Monday, November 29, 2010

If You Use a Credit Card, You Are Someone's Bitch

People who know me know that in the last year I've become opposed to the use of credit cards. Almost violently opposed. Generally when I discuss the idea of using a credit card and having to pay debt, I throw around terms like cancer, slavery, utter stupidity and setting people's faces on fire. This is because I've spent years in debt, I am currently still in debt and it's been a struggle to get it paid off. In the next year, I hope to be completely debt free and I will spend the rest of my life making every effort to never have to borrow money from a bank or creditor ever again.

While I tout the evils of the banks and the credit companies for their schemes and the methods they use to lure people in, I have accepted responsibility for my problems and know that, ultimately the fault is my own. I took the credit cards, I used them and paid the minimum balances while continually buying stuff. And when the banks extended my credit lines because I was using my card to pay for college, I saw it as a blessing. I saw it as a status symbol. Look how big my credit line is! I'm such a responsible, modern American adult.

Then, one day, I realized that the way I was living was completely unsustainable. I was nearly ten thousand dollars in debt and I was looking at spending years trying to pay my debts off. Welcome to the American dream.

I started writing this blog because of a story about how people were getting trampled at a Target in Buffalo, New York on Black Friday. I've seen this happen almost every year but this year it really hit a nerve. I had thought that, with everything going on, with people losing jobs and people having to take pay cuts and things just getting more expensive in general that people would have gotten a little smarter about how they spend their money. Call me a naive optimist and you wouldn't be wrong.

I write here because 1) I need a place to get things off my chest and Facebook and Twitter just don't cut it and 2) I'm trying to make people understand that the way we've been living for the last ten, twenty, thirty years is no longer sustainable. I was born in 1981, so I suppose being born at the beginning of that decade it's fitting that I became a perfect example of consumer culture. I thought I knew how to be responsible with money. I thought I was doing what every American was supposed to do. Honestly, I don't no how I managed to realize that I was in a trap before it was too late. There are a lot of people out there who have anywhere from five to ten times as much debt as I had when I came to understand that my spending ways couldn't go on. People have even taken their on lives over the size of their debt, the shame they feel in being unable to meet their obligations, and the burden that they've brought on their families.

Then I see this shit and I just lose my fucking mind. I think about the tragedies that debt has caused in people's lives and yet there are always more people willing to throw themselves into that whole for the scared "stuff" that can only be found on the altar of consumerism.

By the way, this rant today is brought to you by none other than American Express, supports of local business. I had never heard of Small Business Saturday, which took place after Black Friday, until I read this article. The reason why is because it's a made up day by AMEX in which they encourage you to buy from local shops and help keep money in your community by signing up for a God damned credit card that can double as a boat anchor and drag you down into an ocean of debt.

I was absolutely fucking disgusted to see this and I blew the bullshit whistle real quick. What a fucking joke. A credit card company trying to help strengthen the local economies by encouraging you to take on debt. When I commented on the story I pointed out that this is like an old cartoon where the idiotic villain sets a trap that the hero can see is obviously a God damned trap.

Unfortunately we live in a world where people don't recognize the trap when they see it. They see the offers that credit card companies hand out to them and think "I'm getting a great deal!" No, you're not. In the end, the credit card companies are raking you over the coals.

Jack Spirko, who is a man I admire and who's advice I listen to on a regular basis, describes debt in two ways: as slavery and as cancer.

To shorten his metaphor, debt is slavery because if you're in debt and stuck in a job that you hate, you can't quit because you have to pay your debts off and taking another job might not pay you enough or you may not find another job at all.

Debt is cancer because you spend your credit buying nice things, the nice house, the nice car, the new clothes, the new toys (for kids and adults). On the outside, your friends and family think everything is great. But on the inside you're rotting away because what they don't see is the struggle you deal with every day when the bills come due and you're giving half your paycheck to other people because you have too much debt.

Long ago, people who couldn't pay their debts were sent to prison. These days we don't need debt prisons because we create our own prisons simply by putting ourselves into debt. And while the creditors and the bank will continue to do everything they can to convince us to get into debt (how many times do you hear a credit card offer at the cash register in the stores?), we have to accept responsibility for our own actions and stay the hell away from credit cards. It's only one of many things that we can all do to make this country better for everyone.

Peace be with you.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Semper Fi and Why I Don't Break the Speed Limit

My best friend is a marine in the reserves and left today to return to his units hometown. After that he'll be heading out to Camp Lejeune for another month or two before he ships out with his fellow marines to Afghanistan and I won't get to see him again for a long time. I want to wish him and his men the best of luck and I hope for them all to come home safe.

Back on the home front, though, we all face problems that, while not as terrible as being away from your family for Christmas (military families excluded, of course) they can still cause us no end of pain. One I want to discuss right now are traffic tickets.

Last year I ended up racking up around five hundred dollars in various speeding tickets. I dealt with them as necessary but afterwards decided that I wasn't going to speed anymore. Not only would more tickets be bad for my insurance and my driving record, but the cost of the tickets alone was insane. So keeping to that vow, I have always made sure to stay just under or at the speed limit since then.

