Credit Cards with Wings

An adult student of mine who grew up poor in Wisconsin (growing up poor in Minnesota is also quite possible. She just happens to be from Wisconsin), recently described her finances during four years of private, liberal-arts college in the Twin Cities. (Private liberal arts means pricey as opposed to the land-grant universities, which today are also pricey, just not quite so much as private colleges).

My adult student admitted that she grew up in a trailer court. Her college education was financed by scholarships and working during college and summers off. My daughter, a decade plus earlier, also went to a private liberal arts college near the Twin Cities. Her college was financed by family income, largely paid by her father, a physician, and by my mother, the Madame Thrift in our family.

Now, here’s an interesting comparison: my adult student finished her college career with flying academic colors, but enormous credit-card debt. Not surprising, you’ll say: she was struggling to get by, as are many working adults in today’s economy. Her many credit cards were a way to keep herself afloat, perhaps higher in the water than simple buoyancy itself, but afloat, her head at the same level as her comfortably middle-class college friends’.

My daughter had no credit card debt at the end of college because all the adults in her life told her to BEWARE and DO NOT SIGN UP and WATCH OUT FOR INTEREST RATES. We also send her a modest monthly allowance–here’s where my mother’s contribution kicked in at $200 a month.

The obvious conclusion to this modest comparison is that my adult student wracked up credit card debt because her family could not afford to give her an allowance–as simple as that. But I think there’s more to it.

By the time she got to college, my daughter had been through family wars which translated in part into money wars. When her dad and I split up, she was in third grade. Over the next three years, my financial situation declined precipitously: I went from comfort to struggle. By the time my daughter entered high school, I’d invented a work life for myself as a free-lance writing teacher, spent several years “shacked up” with a writing “partner” who had a talent for finding inexpensive but commodious rental situations. At the end of three years, when the divorce was final, I took my share of the marriage house and invested it in a bungalow. (The only way I could avoid paying estate taxes on this money was to invest it in a dwelling which I inhabited.)

When my daughter and I settled into that little bungalow, I had very little extra cash. She and I fought over name brand jeans at Target. She was in ninth grade, tenth grade at the private school where she’d gone since kindergarten, her dad still paying the bills. Meanwhile I struggled to pay electric and water bills; I bought all my clothes used. I DID NOT BUY my daughter everything she wanted. We fought about money a lot. One summer she worked at a high-end clothing store at Victoria Crossing and acquired some lovely Scandinavian items. I bought her ice cream cones; she bought me a lovely high-end Scandinavian skirt.

When we fought about money, I felt beleaguered; she felt short-changed. I felt incensed; she felt deprived. I told her she was not; she insisted everything I bought her was as cheap as I was. IT WAS NOT PRETTY. We said things we almost immediately apologized for, but under the surface conflict was a greater loss: I had deprived her of a stability she had no reason not to trust. I had left the marriage which was her bedrock. We were both fighting to stay afloat–the angry words were our version of thrashing around in rough seas. The fighting helped us keep our heads above water.

My adult student acquired a stable, highly responsible job immediately after college and began paying off her credit-card debt. Now, she laughs ruefully: “I tried to warn my sister when she went to college to avoid maxxing out five credit cards. I reminded her how long it took me to pay off my debt. But it didn’t help. She did the same thing.”

My daughter did not acquire this habit while she was in college. But after graduating, she did not take a stable, well-paying job. Instead she tried a little of this, a little of that, living in communal squalor (my term) with college friends. Toward the end of this period, let’s say six years post graduation, she left her part-time jobs and, taking her modest savings, moved to the suburbs to try her hand at writing. She’d had excellent encouragement for her writing, not only from me but from teachers at college.

Moving to the suburbs she rented a room from another friend who had a full-time day job. By now, the enormous transformation that started in 1965 with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and eventually swept many wives and mothers into the workplace had done its job: the suburbs were empty during the day, except for my daughter in a strange house with only cats for company.

One day shopping for cat food at Pet Smart, she stopped at a large bird cage and began talking to a noisy red and turquoise macaw. “I had to liberate him,” I think she told me after she’d bought him. He cost $2000. She now had credit card debt. I won’t go into the consequences of this except to admit IT WAS NOT PRETTY! We fought over what she had done. But I also felt deeply sorry for her, interpreting her need to free this beautiful noisy bird as a desire to free something penned up in herself. What that was, exactly, I couldn’t tell. But I thought it had to do with becoming a real grown-up creature with wings that could actually fly.

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