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.

 

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