I read in the LA Times the other day that for the first time in a long time, there are some people who have a little extra cash to spend on the holidays this year. Isn’t that nice? I’m glad somebody can spend because I sure know it won’t be me.
I went Christmas shopping with my mom the other day. Since my dad passed, my mom tends to stay closer to home, so I picked her up and took her to one of her favorite shopping centers. It has all the stores she likes-- Target, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s and Nordstrom Rack-- all situated in a pretty little row. We were specifically shopping for my teenage daughter, and just like she used to do for my brother and me, my mom likes to make sure Olivia gets virtually everything on her wish list.
Fortunately, Olivia didn’t ask for too much this year, but the number one thing on her list was a laptop. Olivia is quite aware I can’t afford a laptop, but she put it there anyway, hopeful there might just be a Christmas miracle after all.
Believe me, I’d love nothing more than to give Olivia a laptop. Like me, she's learning to do without fringe benefits and she's gotten much better at not complianing about it. She’s done splendidly well academically so far this year. She’s maturing and growing into one hell of an amazing young woman. (Plus, I’d love her to have something other than my iMac to play Sims on. It’s a real computer time suck, that game.)
By the time my mom and I made it over to Nordstrom Rack, I was a bit of a wreck. When my mom came over to show me a gorgeous charcoal grey cashmere sweater she thought would look great on me, my eyes suddenly welled up with tears. I couldn’t take it. I was standing in one of my favorite stores, amid the cutest clothes, and I couldn’t buy a Goddamned thing. Not one thing. Here were all these people, filling their carts with all kinds of stuff. How the hell were they affording all of this? I mean, I don’t know how I’m going to afford a tree, let alone gifts for my family.
I think it’s great there are some people who actually do have money to spend this Christmas. It seems like a positive sign. Although I’m certainly no master of economics, I understand that by spending money on goods and services we help stimulate the economy, but for those of us who don’t have that little extra cash, how, exactly, are we paying for the holidays? With credit cards, I imagine. So, what happens when these exorbitant Christmas credit card bills arrive in January? Will people actually have the money to pay them? I wonder how many people are accumulating massive holiday credit card debt, but will only be able to afford to make the minimum payment? Regardless of the economic crisis, how many of us are still living far beyond our means?
It’s so easy to pin the economic crisis we’re in entirely on Wall Street. (And believe me, those unethical, immoral bastards need to be held accountable. No question.) But aren’t we-- maybe, just a teeny, tiny, little, baby bit-- responsible for some of the financial mess we’re in? When will we finally take ownership for our own fiscally irresponsible behavior? I'm just saying.
The only reason I was able to afford Christmas last year was by selling off some jewelry, but I don’t have anything to sell this year. Like my daughter, I’m hoping for a Christmas miracle.
I have one credit card. I just got it a few months ago. It has a whopping $300 limit. I was actually pre-approved for the first time since all my credit cards were cancelled back in 2009. I used my credit card to service my car. It cost $147. Then, I put my card away, "just in case."
That’s what credit cards are ideally for, right? Just in case?
I once had an excellent credit score and virtually no credit card debt. Then the economy tanked. By December 2007, the state of California owed my husband a 100K and couldn’t pay. Then two partners left his law firm, so he had to restructure everything, which costs money. His mom died unexpectedly right after Christmas, which was beyond devastating and shortly thereafter, our marriage began seriously unraveling. We defaulted on our mortgage and almost lost the house. Where once we stood on solid ground, we found ourselves treading quick sand. We had absolutely no cash flow, and like everybody else in our situation, we turned to the credit cards we had for "just in case."
By the time I moved into my apartment a year and a half later, I carried with me a lovely $22,000 worth of credit card debt. I was drowning.
For a brief moment, I considered debt-consolidation. Although it seemed like a viable solution, there was something about it that made me uncomfortable. Around that time, a friend of mine shared with me a Suzie Orman clip he found on YouTube. Suzie advised her viewers not to be seduced by the idea of debt consolidation. Instead, she advised calling your creditors yourself and explaining to them your situation. "Nobody knows your credit history as well as you."
Well, I took Suzie’s advice and called my creditors, and you know what? It was one of the best things I ever did. You’d be surprised how willing they are to work with you. (Especially if you're willing to take responsibility and agree to their conditions.) I had two Amex cards. They put me on a special payment plan and charged me no interest or fees. As long as I made that payment on time every month, I was golden. Both cards were paid off last year. Chase has me on a similar program. No fees, no interest. My debt to them will be paid off in three years. This seems like a long time, but for the amount of debt I carry on that card, I’d be paying for the rest of my life if I weren’t on this program.
I can certainly blame the economy for my financial woes. I have good reason, but truth-be-told, I didn’t acquire all this debt from buying groceries. Despite our financial upheaval, I was still trying to keep up the lifestyle to which we had become accustom. Bottom line: I was living in denial and way beyond our means.
It was a good lesson for me. Having all my cards cancelled forced me to live very differently, get my priorities straight, and be thankful for what I do have, which is more than plenty. I've also learned I'm stronger and more resilient than I ever thought. So what if I have to think three times before purchasing anything extra? I'll get along just fine without that cashmere sweater. So what if I’ve had to learn to make do without bi-monthly pedicures and sushi? I'm quite capable of giving myself a pedicure. Sushi, schmooshie. Who needs it? But I have to admit, it’s not always so easy, though, especially during the holiday season.
As my mom and I drove home from the mall, tired and hungry, my mom told me she’d help make sure Olivia got that laptop. “It was number one on her list. I want my Granddaughter to have a good Christmas.” I protested. “Mom, it’s too much. Even a refurbished PC is like, $350.” She paused for a thoughtful moment. “You'll pay me back when you can. I know you’re good for it.”
And there it was. A Christmas miracle.