A child’s debt

My parents reared five children and helped them each with college. In the end, there wasn’t enough money left to keep my mother out of a Medicaid-funded nursing home. Many of the people who work there are unaccustomed to patients who are still aware of their surroundings, making the situation less than ideal for her.

When I think about debt owed to my parents, that’s the kind of debt I mean: the opportunity cost they paid by having just one more kid, me. I think I made out well, what with being alive and all, but it’s important to recognize the tremendous amount of sacrifice made on my behalf. Not only might the gray hairs have accumulated more slowly in my absence, it’s possible the money might have lasted a bit longer as well.

I owe something of a debt to Gaia on account of my life, as well, or perhaps that debt falls to my parents. There is no greater environmental impact a human being can have upon the earth than creating another human being to live upon the earth. I always enjoy spending time around children, yet I have never pursued procreation precisely for that reason. What could I possibly do to mitigate the impact of another life upon the planet, when I barely make a dent in my own debt? Even as I write this, I’m aware that some of the electricity powering my computer is derived by burning coal, and that the processors within contain rare-earth elements the extraction and disposal of which is highly problematic. My every breath impacts the world around me, and as a human my activities can change the world more, thanks to technology, than can an individual of pretty much any other species. I don’t think about that impact constantly, and even if I did it’s still incredibly difficult to have zero impact at all.

That is the sort of thinking which can lead to guilt and self-loathing. I mostly avoid doing that to myself. Suicide, which is the alternative most likely to be suggested if I whine about this on the internet, has impacts itself. Some of the people who love me may just call me on the carpet at their ancestor shrines if I were to pull that without telling them, and I am not interested in that having that conversation whether I am dead or alive, thank you very much. I’ve also had people propose the “solution” of having children and then teaching them my values. Which ones, exactly? It might be awkward to tell my offspring that I do not believe in having offspring, and I don’t think that they should, either.

It’s the debt to my parents which I sit with most, though, since I am not remotely contemplating a final solution for myself. Including public college, that’s now in excess of $350,000 in my part of the country according to this calculator. That could have paid for a heck of a lot of care. Unless there’s a lucky lottery ticket in my future, that’s not something I can pay back, not that either of my parents would ever have suggested such a thing. The very notion would likely offend, but I think it’s okay to contemplate the choices my parents made to give me life, and then to provide me with the upbringing that they could best afford without contemplating what it might cost them in turn. It’s really the minimum we expect of parents, and that’s a lot to ask considering how little thought is actually needed to create a child.

The debt to my parents is, in fact, incalculable. It’s my duty to honor that choice, even as I choose for myself to make a different sacrifice. Unlike them, I may well die alone, as I have no blood issue, and do not wish to add the burden of another human life to this beleaguered planet. I wish more people would make that same sacrifice, but I recognize that when done correctly, either choice carries a high price.

Debts and budget, Poseidon style

Simply put, the way to stop drowning in debts starts with the buoyancy of budgeting.  When you unpack that, not all of it is as horrifying as it might sound, but some of it’s a bit worse than you probably initially thought it would be.

What I wouldn't do to get ahold of one of these . . .

If only this were real . . [image credit jimuelmaurer26]

Debt can overwhelm you.  Western society is pretty much based on the expectation that we will all participate in the debt economy, rather than saving or employing other strategies like helping one another, so it only takes one or two bad decisions to leave anyone up to their eyeballs in it, or worse.  What seems to come next is the same thing humans tend to do whenever something is too depressing or horrifying to look at:  we don’t.  As with most circumstances in which our first instinct is the struthious option, it’s also the worst option.  This is a case where you can’t look away.

Budgeting starts with looking.

green-eye-shade-guyThe “b” word — for me, at least — conjures up visions of endless columns of numbers, piles of pencils worn to stubs, and one of those green eye shades that old-timey bookies and accountants always seem to wear.  To anyone who is discomfited by numbers, experiences math anxiety, or associates net worth with self-esteem, there are no appealing images conjured up by the word “budget.”

Take a few deep, cleansing breaths, one after the other.  Visualize roots extending from your root chakra, down through your feet and deep into the earth.  Let the planet below you take that tension, and allow your heart to slow back to its regular beat.  I am not going to ask you to prepare a budget.  All I expect from you right now is to take a look.  You will need a piece of paper, and something to write with.

