. I didn’t agree with his hunting or his politics, but he was always kind. I am used to yelling. He never yelled. I am used to fists. He never raised his to me.
I do not know how my father knew I needed him, but he did. He came just when I needed him the most. He saved my life. I want to know: how does one begin to repay such a debt?
I have been in prison for thirteen years now, and even as I am “paying my debt to society,” I am racking up debts that I doubt I’ll ever be able to pay off.
I owe my father, who has been sending me fifty bucks a month since my sentence began — seventy-eight hundred dollars so far — so that I can purchase tobacco, coffee, personal-hygiene items, paper, envelopes, pens, and snack food.
I owe my mother for thirteen years’ worth of stamps, and for thirteen years of not giving up on me and keeping me in her prayers.
I owe all the pen pals who have written words of comfort and treated me like a normal human being.
I owe many of the men in this prison, convicted felons like me, who have shown me what survival means, and what can be accomplished despite brutal circumstances, and what a saint looks like.
I owe Sue, who came to visit me when she could, who talked to me many times by phone, and who died before I had the chance to buy her dinner.
I owe the Florida Department of Corrections, which has given me three square meals a day and a place to lay my head, and which provided shrinks and counselors during my first three years, when I was suicidal.
And I owe my victim, for having taken away her innocence, her peace of mind, her ability to trust, her self esteem, her happiness. This is the debt I would pay off first if I could, and the one that has haunted me every day for these last thirteen years.
Bowling Green, Florida
If my husband and I didn’t have to pay a third of our income to creditors, we would be able to live in modest comfort. As it is, we are barely getting by. Four A.M. usually finds me praying to the darkened ceiling of our bedroom: Please let us be OK. Please let me fall asleep so that I can be a good mommy who plays, and not a bad mommy who behaves like Lady Macbeth. I usually maintain my vigil until twenty minutes before the alarm clock goes off.
In the morning, I take our beautiful six-month-old, Ian, for a walk in the woods. The snow is deep, and his body is warm against my belly. Our malamute bounds ahead of us, sniffing everything. He will never get enough of the snow, or the smells. He comes back periodically to check on Ian and me as we make our way. The wind brings the blood to our cheeks, and before long, I am singing our walking-in-the-woods song and feeling grateful. Ian looks up at me and sucks resolutely on his mitten.
When we return, I carefully deposit my sleeping baby on the bed. He opens his eyes wide, surprised to find himself home. I unzip his snowsuit and gently pull out each rumpled limb. Ecstatic to see his fingers again, he stuffs one whole hand in his mouth, giggling as I rock him back and forth.
I know that staying at home with Ian is a luxury we cannot afford. Though I feel horribly guilty as my husband goes off to work each morning, I cannot imagine leaving Ian in day care. The thought ties my stomach in knots. Do the credit-card companies crave our pittance so badly that my child must enter the dog-eat-dog world of day care while his mommy labors in a prison of measured time? It makes no sense to me.
I carry Ian into the living room, and we sit on the couch together. He pats my breast to let me know he is hungry. The snow begins to fall again as he nurses. I tell him about the tiny flowers called snowdrops that I saw today pushing up from the earth in a forgotten corner by the garage. I tell him how I gathered the seashells that encircle the flowers when I was so pregnant that I thought I would pop. His fingers curl around my thumb, and he drifts off to sleep.
When I was growing up, my father’s maintenance business was our family’s primary source of income, and he never let us forget it. He did little else for the family, however. Mom managed the entire household. She paid the bills and balanced the checkbooks, cleaned the house and fed the family, contended with the ups and downs of everyone’s lives, and lied to protect us from my father’s drinking and emotional abuse.
Dad’s irresponsible spending left the family in terrible debt. He consistently backed out on plans for special occasions and humiliated us in front of our friends. He once told me that my brother and I were “mistakes.”