I know a lot of people might be laughing at me for this, but for me five hundred dollars is a lot of money. If I had that extra money in my bank account right now, I would be quite happy. Certainly I would be happy to spend it on something besides a speeding ticket. That's why I bring this up, because the last thing anyone needs is a surprise expense from having to pay a few hundred dollars for speeding. Not only that, but as the economy gets worse, you're going to see more cops out with radar guns.

Harris County, TX is currently in the middle of a budget freeze. That means no new hiring, no raises. I have no doubt that the budgets for the various departments under the county's control have been slashed and may be slashed even more. So where do they get extra money? Traffic citations. Now the official documentation will tell you that the money collected from traffic citations goes towards educational programs to prevent accidents. That's all well and good, but I've been a treasurer and I know the basics of how budgets work.

Like a balloon, a budget can be squeezed at one end to make another part bigger but you're always going to have the same amount of air in the balloon. The remedy for this is to blow the balloon up bigger and for this argument, the money collected from traffic citations will make this possible. Even if the money actually does go into a fund for traffic safety and education, that's still money the county doesn't have to spend from their main budget. So if nothing else, the citations will help them save money. This is true of any city or country around the country and I doubt highly that Harris County is the only place that is having budget freezes.

Since I made my vow of no speeding, I've also made sure to pay close attention to the road as I'm driving since I know cops are sneaky and like to had with their speeding guns. Let me tell you, I've been driving the same route to work for about four years now and I've seen more and more cops appearing in places I've never seen them before. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why, especially since the last election day the people of Houston voted to have the red light cameras shut down. That's more revenue for the city lost and they intend to make that up any way they can.

I took defensive driving for one of the tickets I got last year (still had to pay almost as much for the class that I would have paid for the ticket, hence the total was still around five hundred dollars). During the course, which I took online, one of the frequent arguments that was brought up in the lecture was that cops should be chasing after real criminals and not bothering me because I'm trying to get to work on time. The instructor pointed out that real criminals get fined large amounts but rarely have the money to pay those fines. So chasing real criminals costs the departments more money, while enforcing traffic laws generates money. After all, if I'm going to jail for five, ten or twenty years, why the hell would I worry about a ten thousand dollar fine? On the other hand, if I'm a law abiding citizen who was going over the speed limit, I've got a lot more to lose if I refuse to pay the two hundred dollar fine and end up going to jail over it.

So if nothing else, in the interest of keeping your money out of the governments hands and in your pocket, watch your speed on the roads. If you take some time and open your eyes, you realize that they're showing up more and more frequently everywhere, trying to make up for the budget deficits that they have. Because unlike the federal government, states, counties and cities can't print up new money when they run out.

Peace be with you.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Dum spiro, spero

While I breathe, I hope.

I think these days a lot of people are finding it harder to hope for a better future. Between the economic problems we all face in one way or another and the fact that our government is rife with corruption and refuses to listen to the will of the people, it's easy to just give up and see the entire situation as hopeless. But I feel like the more we learn about the problems in the world the more able we are to face them. Rather than see each terrible story on the news as another thing to weigh you down at the end of the day, you should look at it as being informed of a potential threat to your own happiness and well being and that now, because you are informed, you can take steps to work against it.

A study released back in September found that the average person becomes free of the daily stress of life when they make about $75,000 a year. According to the study, this was because that much money easily allows a person to cover all the basics of life (food, bills, car costs, etc.) without having to worry about living week to week or even month to month. Now I would love to make that much money and I know you would too. But unless I run drugs, guns or illegally pirated software, that kind of salary isn't going to happen anytime soon.

However, I think that the study has a point in that financial peace of mind is important to a person's quality of life. When we don't have to worry about being able to make the bills, when we don't have to worry about being able to put food on the table or make sure we can get to and from where we need to be, our lives become better simply by not having to worry. Unfortunately, we're in the tough times and money doesn't grow on trees (unless you're the Federal Reserve, then it grows on anything you damn well please, but I digress.)

So what can we do when everything seems hopeless? A lot more than you might think. Individually there are a lot of things that we can do to secure our own freedom and our futures. I think the first and most important one is to change the way we handle our money.

When I think back to the nineties, a time when I was in middle and high school, it was a golden era. Of course, most people didn't realize that in another decade it would all come crashing down around us and that was the problem. It was an age of free spending and free credit. Technology was advancing at staggering speeds and there was always something new and awesome for us to spend money on. Not to mention that this was the time when the idea of purchasing a house as an investment rather than as a place to live started to become popular.

This is the time that really shaped who I would become and that was a very bad thing. Raised in ignorance with no real idea of what the value of a dollar meant or how much a trap credit really is, I made a lot of mistakes that I've since paid for and continue to pay for. But I've learned a lot of good lessons, especially over the last year and I think that there are still a lot of people from that time, in that generation, who aren't learning those same lessons even as things have gotten harder for them.

