The other day I was walking past a junior staffer's desk and noticed an open bill written on one of those yellow papers that screams "We're about to send this to collections!"
"YOU HAVE TO PAY THAT," I butted in, tapping my press-on nail (we get bored sometimes around the office) on the paper.
"UGH, I don't WANT to pay it," she said, sending me into full-on financial Mama Bear mode.
"You HAVE to pay it because otherwise they'll send it to collections and it will show up on your credit report and then when you want to get an apartment the landlord's going to look that up and see that you didn't pay that bill and plus it will lower your credit score SO DON'T BE LIKE ME DON'T MAKE THE MISTAKES THAT I DID."
She paid it, and as a reward, I gave her 20 dollars to buy a beret from American Apparel.
The funny part about my newfound financial awareness is that at the same time I've been actually getting my business together financially (more on that later), I've been receiving emails, tweets, and Facebook messages from all over alerting me to the fact that some debt relief company has (probabably illegally) ganked my photograph from our years-old Debt Gallery to illustrate their Facebook ad.
I should probably email someone about this, right? I'm not super-mortified or anything, but I'd prefer to NOT be the face of financial irresponsibility if at all possible. I guess a part of me just assumes that as a citizen of the Internet and user of Facebook I at some point unknowingly "agreed" with something that gives anyone ever in any universe the right to use my picture for whatever but that's probably not true? You guys will probably yell at me at and tell me what to do.
Also, notice how I don't even qualify for their program, as I have less than 12,000 dollars of credit card debt? And I paid those medical bills!
Anyway, like I said before, this Facebook ad thing coincides with what is actually the most financially aware period of my life. It's soft and new like a baby bird, so I hope I'm not exposing it to too many elements by writing about it here. Also a few years ago, I wrote this article about how I still live paycheck to paycheck and some other sites made fun of me and whatever blah blah blah I work for the Internet and people can't stand it when a woman is imperfect unless she flagellates herself to the ends of the Earth and back for it.
Actually looking back, looks like I kind of knew that would happen:
"Articles about women and finances are kind of like my thinspo -- images of perfection that are meant to inspire but actually just make me feel bad about myself. Even in the ones where people mess up financially, the mistakes are always in the past, viewed through saintly retrospect by women who seem to have it all together now.
Nobody's ever just like 'I'm a complete mess financially and that's just the deal right now, thanks.' And if they are, they're hit with a wave of righteous indignation from people who I can only assume have perfectly adhered-to Excel spreadsheets and have never impulse-bought a pair of stupid polka dot socks or whatever just because they put them right next to the register. The amount of judginess and even ANGER directed at women who dare to admit they don't have their shit together financially always shocks me."
I refuse to flagellate myself for having been imperfect about anything that didn't harm another human being, and that includes my financial irresponsibility. I make mistakes, I know why I'm making them or I don't, I work on it. That's all I can do.
The thing is, I've been working on it for a long time. But as a co-addict, I have a lot of other issues and they tell you to go in order of what's going to kill you first -- so long, sex drugs and booze. Food and shopping? You can hang around for a little while while I work on that other stuff. You literally cannot do it all at once and change is slow. It takes years to make true behavioral change -- my progress inches along therapy session by therapy session.
And recently I've had one of those surges of progress that makes all that inching worthwhile. For one thing, I pulled my credit score for the first time. Let me try to set up the fact that it literally never occurred to me to worry about my credit score.
As an addict you get used to living outside the system. The more rules you break, the more you dip your toe into the underground and illict, the more illusory it all starts to seem, like society is just a video game or a lucid dream where you can control all the action. DING -- give me the strange man in the strange car your money and take his baggie. PEW PEW -- take a big ol' sniff of cocaine on the subway cause like who's paying attention anyway?
A girlfriend and I once just marched up to a parked car with tinted windows and knocked. The guy inside let us in and sold us cocaine. Despite the complications and unmanageability of the lifestyle, being a drug addict is in one way very simple. Your only priority is to get more drugs. If I had to ask someone from the bar to drive me around looking for a Bank of America ATM so I could get a credit card advance to buy more drugs, that's what I did.
Do you think I was thinking about paying that bill when it came? Nope, I was thinking about how to get more drugs.
I just didn't even see myself as part of world in that way -- I lived in a bubble with one mission: to get messed up so I didn't have to feel anything. When I got sober, I literally had to learn how to rejoin the world, the true human world outside the underground pus bubble I'd been darting around in. I had to learn from scratch how to do some things I've never done, like a toddler. I had to learn how to pay my bills, to clean my house, to make a doctor's appointment when I needed one.
I'm still learning 5 years later, which is why, when I was talking to a friend who was in the process of moving recently, and he mentioned working on cleaning up his credit score, a little lightbulb dinged over my head for the first time and I realized "Oh hey, that credit score thing people talk about? That applies to me."
Aside from being a drop-out from humanity for a few years, I know I'm also not the first woman to feel financially "safe" because she's in a long-term relationship with someone who is good with money. My name is not on the lease of this apartment for that reason, which is all fine and well when things are fine and well, but no matter how in love and happy you are, you should seriously safeguard your own finances just in case s/he turns out to be banging your sister's friend or something.