Sometimes Dad bought us gifts to apologize for mistreating us. But then, when our actions did not live up to his standards, he brought up these presents as proof of our obvious ungratefulness. Over the years, he has threatened to revoke every “privilege” he’s provided: cars, bicycles, pets, college educations, food, and even our right to sleep under “his” roof.
Now that my brother and I have moved out, my parents are alone in the house. Recently, my mother went back to school, completed her final degree requirements, and got a job with a substantial salary. Still, she struggles to keep them afloat. My father barely maintains his business and spends most of his days at home, “working” on various hobbies. He contributes almost nothing to their income, but spends large amounts of money on liquor and “projects.” He tells my mother he’s taken care of us all these years; now it’s his turn to do what he wants. He says my mother owes this to him.
Once, when I was buried under a mountain of credit-card debt, a friend suggested that I attend a Debtors Anonymous meeting. I had never been to a twelve-step program of any kind. (I wasn’t one of those people!) But I was desperate, so I overcame my prejudices and went to listen and try to learn.
That first night, an older man named Ed spoke about the nature of forgiveness and how we weren’t bad people; we just couldn’t handle money. We were being too hard on ourselves, he said.
When the meeting was over, I gave Ed a ride to the hostel where he was staying between housesitting jobs. He had no money, no car, and no permanent place to live. He was divorced and estranged from his ex-wife and one of his children. His monthly Social Security check barely kept him off the streets.
But Ed also had a devout meditation practice and spent several hours a day at a yoga center. He had plenty of friends there who would let him stay with them or pay him to housesit while they were away following their guru.
From time to time, Ed spoke of having a heart condition. I never took those conversations seriously until one day, a few years after I met him, he went into the hospital for surgery. He was there for a month before he died from a secondary infection.
Ed’s remains were sent back to New York, where he would be cremated and his ashes spread in the Atlantic Ocean. (He had eaten a lot of lobster in his day, and wanted to repay the favor in the end.) His friends from his yoga center wished to honor him in some way, so one couple arranged for an informal service at their home.
About fifty people showed up to talk about Ed. We soon discovered that he had stayed with almost everyone in the room at one time or another, and this made us all laugh. Another pattern began to emerge in the stories, as well. One by one, people got up and said, “When I was depressed/suicidal/recently divorced/out of work, Ed made me laugh/helped me pray/cooked a delicious meal/took me to the movies/listened/saved my life.”
By the end of that night, I realized that, despite being broke and essentially homeless, Ed had used the last few years of his life to serve others. In fact, broke is the last word I would use to describe that period in his life. Whole is more like it.
Los Angeles, California
My father was a wonderful man adored by all who knew him. Financially, however, he was a disaster.
I always knew that my parents were living beyond their means, but I didn’t know how far beyond until I visited them shortly before my father’s death. We went out for dinner, and, as always, there was no winning the battle over who would pay: my father, the perfect gentleman, insisted. This time, however, I watched as his credit cards were declined one after another. Finally, I paid so we could all go home.
After my father died, my mother led me to his closet and pleaded that I take whatever clothes I could use. He’d developed a belly later in life, so his pants, shirts, and jackets wouldn’t fit me. My feet, however, were exactly the same size as his. I took lots of shoes. One pair in particular, my mother said, had been his favorite.
I practically lived in those shoes for several months. Then one evening I was sitting at my desk calculating how far my own family had sunk into debt when I looked down and saw my father’s shoes on my feet. I had stepped into them all too well. Then and there, I took them off and threw them out, resolving to make a change.
My sister and I led very different lives. I joined the Peace Corps, and she joined a prestigious law frm. She made eighty thousand dollars a year to my twenty-four hundred. While I walked to the market in my West African village and haggled with the vendor over a fifty-cent bag of rice, she took a Friday-night fight from Phoenix to San Diego to spend the weekend shopping.
One time, my mother went shopping with my sister. “She spent a thousand dollars on a Ralph Lauren comforter and pillow sham while you didn’t even have a pillow in Africa!” Mom told me.
