Lately, my life quickens and “leans to beginnings,” in Theodore Roethke’s words, at the Lunar (or Chinese) New Year rather than on the traditional Western date of January 1. It’s more a time of beginnings, omens, and positive nudges than Jan 1, which tends (for me anyway) to get swallowed by holiday events and emotions, end-of-semester-and-beginning-of-January-term chaos (a tight time at the small liberal arts college where I teach). It’s not until the end of January and beginning of February that I feel in any way rooted in a new year at all, able to take a realistic look at where I am and what I want to do and hearken to the omens that have begun to collect at the edges of my sight.
And for the past five years in particular, looking hard at where I am has been a discipline and a guiding force, particularly when it comes to money. A single female English professor on the threshold of tenure at a small liberal arts college in the small-town upper Midwest, I’ve struggled for years to manage a load of debt from graduate school and an even bigger load of guilt about what seemed my perpetual poverty and inability to get a grip on my money. In January of 2007, I sat down and totaled up my credit card debt — $22,000. Overwhelmed to the point of tears, I put myself in the hands of a consistently kind, helpful, responsible credit counseling agency. This spring, I will pay off all my consumer debt, including a car loan: a total of $50,000 paid off in four years. I’ve been on a cash-only basis since that point, and I expect never to use credit cards again. Emotionally, psychologically, and financially, the journey out of consumer debt has been more difficult and rewarding than I ever expected. And as a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction, I recognize that it has been one of the defining narratives of my adult life.
But I don’t quite recognize myself or my friends in the financial planning books out there, which address the deep philosophical, moral, and emotional aspects of debt, consumerism, and money glancingly or not at all. I’ve been through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University course, and I agree with his cash-only, savings-first philosophy. A native Southerner – like Ramsey himself – I appreciate his common sense and unabashed regionalism; the world needs to see savvy, successful Southerners who aren’t Trent Lott or the country-music flavor of the month. Megan McArdle’s assessment of Ramsey in The Atlantic is dead-on; the conservative Christian tinge to his message doesn’t dilute its practicality and effectiveness.
Yet in Ramsey-world, single women are not the norm. Over and over I watched him approach married heterosexual couples in his audiences, shake hands with the man first, then invite the man to introduce his wife. He focuses overwhelmingly on marriage and children. I’ve been in love, and I’ve come close to marriage, but I’ve been single and child-free my whole life. I’m used to happy couplehood as the norm in this society and am at peace with others’ choices and my own. But not seeing yourself in the media you pay to consume can give you a creeping feeling of nonexistence, especially when the subject is money – the difference between a secure old age and life as a crazy-old-cat-lady stereotype. And as good as Dave Ramsey is at querying the “norms” of a credit-card-based society, he’s much less aggressive than he might be in challenging the consumer assumptions that drive it. He won me over with his rebukes of men going into debt to buy Harleys: “You’re a thirty-year-old man who wants a toy!” But while he’ll tell you how to be sure you can afford a new flat-screen TV, he won’t ask you why you think you need one. And this question is too important to neglect. Like all teachers, I’m watching as the cognitive gap widens between students from book-centered homes and those centered around the latest flashy devices with screens. And like anyone with a brain and a heart, I’m concerned about the impact of First World consumer decisions on our earth and on those who manufacture and dispose of our electronics and other goods when we upgrade them. (See this article in Orion, for instance.) Yet despite his focus on values, priorities, and education, Ramsey never makes these connections, and this “University” ends up feeling intellectually thin. Sure, his seminar is for busy people, not necessarily nerdy college professors, looking for clear steps to “financial peace,” and there’s no doubt it works. It cemented every positive choice I’ve been making with money for the last four years and taught me a lot of things I didn’t know. But it left me wanting more.
Suze Orman’s books are more focused than Ramsey’s on women and the way we connect finance and emotion, but they, too, didn’t quite satisfy me. My friends joke that the perfect women’s financial advice book would be me channeling Dave Ramsey — barking, in an Alabama accent, “girl, don’t you cosign for his sorry ass!” But seriously, y’all, it’s better to be single than hooked to a man who’s gonna take you down. Romance and money are connected, especially as we get older and have more to lose. And both these things are connected to our health, physical and emotional. In coaching each other through every kind of crisis you can imagine – in college, graduate school, and beyond – my women friends and I have explored what it means to be a woman with and without a man in this world, practically and philosophically, up, down, and sideways. And Orman just doesn’t go that far beyond truisms and generalities; she doesn’t ask hard enough questions about why so many women make such bad decisions with men, and she doesn’t apply what all my friends and I agree needs to be some tougher love – pun intended. And this applies to any love: gay (a lot of my friends) or straight (the rest of my friends, and me.) In financial terms, you need to value yourself properly – and most of us go around with a criminally low self-worth. Being single may not always be fun. But it sure won’t kill you. And if you are fleeing singleness with anyone who will have you – even at the cost of personal and financial health – you need to take a good hard look at why, including the social messages nudging you in that direction. I know. I’ve been there. And I’m not there anymore.
So although I’ve been pondering the move to an online newsletter since Thanksgiving of 2010, I’ve only recently felt that now is the time to begin. And it seems auspicious; a strange sort of grace is sneaking around the borders of my life these days, even amid many other pressures, tasks, responsibilities, and uncertainties. I can’t let this idea go. I feel a need to try. I can’t promise infallible advice on how to be rich or how to develop the “hustling” skills I nudge my students to consider in the new economy – the excellent Ramit Sethi has got that covered. I can’t promise financial-planning certification, fluent economist-speak, or elaborate dissections of the differences between money-market accounts. There’s so much good basic financial advice out there that I don’t need to retread that ground. I’ve never blogged before and am unwise in the ways of RSS, Delicious, and whatever else hip bloggers know. My day job – not to mention the other writing projects growing in my upstairs room — keeps me busy. Like Jane Austen said ironically of herself, I may be a “partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian,” but I want to give it a try. I’ll talk about money, but primarily about how we can reorient attitudes toward money to add true value to our days. All I can offer are the musings of a novel-writing, spiritually-seeking Midwestern Southern Democrat, gardener, cyclist, and financial self-educator who spends her days writing, teaching writing, and considering how the way we spend our money is the way we will spend our lives.