Debt Free by the Big Day
At the risk of starting off crude, the phrase “big day” makes my butt clench. I didn’t grow up dreaming of of my wedding, but I did want to get married. When my long-time dude proposed on New Year’s Eve on a balcony in Honolulu, I was so happy I couldn’t see. There were tears, and a lot of oh my gods, and we kissed and [redacted] and watched fireworks and I managed to keep it off social media for the next eight hours because sometimes you need to live in the perfect and surreal. Maybe it was the sunshine radiating off Yokohama Bay (more colloquially, “heaven”), or the radiating waves of peace and joy coming off us, but for a few days afterward, everything seemed tinged with gold. Even the grease on the popcorn at La La Land took on a romantic sheen.
Then I started thinking about money.
I think about money a lot, but took an unexpected break for a couple days to be really, really happy. On day four, I Googled “average wedding cost” and screamed. I ran into the other room and yelled at my new fiancé, “THERE’S NO WAY WE’RE GOING INTO DEBT FOR THIS!” “Okay.” he responded, not looking up from his drawing. He’s an illustrator who favors kaiju over blind panic. I stomped out of the room, and returned to my glowing screen. Over the next hour, I learned:
- The average American wedding costs $32,641
- Wedding forums call engagement rings an e-ring and that’s only the tip of the cutesy acronym iceberg
- I wanted to pay off all my credit card debt by our wedding day
To make a long story short: I racked up roughly $25,000 of credit card debt by my mid-20s, had a come-to-Jesus meeting with myself in a company restroom, and spent my late 20s and early 30s paying it down. I paid and I paid and I paid, penance upon penance for every purchase I tried to stuff in my depression and anxiety. If it’s not obvious by now, I was raised Catholic and Jewish. I go hard on guilt. I turned that stew of shame and self-loathing into payments: hundred dollar, thousand dollar, one time my whole $4,000 holiday bonus. I am incredibly privileged and deeply lucky: my costs of living are relatively low, my salary is competitive, and nothing else has happened to financially blow up my life—at least not in any major way.
When he proposed, I had $8,000 left. I decided that it needed to be gone when we walked down the altar. More specifically, I needed to pay it off by the end of 2017. Not “get it to a good place.” Not “we’ll see how this goes.” Not “I’ll do my best.” All paid off. The self-created albatross of my misspent youth needed to be gone—tossing it overboard seemed a fitting commemoration for the rest of our lives.
So—understanding that, like the Ancient Mariner, I’ve made the albatross just as important as the wedding—how’s it going, sailing fiscally responsible seas? It’s going okay. It’s simultaneously much less stressful and very hard, but I’m tenuously on track. I’m still waiting reimbursement from some travel expenses, but If I pay $500 out of every paycheck to my credit card through the end of the year, I should be debt-free by 2018.
I’d like to be farther along. I’d like that track to be less tenuous. But things got in the way. There were a few unavoidable expenses: first the cat needed his teeth cleaned, because that’s a thing you do if you don’t want your house leopard to have bad health later in life. Then I needed my teeth cleaned, and some other dental work on top of it. Then my fiancé had a tight month.
There were also expenses that I chose to take on: I went to Seattle and London for work, and stayed a couple extra days on my own, aka on my dime. I got a dresser for free, and paid $300 to get it restored. Beyond travel opportunities and surprise furniture, old habits die hard: although I’m not racking up any more debt, every $20 lipstick and $30 graphic novel and $70 dress is a small step away from my goal.
We decide to have our wedding on Sunday, because it cuts the venue cost in half. We explore cheap yet delicious food options. I creep on discount wedding dress sites. I don’t want to make a house down payment to celebrate our love, and I don’t feel sad about missing out on that kind of wedding. The idea of going into hock for a wedding seems to confuse its purpose: I am no stranger to spending beyond my means, but over the years, as I rolled back my spending, our love consistently stood out as something both rich and free.
I pay $500 out of every paycheck. I talk myself out of leather jackets. I take on more writing work. I dial back going out to dinner, going out to the movies, going out of the house because every time you leave the house you spend money. The $500 helps the most. I realize that for me and many others, staying stable money-wise happens with a decent salary, lack of expensive interruptions, and time. The “money, luck, and time” theory is a mass oversimplification, which has been covered extensively by better and smarter people. But when you’re socking it away, trying to fix your mistakes, your vision narrows to a few points.
Sometimes I get weird and existential about it. Climate change, the alt-right, my feelings about the current administration: we’re probably doomed anyway, so who cares if I achieve a relatively modest financial goal. But like a poor man’s Leslie Knope, I’m grudgingly team try hard, show up, do right by yourself and others. Gross. (Not you, Leslie. You’re perfect.) I hate everything my debt represents, and it keeps me from thinking ahead in a meaningful way. And isn’t marriage all about hope for the future?
Rosamund Lannin reads and writes in Chicago, by way of San Francisco and St. Paul. More at tinyletter.com/rosamund.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Money and Relationships series.
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