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For the Millions of Us Living in Financial Pain … How Did We Get Here?

May 11, 2019

If it’s one thing Facebook and other social media platforms have provided us, it’s the opportunity to reconnect with friends and family. We get the chance to catch up with our classmates from high school, college, and people we haven’t seen or heard about in decades.

We relive the golden days of those high school years, especially if we were athletic, popular, or for some (me excluded) excelled in our studies. Even though at the time things seemed complicated, we often look back at our high school years with a sense of fondness for the simplicity it offered.

Then we graduated and headed off to work or college and life became much more intense. Reminiscing about the “good old days” of high school is fun. Learning about the lives of our peers, friends, and acquaintances helps us relive those simpler times.

But something was missing in high school. Something critical to our future.

Greg Was the All-American, Average High Schooler

Just like many of you, Greg was a typical high school student. He played a few sports, wasn’t the most popular kid, but had friends and was liked. His parents owned a modest house and helped him buy a car when he turned 16 so he could get home after practice, to work, and to hang out with friends (and so they wouldn’t have to drive him all over).

He had a basic job at a local fast food restaurant. It seemed almost all his friends started at the same place, though with a different company. Fast food inevitably seemed to be the starting point for millions of teenagers in America.

He took the required classes, did most of his homework, studied just enough to pass his tests, and only when he reached 11th grade and the pressure to apply to colleges and perform well on the SAT did he really focus more on increasing his grades.

He did pretty well in algebra, enjoyed chemistry and then physics, but never noticed any classes on how to plan for a financial future. It was never something he considered.

If he needed more money than he earned, he turned to his parents. They set him up with a checking and savings account. It was fun depositing his paycheck every other week, but with his own wheels, he didn’t need to ask permission to withdraw it.

The first time he held an ATM card in his hand was a bit of a thrill. Heading to the local market for a bunch of snacks and sodas and other junk he was able to swipe that card into the reader and never think twice.

Off to college Greg went.

He was simultaneously nervous and excited for what college life would offer. He decided to go somewhere out of state. His parents could afford it and encouraged him to choose the school he wanted.

During the first couple days it was all about parties, meeting new people, making new friends, and getting to know the layout of the campus. One afternoon, he and a number of new friends from his dorm headed over to the student union for the first time.

Stepping inside he was amazed at the food selections, including a fast food restaurant just like the one he worked at back home. Several booths with businesses advertising their services were set up. A few of them offered credit cards.

He strolled over when he saw a sign: “Easy Credit.” Another one caught his attention: “Guaranteed Approval.”

It seemed too easy. Within minutes he had been approved and in 3-5 business days his new cards would arrive. When they did, he was elated because it felt as though he had just been given a boatload of free money.

Greg was, for the most part, a pretty responsible person. Mature enough to not get caught up in (too much) risky behavior, but completely unprepared and uneducated financially for the impact certain decisions would have on his life.

As with most high school kids, financial education has been ignored in the school system.  As a result, Greg was ill prepared for the pain he was about to endure.  

A few rough years.

Freshman year didn’t turn out the way Greg intended. Too many parties, too many skipped classes and he was living on the edge of being dismissed from school. He also racked up a big debt with those credit cards.

His parents advised him not to get a job during freshman year. “Just focus on your studies,” his mother told him.

He did neither. Now, though, with summer in full swing, high school friends returning from their own schools, he knew he had to get another job back home. He didn’t confess everything to his parents. He struggled mightily to pay down that debt and was amazed at the interest rate charged on the accounts.

It took the better part of the remainder of his college career to pay what he had charged as a freshman. That didn’t stop him from using those cards, though. That was a big part of the problem. Whenever he would get the balance down to a reasonable number, his eye would catch something he absolutely “needed” and the balance would rocket back up. 

Graduation and beginning a career.

Greg landed a decent job with a large company right out of school. He felt he might need to go back to school eventually  to continue climbing the ladder, but for the time being he was content at starting out, honing his skills, and networking.

Those first paychecks felt like diving into a nice, cool lake on a hot summer day. It was absolutely wonderful. Even with all the taxes, health insurance costs, and other expenses taken out he still had a little left over to put away or use to pay off the principle on those credit card bills. One paycheck (after taxes) was more than he earned in an entire month during college and he spent the money accordingly

He connected with his friends through Facebook and Instagram and though he was living in another state, it was fun to see how everyone was doing, the kinds of jobs they were taking on, the vacations they were enjoying, and all those wonderful pictures of them smiling.

A few friends were even boasting about their new home purchases, the nice sports car they just picked up at a “great price,” and all the other beautiful things they were buying.

Greg was stuffed in a small apartment shared with one of his best friends from college. It was a mess. It was cramped and musty and poorly lit. The longer he worked, the more hours he put in, the more he would see all these other people — kids he went to school with, friends he knew — living the “good life” while he suffered in that ‘pit’. 

