Money And Shame

This is the year of a metric ass-ton of debt. After much panic, liquor, insomnia, xanax contemplation, soul-searching, more liquor and finally acceptance, I have determined this to be a Positive – or at least Chaotic Neutral – thing, rather than Actively evil.

At the root of my problems with money, debt and shame is my upbringing in a poor household. There are lots of ways growing up poor is good, and at some point I might just write an essay on that, but for now… well, google John Scalzi Being Poor and then read the rest of this post.

One of the many things growing poor means is that you never learn how to handle money. How could you? You never have any money to manage. You learn fabulous survival skills like how to stretch your $15 budget to cover pasta, decent cheese, cheap chicken and enough cream-of-whatever soup to get you through a week in NYC with enough left over for a pint of Chubby Hubby for celebration, but you never quite get the handle on what to do when you have more than $15 for groceries. And when you get money – and let’s just say for clarity’s sake, when you EARN money, it’s like you’ve won a sweepstakes. Woohoo! Lookit this! I got a raise! I’m so LUCKY!!! Ooh, my tax refund – I’M RICH! It’s like an inexplicable lotto winning, and completely dissociated from anything else. Instead of seeing your finances as a natural consequence of your hard work, you see it as proof of an incomprehensible and beneficent universe that can never be fully understood. (need I say this has consequences in your career?)  So you splurge on that thing you were never rich enough to have. Maybe it’s buying decent meat at Whole Foods, or getting shoes that cost nearly $100 – the equivalence of Bipolar II of the wallet.

Then there’s the shame. You know it from way back, when you were a kid and found that $5 in the rock-pile. Actual folding money, rarer than hen’s teeth, and you can’t wait to get that Barbie so you can finally get together with the neighbor kid’s world’s oldest floating Barbie scenario or whatever. And your parents inexplicably make you split your rockpile windfall with your sister who had nothing to do with it, and then make you pay tithing on the remaining $2.50 because you’re 8 and you’ve reached the age of accountability. The amount left will let you buy a Barbie-like doll which is immediately called out by the snotty neighbor kid Wendy as a cake-topper, unworthy to join the rest of the Barbies and Skippers in the Barbie Pink Hot Tub. Which, you know, is fine because you have the big cable spool and you can play Star Wars without a Barbie. But I digress…

So there it is – shame. Any time in your life you find yourself coming up a little short, you remember that one of the definitions of the word “embarrassed” is financial. Banks take advantage of this by offering “overdraft protection”, meaning instead of being “embarrassed” by an apologetic cashier who gently gives your debit card back when you go to buy that pack of gum and romance novel about a pack of gum short from your checking account, they’ll let the charge go through for only an extra $35, payable when your next paycheck deposits.

This is compounded by the modern concept of “credit”, which is actually closer to that incomprehensible universe concept. It’s not enough that you make money and pay bills -it’s all about making the right mistakes. Evidently, I did not make the right fiduciary mistakes when I was in my 20’s. While my peers were blithely taking out student loans for their Master’s degrees, I blanched at the costs and took out a smaller loan for an amount of money that was believable. When other friends believed the siren song of the Credit Card giants who offered free pizza on campus to those willing to hop onto the revolving credit carousel, I chuckled nervously at the window mail that insisted that even at my $7 an hour, a credit card would be an easy way to buy things I needed. What happened then is that in my 30’s, even the entirely normal-looking student loan I had taken out was impossible for me to pay; a loan for an absurd amount of money may have garnered me the credentials needed for a job that didn’t require a name-tag (also known as a “career”) and therefore the ability to pay off the unbelievable numbers. So default then.

By my middle 30’s, I had finally managed to obtain a real, actual job like a grown-up, and from there, finally dig myself out of default. But the time spent not paying off my loan had also been spent not racking up any other debts. For the last couple of years I have lived blessedly debt-free. I even managed to get a nice little charge card – an Amex Zync, marketed to the Young People building their credit. It gets paid off every month, carries no interest and is a fancy sparkly white. Cashiers throughout the Southland have exclaimed at its rarity. I have to restrain myself from saying it’s only issued to people with genius level IQs because no matter how long I’ve lived here, I’m still not that much of a flaming douche-knob.

