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First Person Personal

My personal views on a variety of matters ranging from popular culture to quantum physics to religion to politics to history to bushido to ... well, whatever I feel like, really. Warning: we all have agendas. Trust no one totally, myself most specifically included. Email me at wbrerwolf at gmail.com

Thursday, November 17, 2005

With My Back Against the Wall

“You are overdrawn by $2,800.”

About the only good thing about this announcement was that I was talking to an automated system. I find this to be considerably less humiliating than dealing with a human being.

Strangely enough, there are fairly obvious similarities between a sword fight and a financial meltdown. First off, you set up your priorities: what must be protected? In a sword fight, you protect your vital organs, your sword arm and, if you can, your legs. Flesh wounds can be ignored; even major wounds that will not kill you or stop you from fighting in the next fifteen minutes or so can be tolerated. You are concerned with what will keep you alive right now. You look for every advantage, fair or foul. This is a fight for survival, not an Olympic match.

Likewise, the financial injuries must be prioritized. A lot of the $2800 temporarily disappeared as some checks bounced. The account was still negative, but only by about $800. The checks will come back with added fees later, but I was only trying to get through the week or possibly the day. The bank is willing to cover SOME checks as I have automatic deposit on my paycheck, but I don’t get paid that much every check.

Some debts must be paid immediately: Utilities, such as power and water must be paid or some arrangements must be made or they will shut you off. Modern homes require power to be livable. Once they turned off our electricity, twice our water and our garbage collection service has been interrupted twice as well. I was reduced to stealing water from a nearby construction site and dumping our trash in the construction site Dumpster.

Communications are also important: if you are involved in a job hunt, there must be some way for an employer to find you, so the phone must stay on. However, luxuries such as a second line or a cell phone can be dispensed with until things improve. If you are broke and people are looking to get money out of you, a call identifier and voicemail is not a luxury, it is a necessary medical expense: I find that I must duck calls from bill collectors if I am to be able to function during the day. Likewise, I need to keep the computer line up to be able to check jobs online. In our case, the computer line is a package deal with our cable company, and my wife wants to keep the TV as well as the computers.

Transport is likewise important: unless you can walk to your job, or can take a bus, you must have enough money to keep your car on the road. Some maintenance can be postponed, but critical repairs (brakes and steering, for instance) must be paid for somehow. Right now, my brakes are making the metal on metal sound and I hope they will last until I can afford to buy new pads and have them installed. Likewise, your car will not accept IOUs for gas or oil. Insurance and registration can be skimped on, but depending on your area you could face serious legal charges if they catch you. You must understand the law in order to break it with minimum risk. Further, if you do not own your car outright, you must keep up the payments or they will take it back. Right now, my wife has to pay $125 a month on her car, money we could use for other items. If we can double up a few payments, this obligation could disappear by spring. You may decide that your best option is to get rid of all except one car to save on money. As for me, carpooling with my wife comes very close to my definition of eternal damnation. If you live in the right neighborhood, you might decide to walk or bicycle to work; in my area, this seems to be a synonym for suicide, not because the neighbors are scary, but because the drivers are. I like to have a lot of steel between the Driver’s Ed dropouts and me.

Then we have the expenses of living: food, both for family and pets, basic supplies such as toilet paper and soap, clothing, grooming (if looking for work or working, neither of these last two can be totally eliminated, although they can be reduced somewhat). I have friends who can shop off the rack at Goodwill or some other thrift store. I, unfortunately, am a bit too oddly built for that. If at all possible, budget something for morale: perhaps a matinee at a local movie and eating before you go: the movie is not that expensive, but popcorn and drinks are: for a few bucks more you can get a good meal. Some people smuggle in drinks and munchies, but I prefer not to. It strikes me as rude. Other morale builders can be quite inexpensive: picnics at public camp grounds, hikes through national parks, some videos and music are available through your local library as well as books, another good morale builder. My wife enjoys a good, long hot bath with scented candles. Pets, also, cannot be neglected as morale builders. There is nothing like a pet to make you feel better about yourself when everything else in your environment is turning to crap. Our dogs Y and Z as well as our late cat C were well worth every penny we spent on them.

But battles are not survived by being on the defensive. One must also attempt to damage the enemy, kill the enemy. In a financial meltdown, this means that one must somehow bring in more money. The best way of doing this is by looking for a new or a second job. For no particularly good reason, I have decided to look for jobs with a twenty-percent higher salary and/or some sort of health benefits. Just getting a new job is no guarantee of being able to keep it, so one must factor in the risk of being fired in a few weeks. Increased reward must balance increased risk. So far, I have had three interviews and no strong nibbles. My wife is currently up for a job that will bring in three times what my current job does. If she gets it, she will have to temporally relocate to another state, coming home only on days off until she gains enough seniority to be transferred back to this area. This will be a major sacrifice for both of us: I cannot seem to really relax without her being around and she has similar issues. Costs and benefits, again.