Greg decided he “deserved” more.

Even though his credit score had taken a hit with his poor credit card decisions in college, it was still high enough to get a car loan. He had several options available to him, but was a Toyota Corolla enough?

Didn’t he deserve better?

After all, he was working for a major international corporation. He convinced himself that not only did he need to look the part, he had to drive the part.  He wasn’t just a janitor or some other ‘entry-level worker’; he was a ‘valued team member’. He deserved something better, yes he did.

So, without hesitation he dropped $6,000 as a down payment on a brand new $60,000 Ford F150 Supercrew. It was a beast and he felt incredible climbing up into the driver’s seat and pulling out of the dealership one sunny afternoon.

The $690 monthly car payment was manageable, assuming no major surprise expenses materialized. With credit card bills still a burden and $600 a month rent, Greg was now feeling the pinch. Still, coming home to that cramped apartment with the foul odor lingering all the time didn’t feel right. It even felt wrong to park that beautiful red truck in the grungy, broken up parking lot.

Once he saw his best friend from high school post a picture of his new condominium in downtown San Diego, that’s all Greg needed to do the same. The proverbial straw broke the camel’s back.

After all, he couldn’t be upstaged; he had to keep up! Thanks to certain government programs he only had to come up with a few thousand dollars for a down payment, which he borrowed from his parents. He decided to go beyond what his realtor advised for his budget and after several months of looking chose a modern three-bedroom riverfront condo in the city center. 

To fill the house, he didn’t hold back. High end furniture, appliances, a large flat screen tv, and a high-end entertainment system was all snagged with credit. “No payments for six months” he was told. He couldn’t resist. 

He felt a promotion was a sure thing within that time frame and by then all debt would be paid off. His credit limits had increased after college and he was pushing them to their max now. He never missed a payment, though, so his credit score didn’t suffer too much of a hit despite the amount of debt he was carrying.

Greg didn’t see the writing on the wall.

All of his young adult life, Greg kept comparing himself to others, especially unspoken expectations he figured his family would have for him, things his high school friends were enjoying and doing and buying, and never thought twice beyond his ability to cover the minimum monthly payments on those purchases.

Any savings he had was depleted by now. As a result, Greg now joined the mass of people living on what I call “Pain Island”.  These are the 78% of people living paycheck to paycheck (CNBC); even those with healthy salaries. 

He dated, spent a lot of money on those credit cards wooing the woman of his affection, and eventually got married. Together, they suddenly had more income and more financial resources, and as a result they thought bigger. They bought a newer home. They replaced the “unsightly” furniture he had purchased with Ethan Allen selections.

They upgraded from the basic white refrigerator to stainless steel. Then they decided to renovate the whole kitchen. Why not? They earned it! They upgraded to stainless steel for the stove and dishwasher, too.

Greg didn’t think a fake countertop was enough. It wasn’t good enough, not for him, not for the promotions he earned at work and his increased salary. Marble. That’s what they needed.

They took vacations to exotic destinations, rented the nicest cars, stayed in the best hotels, and enjoyed life.

At this point, Greg thought, “Why worry about tomorrow? It’s not guaranteed.” So, they lived how they wanted.

This went on for more than 12 years when, at just 42 years of age with two children fast approaching their teenage years, he faced a medical emergency neither one of them could have anticipated. With the insurance Greg enjoyed all those years without thinking twice about it, they were stunned that they had to pay almost $16,000 out-of-pocket the first year.

There was no way to cover it. Living with the credit cards almost to their max consistently, rarely -if ever- able to put anything into savings, neither Greg nor his wife realized how dire their economic situation truly was. 

It’s Never Just “One Thing”

When it comes to financial stress and pain, for most people it’s not about one decision. It wasn’t a medical emergency that caused Greg and his wife to suddenly face a dire situation.

It’s usually a pattern and it begins with a lack of financial education in high school. We can sit here and blame Greg for his choices, but he was simply reacting to the pressures around him.

Because no one taught him what money truly is, how to respect and value it properly, or the impact that living paycheck to paycheck can have, he assumed he had every right to spend what he earned.

And we all certainly have that right.

However, when we’re not careful, when we turn our eyes away from the risk factors of poor planning, financial irresponsibility, and the need to impress others, we end up walking then jogging then sprinting towards the edge of a cliff we can’t see until we’re right up on it.

As a society, we’ve gotten here by a number of bad decisions, poor education, and million-dollar marketing campaigns designed to make us think we’ll be happier with this object or that vacation or this meal or that car, etc.

Greg’s story may be fictional, but it’s far too real for millions of us. If you’re living on Pain Island, struggling financially, struggling from one paycheck to the next, worried about the future and your family, you’re not alone.

And it’s not your fault.

Just remember, though, things can only change when you decide it’s time.