Maxed Out!

I just finished watching Maxed Out – a documentary about predatory credit card lending. Or, as Jay Antani from stated on the review site I linked to: ” a Dante-esque descent into a distinctly American form of Hell.”

If you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend you check it out from your local library. It was interesting, although I think I enjoyed “Super Size Me” a bit more, at least from an entertainment standpoint.

As with any documentary, I’m careful to keep in mind that the film is not an unbiased source. And there were portions of the movie that were obviously edited to provide the greatest emotional and logical response. But I think the importance of a film like this lies deeper.

“Maxed Out” really focused on the credit card companies and how the government has failed to protect the consumers adequately from irreputable lending practices.

But what they only hinted at was the other half of the problem – we have become accustomed to getting what we want when we want it. We don’t want to wait, and we don’t want to consider whether or not it’s a smart purchase. It’s so easy to just drive down to the local Walmart and get whatever we want. If it’s not at Walmart, it’s on the internet. And if we don’t have cash? No problem. Just charge it!

When we get to the root of consumerism, it’s this exact mentality that destroys our financial freedom – not the credit card companies. They are definitely a problem, and there is no doubt in my mind that predatory lending practices take advantage of consumers. But when we start to look at our own behavior, it’s easy to see that the desire to have things – to store up for ourselves – is what very often puts people in a position to start thinking of credit as an acceptable means to acquire. Obviously, there are also people who had no choice but to finance necessities – medical care, car repairs, etc. But what I really want to concentrate on is the “Acquisition Mentality” so many of us have. What can we do to combat it?

I don’t know when I started thinking as if I deserved and should have every little thing. That if I am bored, an acceptable way to pass the time is to go to the mall and shop. I don’t think it was my childhood, because we simply couldn’t live like that. But somewhere between my teen years and today, I started to believe that it wasn’t a big deal to use credit for every little thing I didn’t have cash for – and that’s exactly what the credit card companies want you to think.

It’s been hard to change that mentality. I can finally say that shopping for entertainment, especially at the mall – holds little allure for me. And I believe that change came when I started really thinking about my wants and needs. Do I need it? Or do I want it?

When it comes right down to it, I need very little. I need food. I need water. Shelter, and clothing. Heat during the winter. If I have these things, I’ll survive. There are other things that are needs, but just barely – I’ll survive without them, but they really do make life more pleasant – toilet paper, shampoo, hot water. A computer with internet access. These are my priorities if I have to make a choice.

And there are lots of things I want – junk food, or a new outfit. A new car, or curtains for the dining room. Those come last.

But the funny thing is that when I start to think about each item I want to get and try to decide whether it’s a want or a need, more and more I find myself deciding I don’t even want to buy the things we don’t need – for the most part anyway. I want to wait until we have more money in the savings, or we pay off a credit card. I’d rather make do with what I have. I don’t want to buy on credit anymore. I want to own it free and clear. I don’t want to be “Maxed Out” because I’ve bought things I think I need when really I need to get out from under the thumb of other, richer people and corporations.

To close, I wanted to share something that happened in a conversation between me and a new friend of mine. I really respect her and her husband – they don’t do things conventionally, and their choices often go back to a poem I quoted in my very first post:

Use it up,
Wear it out,
Make it do,
Or do without.

My friend came up to me after church on Sunday and showed me a rash on her hand. She was wondering if I knew what it was from. I didn’t, but I asked her if it itched, and if she had tried hydrocortizone cream for the itching. She said, yes, it did itch, and she had tried using a baby wipe on it to see if the alcohol would kill the itch. She didn’t want to have to buy a tube of hydrocortizone.

What would I have done? I would have driven to Walmart just to pick up a little tube of cream! What a difference! And yet, she found a solution that worked just as well (even if it did dry out her hands a bit) and didn’t have to pay a bit extra or make an extra trip.

Now, if I could just always think more creatively!

And how does it relate to the movie I watched tonight? Well, it really doesn’t. But it does have a lot to do with my thoughts after finishing the movie. Our debts inevitably come down to our own decisions about what we want and need. Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary. But so much of it is from buying things we don’t need! What gets me most when I think about this, is that often we think we do need those things!

It was a reminder to me that I need to think more and buy less!

Welcome!

You know, it’s crazy, but I never imagined I’d be in this much debt by the time I was 28. I have student loans, two mortgages in two states, and a TON of credit card debt from starting a fairly successful business without funds (obviously not successful enough.) I’m going to go into more detail in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that I’m overwhelmed and tired of it.

I don’t want debt anymore. None of it. Not even a mortgage. I want it paid off.

And you know what? I’m tired of paying for expensive products – especially when they are expensive because they are overpackaged or stuffed with chemicals. I’m tired of having cabinets full of stuff I don’t need or don’t use just because I bought into some advertisement or because I thought it might actually work better than something else I had. And I’m tired of worrying about what exactly is in my food – whether it’s pesticides, preservatives, or high fructose corn syrup (I struggle with a major Pepsi addiction.)

Funny, but I find greater satisfaction using vinegar to clean my stove and refrigerator, knowing that if today my 2-year-old son decides to lick it (kids are weird) I don’t have to worry. Not about the toxicity of my stove front, anyway. My son is another matter! And knowing that I don’t have to worry about running out of paper towels or diapers (not to mention paying for them) because we use cloth napkins and diapers whenever we can is a very secure feeling! There is something to be said for the feeling you get when you look at an object and know your hands provided it – a knitted sweater, a sewn tablerunner, or a jar of blackberry jam, picked and jammed fresh from your own yard.

Not everything I suggest will work for you. You have to adapt what you can, file away some, and be creative with your own situation. You have to ask yourself on a regular basis – how could I consume fewer products? how could I get this cheaper? how could I use something else instead of buying something new? There’s a Quaker poem I like to repeat to myself on occasion to remind myself to ask those questions:

Use it up
Wear it out
Make it do
Or do without

We recently moved out to a rural area of northeast Ohio for my husband’s new job and we have some new options open to us. Canning, gardening, even raising chickens are options available to us now. We live in an area fairly densely populated by Amish – they provide resources for us we didn’t have living in the city in the south, such as chicken killing (I’m such a wimp!)

But that might not work for you. You may not have space for a garden and you’ll have to adapt – either starting a container garden or looking for other ways to save money on healthy, local food. Or you might prefer your diet now, and not desire a change.

My number one rule of frugality is do what works for you. This blog, and all others, are simply a resource of ideas. For example, if you love to go out to eat and you cut your out-to-eat budget to $20 a month, you will feel like frugality is a punishment. The goal is to make frugality a game. Eliminate what you don’t need or really want. Keep the things that make you feel human. Every little bit counts!