The other day one of my students said, “It’s human nature just to want more and more.” Any time I teach the classics in political economy I hear this. Supposedly, we are hardwired to be acquisitive creatures with wants that can never be satisfied.
Surely my credit debacle seems to testify to this. Why would someone with an income in the top 6% get up to $107,000 in credit card debt — plus the home equity, car, and mortgage debt — unless she is inherently desirous of more and more?
Human nature is the easy answer. It is also, I think, the wrong one.
For one thing, the more I live on a budget, the happier and more hopeful I am. Even though my style is cramped, I am feeling freer and better about what I already have and also a bit horrified whenever I think about making an unnecessary purchase.
Second, I have grown me some patience. For example, there are certain home improvements I want to make — including replacing my fireplace –and before I wanted them NOW. But now I am happy to wait for the time, not terribly long from now, when I’ll be out of debt, cash-flowing kids’ college, and setting aside some money for home improvements.
Third, and most importantly, I realize that my money problems have psychological roots, not roots in a supposed human nature. Things happened in my childhood that created a hunger for care. As an adult, that hunger was temporarily met with a trip to Bloomingdales or, literally, a cartful of groceries at Whole Foods. The more I deal with the real roots of my hunger, the less I need to deny them and seek substitutions.
I’ve been driving myself crazy…
…checking my bank account and Mint every five minutes, seeing if the recent payments I’ve made—which should knock my credit card debt down another $7,800 have gone through yet. I even called the bank and they said that the transactions would go through tonight. Still I check obsessively.
Clearly I have zero patience—surprise! Isn’t a lack of patience a hallmark of someone who racked up so much debt?
Rather than the thing I’m supposed to be doing—actually finishing grading three last papers— and trying not to obsess on my own accounts, I’ve been trying to distract my self by perusing the debtor blogosphere. I love this post from Amanda Page on lessons she learned from paying off more than $42,000 in one year. She writes:
You know all those folks in the personal finance community that I mentioned? Well, a lot of them have done what you’re doing. When I first started my debt payoff journey, I thought, “What if I could pay off all $48,000 in one year?” I thought it would be unheard of. I thought that I’d have to field media calls and that I’d be featured on the TODAY show. (I might be exaggerating a little.) As I got more involved in both my project and the personal finance community, I discovered more and more inspirational stories to read. I realized that the story of rapid debt repayment is no longer novel. More people are taking back their power and paying off their debt. I read these stories and realize that I am not exceptional – and that is a VERY good thing.
I’m feeling kind of lonely with this mind-boggling task of getting out of all this credit card debt. Especially since the last person I’m going to tell is my partner. (Yeah, shoot me.) Why? Because he’d make me give up the cleaning lady. So long as he never cleans toilets, that’s just not happening.
At the moment, I’m not really worried yet about the mortgage or home equity line. There at least we’ve got equity in the house. But I will tackle those as soon as I’m done with this monster.
I’ll close with another snippet from another post by Amanda Page:
Debt Payoff is a Grand Challenge & You Are the Kind Who Pursues Such Things
“I think the folks who go after grand challenges are impatient.” – Peter Diamandus, American Businessman
It’s Okay to Be Impatient As Long As You Stay Disciplined (and keep going)
“I’m not patient – and I’m getting more impatient as I get older – but I am disciplined about writing, and I want that on my tombstone: ‘He wasn’t patient, but he was disciplined.’” – Douglas Coupland, Author of Generation X
Here’s a nice site: Well Kept Wallet — lots of ads and promotions but underneath it there’s a really great story of a couple who got their shit together and got out of $52,000 in debt. My favorite tip is having an emergency fund:
You might be wondering, “Why is having an emergency fund important”? Well, if you don’t have any money in the bank and an emergency does happen, how are you going to pay for it? For most people, credit cards become the funding source for those emergencies. If you are trying to get out of debt then you need to put a buffer between you and debt; that is exactly what an emergency fund does.
I have to remember this because, in my zeal to pay things off, I am often left with nothing in the bank. Then an emergency happens and—crazy me—I take out a cash advance to deal with the crisis. That just compounds my mess.
So oddly I need some patience—even as the interest rates rack up more fees. I need to keep a cushion of cash so that I can pay for things from a debit card rather than a credit card and have funds to deal with the occasional crisis. This also helps me get accustomed to paying for things with the money I have on hand now rather than what I anticipate having later. And, of course, that is what one is supposed to do.
The boring part is waiting. Waiting for payments I’ve made to show up in my online statements, waiting for paychecks to pay off a bit more debt, waiting as days pass to see if I can really truly make a dint in my spending, waiting to see if insurance is going to cover a new and unforeseen medical expense. Mustering the patience to know that this is going to be a very long ride.
This is also the real part. It’s easy to pay down debt when a check has just come in, hard to stick with it when nothing much is happening.
But the boring part is where real long-term change starts happening, changing habits, expectations, and patterns. I am actually learning what it is live within my means. That is huge.