We were down visiting Tim’s parents this week. Whenever we’re in the area, we also drop by Tacoma (about a 15-minute drive) and see some of the people he grew up with.
As always, it’s a bit of a culture shock for me.
Welcome to Tacoma
It’s not that Tacoma is some foreign land, but there are definitely different norms when you grow up there. Kids come earlier, marriage comes later (if at all), and financial considerations pretty much have no role in either. Most of them don’t have credit cards, some don’t even have bank accounts. Nobody bats an eye when someone talks about paying a check-cashing fee.
I want to stress, making bad financial decisions is very, very different from being a bad person. They have been nothing but friendly and welcoming to me, despite the fact that Tim is about the only thing we have in common.
But no one in this community thinks very far ahead in the financial future. Decisions are made based on today. They don’t expect to ever be financially stable, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Meet Tom and Deanna
Two of Tim’s friends, let’s call them Tom and Deanna, will probably never get their financial feet under them. Until 6 months ago, they were living in a one-bedroom house with their two sons, 3 and 7. If not for some very tragic turns of fate, they would have three more children.
Now they have moved into a rental house (owned by Tom’s mom) so everyone has room to breathe.
Tom works in construction, mainly drywall. He gets paid very well for what he does, but the work comes in fits and starts. This year was a particularly bad year and he spent most of the last 6 or so months out of work.
Deanna didn’t work much this year, for a combination of reasons (some good, some specious). Around September, she got a $10/hr job. By the time she started, they were quite literally on their last few dollars. They had to use vouchers from the state so that they could have interview attire and things like razors, so that Tom could be clean shaven for interviews.
Things got better (sorta)
Tom is doing more work now, and so Deanna was able to quit her job, which was requiring her to work 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. — and had just informed her that her pay was about to decrease.
Despite finances being a little less irregular now, they’re still living precariously. They were counting on Tom’s tax return having come in by now. (H&R Block promised his card would be loaded in 8 to 15 days. That was on January 15.)Because they still aren’t married, Tom was able to claim the kids and is getting over $8000 back — after the $239 H&R Block fee.
But the tax money still hasn’t come through — according to the IRS the payment is due by Feb 24th, delayed because of processing difficulties.
Deanna told me she didn’t have enough for rent. She received a second notice for her water/sewer/garbage. The next stage is having the utilities shut off. Things were so tight, she said, that they were selling some pain pills from a recent surgery. She hastened to add that they didn’t usually do that sort of thing, but the cash was kind of important.
This all came about an hour after she’d convinced us to try out a Chinese buffet with them that night. She had a 15%-off coupon and a punch card that, with four people eating, would give them a free meal.
When I asked how much it was, she said it was “only” about $10 a person. (The free meal would have lessened the cost, at least for her, but the restaurant wouldn’t combine the coupons. The total was $23 a couple. Not bad, but more than I had planned to spend on a single meal.)
By dinnertime, things were pretty relaxed. Tom’s boss finally stopped by with $200 from a job Tom did in early December. Tom said they should go out to the casino, now that they had the money. Deanna reminded him we were going to dinner.
Tim added that we probably couldn’t afford to go a casino anyway. Though, he said, he’d check with me. Tom said he’d give us $20 to help ease the cost. A nice offer but we couldn’t afford both dinner and the casino. And it’s harder to get carried away and overspend at dinner.
After dinner, and back at their house, I got on the computer to show Deanna the Bank of America settlement website so that they could apply. It went quite quickly thanks to their cable modem.
Also, while we were there, I discovered they have cable. Based on the channels they mentioned, their package costs $55.75 a month, though they would get a $10/month discount on their cable modem for having multiple services. And if they bundled their phone in, they could be paying $33 for each of the three services.
Still, I have to wonder how useful cable internet is if your water gets shut off.
Bankruptcy without cause
And just in case my judgmental-alarm wasn’t already blaring away, Deanna casually mentioned that she’s considering declaring bankruptcy. Given that she has no credit cards or bank accounts, I was quite curious as to why she’d do that.
Her student loans. She kept deferring them, she said, but they’ll never have enough money to pay them off.
How much do you owe, I asked. She looked solemn and slightly wide-eyed when she said they were over $10,000.
I suggested she start with $50 a month for now, increasing when she becomes employed again. “They don’t want $50 a month,” she told me. I tried to explain that all she had to do was call and say it was $50 or nothing — assuring her that the government would take the former.
That’s when she and Tom told me they don’t think they should have to pay the loans back anyway. She had to stop her schooling because of complications with a pregnancy. She never went back. And they were only teaching her things that she learned in high school, anyway.
Despite my better judgment, I argued (as politely as possible) that it was a shame the school was sub-par, but wasn’t that her responsibility to check out before taking out the loans? They both maintained that since the college didn’t help her get or find a job — and since the education was mostly things she already knew — they shouldn’t have to pay the money.
Deanna did add that the school is closed and there are lawsuits pending. My advice was to hold off on any decisions until something came from that, but she’s doubtful that it will get resolved ever.
I guess it didn’t register with them that we’d be a bad audience for that kind dismissive attitude. After all, we just in November finished paying off Tim’s $15,000 of student loans — also to a school with slightly shady practices.
I guess it also didn’t occur to them that the $8,500 Tom is getting back would make an excellent initial payment against those debts. Much better that her son gets his Lightning McQueen race-car bed, about $250 in stores.
A culture more than an attitude
The thing is, no matter how much of a headache it gives me, Tom and Deanna’s situation and attitude toward money are totally common in this area.
Like I said, no one expects to get ahead financially. People routinely move back in with parents in between jobs. Some don’t even bother leaving while employed, spending the funds on girlfriends, food out and hobbies. They spend their entire paycheck and then wonder how they’ll make it for the next 10 days.
They expect to forever be fighting to make ends meet, which means they had better enjoy what reprieves they get. So when a little money comes in, they go out to eat, even if they can’t pay their rent or their water. They firmly believe that it’s easier to not have a bank account, but instead to pay check-cashing fees. Not being able to afford the kids they have, they don’t see much point in consistently guarding against future pregnancies.
In essence, they live in a nearly pure state of reaction.
If they get pregnant, that’s just the way it is. They don’t make plans. They simply try to keep their heads above water as life happens to them. Unemployment means difficulty in looking for work, because someone has to stay home with the kids. They don’t look into state assistance for daycare costs.
They live for the today, because they know tomorrow will be another money struggle. And, in living that way, they ensure that that is exactly what will happen.