Ten years later, Mom refers to that shopping trip as “the beginning” of my sister’s money problems. Since then, my sister has gone through several different jobs, husbands, and creditors. She finally ended up in bankruptcy court, yet she has emerged triumphant, raising three healthy, happy boys, nurturing her present (and hopefully final) marriage, and learning that the satisfaction of shopping is often short-lived. The thousand-dollar comforter and pillow sham are a distant memory.
Meanwhile, I’m watching my credit-card balances rise as I coax my twelve-year-old BMW to the shop for yet another costly repair. I recently landed a decent-paying job in academia, which meant my wardrobe deserved a boost. And since this will be the first summer in ten years when I have not had to work odd jobs to make ends meet, I’ve decided to celebrate with a trip to Europe. On top of all this, my partner and I are house-hunting on the Main Line in Philadelphia. Those simple days of haggling over a bag of rice are a distant memory, too.
I sometimes wonder if I will look back on this year as the beginning of my own money problems.
Mary Beth S.
West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania
My first year out of college, I thought I would quickly find success. Physics degree in hand, I moved with my girlfriend to Boulder, Colorado, and started looking for interesting jobs. I didn’t find any.
I’d spent most of my childhood working construction for my dad. Now, frustrated by my failure to find decent work, I took a job doing what came naturally — mowing lawns. I was made the foreman of a crew of illegal Mexican immigrants. Really, I was the driver: Mexicans can’t drive very far in Colorado without getting pulled over. I was the white face behind the wheel.
I slowly slipped into debt to my girlfriend, my friends, and my family. I was beginning to feel guilty and resentful: why was I working ten-hour days, breathing carcinogenic gasoline fumes and staining all my socks green, while my girlfriend volunteered part-time and collected her monthly dividends? I owed only about two thousand dollars, and I was sick of struggling because of a number on a piece of paper somewhere.
Finally, I learned a crucial middle-class lesson: that figure on the piece of paper is just a game we play, a perception that becomes reality only if we let it. I decided to start playing the game. Now I’m in law school and owe upwards of $120,000, but it doesn’t faze me.
Last week, while walking to the library, I met a fifty-year-old homeless man named Elomin. He asked me for money, and we got to talking. I told him about my plans to be a public defender.
“That’s fine as a stepping stone,” he said, “but you got to move on. You got to study tooth and nail and go get your name on the door that says, PARTNER. Don’t you settle for associate, you hear me? Don’t you wind up down here, boy. You don’t want to be down here.”
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Although I sometimes act as if the world owes me a living, deep down I know that the debt runs in the opposite direction.
Besides the necessities of survival — air, water, and the plants and animals that donate (willingly or not) food for my refrigerator — there are the luxuries of my simple life: the two children to whom I gave birth; the dirt in my yard that yields to my spade; garlic and onions browning in butter; orgasm; freshly picked basil; green circles of nasturtium leaves mingling with spiky fern fronds in the garden; the first bite of food after a day of stomach flu; a steamy shower; purple streaks in the sky at sunset; coffee.
What more could I ask for?
In the end, I know, I will pay with my body: mulch delivered to the worms. For now, I pay with my life — with every zucchini I grow, every word I write.
I graduated from college a year ago with a liberal-arts degree. Unlike many recent graduates, I have no student loans to pay off, so I don’t have to trade in my bohemian lifestyle for a “real job” right away. Instead, I wash dishes and care for adults with developmental disabilities, working fewer than twenty hours a week. But I am still paying for my education.
With every phone call home or dinner with my parents, I am reminded of my debt to them. My father invariably questions me about career plans, further education, and economic security. As the man who paid my tuition, he sees this as checking on his “investment.” I see it as missing the point: I went to school to expand my mind, learn to think critically, and build a foundation for lifelong learning.
