Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The ugly truth

I am as addicted to facebook as the next person. Um, by that I mean, I am way more addicted than most of the next people. So imagine my dismay at finding out that there is a phenomenon called “facebook depression." Bummer. One of the possible explanations for facebook depression comes out of the Psychology department at Stanford, my old stompin’ grounds. [Where by stompin’, I mean free-food-scroungin’. No one can sniff out free food like a PhD student.] So anyway, the possible explanation is that people tend to underestimate the negative emotions of their peers. We look at happy smiling people on facebook and think that their lives are so much better than ours. We look, for example, at our friend who got pink stripes in her hair, and maybe we think, “Wow, that’s so cool.” But I can tell you that I had to take 8 photos of that new pink hair to get one in which I didn’t feel like I looked fat, and I have been wondering ever since whether I am too old to have pink hair, even though I really do love it.

But I digress. [Which would have been a pretty good blog name, come to think of it, despite its lack of “ding dong.”]

So, in the spirit of showing you the ugly non-photoshopped truth, I have a confession. We have been living above our means. I know we can’t be the only ones, but it feels like a horrible secret. There is something about debt that fills me with shame. It began when I stopped working to stay home with the kids. At first we thought it was temporary, a function of diapers and emergency twin infant survival tactics, like too much takeout. We thought it was the car payments on the minivan we bought because two rear-facing car seats didn’t fit in the back of my little Sentra. But no, it’s pretty much just that we spend more than we make.

The fundamental problem, I think, is that both my husband and I ask ourselves, “Is [this thing we want] worth [this amount of money]?” when we need to be asking, “Do we have [this amount of money]?” and if the answer is no, then we need to either not have that thing/service/convenience, no matter how awesome it is, or find the money elsewhere and give something else up. When we had two incomes and no kids, we pretty much never had to learn that skill. You would think I would have figured it out, living on less than $15,000/year in the San Francisco Bay Area as a grad student. But there is something about the grad student lifestyle that is a surreal joke. We would literally wander the campus looking for leftover food after symposiums so we didn’t have to feed ourselves dinner. Those kinds of strategies don’t really translate to living in the suburbs with a family. If someone had told me back then what we would be making, and then told me I would be struggling to live within those means, I would have laughed.

We are very lucky. We are comfortable. We get to own a home and send our kids to preschool and save for retirement. I get to stay home and be a daily presence, for good or ill, in the lives of my two beautiful children. We have enough, and more than enough. We have more than most people. I know how lucky we are. And yet, we have a secret shameful red number—our debt—a number that is going in the wrong direction.

So it’s time for an overhaul. My once-a-month house cleaning service is the first thing to get the axe. The grocery bills suggest that it’s time for more spaghetti, less steak. Maybe heirloom tomatoes and Honeycrisp apples are not in the budget (even though they are TOTALLY worth the ludicrous amounts we spend on them). HBO and Showtime, I have loved you, but buh-bye. I already don’t really shop. I think the last time I was in a mall was Christmas shopping. But the kids probably don’t need any more toys off of ebay.

Here are the things we’re going to try to keep. Exercise classes for me. Zumba, dancing, whatever. Non-workout mommy is a depressed and unhealthy mommy. The classes stay. Dance and gymnastics classes for kiddos. Non-negotiable. I’ll give up my cleaning ladies. I would even give up the next thing on this list if I had to. And that would be… Wine. We’ve narrowed as far as we can. We’re working the system and getting pretty good wine under $8 or 9/bottle. We split a bottle most nights, a glass each with dinner and a glass each after. Doesn’t sound so crazy until you do the math. That’s $250+/month on booze before we even have a single friend over, before we include the occasional Saturday afternoon beer or Friday night glass of Scotch by the fire. So yeah, we need to think deep thoughts about the booze budget, but we’re not cutting wine completely unless we have to. The other big question mark is my hair. I can cut the uber-pricey hair appointments back to three times a year. I can live with roots. I no longer have the shorter style that needed more maintenance. But I have learned that when it comes to highlights and haircuts, you get what you pay for. I can go less frequently, but I don’t feel ready to give up my hair appointments altogether and revert to (grayer every day) hippie locks.

So it’s time for me and the hubs to sit down and figure out how much we need to cut to get back on track and pay down the shameful little problem that has gradually accumulated. I hope I get to keep my wine. I’m surely gonna need it. ‘Cause the roof is leaking again, and one roof repair seems to equal about a year of HBO and Showtime.

P.S. Despite my having a Master's in Statistics, we will probably continue to buy lottery tickets.


  1. You live beyond your means? Welcome to America. :/ I had a friend who has oodles of money kindly offer to help me out around Christmas timewhen my car needed new brakes. I declined. Not because I didn't want to owe him money, but because I didn't want to owe him money due to my lack of planning. Hubby and I make too much money to have the credit score we do.

  2. This may sound horrible, and believe me that I don't mean it in an unkind way, but it's a relief to know it's not just us. I'm making double what I did ten years ago, and it seems like our red numbers (like yours) just keep growing. You'd think that with more money life would be easier, but it never quite works out that way...

  3. The cutting back to one income is super hard for us too. I still want to live the way we did before starting a family when we had two really nice incomes too. In hate coupons. *sigh*. I don't drink that much, but my grocery bills are insane... Perhaps that is why I have to pay for Weight Watchers every month....I sense a pattern. As long as you don't give up Zumba!!!!

  4. @celtick (Krista??), it doesn't sound horrible at all. That's why I posted this. I know I am not alone, but debt feels like this dark secret that no one talks about. Dark secrets are (almost) never good. So let's talk about it. Let's even talk about how we might fix it. Let's get in a circle and sing Kumbaya, my debt, Kumbaya. No, well, let's not do that last thing.

  5. Totally appreciated this post, Pam. I do have some friends who talk openly about having no debt, and I just smile, often don't say anything. But, more often than not, I muster up the courage to say, "Well, we do have some debt that we are working on paying off." It is definitely a conscious mind choice: "Do I want to get rid of this debt or what?!" Hard choices and sacrifices are involved. Sometimes when I see things online that I would like to buy, I think, "Well, can't really afford it now. That could be put towards debt." Ugh. Such an unsatisfying reality. Not that we're perfect, but we are definitely making some headway. I'm done feeling the burden of debt. Be gone, mean debt! Be gone!

  6. Wanna get rid of your debt? We did.....we went through Consumer Credit Counseling a couple of years ago (the non profit one that actually works) and now we can't BUY a credit card. LOL So yeah, we have little debt now, but that's because no one will extend us any credit. :D Of course, that lack of planning thing I talked about before really sucks when you need no brakes, have no savings, and no credit. On the plus side.....our debt/income ratio is now so low that we actually got approved for a morgage!