Characters of Finance

Debt. I have an odd affinity for the word. Not what it stands for, but the way the word embodies its meaning. Say it aloud. It’s the silent “b” tucked in there like a person in profile. A person in profile with a full belly: a meal you enjoyed against better judgment, and that you will be paying for, weeks after. The b becoming bloated, hanging around too long, exuding shame. The b a baby bump, another body inside, needing endless care and tending, growing with all that you give, never satiated. The b like a sack you push ahead, full of everything you owe yet nothing at all. The silent “b” behaves like debt itself. It is always with us, even though debt is the lack of something, a tally of precisely what we don’t have.

In a well-meaning attempt to capture the contradictory qualities of debt—its quantification of lack for example, and its perpetual but immaterial presence, we have come to describe ourselves as being haunted by debt. From economic analysis, to academic exposition, to think pieces and blog posts, ghosts, death, and the afterlife populate discourses of debt. There are zombie debts (they attack you out of nowhere!); debt as a specter menacing entire nations.

Haunting suggests something back from the dead. Part of its eeriness is having, well, died—faced mortality—and then returned. One of the reasons, I suspect, that we are compelled to describe debt as a form of haunting is because of the relationship it forges between our past, present, and future selves, like Dickens and the ghosts of Christmas.

When paying down debt, we re-enter our past by taking money earned with the labour of one’s now, energized with the expenditure of work, and applying it to activities and experiences of the past. If we are always already alienated from our labour under capitalism, when in debt, there is not even the illusion of reunion through the purchasing power of our earnings. Debt persistently tugs back to a before, to the self one was when taking on debt.

Yet it is this very reminder of my past expenditures and consumption that may explain why I experience a somewhat electric charge when making contact with the spectral sums of my own credit card debt. The total hovers around $4,000, spread across five cards, at different rates, and different stages of balance transfers for a finite 0% interest rate (notably, a mark against your credit rating, doing something smart, like taking a 0% interest rate). Each month I eagerly pay these, usually the minimum, twenty-five dollars here, thirty-five dollars there, totaling about $150 in credit card payments a month. Somewhere in this dark mass of numbers, this lake of absence, is the trail of the Macbook I bought in 2010; my plane tickets to Prague, London, Edinburg; the painstakingly selected gifts for my nieces and nephews, long since outgrown and discarded. No longer attached to or reflective of their original purchase, these are Frankenstein sums: travel lumped with gifts, lumped with necessities like food and clothes, lumped with the weird souvenir from a random day trip. Once distinct and recognizable, they now melt together, past mingling with more recent purchases. Figures like distorted mirrors send back indistinct smudges. 

Debt persistently tugs back to a before, to the self one was when taking on debt.

Still, in these sums is some residue of myself. And so I am oddly attached to this debt, despite how much I want it gone. It has defined me for so long now, chipping away, being diligent. I’ve actually had a feeling of panic at paying off these credit cards, suddenly being “free” from them. Who am I? How do I move into the future? What do I do with that $150 now? Debt, while a burden can become an oddly safe space, of stasis, of choosing not choosing, as Ms. Dickinson said.

Credit. Equally as intangible, but cooler and more coy than debt. Not quite debt’s opposite (that would be savings, or a hoard) but its enabler. The diminutive “i” between the “d” and “t” is a cigarette, let’s say a Virginia Slim, with a trail of smoke, poised in a long-stemmed holder, extended from a gloved hand. Inscrutable metrics bestow credit through contradictory logics: if one has a lot of credit available, but does not use it, credit-worthiness declines. To have credit, one must have debt. To have debt, one must have credit.

I came into the world just in time to be allowed to have credit of my own. Prior to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, passed in the U.S. in 1974, banks required single, widowed or divorced women to bring a man along to cosign any credit application. The value of women’s wages were also discounted when considering how much credit to grant, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. Now women have the equal opportunity to be indebted to impersonal institutions rather than dependent on a father, a husband, a brother, an aunt.

As recently as March 31, 2017, an article in the New York Times asks if “Millennial men want stay at home wives.” The Greek chorus of the comments section does a great job in calling out the inherent sexism of the framing of the article, but even more so, it is a space for anonymous correspondence caveats, woman to woman: don’t leave the workforce for too long; don’t give up your earning power; you never know what will happen to your marriage—mine was the sudden out of the blue separation; did you know divorce ruins your credit score. Cue Suze Orman, our beloved lady financial advisor, urging women to have enough money of their own in the bank for half a year’s living expenses. She advises accumulating this instead of paying down credit cards, as tempting as that is, precisely for the feeling of “freedom” it purports. It’s illusory. In a land of credit, women still need their own cold hard cash.

