The recession has magically turned me into a financial guru.
My relationship with the Gap is faltering. Last year we were close. I went on a winter binge and bought scarves in three Christmasy colors, forgetting, as I often do in stores, that I don't celebrate Christmas. I also bought a hat with a cheerful tuft on top, making me look like a garden gnome.
My final purchase was a ribbed men's sweater. Somewhere inside me there's a Bill Pullman carpenter type in dusty jeans with handsome crinkles around his eyes who makes rugged Gap sweaters seem like they're impregnated by smoke from a wood-burning stove.
Somewhere outside of me, though, is a person who had a new Gap credit card she couldn't wait to misuse.
Until that time, I had no credit cards at all. Years ago, when I was too sick to work, I defaulted on student loans and got into credit trouble, allowing a bra purchase on a Sears card to accrue interest into the hundreds. (I'd gone to get new tires, and stopped in the lingerie section. The bras were suitably practical.)
After years of debt-free, cash-only living, I decided to rebuild my credit. I got some cards, made a few small purchases and paid them off on time.
Then I got a call from HSBC asking if I'd purchased a 57-inch flat-screen TV while I was in Hackensack, NJ. I had not. Nor had I filled my gas tank in Mayfair or visited Best Buy on Delaware Ave.
Someone had stolen my shiny, barely used credit cards and was now watching Oprah, enormously, on HDTV. I canceled all cards.
Then a few months ago, when I lost my health insurance, I realized I'd have to pony up roughly $600 for my medications each month. So when the card companies sent me their alluring preapproved letters, I signed up. But it gets confusing, especially when you start to think, "Well, maybe I'll just put this one thing on Visa." If ever there were a slippery slope, it's an APR.
And now the Gap wants to break up. Why? Equifax has been shit-talking about me, apparently.
Some people would be distressed by bad credit, especially during a recession. But I thrive on economic adversity. Boom times are what depress me.
When everyone is doing well and crowing about their good fortune, I feel like a shlub. I've never participated in a 401K; I've never owned a home; I have no savings or investments. I am Suze Orman's worst nightmare.
This is primarily due to my being crazy. Each moment of each day must be faced discretely in order to master it. A morning shower is a challenge. The trolley ride home is a trial. Warming up my lunch in the microwave is an Olympic feat. These moments loom heavy, like mental bad credit. Plans a week away can fill me with dread. The idea of next year is another planet.
So the notion of putting my money into an account that may pay off 30 years from now is as unreal as time travel.
For years people have regarded me with pity and terror over this lack of financial stability. The pity is obvious. The terror? That I might someday need to live with them.
I found the 401K especially bedeviling because it was water-cooler conversation. Yet no one could give me specifics. Where would my money go, exactly? The answers were unsatisfying: There was a form I could fill out. Then there were websites. And statements in the mail.
No, thanks. I wanted my money now.
Similarly, I was often told that by renting I was throwing my money away--watching it disappear in the wind like so many unread poems.
But every homeowner I knew was miserable. The boiler broke. The roof needed patching. There was a leak in the basement. Each crisis cost hundreds of dollars and hours of sleep. People came into work, zombied from worry, saying, "It's an investment. It's an investment," as if that incantation could protect them from the harsh reality that they were screwed.