I have been in debt my entire adult life.
I turned 18, and in their bid to usher me into womanhood, Capital One greeted me with a card, which I promptly maxed out buying things like novelty T-shirts, expensive sheets, and several cakes. I couldn’t pay for any of it, hadn’t even thought at the time of my various purchases that paying it back would ever become something I’d have to actively deal with.
The card went to collections, and when the demon on the other end finally threatened to start calling my family members, I beat them to the punch -- wailing, I called my parents and confessed to everything.
My parents are not wealthy people. They raised us to follow our passions over the practical and while that’s maybe the best thing about me and all my siblings, our childhood didn’t blind us to the fact that not having money was hard. Pancakes for dinner on Monday is great, pancakes for dinner three days running is ominous, doubly so when your mom is crying. It was my mom who always told us, “No credit cards!”
I guess, in a sense, it’s pretty natural that I went ahead and did it anyway -- the nerdiest form of all rebellion -- quietly applying for a line of credit. When it all fell apart, calling my parents and telling them everything wasn’t the relief I’d hoped -- it was awkward and shameful.
All told, my first experience with credit was embarrassing, demoralizing, stressful, and it banged up my virgin credit something fierce.
But none of it stopped me from getting another card or another and another.
By the time I had the second card in my little rodent claw, I knew the power it could yield. Since I was no longer in college, I could ostensibly pay the bill at the end of the month. But all my newfound financial wisdom was really just enough knowledge to be dangerous.
For example, I knew that if I didn’t pay my bill, I might wind up cowering under my bed and praying a man in a tracksuit did not come to take my computer away. So I paid the minimums, but working part time as a glorified janitor didn’t exactly make me a high roller. I didn’t know that paying the minimum due wasn’t much better. If anything, the cycle of constant debt and constant spending was kind of worse.
I watched movies like "Confessions of a Shopaholic" and hissed at the TV, “Suuuure, have a shopping addiction, destroy your credit and solve it all BY GETTING A JOB AS A JOURNALIST AND FALLING IN LOVE WITH HUGH DANCY! BE GONE, ISLA FISHER AND YOUR SHINY HAIR FULL OF LIES!”
I resented the portrayal of a young woman bogged down with debt because she’d bought another pair of shoes, because this time around, for me, it was less about cute earrings and more about things like food and electricity. I counted on my cards to help make ends meet.
I was used to the hamster wheel of improbable numbers hanging over my head. After two advanced degrees in the arts, debt was the opposite of new. Even the financial institutions who had lent me my money for school seemed to understand that a number in the low (haaa) three-digit range wasn’t something I was ever going to be able to pay -- they’d seen my W2s, they’d had me sign the forms indicating that I did not make enough money annually to make even their minimum payments. It was universally understood: I had no money. (If you’ve ever thought maybe lenders abide by a code of ethics, ask them how many hundreds of thousands of dollars they give to students aspiring to be playwrights.)
The guilt from my excesses with my first credit card were replaced with the awareness that in order to live, I was going to have debt -- and I began to stop feeling, well, guilty about it.
If I continue down the path I have chosen -- artist, Internet handmaiden -- I’ll probably never have any sort of cash to speak of. Unless I, in some "Great Expectations"-style twist, am bestowed a windfall and an emotionally withholding chick designed to be my doom. The odds are slim. And also I like boys.
When I was an irresponsible 18, I was wracked with guilt -- guilt at my frivolous purchases, guilt at hiding my actions from my parents, guilt caused by a biochemical flaw in my brain chemistry. But at 29, I’ve got less guilt to go around. I reserve it for things like eating the last piece of cake and then blaming it on the dog, or giving a bitchy old lady who farted in the elevator before me the middle finger (or calling her bitchy on the Internet).
With debtors’ jail no longer being a thing, with no assets to seize, with no blood to let from the proverbial stone, I guess the best way to describe my mindset would be resolved. I make my payments. I get by. In that, I am so much more fortunate than many, many others.
I’ve never been a mountain climber. I appreciate those who dig the journey and all the metaphors about getting to the top and looking out but really, if I come across a mountain, I’m inclined to walk around it. And then go to the bar. Where I know exactly how much a nice tumbler of scotch will cost me, and where more often than not, I can pay for it in cash.
That’s the closest to the top of the mountain I’ll ever be, but from what I’ve seen, I’m in good company.