Here's the thing... I've had a hard time trying to figure out how to write about this particular chapter of my life without it turning into a total bitch session about my Ex. So here goes... and I promise I will try valiantly not to descend into total bitchdom.
When I was in my early twenties, I met a guy... we'll call him BeerMan. (I'll leave it up to your imagination to figure out why I chose that name.)
BeerMan and I played in a bluegrass band together. (For future reference, if you're thinking of starting a bluegrass band, it would be a really good idea if at least one person in the group knew something about bluegrass... just sayin'!)
At any rate, within a few months BeerMan and I were together. And even though we were never legally married, I call him my Ex, because from my perspective, once you've got a joint checking account, the rest is really just window dressing.
Looking back on it now, I can see that compared to the way most American's live, BeerMan was really not a hopeless spendthrift consumer, but given the fact that I was coming from the world of extreme frugality, his habits seemed excessive to me. He considered it normal to eat out 5-6 times per week, have a few beers with his buddies every day after work, and hoard (oh excuse me... I mean collect) stuff.... LOTS of stuff.
The truth is, we fought about money... and stuff... and alcohol pretty much constantly. And the convergence of it all was his beer can collection. Actually, it wasn't just beer cans... there were beer bottles, and beer bottle openers, and beer caps, and pop cans, and beer T-Shirts, and "collectible" T-shirts of all stripes, and beer signs, and... OK the list goes on, but you get the picture.
Anyhow, I consider myself fortunate to have escaped the whole BeerMan episode with only about $4000 in credit card debt -
I promise I'll pay you back just as soon as my next paycheck comes in... but I've just gotta have those antique collectible glass insulators... and I really need new clothes for work... and new tennis shoes, and can't we just put the vacation on your credit card - I'll pay you back for my share, and I know the joint checking account is meant only for shared expenses and food, but beer is food... I mean what's the big deal... that's what credit cards are for, isn't it?Quite convenient it was that he didn't have a credit card of his own... perhaps the folks over at Visa knew something that I didn't! Grrrrr...
Hmm... I fear this post might be slipping dangerously close to the bitch session and that really isn't the point.
So what is the point? Well, I guess the whole little adventure with BeerMan gave me a few insights into how the "other half" lives, and also taught me some invaluable life lessons.
First of all, once BeerMan and I broke up and my father found out about the credit card debt, he sat me down, demanded to know how much the financial damage was, whipped out his checkbook, wrote me a check, made me swear I'd pay off the entire balance immediately, and pay him back whenever I could. You know... there's something very different about debt when it's not some nameless, faceless credit card company that is really encouraging you to borrow more, but your stern father who you know you're gonna have to face on a regular basis.
Suffice it to say I had him paid back within a year... not bad for someone making only about $13K annually!
I consider that to be a real lesson learned in terms of consumer debt. And to this day, I religiously pay off my entire balance in full every single month, even if it means taking money out of savings to do so. Seriously, what's losing a few pennies in savings interest compared to the 17-35% that most credit card companies will charge you. Plus, knowing that you're gonna have to sit down, look at the bill and pay the whole thing off at the end of the month really helps you temper your spending.
And the second and more important point is, well, more philosophical in nature. After I got over the anger - really, I AM over it - and once I paid off the debt, and processed it all a bit, it became clear to me that BeerMan wasn't really such a bad guy, he was just an escape artist.
You see, BeerMan had a lot of unprocessed feelings about his parents, about his ex-wife, about his young daughter, about himself... and his chosen methods of escape were drinking and collecting things. And I don't think that he is unique in trying to use things to get away from his feelings. I mean we live in a culture that relies much more heavily on emotional escape than emotional acceptance or expression.
For most people, the syndrome plays out by trying to be "successful" - which usually translates to painting a pretty picture filled with expensive cars, nice clothes, fancy gadgets, enormous houses and LOTS of debt. But when you come right down to it, on an emotional level, there's not a big difference between filling your life with beer cans vs. BMW's... you're still trying to use a physical thing to fill an emotional hole.
And no matter how hard you try, or how many "finds of a lifetime" you stuff into your basement, or how perfectly you paint your little picture of success, in the end you're still left with the exact same emotional issues that you started with. Only now, you've probably got a pile of debt and crap to dig out from under before you can even begin to start processing the feelings.
So all in all, I feel very lucky to have learned these lessons in a way that left me reasonably unscathed. That brief brush with the way the "other half" lives was enough to convince me that I didn't want any part of it.
Seems to me that we'd all be better off if we just dealt with the emotions head-on and skipped the entire whirlwind of stuff, debt and psychotically busy, crazy making lives. It may not solve all of our problems, but at least you'll be dealing with reality, and with any luck you will be working your way out of the hole instead of making it bigger.
Oh, and BTW - I still suck at Bluegrass!
For the next post in this series click here.