When our conflicts get heated, I turn to my mother, who will tell me about my paternal grandfather, a man who worked hard and valued education above all else. The eldest child of a poor Appalachian couple, my grandfather was the first in his family to graduate from elementary school. He went on to put himself, his wife, and some dozen brothers and sisters through college. My mother will also tell me that my father is being much more reasonable with me than his father was with him. (Never having known my grandfather, I will have to take her word for it.)
Later, my father will remind me that I could have gone to an Ivy League school, as he did, and “ ‘done something” with my life. He will remind me that he financed my education at that little hippie college, where I majored in “storytelling” and didn’t even get real grades. And he will remind me that I am an ungrateful child.
I have always hated school. I love to read, however, and can learn well from books. So, after high school, I was all for skipping college and going to work. I figured I could always educate myself on my own time. But not-so-subtle pressure from my parents — including offers to help with student loans — caused me to reconsider.
Six years later, after completing my degree (a dubious-sounding BA in psychology and art history) and even attending a year of graduate school to stave off the inevitable, I faced the payments on four loans: almost a thousand dollars a month total, somehow to be handled on my $350 a week.
Both parents, perhaps not surprisingly, claimed not to remember their earlier promises to help. I got a second job and then a third, trying frantically to stay one step ahead of the phone company, the utility provider, the landlord. So much interest piled up on top of the principal that I am still paying off the last of these loans fifteen years later.
When I stagger home with dark circles under my eyes and my mother asks why I look so tired, I mutter, “School.” By the end of this year, I hope finally to be free from the notices that arrive in the mail each month.
I have never once used anything I learned in college to help pay off those loans. They didn’t teach you there about debt.
Los Angeles, California
I’d just turned thirty and needed to clear my head and reevaluate my life, so I quit my fancy job in New York City and went to Israel to work on a kibbutz.
While I was there, I took a side trip to Greece, and on the ferry back, I met a young American couple. It was their first visit to Israel, and they listened eagerly to my advice on the kibbutz experience, the national bus system, and the relative merits of falafel versus shawarma.
When we arrived in Israel, the couple discovered to their dismay that it was a national holiday and all the banks were closed; they hadn’t changed any money yet. Happy to help out, I gave them a twenty-shekel bill (about six dollars), enough to get them to their hostel. “Have a great time!” I called as they boarded the bus. Then I returned to my own travels and soon forgot the whole affair.
Six months later, I found myself at New Jersey’s Newark Airport without so much as a dime to make a phone call. (How I had backpacked successfully through a host of Mediterranean countries only to find myself stranded penniless on my own turf is a long story.) A friend was waiting for me in the city, just a short bus ride away, but with my credit card maxed out and the PIN number of my New York bank account long ago forgotten, I was utterly without resources. I sat on my backpack for a good hour, trying to figure out what to do.
Then I remembered I had several million Turkish lira in my tattered money belt. Surely, that would be enough to buy a one-way bus ticket into New York City. The man at the exchange booth took my lira, did the math, and told me the U.S. equivalent: two cents. “These are bookmarks,” he said, handing me back the worthless bills.
Jet-lagged and hungry, I tried to explain my desperate situation to him. Perhaps I could use his phone to call my friend? His stony expression reminded me that I was back home.
Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. Two young women with backpacks were standing behind me. “We overheard your story,” one of them said. “Maybe we can help out.”
“I just need six dollars for the shuttle into New York,” I said, starting to cry openly.
“Take ten, then,” said one woman, handing me a bill, “and get yourself some coffee.”
I’m middle-class through and through. I’d never begged and rarely borrowed. But I took their money and thanked them, insisting on writing down their address so I could repay them after I got settled. They wouldn’t hear of it. “It’s not a loan,” they told me. “We’re just helping you out.”
So I thanked them again and caught the midday shuttle to the Port Authority; from there, it was an easy walk to my friend’s midtown office.
Only later did I remember the couple in Israel. Had these two women repaid the couple’s debt to me? If so, I hoped someone else would one day repay them for their generosity.
In the midseventies, I quit my mundane, slow-advancing, corporate office job to complete my college education. I had enough money in my retirement account to cover a year’s tuition and living expenses. I figured I’d earn the rest somehow.
