Why I ♥ Our National Debt

I kind of feel like an asshat this morning. The post I meant to write yesterday is not the post I actually wrote yesterday. The post was meant to say this: budgeting sucks, but I’m glad I have to do it.

I’m pretty sure what I wrote was this: Wah Wah WE’RE SO POOR someone give me money wah wah I can’t afford food for my kids POOR ME LIFE TOTALLY SUCKS TRIPLE WAH!

Ahem. Allow me to try again.

My mother-in-law was raised by a woman who had lived through the Depression. She doesn’t throw anything away. She washes her ziploc bags and re-uses them, for crap’s sake. She is as frugal as the day is long, and I used to think she was bizarre for it. Maybe a little obsessive-compulsive. Certainly her excessive thrift was unnecessary, thought I. After all, my in-laws aren’t poor. They have a nice house, a nice car. They’re comfortably middle-class. I literally could not understand why she saved everything. I thought maybe she was a bit of a hoarder, or that growing up with a Depression-era mom had irreparably scarred her. Like, it had broken her brain’s “it’s time to throw this shriveled bell pepper away” button.

That old maxim “a penny saved is a penny earned” has never meant anything to me. It’s just been words. My dad tried to raise us with a sense of thrift and an understanding of the value of saving things, but he was fighting against a cultural tide. I’ve never forgotten the day he sat all four of us down and asked us, one by one, if we would cross the street to pick up a penny we saw lying in the road. We  all said no. He continued on, asking about a nickle, a dime, a quarter, a dollar, five dollars. Only my youngest brother said he’d pick up the quarter. The rest of us said we’d cross for a fiver. Except I think I said, “maybe. It depends on how much money I had at the time.” None of us understood why he was so upset afterward.

Everyone’s freaking out about our national debt right now. So am I, theoretically. Except that’s just it: it’s all theoretical. Who can fathom even one trillion dollars? What does that even mean? My generation and the next were raised with excessive excess. We had everything we could want. And if we didn’t, if the money ran dry, there’s always the government. Foodstamps are more than adequate to cover groceries. I know, because we were on them in Vegas. We got more money per month three years ago with four of us than I spend on a month’s worth of groceries for the six of us now. Welfare isn’t just a little help; it doesn’t require that its recipients pinch and save and learn the value of a dollar. On the contrary, I only learned the value of a dollar once we stopped receiving foodstamps.

The national spending problem isn’t Obama’s fault. It’s not the fault of the Democrats or the Republicans. It’s our fault. It’s a direct result of our wasteful, consumer-driven culture. It’s the fault of every single one of us who have been way too comfortable for way too long. It’s my fault. The generations before us, the ones coming out of the depression, tried to craft a system that would keep us from having to suffer as they did. I think it worked too well, because we got used to it. We got comfortable. We forgot the value of a dollar and the virtue of thrift. And then we went wild, spending ourselves and our descendents into debt we can’t even comprehend. Not just nationally, but personally as well. Who else is facing massive student loans that will take a lifetime to pay off? I know we are. Who else has mountains of medical debt that you can’t quite get out from under? I know we do.

The economy is starting to pinch all of us, and it will only pinch harder in the coming years. And I am grateful for it. Does it suck? Yes. Sure, it sucks. But it is only because of our exhorbitant debt, the tax hikes, and the rising food prices that I, Calah, one insignificant housewife in a swamp, have learned that there is a certain satisfaction in making two meals out of three ingredients, long forgotten in the back of a pantry. I’ve learned that there is pride, even, in making my own mopping solution, washing my towels with vinegar and baking soda, foregoing paper towels and learning the importance of turning the lights off and unplugging appliances.

The thing is, my in-laws didn’t fall into a comfortable middle-class existence. They never made enough money for that. They have a nice house and a nice car and savings in the bank only because my mother-in-law pinched and scraped and saved everything. She increased their income by being frugal, rather than frittering it all away in waste and excess, the way I’ve done in years past. Truly, truly I am grateful for these hard times, because they are forcing me to grow in virtue. I haven’t quite gotten to washing out my ziploc bags, but I know at least that I will not raise daughters who throw chicken carcasses away and then write “chicken broth” on their shopping lists. I know that my sons will not just call a repairman for the slightest leak without first taking the whole damn sink apart trying to fix it. I know that the work I do to tighten our budget and trim the excess is not only a necessary reaction, but that it is an investment in our future.

It’s no accident that the locavore movement, the “reduce, reuse, recycle” campaign, and the growing popularity of DIY blogs are all happening now. It’s no accident that young mommy bloggers all over the internet are turning Goodwill castoffs into baby headbands and cute shirts, making their own laundry soap, and washing their hair with baking soda and apple cider vinegar. It’s no accident that before my husband and I bought Christmas gifts, we first sat down with what we have and said, “what can we make?” My generation is learning the hard way that there is a cost to everything, and thank God for it. May we learn graciously and gratefully, and may we pass these lessons on so this dark moment of debt and doubt becomes a catalyst for change and a reminder to our descendents of the bleak underbelly of a culture consumed with consumerism.