So I went online and Googled around until I found out that federal law allows me to look up my credit card report for free once each year from the 3 main credit reporting companies, which are Experian, Transunion and Equifax. You can go to AnnualCreditReport.com to order the info from all 3 companies, which may differ slightly.
I'm far from an expert on this stuff, so here's what Alison said in her very smart "zombie debt" piece:
You may not know this, but you are legally entitled (via the Fair Credit Reporting Act) to a free yearly copy of your credit report from each the big 3 reporting agencies -- Trans Union, Equifax, and Experian. There are many sites that will charge you huge amounts for this same information -- so don't be fooled into paying. Annual Credit Report.com is the official site created by the big 3 credit reporting companies to adhere to the federal law entitling you to your free yearly credit reports. (Make sure to be ready with ink and paper to print out a physical copy of your reports so you can refer to them later if need be.)
My credit score as reported by these agencies is in the low 600s, which is not good, but not as bad as I thought it was going to be considering what I knew about my financial history. You can also go to each of the individual credit company websites to get your scores from each.
There were only 3 major "issues" on there -- an unpaid medical bill that had gone to collections, and two late credit card payments -- one fairly old and one more recent-ish. The main thing hurting me was just my debt-to-credit ratio. I don't spend on credit cards anymore, but they're pretty much all maxed out and I'm just getting by paying close to the minimums on them, so I basically have no credit and lots of debt. I had also at one point opened and closed a bunch of store cards, paying them off in one sweep, which doesn't really look that great either, but there's nothing I can do about that at this point.
I paid off the collections bill -- it will still show up on my credit report, but better paid than unpaid, I figured. Plus I felt very good and proud of myself the day that I paid that bill, again like a baby who just hamfistedly used a spoon for the first time.
And I also now know that when I get bills for things -- even just a little $15 copay or lab bloodwork charges or a $30 magazine subscription charge, to pay it right away, instead of just tossing it aside and possibly forgetting about it until I see it on my credit report next year. This medical bill was not even that much, I had just overlooked it.
Other than that, all I can really do to improve my score is to make sure I don't have any more late payments (setting up auto-payments on my cards can help with that) and try to lower my overall debt by paying more on my credit cards.
Which is where my budget comes in. I KNOW YA'LL. I made a budget. Well, actually my mom did, and she sent me the Excel file with built-in formulas that she uses and then flew out here to show me how to use it, or maybe actually to see her grandson, but whatever.
Once I plugged in my income, plus all my bills and expenses, I got a lot of clarity on how much extra money I'd been frittering away. I was able to set up a pretty hefty savings plan and raise the payments on each of my credit cards. So far I've been doing an imperfect but pretty good job following the free spending limit I set for myself -- today is payday and I had $419 left in my checking account, which was actually a total accident.
The key for me is being realistic about what I need to spend -- in the past one place I've really failed is by having an all-or-nothing mentality, like "I'm putting this whole huge tax return/freelance check/paycheck into savings and I'm not spending any of it." That doesn't really work for me, because it's unrealistic. I go into deprivation mode and then freak out and spend the whole thing.
My therapist has long been recommending the DA model of what to do with extra money -- spend 1/3, save 1/3, use a 1/3 to pay off debt. All or nothing doesn't work for me. Putting aside realistic amounts of money while still allowing myself the occasional splurge does.
Well, kind of. Because here's the sort of embarrassing part -- I've been giving my mom my savings to keep safe for me. Yep, I'm a 30-year-old woman who can't be trusted with her savings account. But you know what? I have witnessed myself time and time again place money into savings only to transfer it slowly back into my checking account and spend it, so I finally realized that not being able to touch that money was the solution for me right now.
In early stages of learning responsibility, I've often had to do things to protect current me from future me, like blocking specific triggering websites when I was working on my sex stuff and giving someone else the password, or having friends come over to "babysit" me when I knew I was going to be home alone and might be tempted to use or drink.
Current me wants to save money, but I know that future me wants to a buy a drapey blazer from Anthropologie that will make me look so cool in so many different oufits. So for now I have a safeguard in place. It's like using the bumpers at the bowling alley until you learn to do it the big kid way. Maybe it's kind of sad, but it's what I have to do to take care of myself right now.
And my mom made a lot of these same financial mistakes when she was my age, so she gets it. I would actually highly recommend having a family member or friend who is smart about money sit down with you and help you work through some of your stuff, even though the idea of looking at all this stuff head-on, especially with another person, initially made my skin crawl.
Please DO NOT take this to be one of those "I used to be bad with money but now I'm perfect" narratives I mentioned earlier. I have been following a budget successfully for approximately a month. My credit score is still not great. I will surely screw up many more times. But the difference now is that I am looking at everything with my eyes open and the cloud of financial vagueness that allowed me to spend blindly for so many years is now gone. I'm pretty proud of my progress.
Although my food stuff is still not so good and in retrospect that probably would have killed me first, but whatever I'm doing my bestgawd get off my D. How's your money sitch? Was anyone else just completely oblivious to that whole credit score thing? Do I deserve to be strung up by my thumbs for not having 3 months salary in my savings account at all times before now?