This is a repost from 2007!
In the Beginning, There Was Citibank
David was recently home from Desert Storm, and I was eager for some independence. We were both young, dating, and off to college for the first time. One of the great things about college is that you can get your very first credit card without even trying. How proud I was of my shiny, new, silver Citibank card! How grown up and cosmopolitan I felt! Imagine…$600 extra dollars to spend. No more worrying about pesky account balances for me. I was free! It wasn’t long before that $600 card was full, and with my limited income, the balance wasn’t going anywhere. The great thing about credit cards, though, is that once you have one, you can get more. Preapproved offers flooded the mailbox, with much higher credit lines than my worn out Citibank. I began choosing them on the basis of cuteness. Really. I had one once that had a circle of babies on it. Very cute. I always got compliments when I whipped that one out. After a while, I found that I owed so much that I couldn’t pay it off. I was struggling with just the minimum payments. But then, there in the mailbox, was my salvation. Zero percent interest on balance transfers. Yes, I thought, that’s just the thing I need. I’ll just transfer all these high interest debts to a zero percent card and my problems will be solved. And that’s what I did. Over and over again. Meanwhile, my other half was only slightly better off. He’d gotten a couple of joint cards with his brother, in a mutually beneficial exchange of his good credit for his brother’s income and ability to pay. That would come back to haunt all of us years later, but for the time being, they were both satisfied.
David often jokes that instead of marrying into money, we married into debt. We started our life together with an uneasy triangle of his old bills, my old bills, and…the new bills we were making together. After all, there was stuff we needed, and stuff we wanted, and stuff we deserved! And we had to have a new car to get around in, too. Specialists don’t get paid very much, and there just wasn’t enough to go around. This is an important part, right here: I had the checkbook. It seemed only natural. His mother paid the household bills, my mother paid the household bills, and it fell to me, with no debate, to pay our household bills. I knew all along we didn’t have enough money to pay for everything we bought, but how could I tell him, who worked so hard, that he couldn’t have things he wanted? And if he could get things he wanted, then shouldn’t I get things I wanted? And later, after Brenna was born, she needed the cutest clothes and the biggest toys, didn’t she? I don’t think David ever knew how bad our situation was. I didn’t tell him, and he never asked. I even remember one morning, shortly before we moved to Germany, quietly using the phone in his mother’s room to activate a new credit card before we went out to breakfast with his family. On the way to the restaurant, we stopped by the ATM to get some cash, but we couldn’t even withdraw $40. The bank account was empty.
The Buck Stops Here
David’s orders to Germany did not include me and Brenna, so he left left us in the care of my parents, while he went ahead. Our household goods had been packed months ago, and we had both gotten our military-issue passports, but he still had to jump through quite a few hoops to get his family over there. One fellow we knew never actually managed it. While we were apart, he took up with the Protestant Men of the Chapel, who offered Saturday morning bible study breakfasts. There, in the chapel annex, over pancakes and eggs, he was suddenly struck by the full responsibility of his role as head of the family. He didn’t waste any time in reforming our family life. One of the first things he did, after picking us up from the airport, was commandeer the checkbook. Each week, as our mail trickled into our postal box, he’d gather up the mounting bills and ask, “Is this all of it?” I hemmed and hedged, unwilling still to confess to the deep, deep financial mess we were in. Finally, at the end of the month, when everything was tallied up, we had nearly $35,000 in mostly credit card debt, and we’d only been married three years. To David’s credit, I don’t recall him ever making me feel guilty for that debt. In fact, he removed the burden from me entirely, taking the attitude that it was his fault for not properly fulfilling his manly duties. It took a little while, but I was grateful and relieved that the financial accountability was no longer mine. Those Saturday morning breakfasts changed our marriage and our family for the better, and all these years later, I’m still thankful for those men.