  • Look at how money is coming in.  You’re going to need to have a general sense of where you look for money.  Jobs are the first thing people think of, and often the last, but money comes from many directions.  If you sell items online (here’s my humble shop, plug plug), that counts, as does finding money in the street, dividends from your investments, refunds from empty cans and bottles, and that monthly check some lucky sod is getting after buying the right Win for Life lottery ticket.  Take a few minutes and think about all the different ways money comes to you, even if it’s just raking the neighbor’s leaves or hitting up your parents for gas money.  Write them all down.  Now:
  • Look at how much is coming in.  It might vary, or you might not be sure down to the penny, but put a number next to each stream of money flowing into your life, whether it’s a gusher or only a slow drip.  If the number’s not perfect, you can tweak it another time.  Just put something down, and if possible make it a monthly number, only because a lot of the things we pay tend to show up monthly, too.  Even if the number is entirely made up or jumps around wildly, make the effort to convert it into a monthly average.  You’re just taking a quick look, so it doesn’t have to be perfect.  You might not be surprised about the next step, which is:
  • Look at where you spend money.  Don’t spend more than five minutes on this right now.  Just write down, as quickly as you can, a list of broad spending categories.  Things like food, clothes, and rent will probably be on the list.  Go ahead and lump things together; all the utilities can be on one line and all the medical bills can be on another.  Don’t think about the numbers now.  Just write down all the types of things you spend money on, whether you enjoy it or not.  This is a time to be honest, too:  if you spend money to service an addiction or to silence your enemies, make sure you include that, even if it’s in code.  When you’re done, take a break, because the next step is one that might roil the ol’ sea of anxiety in your belly:
  • Look at how much you’re spending.  It will be fine.  Just shoot down that list of expenses, spending no more than ten seconds on each, and put down your best guess about the number you’re spending in that area each month.  Flit like a butterfly depositing pollen.  Nothing will bog you down.

Sink, or swim?

Yep, that’s how people often look at money and society, as a simple equation of self-efficacy boiled down to a single sum.  That suggests a level of independence — nay, isolation — which few people actually have, even the ones who feel truly alone.  Many of us have life partners whose income and expenses I didn’t contemplate in this brief exercise, for example.  Lots of people also participate in non-money economies, like bartering and work exchange.  Some of us are fortunate enough to live in some kind of community where people help each other out in formal or informal ways.  In short, you’re not absolutely doomed to a slow, painful death if you happen to be spending more per month than you’re bringing in.  It’s definitely not ideal, but it’s not automatically fatal.

Using the general numbers you wrote down — and remember, they can all be changed if you realize that something isn’t correct, so don’t consider this a test or anything that serious — figure out if you’ve got more coming in, or going out.  Just add ’em right up.  A few possible outcomes to this math are:

  • You’re making more than you’re spending.  Without even looking?  Lucky you.  Start saving part of the difference before it burns a hole in your pocket, but not all of it.  You deserve something nice for getting through the rough part.
  • You’re making more on paper but that surprised you.  It’s probably not your math, but double-check it anyway.  Could be that some of your estimates are off; now it’s time to take a closer look.  Odds are that you’re spending money on things you didn’t even put on your list, though.
  • You’re spending more than you’re bringing in.  Happens to all of us sooner or later.  It’s time to think about ways to reverse that flow, but knowing is half the battle.
  • You couldn’t possibly be losing this much every month.  Again, if the numbers suggest a line of creditors at your door but you’re feeling okay, make sure you added everything up right, and then start double-checking your figures to see if your guesses were off.

If you’re disorganized, checking the numbers might take a few weeks.  Not everyone keeps track of old bills, and you may have to wait for the next one to show up before you know what you’re spending for sure; same could be true with income.  Remember, this is Poseidon-style, and Poseidon is the god of the shifting of tectonic plates.  Slow and steady owns the race.

Ta-da! You’ve started a budget.

You really have, and you should pat yourself on the back for that.  What you’ve got in that spreadsheet, or on that napkin, is some semblance of one month’s flow of cash in and out of your life.  That’s the bedrock a budget is built upon, because a budget is simply a plan to make and spend within limits.  What you’re already making and spending determine your starting point.

  • If you’ve got a savings goal, then you’ll just add a savings account to the expenses side, and decide how much money you want to sock away there.  (Yes, I know that it sounds puzzling to call saving money an expense, but if you think of it as paying yourself first, it’s more palatable.)
  • Money slipping through your fingers?  Again, at least you know.  The solution is either to spend less or bring in more.  Which is more plausible?

