They Call it Strategic Default

I need to find a way to be less emotional about money.

It’s payday, and I feel furious again—and ashamed—and furious that I feel ashamed.

I’m dutifully paying my gas, electric, and rent, and I’m budgeting for a trip I’ll take next month to meet my newborn nephew. Once again, I am weighing my ability to pay my student loan bill with another expense: this time, it’s the money I owe my allergist. Online, there’s a newly fueled debate about student loans. It knocks at the edge of my consciousness and injects a little more anxiety into my monthly financial justifications.

I have a master’s degree—so, why do I feel so dumb? I feel like a financial ping-pong. I feel like the joke’s on me.

For the record, here are the financial mistakes I’ve made:

  • I got a master’s degree.
  • I bought a house.
  • I got married, and then divorced.
  • I struggled with depression.
  • I chose a career that meant I would help others, but also meant that I would remain poor.
  • I neglected to pay Homeowner Association fees when my house was so far underwater that I was in despair.
  • I stopped going to the doctor and dentist when having health insurance was more costly than skipping it. Again: despair.
  • I went out to eat too much, I often bought bottles of wine, and I put gifts for and fellowship with friends and family ahead of long-term financial health. Gradually, I embraced irresponsibility because the responsibility route just wasn’t working out for me.

I understand Lee Siegel’s New York Times piece [need citation]. It fills me with resentment and anxiety, but I understand it. It hits awfully close to home.

There have been some happy days: the day I paid off my undergraduate loans. The day I paid off credit card debt. Those were the days I believed in our financial system and felt proud to be doing my part. I was financially responsible! Morally right! I belonged.

It felt good to realize that my worst day in an inner-city classroom was better than my best day in a soulless cubicle. It felt good when I began teaching at a university–one of my lifelong dreams!

Then there were these days: The day I learned, from a friend, that the real reason a fiancee left without a word was my debt. Or maybe my underwater house. What did it matter.

The day after I paid off my undergraduate loans, when I realized I hadn’t even started paying for the master’s degree. This may or may not have been the same day I learned, from my employer, that because my master’s degree wasn’t in exactly the same subject I was teaching, I wasn’t eligible for the next level in pay scale.

The day I realized that if I wanted job security, I’d better stop being a university professor and go back to teaching high school. And then began laughing hysterically because, really, the absurdity!

The day I looked up at my therapist (the one my father paid for, when I was at my lowest) and said tearfully, “but I did everything I was supposed to do!”

These days, when I think about money, I veer between nihilism and shame. Like most Americans, I make choices: I don’t order cable television because I’d rather eat out. I will pay for my asthma medication but I won’t get my eyes checked. If my loving, generous boyfriend buys me a gift or takes me out to dinner, I calculate how I can treat him next time and also pay for new brake lights. I do not expect to ever be able to afford children of my own, but I will splurge on gifts for my niece and nephew. After experiencing first-hand the Phoenix housing market crash, I have neither the credit nor the emotional stamina to be a homeowner.

I sometimes don’t pay my student loan bill. I mean, it will always be with me, right? It’s insurmountable. What’s more interest? Another cup of water in the ocean.

And I am one of the lucky ones!

You see, I haven’t faced catastrophic medical problems. I am not, like my sister, a single mother. I have not succumbed to alcoholism or worsening depression, like some dear friends. And I voluntarily jumped off what I fondly refer to as the adjunct poverty train. Although I sometimes feel envious of my younger coworkers who dodged the Great Recession, I do the best I can to keep a healthy perspective—and to keep my head above water.

They call it strategic default—a term I learned in 2009. It’s when walking away is a better option than drowning. And if a mostly responsible, mostly hard-working woman like me considers it, our country’s financial powers-that-be really ought to start worrying.

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