Budget. The corset of financial life, preoccupied—naturally—with figures. Stay within. Control. Constrain. The “d” and “g” back to back, like that children’s game, arms entwined at the elbows, two people raising in tandem, the grinding sounds of “d” against “g” forming the gurgle of the word “budge.” Today it gets re-enacted in yoga classes like a trust exercise—stranger to faceless stranger struggle against each other in an attempt to rise up as one. Is it competition or collaboration? Cross—or common—purpose? It’s a suffocating pose, threatening perpetual pressure and stasis, with no release. Budget is meant, in this way, to maintain balance between bloated debt and coaxing, come-hither credit. (We should at least mention that less and less consequential player, income, who tries to have her say, jumping around like the monkey in the middle, too small to get the ball.)

A new genre of life-writing has emerged which details the day to day of staying in a budget, swearing off credit, paying down debt. Entire blogs devoted to “How I paid off my (insert enormous amount of debt) in (insert tiny amount of time).” These articles are offered as self-help, and almost always endorse austerity measures enacted at the level of the individual household, triumphantly endured by our debt heroine. Tips typically include: have a budget; take on a side-gig; shop second hand; eat ramen; take in a roommate or three; allow parents to purchase you a co-op, then sell said co-op for a profit; stick to your budget. These measures are typically adopted after a debt confessional. Here, sometimes under cover of anonymity, other times fully exposed, individuals confess the crime—or sin—of their debt. Unspeakable sums. Bad decisions. Gullibility. Greed. In these narratives, debt is brought into the open, witnessed, and made material. Like shame, debt fairs well in the dark.

When I enter austerity mode (which I did in 2012, no longer taking out loans or using my credit card), my entire body clenches for weeks on end, as if I am the columns of the Excel spreadsheet, desperately trying to hold the numbers in place. Every purchase must be judged against the past. One wrong move, budget blown. Hoping the well-employed public school teacher with tenure will pick up our check so I won’t have to break the twenty I’ve been saving for next week. While living to pay off debt—particularly in a set time frame—it’s the budget that causes perpetual stress. Plans deferred. Days lived in mental straight jackets, trailed by guilt and shame. Budgets are supposed to enable “getting ahead”—but it’s not getting ahead of one another, it’s just reclaiming the ability to maybe, one day, inhabit our own present tense, or imagine a future. To sync up with our own selves.

My first dramatic sway away from debt came when I decided to transfer from a highly selective private small liberal arts college to the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook, a giant, public research university twenty minutes from where I grew up. Debt at that time was something financial, but even more so emotional, that I did not want to be in. The investment my middle class family was making in my elite education was too much for me to bear. I felt their sacrifices and expectations would dictate my life choices forever, and a wayward, bohemian, rockstar wanna-be was finally emerging who needed to have her say. I also could not reconcile the cognitive dissonance of having graduated from an enormous public high school that had just declared austerity, only to arrive for freshman year at a leafy green red brick oasis, a campus that boasted the most tennis courts per student. Something felt … off. Way off. So much so, I could not find my balance there.

I did not know what instinct steered me away from debt then, but it was primal, an act of survival. It was a claiming of my own future, ahead of time. It was a clearing of space so that I could discover and eventually align with my values. When I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time, at age 31, I recognized the feminist lineage of these acts of self-preservation in Woolf’s concern with the relationship between financial stability and independence and the ability to speak one’s truth. For Woolf, the room of one’s own—financial independence and security—(thus a state of not being indebted, and certainly not dependent) is liberatory—artistically, politically, emotionally. Because women preside over “emotional” and “social” labour, the trade-off in care for others—control over one’s self, if not physically and sexually, even emotionally—is at play in financial transactions, and in debt.

