How my generosity got me $8,000 in debt
This is a guest post from Logan Sachon. Her piece originally appeared at Bundle.com.
I am in debt: $8,000 on two credit cards, to be precise.
The debt occurred over several years, and includes a few periods when I was living off the cards because I was in between jobs. Perhaps $1,000 of the debt was spent on plane tickets to visit my parents on the East Coast, my job on the East Coast, or my friends on the East Coast. But mostly there are just lots of small purchases — a pattern of living beyond my means. All pointed fingers end up right back at me. If I had to pinpoint one personality trait that led to the debt, there was a time when I would have been tempted to say idiocy, but now I'd say generosity: with others, but mostly with myself.
Sometimes life is stressful. And when it is, I tend to coax myself out of bed with promises of niceties. If I can just get through this day, I can go to the movies ($10). Or buy a new shirt ($20). Sometimes I'll end up at the mall, feeling terrible for no particular reason, and decide that new underwear from the Gap (five for $20) will pick me up. Twenty dollars to feel better is really nothing, you see. Except when it happens almost everyday. Then it's something.
I play the same mind games with food. I can't bear to make dinner (free), but I could eat at the fancy taqueria up the street ($10) and oh, I better also have a margarita ($7), because it will make me feel better. And company would be nice, too. I'll call up a friend to meet me, my treat ($17). So there's $34, spent in seconds.
Picking Up the Tab
I've always been a big fan of picking up the tab: It makes people feel good and loved and taken care of, and that, of course, makes me feel good. Looking through my credit card statements, there are so many restaurant and bar tabs for $20 that should have been $10, or $40 that could have been $20. Each one, the product of me saying: “I'll get this, I'd like to treat you.” I don't regret them all, or any single one, really. What I regret is a mindset that made me feel like I could afford to use money to make people, myself included, happy.
Buying presents for people has long been one of my very favorite things. It's also a talent of mine: I pay attention, and buy thoughtful gifts that people love. One year I spent over $800 on Christmas presents for my friends and family. For my brother, I picked out $60 worth of books I'd knew he'd appreciate. For my best friend, $10 for stationary, $30 for a book about Swedish interiors, $10 for a perfect little ceramic vase. That year, she gave me homemade things: a cup with a hand-felted cozy, a framed embroidery, some lovely soap. I remember thinking that she had won the gift-choosing contest that year, and had likely spent very little doing it. I filed that thought away — money doesn't equal thoughtfulness — and then remembered: I'm not crafty. The next year I spent even more.
Debt by a Thousand Cuts
When I first started using credit (and let's use the language of addiction here, because it's apt), I fully intended to pay back every dollar as soon as I got a better-paying job. And maybe there was a time when I could have done it. If the balance had stayed under a thousand, I could have paid it off over the course of a few paychecks. But the tricky thing about debt is that it adds up. Once there was a balance, it was so easy to just keep on adding to it, and to justify every purchase. For years, every time I swiped a credit card, it was supposed to be the last time. But then I'd have a bad day, and the only thing that could make it better would be $50 haircut. Last one. Promise!
It's always been important to me to make it clear to whoever will listen that my debt doesn't come from extravagant purchases or a shopping addiction, at least not the kind that's the stuff of TV movies. I didn't take a winter trip to Cancun and imagine I'd pay it off someday, and my wardrobe isn't stocked with $200 jeans and $400 boots. My car trunk isn't filled with shopping bags. Sometimes I wish it was: I could return those clothes, sell those boots on eBay, or at least I could look back on a great trip and imagine that it was worth it. But instead, mine is a debt by a thousand small purchases, some meant to bolster my own day, some meant to help others.
An Attitude Adjustment
I recently saw my therapist after a small hiatus, and he asked me how I was feeling.
“It's winter in Portland,” I said. “Take a guess.”
“How is your spending?” he asked me. “Have you been shopping?”
“No,” I said. “I cut up my cards, and I'm paying down my debt, so no, I haven't been shopping. I don't do that anymore.”
“Then no wonder you're having a tough time,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Spending money was your main coping mechanism,” he said. “It was how you comforted yourself. And since you haven't been doing that, you must be in a hard place.”
I was taken aback. And then I got it. All those purchases were a pattern. Of being generous. With myself.
Now I'm generous with myself in other ways, though it's taken an attitude adjustment. I have started to cook, which I still can't believe is true, but it is. Sometimes meals don't turn out. But I don't beat myself up; that's another way of being kind. I'm going to the gym, because I know it's one of the best things I can do for myself. That's a fact, even though sometimes it's hard to believe, because it's so hard. But I always feel better afterward. That's another fact.
I'm still generous with other people, but in other ways. For my boyfriend's birthday, there were so many things I wanted to buy for him: new black boots, a leather school satchel, new art supplies, a weekend away. But I couldn't do it all. I really couldn't do any of it. So I talked to him about it, and learned that little lesson that I knew all along but never believed: It's the thought that counts. He said he was touched by my ideas, and would have loved any of those things, but what he most wanted was to spend time with me. I planned a weekend away, and we split the costs.
But the most generous thing I've done is to forgive myself for the debt. I was just being kind to myself. And now I'm being kind to myself by paying it off.
Related articles from Bundle:
- 7 Things You Should Borrow Instead of Buy, and Why
- How a Girl With No Money Justified a Five Star Hotel
- 10 Times When Spending Money Can Save You
Get Rich Slowly and Bundle are experimenting with a “content swap”. There's no money exchanging hands for this. Bundle will send GRS an article and we'll send them a piece. This is the first article I picked to share. Let us know what you think!