This blog post is dedicated to that four-letter word that will make any finance blogger blush, twitch, foam at the mouth even: Debt. We have it. We have lots of it. To be precise, Mr. P and I have six figures worth of debt, and the first digit wasn’t even a 1 until this past month. The scariest part of all of this debt is that I didn’t even realize it was debt until about a month ago.
For the past three years, we have been homeowners, and it took me over two years to realize that my mortgage was, in fact, debt. On a subconscious level, I knew it was debt in the sense that I knew I was obligated to fork over a monthly payment. I also knew it was a significant amount of debt when I joked at the closing that we were now the proud owner of a window and a doorknob since we had (only) purchased 20% of a home. But it was not until a month ago that I actually uttered the phrase, “We are buried in six-figures worth of debt.” Prior to that, I had always just called it a mortgage.
Society Pushed Us Along
Graduate college, get a well-paying job, purchase a home, put up a white picket fence, get a dog, pop out 2.5 babies or whatever the average is now, and live happily ever after. This conveyor-belt story arc that society touts as the American Dream is really compelling. In the past, most Americans have subscribed to some, if not every, part of this lifestyle. And they seemed OK, so why wouldn’t we be? It might not be the right course of action, but it’s a well trodden path. And let’s be serious. When you find yourself lost in the woods, you don’t traipse through the underbrush; you pick the path. It looks safe. By all accounts, it seems to be the right move.
Move along I did. I hopped on that conveyor belt so fast, I’m not even sure it was a conscious decision. After undergrad, I landed a teaching position, enrolled in a graduate program, and socked away between 50-75% of each paycheck while I lived at home.* When we got engaged, we started house hunting before we started wedding planning. It was that much of a given that we would buy a home. Society said so, and we agreed.
Financial Literacy Didn’t Actually Help
Lots of people will tell you the first part of making smart financial decisions is to become more financially literate. The problem is that financial literacy actually didn’t help much in terms of this decision. Sure, I knew what it meant to be “house poor”. I understood that I wanted my mortgage payment and my taxes to comprise less than 20% of my income. But I didn’t really understand that signing up for a mortgage was signing up for debt. In my mind, the two entities stayed separate.
Finance gurus are quick to harpoon consumer debt as bad at its best, downright foolish at its worst. Student loans might be a necessary evil. But mortgages? Mortgages are a given, a staple, a point of pride in a lot of financial literature**. Since the creation of my fledgling blog, the personal finance blogosphere has been abuzz with people speaking out against homeownership due to housing markets and lifestyle choices. Housing is too expensive. Home ownership is too permanent. But I’m not sure we frown on mortgages the same we frown on, let’s say, shoe purchases. An affordable mortgage–whatever that actually means–that does not leave you house poor is not usually categorized as excessive consumerism. Despite the fact that much of the literature on finances colors debt differently depending on the type, this might be one instance where I wish we’d all paint with broad strokes.
My Debt Was My Decision
While I may not have considered my mortgage a debt in the same way that I would consider an unpaid credit card bill or a student loan, I made the deliberate choice to purchase a home. As the 1,294,734,561 signatures on the closing paperwork verify, I was entirely present, numb hand be damned. I set out to buy a home and buy a home I did.
I am not writing this post to elicit sympathy or to place blame; my debt was my decision. Instead, like so many other people before me who have shared their debt stories, I thought I’d add mine to the pile. This is not the story of someone who bought more things than she could afford. This is not the story of someone who graduated college with a diploma and an obligation to Sallie Mae. This is the story of someone who eagerly bought into the narrative of the American Dream that society sells. This is the story of someone who successfully completed Steps 1-4 on Dave Ramsey’s Home Buying Tips webpage. This is the story of someone who is steadily and methodically climbing out from six figures of debt…now that I realize I have it.
*Thanks, Mom and Dad!
**And by this, I mean books one would read in a library. Not blogs.
So Tell Me…Do you have a mortgage? Do you feel icky just thinking about it? Are you going to be like my mother, my brother (if I had one!), my uncle, and everyone else who tells me to “think of the tax benefits”?