And then Ardala happened. Her surgery was a skosh over $4000. We came back from the vet’s office, depressed and shiny-eyed with hysteria. Because I didn’t know what to do, I followed the vet’s advice and applied for Care Credit, dubiously administered by my former parent company as luck would have it. When I was approved for nearly half-again what I would be responsible for paying, I knocked back a shot of whisky and began a few weeks of relief or panic related insomnia. Relief that I could shoulder my burden of Ardala’s bill, that she would certainly get better, not be in pain, and continue her existence as furry couch-potato therapist, and panic that sweet jesus now I was in debt. Actual debt. If I lose my job, I owe someone money. I hope that they will not come in to repossess her new knee-joint, but the further-ruined credit – and knowledge that I will be a BAD PERSON is terrifying enough for me.

Complicating matters was the dog-walking expense. Many and varied were the conversations that De and I had about some time in the near future, in that distant utopia where I had a vehicle, we could stop spending roughly $300 a month of having someone stop by, take Ardala out for literally 5 minutes to pee, and then leave. I had expected Armageddon to arrive heralded by trumpets, not gimpy corgi yelps. But there it was. Even with the expense of gas, the car payment, the insurance – all of which together exceeded the cost of the dog-walker a small amount – it made more sense for me to have a car. Ardala was getting old. What if she injured herself when De was away? You can’t take a dog on the bus. And what about all the half-days I have to take when I need to visit the Doctor, when I could be doing it on a long lunch? And then the postcard came from the Credit Union, the second in a year offering me a car loan with special rates. In for a penny, in for a pound! they always say – at least, the “they” who grew up with no concept of money.

So we went to the dealership, did the car-buying dance (like the bee-waggling one, but with more salesman avoidance and less pollinating of flowers) sweated for a good few hours, filled out paperwork, panicked about references on said paperwork, and we waited. Our excellent no-pressure salesman then brought a new person for us to meet: the Sales Manager. He had bad news for me (evidently, respectful awesome junior sales people cannot be trusted to break bad news) – my credit was not good enough for Honda’s financing. I was disappointed, but I informed him that was all right – I had obtained financing from my Credit Union.

To say he was skeptical would be an understatement. I believe he crossed the line between Skeptical and Sarcastic (as an advanced user of Sarcasm, I am uniquely qualified to detect these things) when he responded along the lines of, “Look at your scores – if we won’t finance you, NO ONE would.” I handed him the postcard, which gave me a different loan amount than De’s, which is how I knew it was legit. He scoffed (srsly. I didn’t know that was onomatopoetic until that very moment) and said it was just junk mail. And before I could point out that I spoke with the CU’s loan reps on the phone to confirm the loan amount and my APR (not the best, but nowhere near usurious) he came to the point: of course no one would finance me, since my credit was so poor with a mere two credit lines open, but Honda could get me that super-low rate if I got a co-signer. And here he glanced knowingly at De.

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being infantilized. That commercial with the little girl rejecting many awesome things because “that’s for babies!” was me when I was a young child. To me, with my numerous money issues, the request for a co-signer was the ultimate in infantilization. What do I look like – a college freshman? I calmly explained that it was OK. I earned (or did not earn, as the case may be) my credit score fair and square, and I would be happy to deal with the consequences by using financing that had a higher APR. The Sales Manager scowled, hearing the implied “… at another dealership” at the end of my sentence before taking the postcard off while he would “see what [he] can do…” for me.

After the BS psych out, all continued along smoothly without any further contact from the Sales Manager. Paperwork was brought out to me and I met with the finance department to sign all kinds of business, even though I would not be able to take delivery of the car until three days later when the Credit Union was open and could cut a check. For me the worst was over – the Shame of the Bad credit rating – and by extension, the Bad me – spoken out loud, in front of god and everyone, by a total stranger.

When I went to complete the process at the credit union, the loan officer showed me my credit score – it was a full 50 points higher than the two scores the Sales Manager had shown me. I am ashamed to admit that it took another couple of days before I realized that the Sales Manager had been deploying loud sarcasm as a means to shame me into getting a co-signer so that Honda Financial would profit from the APR, rather than my Credit Union. Joke’s on him – no one can shame me as efficiently as I have already shamed myself.

I have done well in the past using extreme honesty as a means of knocking down those things which I am supposed to be ashamed of, and by which I can easily be manipulated. So let me add this to the Litany: I am nearly 40 years old. I am 240 lbs. And my credit score is 660.

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