That first year was wonderful. I tackled my studies with a vengeance, overjoyed to be free of the nine-to-five rut. Then the money ran out.
I dropped out of school again to gather some funds, but the job market was dismal, and the bills remained unpaid. Threatening notices began arriving in my mailbox with alarming regularity. One was from the gas company; they were going to cut off the supply from the tank in my backyard. With my gas furnace, gas hot-water heater, and gas stove, I had a serious problem. And the cold weather was coming.
On the exact day the notice had promised, up the driveway came the truck from the gas company. The driver knocked nervously at the door. He obviously didn’t relish the task of telling me the bad news. When I answered, he asked me to come with him out to the tank, a bomb-shaped behemoth poorly hidden behind an anemic lilac bush in the far corner of the yard.
When we got there, he said, “Since you’re in such a rural location, I’ve gone ahead and filled your tank. Of course, I have to shut it off until you pay the bill.”
“Yes, I know,” I replied.
He lifted the cover to the shut-off valve. “Now, you see this valve here? Well, I’ve turned it clockwise all the way in order to shut the gas off. If I wanted to turn it back on, all I’d need to do is turn it counterclockwise all the way. Simple as that.” He closed the cover again. “On the side there is where the padlock is supposed to go. I must have forgot to put it back on.”
He walked a few feet away, then turned back around and said, “There’s enough in there to get you through the winter; I know you’ll be back on your feet before long. Good luck.”
With that, he got back into his truck and drove away.
“Debt is a four-letter word,” my friend Ronny says, attempting to lighten the mood as I rifle sourly through my unopened mail. We’re standing by the mailbox at the entrance to my house — or, rather, the house that will be mine in exactly twenty-eight years and two months. I flip through the bills once more, in case I missed some good news. Not a chance.
Ronny and I are the same age. Yet, at this moment, he probably has more money in his pocket than I do in my savings account. I have no excuse for falling so far behind — no gambling problem or medical bills or ex-wife to blame. People have prospered on less money than I make.
Ronny follows me inside. He has come at my request to collect the fifty dollars I owe him. The crisp bills are carefully laid out on the coffee table. Ronny doesn’t need the money, but I have pleaded with him to take it while I have it to give.
After Ronny leaves, I settle onto my couch and begin to open the mail. I stare at the items on my credit-card statements: spark plugs, filters, and four quarts of motor oil for my car; a wooden-handled shovel, which will probably snap like the one before it; twenty-two bags of gravel and three PVC pipes to construct a French drain in my yard; eight sheets of plywood to replace the waterlogged walls of my bedroom after the roof leaked. I’m beginning to wonder if my frugal, do-it-yourself ways are really getting me anywhere.
I open another envelope: my student-loan invoice. I will be adding to this staggering sum shortly, as I have just been accepted to an MFA program. (The $250 deposit will go on one of my credit cards next week.)
I toss the bills on the coffee table with a sigh, go to the computer, and pull up my favorite online-trading site. With the two hundred dollars left in my bank account, I buy 750 shares of a little high-tech company that hasn’t netted a penny yet, at a quarter a share. The company will reach a dollar and a half, I tell myself, and then I’ll be able to wipe out the balance on one of my credit cards.
I wonder if maybe I have a gambling problem, after all.
Jersey City, New Jersey
I can get a Whopper Jr. at Burger King for ninety-nine cents. At the 7-Eleven, I can get a cup of tea for a dime — if I pocket the tea bag and tell them I’m only buying hot water. Sometimes they charge me less for half a sandwich at the Citgo deli if I tell them it’s for a child.
I’m scared. My children need new shoes, underwear, haircuts. We don’t have health insurance, so we can’t get sick. But, of course, we do. When I get sick, I go to work anyway, but when it’s one of the kids, I have to stay home and lose a day’s pay. It’s too hard to find a sitter for a sick child, and, anyway, sitters get paid more than I do.
