Andrew Cotto has his story about middle-class debt, but that’s not what this is about.
I was born middle class. My father was a music teacher who drove a Greyhound bus in the summer. As a housewife, my mother worked toward her Bachelor’s degree and also became a teacher. I wore hand-me-down clothes and had sneakers with holes in them. The kids in my neighborhood were of similar circumstances. We played on the railroad tracks and threw rocks at each other. I was aware of other kids at school who had more—birthday parties, VCR machines, and stereos instead of transistor radios. I had my first job at the age of seven. Still, we had a good life. But my parents must have felt the strain. My father went into business, and we began to move. Our houses grew larger with every city. Eventually, I knew what it was to be one of the “haves.” But this is not my story.
I attended a private college in Virginia. There I discovered literature and a knack for creative writing. After graduating during a recession in the early 90’s, I dug ditches in rock-hard, California clay and plastered houses for a year or more while saving money for a move back to New York. My plan was to substitute teach in Brooklyn while pursuing a Master’s degree in literature. I wanted to teach. And write. And have a good life. But someone offered me a steady job—a job with benefits, a salary, and a chance to make some serious scratch if I worked hard. I knew hard work. But I was confused. Everyone I asked told me to take the job. So, I took it. After a few years, I began to make some real money. But I remembered my roots and never lived above my means. I married and began a family. After a decade of solid earnings, my desire to teach and write came calling. So, I quit my lucrative job and ventured into the realm of teaching and writing. But this is not my story.
I earned a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and began to teach on the college level. The pay was miserable. I wrote a lot but earned very little. My wife, who was also a teacher, and I cobbled together an income, for years, that was simply not sustainable. We refused to delve into our net worth (real estate, investments, savings from the boon years), so we budgeted and lived, as best we could, off our existing income. Even with this austerity, for the first time in our adult lives, my wife and I began to accrue debt. Thus began the spiral into credit purgatory, the reliance on credit cards to absorb the monthly expenses that exceeded our so-called middle-class income: daily necessities, common bills, student loans, health insurance, home insurance, child care, child enhancement, mortgage payments, property taxes, college savings, and the myriad of never-ending minor expenses (each parking ticket was a kick in the kidneys). I did the math a million ways and could never come up with a figure that left us in the black. But this is not my story.
After years of ascension as successful educators, my wife and I finally made enough money to be comfortable. But still, the debt lingered. No matter how I partitioned the incoming revenue, I could not get rid of the debt. It was a horrible trap. The rates changed and general expenses rose; at the end of each month, I was left wondering where all the fucking money went. Of course, I knew, it went toward the rising cost of living and those horrible credit card bills that lingered like a Groundhog Day hangover. But this is not my story.
I decided to break my vow of austerity and to delve into our savings. The debt will be paid, our net worth hardly dented, and we will live month-to-month with some extra on the side for savings or luxury. We will be fine. But this is not our story. This is the story of the people out there, just entering the work force, or already immersed, who have to endure a system that is rigged, in large part, to deny most of them the common comfort associated with the middle class. What would I tell someone coming out of college who, like me, aspired to be a teacher and a writer? I was lucky in those early years—there was another option for me, and my dreams could wait. But those options are rare these days, and this is not my story.
photo: qmnonic / flickr