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Smart MoneyJune 8, 2012

Many years ago, I was in Italy, and I saw, for the first time, tiny little things that kind of looked like vehicles, buzzing up the cobblestones and jammed in four deep at the curb. They were everywhere, zooming like bugs having a joyful race. I fell immediately in love, saying, I'm going to have one someday, somehow. 

I never thought they would be legal here (even though it turns out they're very well safety rated), but The Smart Car did come out in the States in 2008. I couldn't afford one (and besides, the wait, after ordering, was over a year at that point). I gave up hope for a long time. 

See, we were in debt.

Let's talk about money for a moment, shall we? I've been meaning to write this post for a long time, and now seems like the right time.

I believe the strongest emotion felt by a person is shame. Everyone feels it, and everyone fears it. It's completely debilitating and alienating. And money and shame go together like slime in a bathtub drain. 

During the great housing crisis-bubble-disaster of 2006 (and 2007, and 2008), we poured money onto our credit cards, trying to save my old condo (which we'd used as collateral on our house). We threw good money after bad, trying to rent it out (a rotten time to be a landlord in the Bay Area). We were in short-sale purgatory for almost sixteen months. We failed in all attempts, right around the time my mother died, at which point I got tired of fighting everything. 

Afterward, when the dust cleared, we were $47,000 in debt. 

What a huge number. Immense. Unimaginable.

It wasn't to be talked about. Never admitted. We were living paycheck to paycheck, paying only the minimum balances. There was never, ever enough to go around. 

And then Lala lost her job. 

I panicked, and I panicked hard. After breaking down in tears while talking to a coworker one day, she mentioned credit consolidation. I'd heard of it, but I didn't trust it. Surely these were companies who were trying to get over on the consumer -- exploiting them, raking them over the expensive coals one more time. But I cautiously looked into it. Somehow, I got the nerve to call, and oh, it was one of the hardest phone calls I've ever made, because I had to pull out all the bills and have them in front of me AT ONE TIME. You know how easy it is to not know how much you owe? When it's that great a number, it's easy to say twenty-mumble-thirty-something to yourself when you do manage to think about (usually at two-dark-thirty in the morning). 

While talking to the counselor at Money Management International, I learned we owed $47,000. It was devastating. 

And then, the counselor made it better. See, they're non-profit. They work with you, at whatever level you're comfortable with. They work with the credit card companies to get your rates lowered drastically (a couple of ours went to 0%), and you DO NOT use them anymore. You pay MMI one payment a month, and they dole the money out to the creditors. When one card is paid off, the money that you were paying to that one rolls over and goes to the next card. You can put all your cards with them (which is what we did -- we flew, terrifyingly, with no safety net for a while), or you can keep a card out for emergencies if you have to. 

With this plan, we saved $800/month in payments, and we PAID OFF the entire amount in four years (instead of the twenty-seven (literally) years it would have taken to pay it off making minimum payments). And a lot of those years Lala was only working part-time. (I can't sing the praises of MMI enough -- if you're curious, just call them, or someone like them. Their counselors are seriously the nicest people ever. They are used to hearing people cry, I think.)

And you know what? We didn't talk about it. I was ashamed. It's not okay to be at a cocktail party talking about how in-over-your-head you are. You're going to Hawaii? Awesome! I'm wondering how to pay the phone bill! 

So I'm bringing it up here, with you. Maybe we SHOULD be talking about this over dinner with our friends. And not in a ha-ha, isn't it rough kind of way, but in a what can we actually do about this kind of way. 

In our house, we scrimped. I made all our household cleaning products. While Lala wasn't working, she cooked all (ALL) our meals. I baked a lot of bread. She bought all groceries and household goods on $50/week. We drank two-buck Chuck. We cut off cable/newspaper/magazines/everything extraneous. 

We dug our way out. The day I wrote the last check I felt like a balloon of joy was deep inside my lungs, as if when I spoke, I'd have a helium voice. So happy. So proud. The opposite of shame. 

And -- this is the fun part -- yesterday, when I was driving to buy a rotary cutter (makin' some dresses out of thrift store fabric! Being frugal is fun!), I hit the brakes because I SAW THIS BABY: 


I was cruising down Shattuck in Berkeley and passed a used car lot (The Buggy Bank, awesome place). There was a Smart Car convertible in the lot. There is never a used Smart Car just lying around. 

I texted Lala: "There's a Smart Car at the Buggy Bank. Pray for me." 

I told myself I was just curious about the price, but I would not test drive it. I looked at the price ($11k) and the mileage (17k!!!) and walked in the office and gave them my driver's license. I texted La, "I'm test driving it, but I'm NOT going to buy it, don't worry." 

I test drove it, all through Berkeley and onto the freeway, into the Maze, and back, going way over my 20 minute test-drive limit. I was out of my mind with joy. (I don't get car joy. I don't care about cars. I've driven my hoopty station wagon for six years, and I've never liked it. Nor have I hated it. It was a car. It got me around. That was awesome. It has almost 200,000 miles, and the doors don't lock and the only window that still goes up and down is the driver's side window, and acts of its own volition as if it's possessed especially if I'm in a drive-through line.)

But the Smart Car? IT WAS FOR ME. It was the car I'd been waiting for. 

