Driving down a now familiar street the other day listening to the news about rising gas prices, I recognized the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had to remind myself things were different now. I had to assure my heart and mind that this time, gas prices wouldn't break me. We will have to adjust our spending to accommodate the price at the pump, but things are different now, I repeated to myself over and over. I don't have to fear being stranded on the side of the road, unable to get myself home.
It was weeks in the making, so I should have seen it coming. Then again, that was the problem all along, me not seeing. Four years ago, my husband and I had more late-into-the night conversations than I could count. We knew our financial picture was dire and yet, here I was with a car full of kids on an unfamiliar road running out of gas with no money to fill my tank.
I was terrified. We had only lived in our town for a few months, and I was taking my kids to a new park. We went to a lot of parks and libraries in those days because I could entertain my three children for free. This particular day I thought I was lost and was afraid to keep winding down the sparsely populated country road for fear that I'd get too far from home and run out of gas. I turned around thinking I could put $5 in the tank and then have just enough to find our destination. The kids were restless in the car, as they should have been, but I assured them we just needed gas. When I pulled up to the tank, my debit card was denied. Not even $5 in our account? How was that possible? I tried the only credit card I still owned, knowing it was close to it's limit but figuring for sure I'd have $5 left. Denied.
I had to turn around and explain to my kids that we couldn't go to the park because we were out of gas. Then I had to do what I feared most, and had up to this point avoided at all costs. I had to be honest with my kids and confess to them we were also out of money and couldn't get more gas. Then, in protective mom mode, I used my best acting skills to convince them it was all expected and fine -- all while praying that we had enough in our tank to make it safely home.
Thinking of that day still makes me break out in a sweat. I thought we knew what we were facing. I thought my husband and I were doing the right things by talking about our problems and discussing solutions. As it turned out, I wasn't really thinking when it came to money, and that was why we were at financial rock bottom.
Up until a few years ago, I was the queen of unconscious spending. I'd watch those news show segments where people who were in massive debt came to get financial guidance. They always drove really nice cars and lived in huge houses. They may have taken elaborate vacations, or they came dressed in designer labels that used to be reserved for only celebrities and the New York socialites you read about in magazines.
I'd see these people with the enormous debt and pat myself on the back for not acting like them. I convinced myself that my debt wasn't as bad as theirs because I wasn't doing any of those things. I erroneously embraced the phrase "good debt."
Before I quit working full time to stay home with my kids, my husband and I sat down and figured out our monthly expenses. On paper, we could afford to live on one salary so we decided that I'd make the jump. What we failed to take into consideration was actual living. Sure, his salary would allow us to pay the bills we put down on that piece of paper, but little else. So I started charging, and I justified every bit of it because it was all "necessary".
I used my credit cards for necessities, never extras. We didn't go on vacations. My family's clothes were from discount malls or thrift stores. I drove an old car. And yet, there I was, sitting at the bottom of a mountain of debt, and I wasn't even sure how I got there.
It's a common scenario among my peers, which I learned when I told my story. When I confessed my sins, my friends and family started coming out of their financial closets as well. Everywhere I went, the conversations would turn to money. People couldn't wait to unload what had been secretly shaming them for years.
There were the friends who admitted to not only living paycheck to paycheck, but worrying every month that their paychecks eventually, as their families grew and bills increased, wouldn't cover everything.
I had one blog reader stop me at a backyard party to say she was so relieved not to be "the only one." It seems that she too found herself buried in debt and wasn't really sure how she got there. She said that after reading my story, she had finally confronted her own financial reality and started to change her spending.
Then there were my childhood friends who all have jobs right alongside their husbands. Even in two-salary couples, credit card use the norm, and if someone loses a job, they're buried before the ink on the pink slip is dry. And, much like me, these women who admitted their bills were bigger than their budget weren't living elaborate lifestyles. They were reaching for the plastic at grocery stores and baby depots and Target. When I questioned why there wasn't enough cash, no one could say for sure because they weren't paying enough attention.
The problem with all of us is that we may never have acknowledged how we should live in the first place, and the shame becomes so huge that it's harder and harder to live within your means. The cash isn't there, and maybe it never was, but we were all spending anyway.
For me, the first step was acknowledging my problem. We may not have driven fancy cars or gone to Disney world every year, but we were living outside of our means. It worked for a while, until the minimum payments became more than we could make.
I started working, sales and freelance writing gigs mostly, but I couldn't make money fast enough to cover the damage we had done. When I looked again for full-time work, I couldn't find a job with a salary higher than the cost of childcare expenses. It would have would been a zero sum exchange.
It was time to get real about who we were, what we made and how we could and should manage it. We needed to redefine need, and it wasn't pretty.
The first thing we did was get honest about a budget. I called a Financial Counseling Service and they went through with me, line by line, monthly expenses. There were things in there I'd never considered that were killing us in nickel and dimes. We learned that our daily living was putting us about $800 in the red every month.
So we started cutting. The trick was leaving a little room for low-budget fun - renting a movie on demand, for instance -- so that we didn't come crashing off our budget the way a dieter with too many restrictions binges at midnight.
The second thing we did was tackle our debt. We called creditors. We sought assistance from professionals and we did whatever we needed to do to work out payment plans that would allow us to chip away at the mountain.
Then we budgeted again with those payments in place.
It wasn't easy. The daily effort of being honest with yourself and the people around you is taxing. You're completely readjusting the way you live and you're dealing with the shame and guilt that got you there. The first time I had to admit to friends that I couldn't afford to join them out, even for just one drink, still stings. The first time I had to opt out of an activity with my kids because it was too much money just plain stunk. How about telling my siblings I couldn't participate in the Christmas gift exchange? Yuck.
But I didn't make excuses. I told my friends and family what we were doing. I didn't give them gory details, but I did fess up to being in financial straits that we were diligently working to correct.
Our new plan impacted my kids, of course. I did everything we could to shield my children from the harsh reality of their parents' errors while paying more attention to what I was teaching them about money. I never wanted my kids to feel deprived, but I also never want them to end up like me.
Then there was the impact on my marriage. For two years my husband and I were on edge. We fought with each other like never before, and while the fights were almost never about money, they were always about money. We were on the same page about what we should do, but we both felt frustrated with how far we had to go.
My husband worked so hard and never saw the fruits of his labor financially because every single penny went toward debt reduction or monthly bills. We'd agreed that I would manage our financial reorganization, so I was the point woman for creditors, banks, you name it. It was a challenge I mostly relished, but there were days I wished he were more in it with me.
We were sad that we had done this to ourselves and to our children. We had both worked hard. We both thought we were doing good things, and this derailed us enough that it threatened to overshadow any pride in what we had accomplished up to that point.
And of course, in our darkest moments we played the "Why Us?" game. We were deeply envious and sometimes suspect of anyone who wasn't living this way and constantly wondered how they were doing it. Facebook updates of vacations or holiday gift hauls nearly broke us more than once.
I'm sure there were times we each blamed the other. I know from our more lucid conversations that we each wished for a different life at times. But I also know, from the way we pulled together when it counted and moved past the arguments and resentment that we were both very lucky not to be fighting this battle alone.
It has been hard work digging ourselves out of debt and even harder work learning to live in such a way that we don't end up there again. But for all the times we've had to forgo something we once enjoyed, for all the awkward conversations we have had to have, for all the times we said no and all the things we missed, we have found that truly living an authentic life, one that sits squarely within our means, is worth all of it.