Sunday, January 15, 2012

Is Debt Really a Part of the American Dream?

Ah, the American dream: a house with a white picket fence, 2.5 kids playing in the yard, a dog named Rover, and a shinny new car in the driveway.  Isn’t that what we all want?  Maybe that is what it used to be, but today our dreams are slightly different. 
According to the Wall Street Journal, nearly 70% of all consumers live from paycheck to paycheck.  Almost half of all Americans (46%) have less than $10,000 saved for their retirement and, according to the Automatic Data Processing, Inc., 20% of workers would not be able to make a mortgage, utility or credit card payment if they missed a paycheck. 
In a country that was built on the pursuit of freedom, we seemed to have become enslaved by something other that an outside enemy.  As Walt Kelly, a cartoonist, once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  For many of us it is our own desires that place us in bondage and keep us there. 
Just a few generations ago our grandparents worked and saved for years for the things that they wanted.  Today we use credit to buy almost everything.  We are not nearly as concerned by the final cost of something as we are the monthly payments.  We want it all, fast, new, improved and instant.
 We are like the old story of the country mouse and the city mouse.  You remember the story.  Once there were two old friends who wrote to one another for years.  Then one day the city mouse decided to visit the country mouse.  The country mouse lived a quiet, slow paced existence.  He did not have much, but he loved his life in the country.  During her visit, the city mouse constantly bragged about the fine food that she ate and the large, beautiful home where she lived and invited the country mouse to visit her there.
  The country mouse took her up on the offer and went to see his friend in the city.   The place where the city mouse lived was just as grand and beautiful as she had described.  However, it did not take long for the country mouse to realize that the city mouse’s wonderful surroundings were not exactly as they seemed.  Yes, she lived a large, beautiful home, but so did the cat.  The country mouse could not enjoy the beautiful home for fear that he would be eaten at any moment by the large, terrifying creature that seemed to walk without sound.  
Yes, there was more food than this poor country mouse had ever seen, but people lived in that house and would kill the mice if they caught them stealing food from their table.  Although he tried several times to obtain food from the expansive banquet, he eventually gave up because the danger was not worth the reward.    
The country mouse returned to his humble home no longer ashamed of his meager surroundings.  He decided that he would rather live meagerly in peace than endure the fear and stress that her wealth brought with it. 
Some of us are like the country mouse.  We live simple, humble lives and are content to have less but it enjoy it more.  Unfortunately, many of us are just like the city mouse.  We want so badly to have the best of everything that we do not see the awful costs that we are paying to “have it all.”
I must confess that I fell into the second category.  I wanted the house and the car and the kids and I wanted it NOW!  I considered debt and payments to be an inevitable way of life.  Why wait when you could get ninety days same as cash, zero percent down, or no payments for twelve months? 
After all, everyone else was doing it!  Saving money was boring and, besides, it took too long.  I might miss the good deals!  My credit is great and the lenders always treat me like I am special, so why not? 
Why not?  There’s a good question.  Fast forward a few years and a few deals and the question becomes more “why” than “why not.”  Why did I fall into this trap?  Why did I create so many bills that my goal in life becomes survival, not success?  How can I possibly enjoy the wonderful things that surround me when all I can think about is being able to make the payments on them?
About the time I resign myself to this life-long existence of slavery to debt along comes a man named Dave Ramsey.  I went to see him at the First Baptist Church in downtown Jackson, skeptical that he would have any answers for me.  As I listened to him I realized that I had gotten myself into this mess and I had to power to get myself out. 
Saving, paying cash, living debt free, and wealth building were all concepts that I had never considered to be obtainable, but now I do.  My husband and I have been taking the Financial Peace University class at our church and, you know what?  I have decided to become a country mouse.  It is now more important to me to afford what I have than to have it all. 
Has the American dream turned out to be a nightmare for some of us?  Maybe it has.  The good news is that this is still America, land of opportunity and a place where hard work and goal setting can still bring freedom: freedom from financial bondage, freedom from the need to have what everyone else has, and the freedom to teach our children not to make the same mistakes that we have made. 
It is time to go back to the principles of saving and paying cash for our possessions.  Our grandparents would be proud of us.  Wouldn’t it be great to have that house complete with kids and new shinny car completely paid for?  It is possible, my friends.  The new American dream.  To want what we have, not have what we want and pay cash for it all. 

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