Today, the sermon at church was based mostly on Nehemiah 5. Nehemiah 5 talks about the ruinous financial situation of the children of Israel at the time the book was written. Check out Nehemiah 5:4-5.
“We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”
In other words, in order to pay their bills, some had resorted to selling their children into slavery. Sadly, some Americans find themselves in that situation today. Or close to it. At least it’s uncommon enough that we’re offended when we hear about it.
Pastor asked those of us who aren’t in debt up to our eyeballs–which isn’t many of us, since household debt in the United States, at $16 trillion, is nearly twice the federal debt–not to tune him out. “You have wisdom the rest of us need,” he said. So I started thinking about how I ended up different.
My Dad spent most of his late 30s on the brink of financial ruin. At one point, he was making mortgage payments on three houses in three different cities. It all started when Dad’s boss came to him and told him to change some records to protect him from being sued. Dad refused–his boss had done the opposite of what Dad said needed to be done, someone died, and Dad wasn’t going to have any part in this. Unfortunately, Dad’s boss owned the worthless southwest Missouri town we lived in. He threatened Dad with financial ruin. He threatened me. (I was all of four years old.) Dad stood firm, but had to move us a couple of hours away to protect us and rebuild his career. Things didn’t work out so well for him the first place we went, so then we moved to another small town in southeastern Missouri.
Dad could afford that first mortgage. The second and third were more than pushing it. Suffice it to say, Dad’s profession suggests a certain lifestyle, and Dad was doing well just to keep groceries in the pantry sometimes, let alone chase that lifestyle.
So I didn’t run out and buy a new car and a house after college. My girlfriend at the time wanted me to. But it felt risky, and even at 23, I recognized some of the mistakes Dad made and didn’t want to repeat them. I wasn’t sure I was going to stay there, and I didn’t want to be stuck paying a mortgage on a house I didn’t live in. And my car wasn’t flashy, but it was dependable and I owned it outright.
I bought one a few years later. I lived a few years in a cramped one-bedroom apartment until I could afford a decent house. I wanted something small enough that I could take care of it, but large enough for a family. I bought less house than everyone said I could afford. And when I needed a car, I bought a Honda Civic for its dependability and its gas mileage. In both cases, I could have afforded better. At the time.
Yep. Then I got that strange meeting request in May 2005. Layoffs were an annual ritual, and that year, I learned exactly how they worked. Your boss’ boss’ boss sends you a meeting request, and you go into a meeting room with her and the HR director and they hand you an envelope and read to you from a script some slimeball lawyer wrote them. If you ask any questions, they stop, look annoyed, wait for you to finish, and continue to read the script.
My fiancee at the time lost her job a couple of weeks earlier. We were to be married in June.
Trust me. In May and June, I was glad my mortgage payment wasn’t a dime higher than it was. My next job paid a lot more, but we used that to pay down debt instead of improving lifestyle. I resolved to never get in that situation again. Or to be put in a position of being asked to compromise my principles, like Dad was. As long as you have debt, you’re at the mercy of your employer.
I got a better job in late 2005. One with benefits and annual raises and stuff. We lived cheap. “Going out to dinner” often meant splitting a 5-for-$5.95 deal at Arby’s. On Saturdays, I worked side gigs. I didn’t like getting up early on Saturday, but I told myself I was buying my family’s freedom. We put every spare dime toward paying off the cars first, and then the mortgage.
The family came along right around the time we paid off the mortgage. I think our first son was born a few months before, so he’ll have no memory of us being in debt. And that’s good. I’m not sure how we’d raise two boys if we were paying a thousand bucks a month to Bank of America. We’d go without a lot more, that’s for certain.
Some of my coworkers seem to be engaged in a contest to see who has the biggest TV. Or the nicest yard. We don’t get caught up in that.
Dad was only 51 when he died. I don’t think the stress from those financial problems in his 30s killed him, but I know it didn’t help. And you know what? None of the stuff he could afford at the time matters one iota to him now.
I stand a chance of living long enough to see my sons get married. I think I get the better deal.