Now that you have a working document, it’s just a matter of committing to looking at it — weekly is an interval I would suggest — and checking to see if you are spending or making more (or less) than you predicted (that is, budgeted for).  That information may be depressing or exciting, but either way it’s knowledge that can be used to change things in your life.

Any questions?

TPW’s debt story, or: how one Pagan got buried and dug himself out again

My debt story began the way it has for many people before and since, with college.  Some of the details are timeless, but others might be quite different than what the students of 2016 are experiencing.  One thing I suspect is unchanging is the fact that college is more financially perilous for the children of the middle class than anyone else in the United States.  Wealthy people have always been able to plan for the expense of college, and those in poverty either get aid, or they don’t go at all.

I was a student at a time and in a place that was infused with the assumption that everyone in my socioeconomic bracket was expected to go to college.  Not that there wasn’t the oddball kid who ended up going into a parent’s trade or joining the military, but they were special cases.  It would be decades before there was a widespread recognition that the number of college graduates was creating a glut of people with that skill-set and a yawning chasm where the electricians, plumbers, machinists, and other skilled workers belonged.  It was understood that I would go to college unless I came up with something better, and at the very least “something better” would mean paying rent to continue living under my parents’ roof.

Youngest of more children than any couple today could possibly afford, there wasn’t any savings to speak of for my college education, and even then, the financial aid options of even a generation before were weakening.  I was too young to have received a free college education in California even if we’d lived there at the time, and the scholarship I received to my own state system was for the same amount my father had declined 30-odd years earlier.  If he’d taken it, it would have covered his tuition; for me, it didn’t even pay for half of the books I needed each year.  As with so many of today’s students, I relied almost entirely on loans to support myself and defer my costs.

DebtThat was not, however, where my debt really began.  Yes, I was on the hook for that money, but not right away.  It didn’t feel like I owed anything, and surely I would get a job to cover it.  No, the real debt for me came in the form of smiling department store employees, seated at tables in my college’s student union, offering gifts in exchange for me filling out credit card applications.  The first was for a JC Penney’s card, and got me a set of four glasses that I was pleased to add to my dormitory possessions.  Since the store was on the far side of town, I never got into the habit of using it.

It was cool -- I picked it right out of the book!

It was cool — I picked it right out of the book!

Within a couple of years, though, I had bank credit cards, and those were much, much easier to use.  The minimum payments were always so small, and the rewards were so large in comparison.  It was easy to keep up with payments on my financial aid . . . which was, the reader might recall, pretty much all loans.  At least two rental car trips and a few tattoos (two on a friend I haven’t seen since well before the turn of the century) inked by a guy who called himself Doctor Strange (whom we traveled to see because of a rumor that he was Pagan, something we never thought to ask him about) ended up on the card, not to mention the bill for repairing the cigarette burn which mysteriously appeared in the upholstery.  It was easy!

By the time I escaped from the college environment, I had a few thousand in credit-card debt, and my student loans on the horizon.  I was unemployed, not particularly qualified to do anything specific, and again completely dependent upon my parents to ensure I had a roof over my head and food in my stomach.  At least I had a queen-size bed to sleep in, though! — although it was a wee bit outsized for my childhood bedroom.  I was grateful to have a home to return to, but I knew my parents would not be providing me with a car, or spending money, or anything beyond love and the basics.

Paying down the debt like a madman

Once the sweet, gauzy memories of college fell away before the harsh light of real life, I immediately disliked my station in it.  I found myself a job as an overnight security guard, for which I was able to borrow a parental car for transportation, and learned to love coffee.  My friends were able to attend concerts and movies, but both my weird hours and crushing debt load kept me from most of the social pleasures enjoyed by my peers.  I misered down and sucked it up, realizing that immediate gratification was going to make my life one of eternal torment.

Computers were becoming more common, but I had no money for such a tool.  Instead, I started keeping track of my expenses and income — my meager, meager income — on paper.  I drew columns with a ruler and calculated how much I needed to set aside out of each paycheck to cover the credit cards and the student loans.  I also started saving for my own car, but saving is a story for another time.  My obsession with getting out of debt got so intense that my friends didn’t just think I was cheap; they actually made up stories about my legendary thriftiness.  My favorite had me riding a unicycle to work because I figured out it was less costly to maintain than a bicycle — fewer moving parts, you know — and that I’d picked up drinking kerosene for recreation because it was so much less expensive than beer.

