Buddy, can you paradigm?

I ran out of money this year. Simply ran out—couldn’t find a job, then I lived on my savings & 401(k). In May, I sold the house for zero profit because of the bills. I’m now living with friends in their spare bedroom and eating tomatoes from their garden. I’ve got a part-time job checking out vampire books to sullen teens in the local library. Eight dollars an hour doesn’t begin to pay what I owe my friends (or anyone else). The paradigm shift has been personal. Here’s what the last year has been like, from notes I made at the time. Talking about money is like talking about the weather: everybody has their own issues with it, and everybody finds a way to deal with it.

Complaining about money or the lack of it is the American way. The first question many people ask is related to this idea: “What do you do?” means “how do you make your money?” It’s such an important question Americans ask it right off the top. Guessing how much money people have is the proper use of the rest of polite conversation. Cocktails are nice and are helpful in this process, but optional.

When you’re out of money the question shifts from “what do you do?” to “what will you do?” It’s a seismic shift in personal dynamic: suddenly you understand that other people are standing on the shore watching you float off to open water. They’re thinking: Glad I’m not in that boat.

You’re thinking: God I wish I had a boat.

Actually discussing what to do once you’re out of money is totally un-American. It’s the cause of acute embarrassment all around. The initial “What will you do?” is usually followed with a lot of stammering, averted eye-contact, and a recitation of well-meaning ideas. These ideas are what people think you ought to do, rather than the offer of a job, or even better, the money to pay the light bill.

This is a subtle suggestion that you haven’t been really looking for work, you’ve been lying in bed until noon eating breakfast.

In reality every night you’re getting four hours of broken sleep, waking every 30 minutes in a cold sweat until you doze off again, even more exhausted, and finally get up at 5 am. to make coffee. You want to be wired as hell when your creditors start phoning at 8 am.

By the way: when you’re seriously out of money, nothing makes the day seem to go faster than wondering when the phone will ring.

Trust me, when it does, it’s not a job offer.

The sympathetic question “What will you do?” actually means, “Poor guy! I suddenly feel a whole lot better about my less-than-perfect job. I guess I can put off looking for a better one for six months.

Bankruptcy is no longer the stigma it once was, in some ways. Telling strangers, like your creditors, that you have no money is one thing. They know what to do, and there’s no shame telling Sean at the credit card company that you can’t make payments. He’ll make arrangements you can’t refuse. You don’t know Sean, and he’ll forget your name by lunchtime.

On the other hand, telling friends that you are broke instantly creates a chapter in your life that your friends, even the most charitable, will recall with the words, “I remember this time when he was broke…”

This pesky idea is one you want to go away. The idea of your brokeness may even recede with time among your friends, but unfortunately it remains surprisingly resilient: it will return at some point, like a case of shingles. At your funeral, your best friend will recall a funny event involving the deceased “when he didn’t have any money.”

If this condition were expressed in terms of a disease, it would sound like this: “His bank account succumbed after a long battle with debt.”

Debt and one’s struggle with the more virulent strains of money issues can be expressed like any other: Imagine a ribbon in the shape of a dollar sign.

Black ribbon: I’m ahead of the game. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Green ribbon: I’m paying my bills on time. What more do you want?
Black and blue ribbon: I’m putting my house note on my credit card. I’m getting used to the monthly beatings.
Red ribbon: I give up. I don’t open any envelope in the mail that has a window in it.
Gold ribbon: Restructured my debt! Just in time, too.

Restructuring debt isn’t just for third-world nations and Donald Trump anymore. Triumphant fanfare is heard: “He’s a debt survivor.” (Oprah-like audience applauds).

People’s responses to others’ indebtedness can take many forms, but all of them hit a singular note:

The Italian opera approach: “Oh, my God! Why didn’t you tell us this before??? We can’t help you. What will you do? Oh my God!”

The medical-evaluation approach: “Wow. Well, you certainly look good. We can’t help you. What will you do?”

The coroner’s-verdict approach: “Ah! I wondered why you don’t look so well. I can’t help you. What will you do?”

The self-employed approach: “Man, that reminds me. I’ve got to get this check in the bank right away. I can’t help you. What will you do?”

The artist approach: “Don’t I know it! What will you do?”

The distant family member approach: “Yeah. Tell your creditors not to call us when you talk to them.”

The creditor approach: “This is Sean with Creditcrunch Financial. Call us by 9 pm tonight to make arrangements.”

Finally, a quote from always-appropriate Mark Twain:
“A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.”