First world debt.

In the fall of 2009 our tenuous grip on financial solvency broke, leaving us with very few choices other than bankruptcy. Bankruptcy actually might have been the smartest choice, financially speaking. We knew other folks, and read about many in the news, who declared bankruptcy or went through foreclosure, and gamed the system brilliantly. I’m not saying that all those who declared bankruptcy or went through foreclosure were abusing the system, but some did, and they made me wonder if they actually had the right idea in a very self-serving kind of way. I remember one story in particular, about a local couple who simply stopped paying their mortgage, bought a brand new BMW instead, and waited for the overwhelmed bank to kick them out about a year and a half later. Can you imagine living rent/mortgage-free for a year and a half? I sure could do a lot with that money, and it wouldn’t involve buying a BMW. Our focus though was on keeping our house, and even though one type of bankruptcy makes such accommodations, we also didn’t ever want it on our credit record. So in a last-ditch effort to save our house, our credit, and our sanity, we entered into a debt management program.

Being in the plan is no cake walk. You have to commit to about 5 years, during which a significant chunk of your salary is automatically withdrawn from your bank account and sent to your various creditors. You can’t miss a payment, you can’t use any credit cards or any line of credit, and you can’t open any new lines of credit or you’ll be kicked out of the program.

When I think about what we gave up when we entered into the plan, it starts to sound like what the kids these days call “first world problems.” I cancelled my wine clubs. I cancelled all of our magazine subscriptions. I stopped buying chocolate. I turned off the heaters at 65 instead of 72. We stopped traveling together. We stopped going to starbucks. I reduced our netflix, our emusic, and any other variable subscription down to the most basic level. I stopped buying clothes. We stopped eating out. Doesn’t sound so bad right? Except it’s relentless. It’s not like you get to start buying clothes and wine again in a month or even a year. And there have been plenty of situations that have felt more like living in poverty than a bad joke about suburban excess. I had to take a second job for about a year and a half, and Greg took so many side jobs he sometimes worked 7 days a week. We had to use up all the allowed forbearance time on our student loans. I’ve had to delay some bills to pay others, barely making the deadlines and in some cases missing them by months. I’ve had to leave my groceries at the checkout because some unexpected bill caused the debit card to be rejected. I’ve had to feed us on big batches of bean soup because groceries are the only variable part of our budget, so sometimes that money went to pay bills instead. We’ve had to delay veterinary care for our animals, unless it’s life-threatening, and in that case or in the case of any other true emergency we’ve had to borrow money from friends. I am forever grateful to the people in our lives who were there for us in this regard, and to my friend who hired me for that second job, for being our lifeline. I’m not even sure they will ever understand how much of an impact they made on our lives. Without them we would surely be in bankruptcy right now.

There are so many things I don’t take for granted anymore. Simple things, like having a functioning heater in my car or being able to buy a new pair of jeans or being able to get bloodwork done on our sick kitty without having to wonder how we’ll eat for the next two weeks. We’ve always lived pretty simply and thriftily. Most of our debt came from gilding our little shack with “luxuries” like drywall and a roof. But this experience has pushed us to a whole new appreciation about what it means to do without. While I’m left with so much troubling doubt about our economy, and humanity’s unsustainable consumption and reproduction, I can only say that I know what the moral of the story is on a personal level. Maybe declaring bankruptcy and having our debt cleared would have been the right move, for selfish financial reasons, but it feels amazing to know that we got ourselves out of this situation (with a little help from our friends) and the experience was worth far more than a brand new BMW.