Germany was for us, in many ways, both an extremely trying time and a deeply enriching time, though we frequently don’t see the rewards until we’re well passed the trials. There we were, in Europe, on the Army’s dime, and we were hunkered down at home with our stack of bills and a very tight budget. It wasn’t quite what we envisioned when we asked for the assignment, but drastic times call for drastic measures, and these were, indeed, drastic times. The original budget had a fair bit of leeway, because we really didn’t know how much we needed to spend. As the months wore on, though, we got more creative, more inspired, and saving nickels and dimes became almost a game. I remember reading an article in a magazine early on, about a family that lived on $50 in groceries per week. It was just food, though, and after factoring in the non-food items I buy at the grocery, I told David I thought I could do it for $75. He set the budget at $400 a month, cash, and said anything I saved out of that was mine to do with as I pleased. Motivation! In the beginning, I only had two or three dollars at the end of the month, but after a while, I had a pretty well stocked pantry, and, except for perishables, I was only buying stuff that was on sale, and a lot of it. One day, the .99 syrups had $1.00 coupons on them. I came home with almost all of them. Another time, I found a phenomenal sale on maxi pads and purchased a six year supply. When we moved, the German packer looked at Davey and said, “Your wife…she have a problem?” I just handed out the last of my twenty-cent deodorants, too. Up until Germany, I had no idea that finding a great deal could be such a thrill! Anyway, my little wad of cash began to grow, and it meant that I could buy little frivolous things if I wanted, or take the kids (just two back then) to the food court to share a Popeye’s shrimp basket. It’s a little easier to live lightly when you can have a little luxury now and then. We also started shopping at the post thrift store and, more importantly, selling under their consignment program. David had come home one Saturday morning with the idea that stuff is energy, even if it’s sitting in a closet, and he started carting things off to the post dump, where people were just waiting for him to come back because he was throwing away such good things. I started carting things off to the thrift store, where other people paid for them.
Curbing the Impulse
David did the budget thing pretty well. When faced with a $35,000 stack of bills, many people would have reacted with an extreme zero-spending plan which couldn’t be maintained. Such a person might have become easily discouraged and given up altogether. I know, because I am that sort of person, but David’s not, thankfully. The reality is that there are things that need to be purchased. However, it’s not a real necessity if you didn’t know you needed it before you got to the store. David solved the problem of impulse buying by hanging an index card on the refrigerator. Anything we thought we needed, from new socks to those pretty dishes on sale at the PX, had to be written on the card. On shopping day, the card came along and nothing that wasn’t written down made it to the checkout line. If, perchance, we should find something that we absolutely had to have, we had to go home and write it on the new index card. Once it was written down, we could go back and get it, but 95% of the time, the impulse passed. We saved a lot of money this way.
In the beginning, our spending was strictly for necessities. I remember one day, after quite a long time, David announcing that we were doing well, and we were going to the other PX on the neighboring post for a little shopping spree. I got an extra set of measuring spoons and second one cup glass measure, a bread knife and bread board, and a couple of baking pans. I think my “spree” cost about $40, but I sure did feel rich, and I still have and use every one of the things I bought that day. Somehow, too, I managed to convince David that if he wanted a new computer game, clearly not a necessity, I should get a matching $50 to spend or save as I saw fit. With the price of games effectively doubled, he didn’t buy as many, but when he did, I added the money to the little roll I had stashed away in case of a rainy day. As I felt the belt easing, too, I started writing checks for a few dollars over, depending on what the check was for. Small gas purchase? Add on five dollars. Bigger PX purchase? I could probably get away with $10. I hardly ever spent it; I just kept adding it to my stash. It was insurance against hard times and the possibility of frivolity all in one. I like having that cash cushion, and even though our financial situation is vastly improved, I’m still uncomfortable if my cash stash falls under a certain amount. I think David likes it, too, though he never uses it except for an occasional payday loan.
Update: We paid off our entire debt in the three years we lived in Germany. Our very last bill was our car payment, and we made a double payment that December so that we could leave Germany debt-free. On the day we flew, we had very little in the way of cash, but we were richer than we’d ever been.
This series of short posts originally appeared on my very first blog back in 2007. They’re kind of relevant to what I’m thinking about this week, so I thought I’d repost them here. And, honestly, I’ve enjoyed rereading them myself. I’m reminded of our old selves and the struggles we’ve already handled, and the good ideas we’ve already had but forgotten which need to be resurrected again. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you tomorrow with some fresher stuff. 😉