I transitioned into an adult during one of the most financially unstable periods in the last century. In addition to this, I personally witnessed the financial turmoil my parents endured after my father had a near-fatal motorcycle accident mere months after my wedding. This, in addition to specific conversations and experiences I have had in the past two or three years, has instilled in me a desire to make smart decision for myself and my family.
About six months after my marriage, one of my English professors led a discussion with my small class of graduate students that developed in part from a tangent about the French Revolution (the class was entitled “Eighteenth Century Literature and Culture”). She told us about an experience she had immediately after the birth of her first child. Suddenly, the realization of her responsibility and ensuing paranoia caused her to stockpile powered milk and dried beans in her basement for fear that some disaster or another might strip her of her ability to care for her family. Being an extremely intelligent woman (and fairly normal, for someone with a Ph.D in English, anyways), she quickly snapped out of her frenzy and years later told us this story as a comical anecdote to demonstrate the heightened sense of alarm society in general felt during the eighteenth century. After we laughed about her story, she shared with us her genuine belief that patterns of history often repeat and that things were bound to turn sour for us sooner or later. This is a woman who has studied the writings of the eighteenth century for the majority of her adult life, a century that witnessed the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Enlightenment. If there were ever two periods in history to be compared for their sense of urgency, instability, and rapid change, the time in which we currently live and the eighteenth century would be the ones.
As I thought about Dr. G collecting hoards of beans in her basement over the following weeks, I realized she was experiencing the same sort of concern as a new mother as I was experiencing as a new wife. I respected, and still respect, this woman’s intelligence and practicality. What we discussed during that class had stuck a nerve. How would I save this new, precious, two-person family I had created with my husband if something terrible happened? What should I be doing now to ensure that our future will be secure, happy, and uncomplicated? Do I want to depend on others to ensure that happiness, or do I want to take matters into my own hands?
Cody and I had already discussed our intentions to be as debt-free as possible and had taken measures before our marriage to make certain we would be able to stay afloat on our own. However, an event right before Christmas in 2010 cemented my opinion about my society’s accepted financial conventions. After several years of commuting me to college, my Honda blew an engine. Although Cody and I had enough in savings to cover the cost for a replacement, we did not feel comfortable draining our accounts right before the holidays. We reluctantly decided to get a loan for the amount of the new motor with every intention to pay it off as soon as possible. I headed to our local credit union to speak to a loan officer about our options. I knew that I did not have sufficient credit history to acquire the loan myself, but I wanted to gather some numbers to take home and discuss with Cody before we decided what to do. After looking over my application, the woman behind the desk immediately dismissed the option of taking out a loan in my name, as I expected. She then informed me that Cody “just barely” qualified to get the loan himself. I was annoyed, but still not too surprised. Before I tell the next part of this eye-opening story, let me explain that since I live in a relatively small town, it is usual for everyone to know everyone else’s business. This woman personally knew most of my in-laws, along with their financial history, and had assisted my husband in every financial decision he had made thus far. She then took it upon herself to give me a free financial counseling session. Not only did she suggest that I take out an amount almost double what I needed as well as attempt to get approved for payments spread out over five years, she also told me that I should open several store accounts and even get myself a credit card so that I could go buy a new car in a couple of years. According to her, this was just the normal chain of events for building enough credit to acquire a mortgage for a $150,000 to $200,000 home, which she seemed certain I would desire one day.
I thanked her for her help and left. As I walked through the parking lot, I became more and more angry at the advice I had been given. It was absurd. I was just told by someone whose career it was to assist people in making important financial decisions that I should get into debt so that I could subsequently get into more debt later in life. Why wasn’t I congratulated for be a twenty-one year old American college student who did not have any credit card debt? Why wasn’t I praised for paying off prior debts quickly? Why wasn’t I receiving support for my and my husband’s decision to postpone shackling ourselves with a house payment or expensive car loans until we were certain we could afford them? If the advice I was given represented the financial blueprint most Americans go by, no wonder everything is in a mess.
All of these experiences have been compiled by my husband and me and have helped us create a general understanding of the way we intend to conduct ourselves and our family. We desire to live our lives fully and vividly, without feeling as if we have missed anything but also without spending ourselves into an inescapable hole. Here are our goals:
1. To use as little credit as possible. What we are required to use will be immediately paid off.
2. To purchase a home at some point in the future without a mortgage.
3. To value time over money.
4. To prepare for our future and our retirement by making smart choices today and not depending on the government or our particular jobs.
5. To withstand the social pressures to live a lifestyle we will not be able to afford.
Neither of us have chosen professions that will make us wealthy, but that does not mean that we will no be able to afford to live the American Dream, whatever that might be. We will strategically live our lives so that we can afford to do, and go, and see just as much as anyone else but without the guilt of not actually paying for anything. We both value peace of mind much more than a four bedroom home and a new SUV.