Something must change.
That number up there...the really, really, frighteningly large, nearly six-figure number...that is not some abstract or fictional representation of the crushing load debt might play on a family's life. It is the painfully real, straight from the source sum of our student loans. Well, as long as we're being honest, it also includes a few thousand dollars of interest-free balance we owe the hospital from Nicole's emergency appendectomy when we were without health insurance a few years back. Regardless, it is the bottom line of a spreadsheet's column on our computer.
We've been ignoring it for a few years now. Making our payments silently through auto-deduct. We don't even get statements in the mail any more. The mantra of America has supported us - school loans are good debt...school loans are good debt. Finally, early last month, we looked at each other, the hypnotic glaze lifted from our eyes, and we decided to stop, to change. The impetus was a discussion with our friends, Brian and Angela, about their decision to go cash-only. They had been inspired (or convicted) by reading a book by Dave Ramsey, the AM radio prophet of budgets and debt reduction. After that conversation, we borrowed their copy of one of Ramsey's books and set in motion a reorganization of our finances.
While we had rationalized our all credit, all the time ("we pay it off every month... and we get the miles... and it's easier than cash") money had become only a concept, a notion. I can't help but wonder if that's the hope of the banks - wield our plastic widely and without regard, please. Our budget was broken every month. We weren't paying down our loans, we weren't saving, we sure weren't giving away anything more than our automatic payments to Compassion. We were comfortable and stuck.
Ramsey's plan is not really his plan at all, and he's the first to admit it. He just packages the scheme in language that appeals to common sense. In short: use cash. If you don't have any cash left, don't buy anything. Live on less than you make and use the rest to dig out of the damn hole you jumped into. Change. Now.
So, we did. We cut up our credit cards. Even though none had balances we called and yelled at the automated systems: "CANCEL CAAAARRRDDD." Once, I even had an opportunity to explain to a living being why we would cancel after so many years of valued "membership."
We made a budget. We have tried different budgeting programs, but we're always left feeling a bit blighted; too much of somethings, with not enough of what we seem to need. So, with some overzealous panache, I (Sam) spent what seemed to be too many hours relearning spreadsheet software to create a dynamic, realistic budgeting tool. It's really quite cool (even Nicole thinks so).
With less overzealousness, but with much more panache, Nicole set about to make envelopes. Envelope, actually, may a bit limiting. "If we're doing this," she said with her characteristic pragmatism, "it needs to be beautiful." Every day for a week, I came home from work to find our supply of original, stunning cash sachets growing into the requisite 17 for our out-on-the town needs.
Which brings us to today. October 1 also happens to be the first day of the federal government's fiscal year. We both (the government and us) have a history of making short-sighted financial decisions. Tomorrow, after all, is always tomorrow. We've both had questionable priorities that, when the wool is lifted, are more self-serving than community based. Our hope, our prayer, is that by changing our family's approach to money, maybe there's hope our nation can too?
Today also, however, brings into stark relief, the privilege of our situation. We have stable jobs, good health coverage, a secure and manageable mortgage, and really very little threat of any of that changing. We aren't ducking sniper bullets or roadside bombs. We aren't losing sleep over our baby's health. Our fridge is full of food, we have allocated some money for entertainment and cable internet and two cell phones and our car is sound and without liens. On Maslow's hierarchy, we are very much near the top. Still, we feel called into this. Whether that call is from the Mysterious God, or from the very concrete reality of wanting our family to be so much more than indentured to the Direct Loan Servicing Center, is unclear. Probably, they're the same thing. Regardless, we are called. We are embarked.
Now, dear friends, we need your help. That is the purpose of this little diary. Walk with us, cheer us, heckle us, do what it takes to help us hold the course. Right now, we're excited. It is good to follow a call - it feels full and true. Later, I'm quite sure, we will be disheveled and frustrated. That number up there - that real, embarrassing number - is huge. It won't be quick or quiet in going. It will be years. But, it will be. It will go.
After no fewer than 3 other failed attempts at blogging, we are keeping our plans for this blog reasonable. We want to post monthly updates, quick snapshots. By retelling our stories to our far-flung community, we hope to remain centered in the joy of living rather than the frustrations of perceptions. Thanks for walking beside us.
Nicole, Sam & Kedzie