What's Your Problem?

Mrs. Johnson was my fifth-grade music teacher. Also my sixth and seventh grade music teacher. She was a perfectly coifed, freeze-dried specimen of Mama Americana, complete with a ruby-, diamond-, and sapphire-encrusted American flag pin. She looked remarkably like Church Lady.

Oh yes.

Mrs. Johnson was fond of saying, "Young people, if you're not part of the solution, you are part of the problem."

If I heard it once I heard it 540 times.

Wouldn't she be less than delighted to know--bigot that she was--that this quote did not mean what she thought it meant. It is widely attributed to Eldridge Cleaver, author of Soul on Ice

But what of it. Eventually Mrs. Johnson's inspiring talks tripped a wire deep in my brain: part of the problem, part of the problem, part of the problem...My future opened up before me.

I have been saying 'no' to stuff ever since.

I realized a few months ago--though it's probably not news to you--that a lot of people don't really want us to get out of debt. And that, unless there is a major overhaul of our nation's economic underpinnings, the actions we take to reduce our personal spending and debt will continue to piss some people off.

The U.S. economy's success is measured by production and consumption. Gross Domestic Product plus a low Consumer Price Index equals a happy country, so we are told. Make and buy stuff, and you get the right stuff: Jobs. Families. Opportunities. The ability to afford a home, an education, a child.

If everyone reduced their buying, then a lot of other people would have to reduce their making, and that'd be a problem.

That's why, infamously, then-President George Bush instructed the American people to go shopping after 9/11. Consumption has come to equal patriotism.

It's why 43 percent of American households spend more than they earn each year, and why the average American household carries as much as $15,000 in credit card debt--which will take 7 years to pay off at $300 per month, and only then if you don't charge a penny more.

The average college senior graduates with $4,000 in credit card debt. Total U.S. consumer debt is $2.45 trillion as of March 2010.

Despite the clear need to change our ways, our abiding love for the myth of the free market economy, coupled with the complete absence of performance measures other than the GDP and CPI, means that you and I, we Cheap Bohemians, are certainly not part of the sanctioned solution.

I still have a really long way to go before I fulfill my promise as a royal pain in the Free Market's ass. In fact, even after all the shell games, I am still essentially carrying exactly the U.S. average in non-mortgage debt.

Still. It's something to look forward to: being debt free, buying almost nothing, becoming part of the problem.

Climb on the back of my bad-ass payment cycle. You know you want to.

[source for all figures: CreditCards.com]


  1. Update--I have to revisit some of the national figures pretty soon, but I can tell you that as of this writing, I carry more than $20,000 in credit card debt. Granted, only about $2,000 of that is on interest rate; the rest is on magical balance transfers that come due at different times. Whether this is an improvement over the old me, who had a lot less consumer debt but paid higher interest for it, remains to be seen.

  2. Update to the update: If you are looking for good news about my money, look elsewhere. But if you want to know how my life is going, I have to say, it's going pretty damn well.

    The money: $31,000 in credit card debt, down from a spike of more than $40,000 in July 2012 because of a catastrophic illness followed by a modest but tasteful wedding. What are ya gonna do?

    Good news is that more than $25,000 of my debt is still interest free. I was able to invest $3,600 in my daughter's college fund last year and $5,000 in my IRA. I was able to sustain thousands of dollars in medical bills and change us to a healthier diet that nursed certain beloved family members back to near-perfect health and that costs what good food should cost (A LOT more than cheap food, and less money than doctor bills).

    My mortgage and student loans are both modestly down. And I was financially secure enough to make a big leap: left teaching to return to full-time writing.

    I do hope the numbers look better next year, but I am satisfied that the leveraging is worth it for now.