I’d like to be able to claim that I paid off my debts on the pittance I was earning and freed myself from the shackles of debt forevermore.  That would make for a good story.  However, the truth is that I got a much better job about five years later, after a long time in the security world and a series of food-service jobs that I chased out of a desperate belief I could make a career out of them, and it was the higher pay which made it possible.  However, that’s still only part of the story:  the reason why the better job allowed me to pay off the last of my ill-gotten debt was because I doubled my income without changing my standard of living.  I lived beneath my means.

That’s the nugget of wisdom I learned from my own mistakes:  the only way to actually pay off debt is to learn spend less than you earn.  That’s progressively more difficult the less money one makes, but it never is particularly easy at any income level.  Our society encourages us to enjoy today’s pleasures on tomorrow’s dollars, and the tattoo I got was paid for with dollars that I labored to earn as much as seven years after the needle hit my skin.

No instant fix exists to make debt go away.  All of the options require effort, persistence, and discipline.  I wish I could claim something else is true, but once debt is acquired, it’s no mean feat to slough it off.

I will help as much as I can.

Vanquishing debt

I promised a Facebook friend I would write a post about debt elimination, but the more I know, the harder it is to write just little bits about this topic, especially when it comes to writing about debt for Pagans, a group that tends to have strong feelings about money in general.

f72ae-fishing_for_moneyInstead, I think I need to against attempt to organize my thoughts into a cohesive series about debt.  Otherwise, I’m going to end up trying to mash bookkeeping, discipline, philosophy, morality, and economic theory into one long, rambling, hot mess.  Nobody wants that.

Here are the topics I intend on covering in this series.  I will shamelessly edit this post to reorder this list, eliminating and adding items wantonly, and even correcting the inevitable spelling misteak.

  1. TPW’s debt story
  2. Budgeting
  3. Animism
  4. Acting in accordance
  5. Consequences of debt
  6. Voluntary vs involuntary debt
  7. Debt and the money shrine
  8. Debt and discipline

This is a series I’d wanted to write for Witches and Pagans, but never got around to starting.  Please join me if you’re interested in applying your own will and other tools to relieving some or all of your own debt burden.

About Greece

Dear Poseidon,

I’ve been thinking about Greece. It’s in the news a lot now, as it goes through the most recent — and apparently most dire — throes of the debt problems that have plagued it since that country joined the Eurozone. I don’t know how many of my ancestors made offerings to you, Poseidon, but I do know that if they did, it was probably in Greece that it happened. Greece, where you were old when Homer was young. Greece, where today your worship is not recognized at all. Surely there is a lesson hidden in this chaos.

To hazard a guess, I’d have to say that debt is the problem. We love to borrow money, but paying it back isn’t as popular. I’m not a big fan of debt, because I am an animist who honors the spirits of money, and I believe that debt is miasma for those spirits. Debt will show up in a ledger as balanced, because the credit (the amount borrowed) is equal to the debit (the amount owed). That’s tidy, but on a spiritual level the transaction isn’t balanced until the debt is paid. The sheer amount of debt in the world’s economy creates a massive amount of money miasma, which can be mitigated, but really just needs to be paid off. Greece’s government wasn’t able to hide large amounts of debt by inflating the currency once the country adopted the Euro, but its problems were not created by the currency switch. Larger nations and combined economies like the Eurozone can absorb more debt for longer periods of time than Greece could, but eventually we will all be too polluted for the money spirits to work with us.

I’ve long felt that you have a powerful role in the economy, as Asphaleios and Agoraios, so I kind of suspect that Greece going through this is either tough love or dire warning. If I’m correct that debt is the problem, it’s going to be quite interesting to try to solve it. If the cause is something else, I hope we can set aside the hubristic attitude that we control money long enough to figure out what you’re really trying to tell us.

While I’m on the subject, I do you hope can smooth things out for the Greeks, Poseidon. They are lying in the bed that their forefathers made without looking at the instructions. Mistakes were made, and we will all pay for them in full, but if you could manage to help them find the new normal without too much misery, that would be nice. I know lots of regular people are pitching in, so maybe you could, too.

Thinking of you,


PS — thanks for sending me those extra hymns to write for my devotional to you. The last two really surprised me.  I think I will have the last hymn written by the dark of the moon.