My husband makes plenty of money — at least, I think he does — but it doesn’t seem to buy anything. We have more than twenty thousand dollars in credit-card bills, and we haven’t even used the cards in five years. The accounts are closed, the cards cut up, but we just keep paying.
Sometimes I have to beg my husband for money. I have to hold out my hand. I have to prove to him that the children’s shoes don’t fit. I have to sleep with him, when I would rather just sleep.
Sometimes I wake up at 2 A.M., then three, then four. I stare at the ceiling, trying to “visualize abundance.” When I wake again at five, I just stay up.
I keep ten dollars in a checking account so I can cash my paycheck. Sometimes there’s a problem — the comptroller forgot to deposit the payroll, or the wrong person signed my check. Then I have to wait seven days for the check to clear. Once, I had to withdraw the ten dollars to buy food for dinner: a bag of noodles, a small can of tomatoes, a pound of ground beef, a head of lettuce, and a cucumber.
I take coins from my husband’s pockets, going through his pants and jackets while he’s asleep. I think he knows I’m doing it. I buy two dollars’ worth of gas at a time, paying in nickels and dimes. “Don’t you have any real dollars?” my ten-year-old son asks as I hold up the line, stacking coins. “These are dollars,” I say, sliding the silver stacks across the counter.
Sometimes I dip into my hoard of quarters to buy the children a candy bar or a bag of chips, so they don’t think we’re poor. Children need treats. So do I.
I take my zip-lock bag of quarters and fill up the gas tank in my car. I watch the needle climb all the way up. It makes me feel rich and safe for a day and a half. It makes me think everything’s going to be OK.
Monsey, New York
When I was a kid, a large basket overflowing with unopened mail sat on the coffee table in our living room. Occasionally, on a cleaning spree, I’d dump the contents of the basket into the garbage can, then return it to the table. It was full of bills, I later learned.
Before my father left us, he neglected to finish paying for the new addition he’d insisted on building — “the backroom” we called it — so a collections agency had garnished my mom’s paycheck. After that, she never paid another bill.
I hated when the bill collectors came — tall, imposing men in crisp, dark business suits, who would peer in through the front window as they knocked on the door. “Tell them I’m not home,” my mother would say. The men would explain to me that it was very urgent that they speak to her, but somehow I kept them out.
All the kids in school had a telephone except me, which was a constant source of embarrassment. Sometimes, thanks to my sister or my grandmother, we were blessed with phone service for a month or so, and I would chat with my friends for hours. Our electricity, too, fluctuated in accordance with my grandmother’s willingness to set delinquent accounts straight. To keep the milk cold, we’d set it on the windowsill.
Because we had no hot water (and later, after the pipes froze, no water at all), I rarely bathed. We had no heat, so my mother bought a kerosene heater and put it in the backroom. Ironically, long before the bank took the house, my mom, my siblings, and I virtually lived in that infamous backroom, where the air was always cozy and warm, though thick with tangy kerosene fumes.
From these experiences, I learned that money was like a poisonous snake: if you didn’t treat it with the utmost caution, it would destroy your life. When I left home, I lived as inexpensively as possible, owning only salvaged furniture and thrift-shop clothes. I made only local calls, never left a light on when I wasn’t in a room, and took quick showers.
One day, I got into a conversation with a co-worker who was struggling to pay her credit-card bills. I felt proud that I didn’t waste my money on pricey jewelry or a fancy car with a ridiculously high monthly payment. But later, I realized that my life, too, was governed by debt — to be exact, by the fear of it.
Caitlin Allen Starks
A farm, with all of its equipment, furniture, and livestock, is being sold at auction. The auctioneer stands on an overturned box. The stoop-shouldered farmer in striped overalls lingers off to the side, his eyes on the ground, his sun-beaten arms folded across his chest. His family watches from the front door of the small farmhouse.
