Before I started talking about money, I had conflicting assumptions:
• Everyone had more debt than I did, and everyone had less debt than I did.
• Everyone had a plump 401K, and that everyone had empty savings accounts.
• Everyone had a financial plan, and that everyone was just winging it.
These certainties played into my own insecurities and splurges as I saw fit: When I was spending money that I didn’t have, I rationalized that everyone also spent money they didn’t have. When I was feeling like I was drowning in debt, I felt like I was the only one who had ruined my financial future. My assumptions allowed me continue a pattern of unsustainable spending while also making me feel like I was on an island of debt, alone.
[Related: How my generosity got me $8,000 in debt]
When I started talking about money — telling my friends how much I made, and asking them the same, admitting that I didn’t have student loans while confessing to a high credit card balance — I learned that my assumptions were right, except for the “all.” Some people did have more debt than I did, and some people had less. Some people did have nest eggs, and some people were living paycheck to paycheck. I also found out that nobody knew what was normal or right: We were all just figuring it out on our own.
A friend from college was the first person I really came clean with about my debt. I don’t know what I expected from her — revulsion? pity? surprise? — but I certainly wasn’t expecting her to say: “Me, too.” Once I knew it wasn’t only me, I knew for sure it wasn’t only the two of us. I’d made mistakes, she’d made mistakes, and lots of other people had made mistakes, but we didn’t have to keep making them. We vowed to each be debt free by 30, and then we figured out how. We’re both still working on it, but we talk about it. We talk about TV, about writing, about love, about careers, and now we talk about money.
The second person I told, I didn’t mean to. It was a friend I didn’t know very well, but we were getting beers, and I was stressed out. He asked what was wrong, and at first I just said, “Oh, money.” But then I elaborated: “I have credit card debt and I’m only making $20 over the minimum payment each month and I’m scared I’m never going to pay it off.”
He said: “Well I can one up you on that.” He’d stopped making even his minimum payments on his cards, plus he had student loans for the entirety of his private undergraduate education. He was unemployed, but still spending like he had when he was making $60,000 a year. He hadn’t admitted this to anyone. I was shocked.
But then I said something that surprised even me: I told him that it wasn’t the end of the world and he could pay it all off. And I really believed it. I told him I’d help him make a plan, and even as I was saying it, I was working out a plan for myself. It’ll take a lifestyle change, I said, and I knew I was right — about his life, and about my own. We’ve all messed up, I said. That’s not true, he said. You’ve messed up and I’ve messed up, but there are other people out there who haven’t messed up at all. He was right, of course. Some people had done everything right. But we weren’t among them — at least not yet. We could still get there though.