So here are a few tips that I've gathered over the last year that have helped me better manage my own finances and made it possible for me to pay off my debts and still keep enough money that I don't have to live paycheck to paycheck.

1. Keep track of your spending

Make a list of what you spend money on for one month. It doesn't have to be a fancy spreadsheet, just a pad and a pen will do. Then write down what you buy no matter how big or small. Buying a car? Write it down. Buying a candy bar? Write it down. All your expenses need to be recorded. Then at the end of the month, look at what you've been spending money on and you'll probably find you waste more money then you realize.

2. Save money

This can be a really hard one for a lot of people but it's important that you put aside something. Even if it's only five dollars a week, ten dollars a month or just the change in your pocket. You need to build a savings. Most people think that their savings are for retirement but more important is saving for an emergency fund. This is the recommendation of Dave Ramsey, author of the fantastic book Total Money Makeover. He advises saving a thousand dollars as quickly as possible and then not touching it unless you have a real emergency. Having this kind of cushion, even if you can't get to a thousand dollars just yet, will relieve you from stress you didn't even know you had.

3. Cut costs

We all know the stereotype of poor, single people and moms who work on a budget clipping coupons, searching endlessly for deals and doing whatever they have to in order to stretch a dollar. This shouldn't be a stereotype, it should be a way of life for everyone. That list you made to determine what you spend money on can really help with this, because if you keep buying the same things over and over each month then you should consider finding a way to find them at a cheaper price. Quality is worth paying for but considering that most of the shit in our stores these days is made in Asia, you aren't exactly going to get top quality. And shopping cheap doesn't always mean you're getting second rate goods either. I could write an entire post on ways to cut costs, and I'll probably do so in the future, but for now use your own imagination and don't be afraid to do a little research.

People need to stop watching the news and feeling that there's nothing they can do about their situation. In these times, which people call "tough times", I like to remember the words of the great Malcolm Reynolds.

"We have done the impossible and that makes us mighty."

Time for us to be might again. Peace be with you.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Eventually you have to stand up and be counted

I've never been much for keeping any kind of journal, try as a might. I always let them fall by the wayside because I often feel I don't have anything interesting to say. Over the last year, however, I've started looking at things in the world a lot differently. Up until now I've kept my frustrations and opinions to myself because I didn't feel they really contributed anything to the argument. But I can't stay quiet anymore. Maybe I'll just end up being another asshole with a blog who rants about the things that bother him, but I feel as if we're at a tipping point in this country and that if people don't wake up to the problems we face and work together to take action against them, then we're going to get the shaft.

Specifically, I'm referring to this story here about Black Friday:

We've seen this story in one form or another almost every year. And if it isn't people getting trampled on the way in it's people literally coming to blows over toys for their kids or things for themselves. But I think this year it's bothered me more than ever. In addition to that story and others like it that I haven't found yet, there were stores that were opening during Thanksgiving Day in order to bring in those holiday sales. But rather than see it as an opportunity to get good deals, I saw it as an act of desperation.

We live in a consumer driven economy. That means that the majority of our economic growth is dependent on people buying stuff. Whether it's groceries, electronics, clothes, tools, cars or anything else, shopping is our main means of keeping the businesses running and this is a serious problem. We have high unemployment, everyone is worried about losing their jobs, prices for food and gas are crawling ever higher and yet the TV keeps telling us to go and buy more crap. This is madness!

It makes me sick to watch a video like this not just because it's the epitome of greed and barbarism but because it shows me that so many people in this country actually think that things are going to be alright. They think it's fine for them to charge all of their holiday shopping onto their credit cards and not have to worry about making those payments until next year. Of course the main problem with the economic crisis that we're facing is DEBT itself! Debt on the part of the government, the banks AND the consumers.

I don't know if it's because people can't stand the idea of not being able to buy the things they want or don't need. I don't know if it's because people can't stand the idea that things might actually be bad and may be getting worse. Maybe they're scared and don't want to face reality. But the simple fact is that the mounting problems brought on by our behavior and the behavior of our government are not going to go away and no amount of legislation or economic chicanery is going to take care of it for us.

If you're buying gifts this holiday season, then I ask that you be reasonable in what you get. Don't feel like you have to go on a massive spending spree if you know that it's going to cause you pain at the end of the month. If you feel like you won't be able to buy gifts for co-workers or friends because it's going to cost money, explain this to them. If they get mad because you're "not in the spirit of the season" or some other such bullshit, then ask them if they're going to pay the light bill for you at the end of the month or if they'll help put food on your table. Most importantly, get out of debt and start saving your money, not just for your retirement but for the very near future. And for fucks sake, STAY AWAY FROM CREDIT CARDS.

There are a lot of other things I want to talk about. I feel like it's time for people to start taking this country back and in spite of how hard things are becoming, there are things you can do to protect yourself and even prosper if you're willing to acknowledge that tough times are coming. I'll be posting more videos, more rants and more ideas about how you can protect yourself from the rough waters we're heading into.

Peace be with you.