After actual short-term survival, one must deal with major injuries.

Most important are the injuries that will kill you in the near term. At the very top are the bad checks or other items with serious legal consequences such as IRS or government fines and fees. Failing to honor bad checks can put you in jail eventually. Fortunately, most places would rather have their money than have you in jail and are willing to work with you for quite a long while, but not forever. I have been arrested several times for bad checks in the past and it seems very likely that I will be arrested again as a result of this meltdown. So far, I have not done any jail time, but it sure screws any chance I might have had of getting a security clearance. As far as taxes, or other government debts, these expenses must be paid eventually. Cheating the government is a bad plan; however, the government tends to move very slowly, perhaps giving you time to cut a deal with them.

One must also somehow stop blood loss if one is to survive. To survive in the short term, one often is forced to take extremely disadvantageous loans, pawn valuable possessions for a fraction of their worth and max out your credit cards. Pay off high interest loans ASAP. It is horrifying how much of these loans go to interest and how little towards the principal. Each small decrease in the principal reduces the horrific interest that one must pay each and every month and thus makes it possible to cut into the principal even more. Even very small bites out of the principal add up surprisingly quickly. Some folks recommend hitting the smallest loans first and wiping them out as a morale builder. However, at the moment I am trying to keep attacking the largest interest loans first. It may not be smart, but it seems like a good idea to me. Every month I debate with myself about simply abandoning the items we have in pawn, but so far I keep paying the ruinous interest and buy down the principal as I can.

Messages from people who you don’t know who refuse to say why they are calling should be ignored until the money comes back: these people are bill collectors and are NOT nice people. They will not have pity on you and they do not have noticeable amounts of mercy in their dispositions. Their job doesn’t pay all that much, they just like doing it. You don’t have the money to pay them or you would be paying them and all any conversation with them will do is confirm this and tell them that they should take you to court and get what they can out of you. Even when you have money again, these people should be approached cautiously; lawyers might be a good investment here. Also remember that there are several reverse switchboard sites that can tell you who a particular number belongs to.

Then, one must begin to heal injuries. Perhaps most important are the debts of honor, monies owed to friends and relatives who probably do not ever expect to see the money again. Remember that you are not giving the money back to them as much as you are buying back your self-respect. Next, the devastated credit record must be carefully examined, corrected and each item must be dealt with one at a time. This allows you to hopefully build up some sort of security against future catastrophe. If you don’t really need it, you can get a loan at an amazingly low rate of interest. If you really need it, you have to pay with jugs full of your life’s blood. In particular, I have borrowed over five thousand dollars from my widowed mother. I cannot tell you how much it upsets me to do this, but I could see no alternative. If the situation gets worse, I hope that I can muster the courage to go down by myself and not take my mother with me.

Finally, we must look towards the future somehow; without hope for the future, we might as well give up and die now. I must bring in more money somehow; I must devote some effort towards being more employable. So I am going back to school to try to join the modern workforce. In a peculiar sort of way, our current financial situation is beneficial: if we were just getting by, the expenses involved in going back to school could not be defended. As things are, a few thousand dollars more due and payable after I finish my classes won’t make much difference. My wife and I discussed this and I asked my sister to cosign a loan so that I could go back to school and upgrade my computer skills. She agreed and I started classes in September of 2005 while continuing to work full time. So far, it is a big morale builder; I feel like I am accomplishing something worthwhile. Considering everything, it seems like a very good investment. Again, this is a debt I must cover, and a task that I cannot allow myself to fail at. So far, seven weeks into the quarter, I have a straight A average. On the other hand, this is just review with a few new things for me to soak up. When I get to the new stuff in a quarter or so, things could change dramatically for the worse.

Still, I am usually pretty optimistic about the future these days. As some old Chinese general once wrote: “This situation is desperate, the prospects are excellent.”

Note: while I was writing this, one of the Blogs I follow (Whatever at Scalzi.com) posted Being Poor – some of his stuff really hit a chord with me. For me, being poor in the sense of going without luxuries or even missing the occasional meal does not bother me very much. What bothers me is feeling that I am a drain, a burden that others must carry rather than being able to help others. It bothers me that I owe my mother money and have no idea of when I can pay her back. It bothers me that my sister had to cosign my loan. It bothers me that I cannot be sure that I can pay for my wife’s medications each month. It bothers me that I cannot even donate ten dollars to a worthy cause such as the recent hurricane relief or for books and materials for poor children to go to school.

Back where I came from, we have a saying: “A hand full of nothing and a mouth full of ‘gimme’.”

I really hate having to apply that phrase to myself.


Blogger Paige Jennifer said...

Wowee. Great writing and nice analogy. You took the obvious, rife with emotion, and made it sensical. Very entertaining.

5:16 PM  

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