Historically, because women’s very lives depended on men, the ability to speak the truth about those men, or merely in conflict with them, has been hindered. So for Woolf, for a woman to, say, write a critical review of a man’s work, is to put one’s very life at risk, one’s very ability to feed, clothe and shelter one’s body. And for Woolf, the body must be attended to before anything else. As her famous spider web definition purports, writing appears to hang effortlessly finished, but is always attached to the world, the doorframe, her metaphor for the body and its needs. Thus, Woolf will declare that her Aunt’s inheritance was more important to her than suffrage—it gave her more freedom, to speak the truth, to not compromise.

Mine, then, was a private liberation—my parents still paid for college, but at our state university down the street. This investment seemed proportional to our middle class station in life (generously enabled by the post WWII welfare state) and to my ambivalent professional trajectory. So while my parents did technically pay for college, I did not feel indebted, as the emotional and financial math in my mind and heart computed that this was a wash. I gave up the social and cultural capital of an elite degree for what I saw as the freedom to experiment, to fail, to not compromise where it counted most for me.

After college, I parlayed a state school philosophy degree and the fortuitousness of coming into my own during the Clinton boom years, into a solid career in non-profit arts administration. Five years out of college, I was making $34,000 a year for a four-day work week with generous time off and benefits, including a matching 403b. I rented my own apartment in Brooklyn for $1,000 a month, saw a therapist who was not on my health plan and whose pedigreed dogs (often in attendance) were featured in the Times magazine. I was very generous to the rash of friends who married (and then divorced) in our twenties. (What I wouldn’t give now for the small fortune I spent on sake sets). Then, in a post-9/11, late-twenties soul searching move, I quit this job, sublet my apartment, and relocated to small town for several months. But not without lining up consulting clients in New York City first and working part-time jobs in town when I got there. I had some savings. And I was not in debt.

Then came grad school. Beginning of debt story. Middle of debt story. End of debt story. I started a PhD in 2003 during which I regularly taught one class per semester and did course work, for $10,000 a year (not great, but it was a long time ago, and in a city in upstate New York with a low cost of living). While this wage was not livable, and I knew would need to be supplemented by loans, it was somewhat mentally justifiable: I earned $5,000 per semester plus health benefits, and tuition reimbursement. I was not simply “buying” a Masters degree, I told myself. I was being “paid” to learn.

And I took precautions against this educational gamble. I bought a house at the same time I started grad school, claiming my NYC income to qualify before my stipend appeared on the roles (this was, again fortuitously, before 2008). It’s a two family house whose second unit income has covered the mortgage for most of the time I have lived here. That was the plan. Was always the plan. And the bigger plan was: sell the house to pay off grad school debt. Trade equity for a clean slate after hanging around in the humanities, the most self-indulgent, least profitable thing one could do.

This plan can still be triggered and will likely work—in fact, my equity and my loans are in a dead heat right now (that’s when I went into austerity, as those numbers neared each other). But I resent the plan now. Because I have worked. A lot in the last fourteen years. And been exploited, robbed of my labour, during that time. Even at the lowest acceptable wages, even with the most generously rounded sums to make this palatable, I calculate that $35,000 of wages have been stolen from me while teaching as an adjunct over the last decade.

Some quick math: between the fall of 2007 and fall of 2009, I taught thirteen sections of English courses as an adjunct. Then, from spring 2016 to spring 2017, I taught four sections. My average pay, before taxes, per course, is $2,900. Had I been paid at $5,000 per course (what I made as a funded grad student, and at that, still well below the recommended pay per course ten years ago, $6,400) I would have earned $85,000 for this decade’s worth of teaching more than 500 students. Instead, I earn, before taxes, for the entire decade: $50,000. A difference of $35,000.

$35,000 in the bank gaining interest. $35,000 paid against a mortgage. $35,000 less in student loans. $35,000 and a year off to write. $35,000 of … anything at all. This money is truly absent, not a phantom sum, but a sum that never was. And so even though the math works out—I can get out of grad school debt free if I sell the house, it doesn’t feel like a wash. It feels like a wash-out.

My self-esteem has plummeted and fluctuated. I panic all the time. I am a moocher, an Ayn Randian failure. Study after study shows that carrying debt is related to, if not the direct cause of, debilitating stress, struggle, and depression

My graduate student loan debt of nearly $80,000, still in deferral, lives in the future but is built up, brick by brick, of my past. The very phrase “student loans” sounds like the loans themselves are students, not real, fully formed, adult loans. The innocence of the phrase masks their reality. This metaphorical brick wall is waiting for me to slam into; to stop me in my forward motion. The wall disincentivizes me now, because nearly half of it should not be there in the first place.

