Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Shames Most Financial

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Total Black: $75.45
Total Red: $228,312.40

Got about five pages further in Suze Orman’s The Courage to Be Rich this evening when I had to stop and think about what I had just read.  Orman relates the story of one of her clients, Mark, who recalled an experience from his childhood.  While on a school outing one day, Mark and some classmates had lunch with their minister at a restaurant.  They all sat down to enjoy hamburgers and fries and cokes with straws.  Once the meal ended, everyone put money on the table for their food.  Mark didn’t.  Instead he cried because his parents hadn’t given him any money.  I suppose he hadn’t realized before ordering that he’d have to pay eventually.  Orman tells us that years later Mark is still ashamed of that experience and still atones for it by picking up the tab or making sure others know he has money.  I suspect that if ever he found himself in a situation where he didn’t have enough money on hand he’d probably feel like a nine year-old boy again.

Orman’s retelling of that story got me wondering about my own early memories of financial shame.  None came to me right off, so I put her book aside and started thumbing through some old journals.  Interesting results.  In my second diary entry, dated September 27, 1989, I wrote “I need money!  I want to be rich when I grow up.”   In my third diary entry, dated October 3, 1989, I wrote again about needing money “for everything” and then listed some of the items I felt I needed money for, including my Christmas Club account, school activities, and my aquarium, among others.  Pretty typical, I suppose.  Thirteen year-old boys shouldn’t have much to jot down in diaries so it’s not surprising that I wrote about my hopes and dreams for the future.  But it’s telling that at thirteen I was humming, if not yet fully singing, a few bars of the financial blues.  I continued reading up to 1992, but didn’t find much more related to finances.  I did come across mention of my Franklin Mint purchases, which I wrote about in Feelings and Finances.  Seems that most of my bills were money owed to my parents.  Sadly, that hasn’t changed much in twenty years.

Yet I couldn’t believe that I haven’t had situations similar to that which Orman retold.  I have had too many reverse scenarios where, circumstances requiring that I be in the restaurant, instead of ordering and not being able to pay as Mark did, I feigned a stomach ache or overeating to pretend lack of hunger, thereby hiding my poverty and avoiding admitting my inability to purchase even a bowl of soup.  Sadly, that’s happened all too often recently.  Yet in the past few months, my most shameful moment occurred back in April when I finally decided to take my cats to the veterinarian.  After nearly four years, I put my foot down and said enough with excuses and foot-dragging because they had to see a vet already.  So, I withdrew as much cash as possible before the visit just to ensure I had some cash on hand.  Banks haven’t figured out a way to take cash from your wallet yet.  When it came time to pay the bill, I didn’t have enough to cover it.  They didn’t take checks and wouldn’t bill you.  So, I begged forgiveness and gave the receptionist all the cash I had with me, promising to return the next day with the balance.  Of course, the next day, as I feared, Bank of America rearranged my transactions, as I explained in What is This, Sarcasm?, resulting in multiple insufficient funds fees and pulling my checking account into the red.  Adding salt to my wounds, unemployment benefits were late the next day and I couldn’t pay the bill as promised.  What’s more, I also didn’t have the money for subway fare.  After paying the vet the day before, I pretended to be too sick to come to work and thus skirted the issue of subway fare.  So, the next morning, I had no choice but to walk.  I had been assigned to court all day and couldn’t just “call in sick” again.  So, early that morning I left my apartment and walked nearly six miles from Midtown, down Broadway to the Brooklyn Bridge, and over into downtown Brooklyn, just to get to a job I worked at for free.  And then back again that evening.  Once more the next morning.  Same thing that night.  I didn’t have $2 to ride the subway one way.  Unemployment money didn’t show up until Saturday.

In an odd way though I think such financial struggles build character.  They’re the stuff political campaigns are made of.  Walking uphill, both ways, in the snow.  But any teasing aside, the key, it seems, is not to let such events define you or alter your behavior.  That’s what Mark couldn’t do.  And it is difficult, especially when financial struggles are tied to embarrassing or shameful experiences.  No one knew of my situation, so it’s not exactly similar to the story Orman relates.  Yet it was sufficiently embarrassing and humbling that it was the first memory to come to mind when searching for comparable experiences.  And like Mark, I’ve been tempted to preclude it’s reoccurrence by running to the nearby subway station every thirty days to purchase a month pass, ensuring I’m not stranded again.  And except for one time, I’ve been able to resist that temptation.  Now, when possible, I walk instead.

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