It’s 2008 or so, and I am enjoying an influx of good fortune. Unfortunately, every good turn is countered by a disaster. I get a lump of money from contract work, but then the car breaks. Heather gets some money from painting, but something goes wrong with the house.
Shamus Young continues telling his story of financial difficulties. I am very sympathetic - I have been in his shoes, though thankfully, not to this extent. Let's just say that the land of financial issues he sojourned in for a time is someplace that I can still see from my front porch on a bad day.
The pile of bills is starting to look kind of scary. We’re starting to hit the cascading failure state that poor people run into, where missing a couple of bills leads to late fees, which leads to panicked over-correction, which leads to overdrafts, which leads to bouncing checks, which leads to double-punishment fees, which annihilates the money you were going to use to pay the bills next month and pushes you that much further in the hole. We’re in a downward spiral, and I don’t know how to stop it.
Sometimes people who make decent money get snarky or condescending about it. “You just need to learn to manage your finances.” True, but this is like saying the solution to traffic accidents is to not get in crashes. It’s totally possible to be careful and frugal and end up financially ruining yourself anyway.
Shamus' story telling is excellent, of course. I highly recommend reading his whole "Twelve-Year Mistake" series. He has a way with words that I envy, and writes in a way that is very open and revealing. When he is talking about his personal life, it is easy to get the feeling that you're sitting on a front porch with him on a summer evening, listening in as he talks about his life with a close friend. His autoblographry is an excellent (and longer) example of his skills as a communicator.
What really fascinates me about this particular piece isn't just the humanity of it, or the description of how it is possible to be on the edge of financial instability for a while without even realizing it. He actually traces back the events in his financial life to discover the root cause of his problems:
This cascading failure is not the problem. It’s a symptom. I’m actually walking around thinking I’ve just recently screwed up, but the truth – which I’m about to figure out – is that I blew it years ago.
Yep. He debugs his financial situation.
If I were speaking that phrase, you would hear the mingled awe and admiration in my voice.
As it so happens, his financial bug stems from a time when he let his attention lapse for a moment. It happens to be a particularly significant moment, true. It also happens to be one that is understandable, a moment where he is distracted by other significant events in his life that are demanding his attention.
It's an interesting reminder that even when we like to think that we are eminently rational, we can still manage to make less than perfect decisions. Decisions that can have impacts not just for years, but possibly even for decades and lifetimes. Decisions that may take us that long just to recognize them as being significant, and just as long to correct.
It's a sobering thought.