Despite the proof of this math. Despite the growing advocacy movement that exposes adjunct pay inequality at institutions of all shapes and sizes. Despite having read all three volumes of Marx’s Capital, participated in Occupy, and attended Wendy Brown’s amazing lectures on neoliberalism and homo economicus at the London School of Theory, I internalize my downward social mobility. My self-esteem has plummeted and fluctuated. I panic all the time. I am a moocher, an Ayn Randian failure. Study after study shows that carrying debt is related to, if not the direct cause of, debilitating stress, struggle, and depression. And, oh yes, not only does debt haunt us, but sometimes we carry it. Other times we simply have debt, like an overdue library book, or a cold. And most often, rhetorically at least, are in it—like, say, being buried alive. Frankly, it’s hard to maintain one’s revolutionary consciousness, to see structures and not just feel the symptoms as a unique mess of one’s very own making.

To be haunted is “to be subject to the visits and molestation of disembodied spirits,” according to the second (the b.) definition in the OED. But the first definition says nothing about disembodied spirits; rather, it talks of memories, feelings, and thoughts that “cause distraction or trouble” or, at their worst, pursue or molest us as recurrent influences or impressions. The disembodied spirits, it turns out, are our own thoughts, memories, feelings. We are, in effect, haunting ourselves. The phone call comes from inside the house!

And so I conjure these bodies. I give shapes and human features to words which designate monetary concepts—debt, and her handmaidens budget and credit. I do this because I live with them daily—mentally, emotionally, even physically. They leave evidence, like a twisted version of the tooth fairy: sprinkles of insomnia while I calculate interest accruing on loans; dollops of disappointment when I practice denial to meet self-imposed austerity; grains of guilt over an “un-entitled” splurge, indulged in so as not to live in a perpetual state of deprivation, which spiritual and secular wisdom says is no good for the soul. The figures I conjure through the shapes of letters and sounds of words are invariably female—debt is a pregnant woman, her insatiable baby-to-be behaving like interest accruing; credit is a Holly-Go lightly impresario pretending to have no ledger book; budget is a woman in yoga pose, dutiful, disciplined and exhausted. These are not body doubles (I have no kids, no gloves, no yoga pants), but are resonant with my body.

In recent feminist work on debt-creditor relations, there is acknowledgement that all relationships involve negotiations of power. Financially, emotionally, individuals are embedded in trades and borrows. Always have been, always will be. This is not inherently bad. In fact, much of society can function with this give and take, balances tipped one way or another. This can forge relationships and trust, as much as it can promote abuse and subordination. But from a macro level today, we can diagnose that wealth is so globally unequal, that debt financing at high interest exaggerates this inequality. And, like most things, women feel the effects more acutely. Even for student loans, women take on the same if not more debt, but enter workforces where they are paid less, and penalized for partaking in unpaid care work and household labour. Even with the most intense household austerity, it is quite nearly impossible to get ahead of debt.

Philosopher Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir offers the moral philosophy of care-ethics as way to analyze, understand and hopefully undo the damaging effects of debt and contemporary capitalism on the self and the psyche. Care-ethics rejects a masculine heteronormative reading of the individual as ahistorical, always rational and, most crucially, equal with whom they borrow or lend. Care-ethics requires that one see the individual embedded in multiple systems of inequality and imbalance—that the mess is never entirely of one’s own making, and its undoing is not up to us alone either. We must turn away from our phantoms, and toward one another.

My independence has never been total; despite my reluctance, I have accepted help from my family at crucial times, and have learned to receive their generosity as I have aged. My relative privilege is immense, though born of a thoroughly suburban middle class, one generation removed from working class. The upward mobility my parents achieved is simply unavailable under current conditions.
Debt Street Causing Health Problems, Poll Finds,” NBC News, June 9, 2008; Elizabeth Sweet, Arijit Nandi, Emma K. Adam, and Thomas W. McDade, “The High Price of Debt: Household Financial Debt and its Impact on Mental and Physical Health,” Social Sciences and Medicine 91 (August 2013).
Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir, “Dependency And Emancipation In The Debt-Economy: Care-Ethical Critique Of Contractarian Conceptions Of The Debtor–Creditor Relation,” Hypatia 30, no. 3 (Summer 2015).