When I got back to the Buggy Bank, there was a woman and a teenaged boy standing in the space I'd left, watching me pull in. I thought, Oh, they're interested, too. That's the way it goes. And then I thought, I wonder how fast I can run for the buying office. I can take them. I know I can.

Turns out she was the seller who happened to be passing by. She'd cried when she left it there, but they need to buy their teen a car that he won't be embarrassed to drive. She was wonderful, darling, and very much Our People. We must have hugged each other five times. She was so happy to let it go to me (because by then, of course, after talking to Lala, I was buying it). 

And Lala was the voice of reason. I wanted to pay for it outright, but that would have depleted our savings (WE HAVE SAVINGS! WHO ARE WE?) by a lot, so she talked me into going to our credit union and financing a portion (about half). That way we're reestablishing credit (which is much better now, by the way) at the same time we're keeping savings in the bank. That Lala is smart, yo. I got a two-year loan, but my plan is to try to pay it off in six months if possible, because I love being debt-free (let's not talk about the student loan and the mortgage -- wait, no, let's DO talk about debt, okay? It's okay to talk about. Only by talking to each other do we learn how to fix our problems. If you're drowning, check out MMI.) 

After all this, I drove across the Bay Bridge with the top down. 


(I look daring in this shot but I'm not stupid, this was in stopped traffic, never fear.) 


THEN I PARKED IN A SPOT THAT A HONDA FIT WOULDN'T HAVE FIT INTO. Literally. It's hard to tell in this photo, but this is just a bump between two driveways in the Avenues. They are everywhere. No one but Smarts (and maybe that new Fiat?) can fit in them, and NOW I HAVE ALL THE SAN FRANCISCO PARKING POWER MWAH-HAH-HAH

I'm deliriously happy. It's my day off and I woke at six am because I was too excited to sleep. The first thing I did when I got up was stick my head out the window and make sure it was still in the driveway, that no one had put it in their pocket and walked away with it overnight. 

Last night when we got home from a dinner party, Lala (kidding) said, "You can drive on the sidewalk!" 

So I did. I drove on the sidewalk in front of our house. It was punk rock. 

(For those wondering, book money is not enough to live on. I still work 56 hours a week at the day/night job. It would be nice if book money was enough, and someday I hope it will be, but authors, as a vast whole, are not even remotely rich. However, book money has helped us immensely in the last difficult few years, and if you've ever bought a book of mine, I hope you know how that last night, on the bridge, I got teary, thinking about you. This is true.)

And now I have to go put on something cute enough to drive this car. Red cowboy boots for sure. Short dress and tights. Handmade sweater. 

Because I still need to go get a damn rotary cutter. 


I am in awe. LOVE the little bitty car. Love your smile! LOVE that you had the chutzpah to talk money difficulties.
And delighted my purchases of your wonderful fiction helped make this possible!

That car is almost as cute as you!

And, tweasel. What happened to your comment page? It exploded! I don't think the harlot linked to you lately? I surely would have noticed that.

You go to cocktail parties?

Thank you so much for sharing that story, and congrats on your car! It suits you!

Being a single, professional woman, I understand the debt thing (with a mortgage and student loans as big as my mortgage...).

I had been wanting to tell you (and this seems like the perfect time!) that over the last 2ish years, I have been going through some 'stuff' (we'll leave it at that). I had purchased your book 'A Life in Stitches' a while back, and it became my evening comfort/support for many months. It lives next to my bed, and any night when my mind was racing, or I needed to be sleeping but I wasn't sleeping, I would reach over to the book, flip on the book light, and read the next chapter.

It seems so simple, but it was nice to at least have a plan for that bad part of my day, and the stories were so human and heartwarming, it helped to 'reset my head' so that I could continue to function.

I wanted to say thanks for that! You have a Smart Car well-earned!

OMG!!!!! I have a Smart Car! welcome to the club. Back in 2005 I was driving a 1989 Toyota Corrola which I loved but was slowly dying and I was putting way to much money into repairs. I wanted to buy a car that was going to be the least detrimental to the environment. And the Smart was the way to go! I still get better mileage then any hybrid on the market.56mpg in the city and about 73mpg on the highway. I had to wait 6 months for a brand new one and just paid off that loan this spring.It is also covered in bumper stickers from all the cities we have visited over the years. And I believe the we have 2 from the bay area. One is from the Pez Museum in Burlingame and then one from the golden gate bridge. No one ever really belives that our Smart has driven all the way from Winnipeg Manitoba to San Diego California and many points in between. Congratualtions you're gonna love it!

Catching up with posts, going backwards in time, I just came across this one.
So many hugs and high fives to you and Lala. I'm so glad that you're out from under that awful crushing scary load. I know the shame. Intimately. DH has been out of work for about a year and a half now. And he's not the best at getting the unemployment submission in every week.
We're lucky...when we were both working I'd managed to pay off most of our (my) debt. We've less than 3,000 to go. But our savings are way low. And employment doesn't seem to be likely any time soon.
You've nudged me hard to look at what we can do better to tighten our budget. There's got to be some things we can do with less of. And as someone else mentioned above I'd love to know how and what Lala cooked on $50 a week.

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