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.


  • http://www.mollymakesdo.blogspot.com Molly Makes Do

    Not to get too political, but you touched on one of the subjects about things like welfare and foodstamps that gets me – the system does not encourage folks to save and in fact discourages it by limiting the amount of money a person can have saved and still receive aid and many people (I was in this situation myself) who could use a little assistance, even for only a few months, are denied because they have been financially responsible i.e. telling folks that they are only eligible once their savings have been spent. (it might not be like this in all states, but that was my experience)

    p.s. we saved ourselves the cost of a new dryer and dishwasher in the last 6 months because my husband (with my help) knows how to take it all apart and try before calling a repair man – it’s empowering!

    • calahalexander

      Yup, it bothers me too. The whole system is really screwed up, IMO. I’ve seen women in the welfare office driving Porsches with kids dressed in designer toddler clothes (are you kidding me?). It makes me see red. As far as I know, you can’t have any savings and still get welfare in any state. The point is that it’s supposed to be a last resort, as it definitely was for us, but unfortunately it’s used by many as “free money!” There’s no communal accountability either. I felt awful knowing we were taking money coming out of the pockets of family, friends, etc, but that connection has been lost. People see it as the government, this faceless entity, giving them money, when really it’s money that someone else has worked for.

      • http://mollymakesdo.blogspot.com MollyMakesDo

        The money we were expected to spend before we received assistance was the money we’d spent two years (in better economic times) saving for a house – it was such a blow to be asked to blow through all that scrimping and savings just to be elligible for WIC. Luckily things came around right before my son was born (literally, I finally got a job offer two weeks before he was born) and we ended up buying a home 9 months later, but I still admit to being a little bitter about the whole ordeal mainly because it resulted in so much stress and only worsened my ante-partum depression.

  • deltaflute

    My mother never really taught me how to be thrifty. I’m guessing that was God’s doing. Her love language is gifts so I get a lot of stuff from her going nuts spending and then not being able to use it. Drives me insane. But it’s her money. I’m trying to get her to curb the tide with reminders that we live in an apartment and simply haven’t the space, but it doesn’t always work. And trying to return things…well let’s just say I don’t tell her anymore.

    As for food, well that’s something I’m still working on…I admit that I throw out the chicken bones and buy the broth. Go ahead throw a tomato.

  • http://www.bede.org Stefanie

    I have actually perfected the making of soup that someone aside from me would actually eat — something which had previously eluded me in 30 years of marriage. Never throw out ‘old’ vegetables like I used to — it all goes in the soup. Every week I make a new pot of soup that we eat throughout the week. Lard seems to be the secret ingredient.

  • Jane

    These are great points! Not that I’m glad that we have such an insane national debt – but I think it’s wonderful that people are rediscovering thrift as a virtue – and as something to be proud of, as you said.

    I think another flaw of the governmental system we have is that it discourages generosity. A friend of mine is disabled and on government assistance. He says that he can’t tithe or they’ll reduce his check. On the one hand, I understand that gov’t money is supposed to go for the basics. But on the other hand, isn’t tithing and generosity something that should be encouraged? He also says that he has to reject people’s offers for meals because he has to spend a certain amount of money on food to not have his check reduced. So we can’t pay for his burger when we’re out to eat. I don’t know at all how to “fix” that, I just thought I would note it. It really seems to undercut person-to-person generosity in favor of government-to-person provisions.

    • Maria

      At the risk of sounding terribly pragmatic, I think it’s appropriate that your friend can’t tithe and receive the same amount. The point of the social service system is to provide money for those who literally cannot provide it for themselves, like you friend. It is completely right that he should just receive financial assistance if he needs it. But it isn’t his money to spend freely – it’s emergency money provided by taxes to keep him in food, clothes and shelter. If it’s more money than he needs (i.e. so that he can tithe it), then it makes sense that it would be redirected to someone who needs it more.

  • Linda

    Yes, government “entitlements” need to be looked at. Years ago, I worked in a welfare office and saw that people were better off on welfare. I was single working mother and my friends who were single mothers on welfare had more food and spending money than I did. Just today, someone was sharing that their niece had refused a job because she is on unemployment and preferred to not get another job until her unemployment was close to running out (the unemployment check and her income from working were about the same). Again, many feel “entitled”.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’m on unemployment right now. I’m working 12 hour days to find another job. Why? Because I can’t get my wife to be thrifty enough NOT to lose $1900/month out of our savings above what I get in an unemployment check.

      And it isn’t all her fault. $1700 of that is our mortgage alone. I wish I had never heard of Florida or the timeshare industry- one mistake in 1999 with a timeshare has kept me from getting a mortgage I can pay on unemployment. (Oh, and the timeshare was foreclosed on in 2002- but they failed to tell the homeowner association, so they’ve been trying to get me to pay maintenance fees ever since on a timeshare I no longer own.)

  • Cordelia

    I’ve really enjoyed BOTH of these budgeting posts, Calah! My parents raised six children on what was for several decades – mid-70′s through mid-90′s – the kind of budget you’re dealing with right now (any coincidence my dad was also in academia?). I was raised a bag-washing, paper-towel-hoarding, scratch-cooking, coupon-clipping, hand-me-down-wearing, near-vegetarian – it was just normal life and we as kids were perfectly happy. A person buying *anything* that wasn’t ON SALE scandalized my socks off…like things at regular price were somehow not really for sale at all! At one point, when we older ones were able to help in the kitchen, my frugal mother did some math and announced that handwashing our dishes used less hot water than running the tightly-packed dishwasher. That was the first time any of us rebelled… The postscript is – once my dad finally got a well-paying job, after five moves, her careful habits allowed them to totally pay off their new mortgage on five-bedrooms and a half-acre in just ten years. Plus, all six of us are now impressing people across the country with our dishwasher-stuffing skills…

  • http://awomansplaceis.blogspot.com Cam

    Okay, it’s funny to read about the ziploc bags because lately I’ve been feeling guilty when I throw out a disgusting used ziploc bag… And I’ve lately been lamenting my stupidity during college when I spent every penny I had on clothes shopping pretty much every weekend… I want to slap my eighteen year old self upside the head sometimes!

    As always, great post Calah!

  • Andrea

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