The neighbors are reluctant to bid at first. Now and then, someone makes an offer on a piece of furniture or a tool. But the auctioneer cajoles the subdued crowd, and eventually everything is gone: the wedding china, the old horse, the coffee can full of nails, the farm. Everything.
That was seventy years ago in San Antonio, Texas. I remember it as though it were yesterday.
Placing the butt of the shotgun on the floor and the barrel in my mouth would have been the surest method, but I didn’t particularly want to blow the entire top of my head off. I just wanted to do the job. If I rested the butt on the coffee table and sat back in the chair, I thought, it would probably remove my head without scattering my brains all over the room. Yes, the coffee table it would be.
The necessary decisions made, I returned the ringer on the phone to the on position, loaded the shotgun, and waited. The next call would undoubtedly be another collections agent shouting at me for having fallen behind on my payments. When the call came, I would simply ask him to hold, set the receiver down on the floor, and pull the trigger on the shotgun. I wanted whoever it was to hear the blast.
The bill collectors called every day, and they all said the same thing: that I owed them money, and they weren’t going to rest until they got it. They threatened garnishment and attorneys. One of them even threatened to come to my house and beat it out of me.
I’d long since turned off the ringer on the phone, but the answering machine still picked up the calls, and I had to listen as the callers left messages. There were mornings I lay in bed weeping as they screamed. Sometimes I’d feel so guilty that I’d pick up the receiver and try to calm them down with a promise to pay. Other times, I’d pick it up and yell back. That really got them going.
After waiting an hour or more, I decided I didn’t need to keep the gun in position, so I set it off to one side — within close reach in case the phone rang — and turned on the radio.
Another hour passed, and still no one called. I was losing patience. I unloaded the shotgun and put it in the corner. Then I placed the shell on the table by the phone.
It’s still there. I keep it as a reminder, rolling it around in my hand as I listen to the collections agents yell. They can send lawyers or call my boss or come to my door, but, in the end, I will decide whether or not they get their money.
W. Weson Gurley
The day we received a disconnection notice from the telephone company, there was a fall drizzle, and the kids’ tire swing hung over a mud puddle. We were still paying off the hospital bills from our first son’s fatal illness, and other bills sometimes went unpaid. Having been brought up in an economically conscientious family, I was mortified at our predicament and consumed with worry. Then, as I was wondering what to do, I heard on the radio that the price of gold was at an all-time high: more than two hundred dollars an ounce. Salvation!
I twisted off my wedding band and added it to a small box that held my high-school class ring and an antique ring with my grandmother’s initial scrolled elegantly on it: at least two ounces! I stuffed the box into my pocket, loaded our eight-year-old and our two toddlers into our vw bug, and, with wipers flapping furiously, drove to town.
The neon sign — get rich quick! — glowed hopefully in the pawnshop window. I stepped up to the door, leaving the kids in the car. Beneath the sign, rows of old diamond rings sparkled in worn velvet cases.
The pawnshop reeked of sweat and cigarettes. Four men were sighting down rifle barrels and polishing the gun metal with soft cloths. “What’ll it be?” said a bald man in a frayed T-shirt, standing behind the counter. The others looked on with curiosity, cigarettes dangling from their lips.
“I would like to sell my gold rings,” I said, setting my box on the counter.
The pawnbroker scrutinized the rings with his loupe. “Nothing special,” he said. “Thirty-five bucks, all three.”
“But what about the price of gold?” I asked, stunned.
They all laughed uproariously.
“That don’t impact me, lady,” the pawnbroker said. “Take it or leave it.”
I stood there under the hanging saxophones and crescent-wrench sets, feeling humiliated, disappointed, and sick. I picked up the rings and left.
Outside, the air was crisp and clean. The sun had come out and was shining golden on the faces of my children, who leaned out of the car and giggled. “Are we rich, Mom?” they asked, their eyes dancing with joy and innocence.
“Rich?” I said. “. . . You had better believe it! Now let’s go have some ice cream!”
And we did.
Pat Gibson Owen