Misadventures in the World of Debt

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Somewhere in Africa there's a little girl who's starving. Her parents have died from AIDS, and she has no one to take care of her. There are hundreds of millions of christians who could easily help her. But they've already given God the tenth they think they owe him, and the next thing they want to buy is worth more to them than her life. One week from today, her lifeless body will lie in the street, completely forgotten.

What bothers me is the fact is there are too many Christians who value the typical consumeristic lifestyle and typical western toys (i.e. computers, games, movies, hair and make-up, cars, big houses, multiple houses, vacations, cameras, designer clothing, club memberships, jewelry, gourmet coffee, sweets and junk food, and other sorts of adventures, entertainment, and fun fun fun) over the life of that starving girl in Africa. I've struggled with this immensely, especially since my family's primary breadwinner became an "unemployment" statistic three years ago, since the line between 'want' and 'need' began to blur, and becomes increasingly unrecognizable as time goes on.

Months if not years of not quite being able to pay the bills has really gotten to me. At first we tried to hide it from the world, to pretend as though we weren't really in trouble. It was easy at first to go out with others, pay for the same things they were paying for, and otherwise maintain 'our' standard of living. We wanted to portray that valued Western image of 'having it all together', a world view that has grown increasingly annoying to me over the span of my family's continuing misadventures in the world of financial need. It took a year or so for me to realize that we were clinging to a spoiled, Middle-class sense of entitlement: 'We deserve our current lifestyle because we've worked hard for it and sacrificed a lot along the way. We deserve to keep buying clothes, consuming expensive gourmet drinks at Starbucks or Second Cup, eating out, and going to movies because it's always been this way and we can't imagine anything different. We've been raised with a certain standard of living and we deserve to maintain it, frankly, because we like it. We deserve it because we don't want others thinking we're cheap, unsociable, or (heaven forbid) poor.' ...Does everybody think this way?

But for us the feelings of entitlement didn't stop there. After finally making those initial sacrifices we realized that our situation would get worse if we didn't also sacrifice more basic Middle-class 'rights'. Here's a short-list of things some or all of us have recently given up:

Lifestyle Basics:
- basic cable TV
- warmth (we're keeping our thermostat set to 15 decrees Celsius this winter; to survive we've brought out blankets, sweaters, long-johns, and hot water bottles)
- the dishwasher (we're washing our dishes by hand to see if it saves in water and electricity expenses)
- one vehicle (I've become familiar with our public transportation system, while Mom and Dad use the van for work; our car will soon need a repair that we cannot afford)
- our regular long distance plan (we use a cheaper plan now, but we're still making fewer long-distance calls)
- our dryer (we're air-drying as much as we can)
- renting movies (we'll stick to what we already have, what's on non-cable TV, or what we can borrow)
- hair cuts (i.e. anything pricier than $15CDN per cut, not a big deal for men but a bigger deal for women whose cuts are normally around $30)
- Christmas trees (if it weren't for our Christmas wedding, we would not have had a tree this year, as in previous years)
- weekly newspapers
- real travel/vacations (for our honeymoon my husband and I rented a car, since my parents' car was dead at the time, and travelled a grand 2 hours east of here)
- an apartment for my husband & me (b/c my husband doesn't yet have a job and Mom and Dad can't afford their house on their own, we're all here together making payments which none of us can afford)
- our normal social lives (we've had to bow out of events with our church, family, and friends that required money, or where we were required to bring something that required an expense)
- concerts and plays (one of my most-loved groups of all time, the Rankin Family, is on their first tour in a very long time and I don't know whether they will ever tour together again, but tickets are $60CDN each, which is still breaking my heart)

Food and Groceries:
- cheese
- honey
- pizza (and other pre-made meals)
- meat (most of the time)
- bread (if it costs more than a dollar)
- 'gourmet' fruits and veggies (e.g. avocados, fresh berries, and any other produce only the fully employed can afford)
- Tim Horton's tea/coffee
- eating out

Sacrifices on the Horizon:
- health insurance
- our house
- retirement

You know, there are some things about unemployment and debt that leave a lasting, bitter sting. The toll it takes on our social lives is one example. I've had to decline invitations to church events because I could not afford the registration fee, and there is some shame involved in that because it does affect how people view me, whether or not they know about my family's situation. There are times when friends express a need and I feel like I may as well be wearing a big name tag that says "Scrooge" as I tell them that I don't have the money to help them out. I'm afraid I'll be seen as a moocher when asking for rides here and there if our car is out of order. I'm afraid people will be inclined to avoid helping us for fear we will become 'dependent' on them in short order. What's more humiliating is when friends/family, because they know our financial situation, don't tell us about social events or trips they're planning or costly items they've purchased for themselves. Are they trying not to hurt our feelings? Are they trying to elude feelings of guilt for being able to afford these luxuries while we cannot? Why do we get pushed to the margins of their lives when our income is significantly less than theirs? And why, for some people, does money determine whether and how we can spend time building relationships with them, since it's maintaining our relationships with them during these hard times that matters most?

But I can't solely focus on those who are much more comfortable and secure than we are. I think about folks I know who live in subsidized housing around town, people who live in shelters or on the street. I think about the African girl who has no food and will soon become a mortality statistic. Why do we need any of our Middle-class privileges when giving up just a fraction of them would save her life? What rights do we have to anything at all?

Which brings me back to what I've been struggling with lately. Entitlement: Feeling as though I deserve my own apartment, my own vehicle, new clothes, entertainment with church/friends/family, or trips to Europe and other places around the world. Comparisons: Seeing Christians who are rich and wondering why they bother to thank God for their gourmet dinner while that girl in Africa starves to death. Conviction: Wondering if we, even with little work, student debt, and bills hanging over our heads, are any different than the rich?