  • Jenny

    For some reason I have always washed and reused our plastic bags. I think it is for two reasons. 1) It seems like such a waste to throw out something that has barely been used. 2) I hate the way food tastes out of a new plastic bag. It smells and tastes like plastic to me. After a good washing and airing, those poor qualities go away. Even our daughter has been trained to bring home the plastic bags from her home-packed lunch. So here is a hint from a long-time bag washer: buy the freezer bags and not the regular. They do cost a little bit more up front, but there are almost always coupons for them. They last forever and then you never have to hunt around when you actually want to freeze something. We probably buy two boxes of baggies a year. Seriously.

  • JQ Tomanek

    Back in the day, home economics was a science probably similar to what the DIY blogs are today. You are right about thrift, frugality, and saving; these are also very healthy for an economy. It shows that people are getting more out of their goods and services.

  • Karen

    When I was finally gearing up to move out of my parents’ house (I was in grad school and preparing to enter the field of social work), I stumbled upon The Tightwad Gazette at the library and was pretty much hooked. I remember devouring all the little tips and tricks, and asked my mom (born in 1944 and raised on a struggling farm) if we should save the wrapper from a stick of margarine, to use to grease a pan later and she looked at me like I had two heads and said, “Just throw it out.” She was so embarrassed about her poor upbringing, and didn’t take any lessons away from it. Basically she only feels safe and secure if she is spending conspicuously. When I moved out I went to Goodwill to buy my kitchen things I needed; she was aghast.

    She would be horrified to see me, delighting in a pot of homemade onion soup (cheapest soup and best, IMO), and pleased to make my skirts that I bought years ago last another year. I have used white vinegar in my dishwasher and laundry for ages now. I actually dislike shopping for clothes, because I hate buying things made in China, and if I had more time (read: kid-free) I’d do my clothes shopping at the thrift stores.

    I guess my point is not all of the previous generation were thrifty, make-do kind of people.

    • kara

      The Tightwad Gazette is awesome. I grew up with it and still have the copy I got as a gift.

  • KK

    I laughed at washing the ziploc bags. I do it all the time, except for the sandwich size ones. I was raised by parents born in the 30′s. I agree with the previous commenter on getting the freezer ones if you want to reuse them and have more uses for them

  • kara

    Also, did you know that many Goddwill locations have a clearance rack? I jus found two nice maternity shrts for a dollar each.

  • http://notaminx.blogspot.com Trista

    For most of my life my mother (born in the 60s) has washed and reused ziploc bags. I remember the first time I was at a friend’s house and my friend just, poof, tossed her ziploc bag into the garbage. I was horrified and aghast!

  • http://wifeytini.blogspot.com sarah

    I love this — I can definitely relate. I was never really a spend-thrifty person (never owned a CC in my life) but I did take out student loans like they were going out of style (for an ENGLISH degree…sigh.) with literally no thought of how I would manage them after graduation. Not smart. And if I went out to dinner and blew $40, well, I was working, so I could just make more.

    When I couldn’t work, due to illness, and then school, and then pregnancy, and my husband was the only one bringing home a paycheck, I got a really rude awakening about thrift and why it’s so crucial to stretch those pennies. Money was now a finite resource, and I couldn’t just spend what I wanted on frivolous crap or waste with the intention that I could just clock more hours and make more on the next paycheck. I had to actually (duh!) learn to conserve what we had and make smart decisions about spending. And budget. We were strapped at the time, and now I’m SO GLAD we were!

  • http://grace-filled.net jen

    Why is it that you’re not in DC working on the budget instead of people who don’t have any concept of what you just mentioned?

  • Melody

    Your post made me think of my Nana, she knew how to “use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without”. She lived through both world wars and the Depression. Karen mentioned saving margarine wrappers to grease a pan with; that was also a thing Nana did. She also saved paper sugar sacks and brought us cookies in them.
    They would stay warm because sugar sacks have 2 layers of paper so they are kind of insulated. She couldn’t throw food out; if she made anything with egg whites she would have to think of something, like noodles, to use the yolks. I cringe when I read diet suggestions to throw away egg yolks; now they’re saying the cholesterol in eggs doesn’t hurt us anyway. Through everything Nana was such an optimist, always looking for the good side of things. She has been gone a lot of years, but I still miss her.

  • Rick

    The reason we are in this debt problem is because of Obama. He has outspent everyone in the past by a large margin – combined! Also, excessive government spending, due largely to democratic rule and a “great society” movement (i.e. socialism) for most of the past 80 years. The second cause is the general public in the USA is voting for more spending and more debt by re-electing the same group. Well, there is a little voter fraud in some counties also. The voting pattern is partly caused by poor education and a strong liberal bias in the main media outlets.