Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Case of the Disappearing Dead Presidents

by Sheilah Zimpel

In the spirit of the debt-reduction talks going on between Congress and the president and on behalf of a nation driven by conspicuous consumerism, full disclosure is in order: My debts are heavy, and for many bipartisan reasons. I have been both taxed to death and have not received the protection of jobless benefits. So they’re all to blame, me, especially.

Lived outside my means I have—that’s the Yoda-like inspiration I receive intuitively upon meditating on my dilemma. The simple answer is usually correct. I’m affected by the collapse of the overblown housing industry as well, and I can’t begin to understand who’s to blame for that one. Our once inflated house value now has fallen below what we paid for it 6 years ago. That’s a fairly recent development that adds to my already burgeoning problem—a release valve (value) taken away. I can no longer sell, make a bundle of profit, and be free of debt. In the good ole days, you could sit in a house, ride its value to the sky, then sell it and be sitting pretty for a long while.

Not that it matters in my day-to-day debt reality show—unless I wanted or needed to move. And then I’d either have to default or pay someone to take it off my hands.

No, the real crux was the choice to stay home to raise my son and by so doing to become a one-income household 9 years ago. A right and necessary choice, one I still feel so grateful for. Adding more debt to our woes of what we owe by my new student loan was another nail. So we kind of sealed our fate and it snowballed out of control. The money tree quivered in the wake.

When I finally found a paying job 14 months ago, at a part-time temp’s salary (I’ve been made a permanent part timer along the line, something I was told just yesterday), I made a plan, well, the way I make plans, which is not so much. So it hasn’t worked as aggressively as it might have in a more effective planner’s Excel spreadsheet. I don’t Excel (but I do Magic Eye). My simple plan was to pay down debt. But life got in the way of the numbers, which wouldn’t stay confined to what I labeled them in the sterile rows and columns and black and whiteness. Home improvements, car repairs, vacations, etc., took their share, and I let them. I was just lucky to have the funds for them.

I’ve paid down a ton, but it still seems a drop in the bucket. The attack of the killer spreadsheet seems two sheets to the wind at times. It does feel really good to write PAID OFF SUCKER!!! in the row, and it also serves as a reminder to make good choices and not spend wastefully. So the debt, like a growth on my back, is screaming to be lanced, and I’m listening, trying to learn some fiscal responsibility--finally with some extra means to do it, albeit slowly. It feels more rewarding when you can’t have instant gratification, for buying and for paying the bought off; it will take time, and I’ll learn some new good habits. That’s what I like to tell myself anyway.

I never had this issue in my pre-child world with two nice incomes and increasing home values. My new financial plan is realistic, not rigid (because as a friend says, we’d only sabotage that), and like any new habit be it diet or exercise or studying, it requires reminders, perseverance, a buy-in at the cellular level, honesty, openmindedness and willingness. It’s not a headstrong I’m gonna take control of this and fix it today assault--that never works for me. I’m just not that powerful. I like to think it’s the definition of maturity: living with unresolved things.

It’s also the decision to face reality and not stick my head in the sand. Paying the piper, the devil wants his due, I owe I owe so off to work I go—money is a problem so many suffer from nowadays because of layoffs and other crises—mine can seem a high-class problem because we’re healthy, employed, happy, have enough. But those Benjamins deserve a square look in the face. And I’m not gonna blink first.

Have you struggled with money debt? Did you stare down the dead presidents’ faces? What worked, what didn’t? I could use some advice. I want to lose some debt, not my head, and definitely not the battle.


  1. We adopted our son five years ago. A surprise that came to us, we had not gone looking. I left my job, we paid for the adoption and on top of that, a business associate bilked us of income, leaving more debt. I hear you. We are being agressive about our current debt and still trying to save. There are very few extras and yet what we do have we honestly do appreciate more. My end return smiles at me every morning and I am undone. I just hope I remember what a credit card looks like one day......

  2. I always think you can never tell how someone is doing financially just by looking at what they buy/wear/where they live. I've known so many people who squirrel it away and others who are living on credit cards to make some kind of impression. When I met H I was seriously in debt but managed to crawl my way out without any help, despite occasionally not having money for the subway. It is hard. Not fun. Up there with losing weight...


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