My Debt Problem Began With a Wallet

wallet
I applied for my first credit card during my junior year of college. The application required an annual salary, which I didn’t have. But not having an annual salary wasn’t an option, so I checked the box indicating $100,000-$120,000. I justified the lie with the internal argument that my father’s income at the time must have been about that—or so I then suspected. I must have been wrong, though, since my father declared bankruptcy two years later. But this is about me and my money mess, not his.

When my credit card arrived I felt a rush of excitement and shame not dissimilar to the first time I caught a glimpse of porn. (It was at my friend Sarah’s house and, yes, it belonged to her father and, yes, we found it in his closet in a shoebox and, yes, it was a VHS and, yes, we did have to rewind it to the exact spot where we found it when we finished our miniature expedition into the adult world).

This credit card was like that VHS. I knew I shouldn’t have it, but I was thrilled that I did.

I’ve never admitted my first purchase to anyone because it’s always seemed too embarrassing, and far too symbolic. I’m admitting it here, now, mostly because no one in my family knows about this website (apologies, Billfold… It says rotten things about them, not about you). I bought a wallet. And I didn’t even go to a store to do it. I was so jazzed to use the card that I couldn’t wait for an expedition to a mall, which might not have happened for several more days. My first call after I opened the envelope was to activate the card. My second call—this is back when you still had to call!—was to Banana Republic. I ordered a $40 wallet that I’d found in the catalogue. It was brown leather with white stitching. I didn’t like it all that much, but my credit card needed a home.

Already, I had a problem.

But it was nine years and $40,000 later before I was ready to admit it or, if not admit it (I kept the full extent of my debt hidden from my family until I was out of it), then at least do something about it.

I was freshly out of grad school and, on the day of my “epiphany,” I was in Target looking for something to buy, hoping it would make me feel better. I wasn’t feeling good because a) my first collection of stories, along with a novella, had been rejected by one publishing house after another, b) my agent at the time was growing increasingly difficult to reach, and c) my adoptive stepfather was dying.

I was in a dressing room with a small mountain of clothing at my feet. I never bought anything outrageous—no thousand dollar watches, no last-minute trips to Europe a la Francis Ha—I was quite happy to rack up debt by purchasing cheap black dresses from Target that I wore for waitressing and by paying for everyone else’s drinks when waitressing was over for the night. But on this day, there was nothing in my mountain that I wanted. There was nothing in the mountain that, by owning, would make my book sell, make my agent like me again, or make my stepfather less sick.

What I did was lie down on the dressing room floor and weep. If you’re wondering: yes, the door went all the way to the floor so no one could see me and, no, it wasn’t the first time I’d done this, but it is the time that mattered because I walked out of Target—having re-hung every dress on its appropriate hanger and returned them to the attendant who was nice enough to ignore my face—and drove home empty-handed (in a beat-up Grand Marquis that my grandfather, now dead, had given me in a fit of sympathy).

I didn’t immediately start research into non-profit debt management programs, but it was some time not long after. There were other breakdowns, of course. My collection never sold; my agent eventually divorced me; and my dear, dear, dear stepfather left us all for good (an event we are all still struggling to make sense of). The story of how I got out of debt isn’t particularly remarkable: I got myself into a debt management program and, five years (and some-120 massive payments) later, I was debt-free.

I wrote my second novel, REUNION, during my final year in the program. I hadn’t set out to write a book about debt. I’d set out to write a book about family, infidelity, and suicide. My grandfather had shot himself the summer before and it was a topic from which I couldn’t seem to get away whenever I sat down to write. Money, on the other hand, was so pervasive in my thoughts that it had never occurred to me as a subject. That is, not until the first few readers—people I respect—told me there was something missing from REUNION. My friend Anna said, “It’s as though there’s something else you’re talking about but you’re afraid to really talk about it. What is it?” Hackneyed, but it was as though a light bulb had turned on above my head.

At about the same time I finished the book (with a now debt-laden protagonist), I was visiting my mother, who charged me with the task of going through my many boxes of junk that I’d saddled her with over the years. I was in her garage trying to find anything worth salvaging. I’d been sifting through stacks of old letters and piles of dead stories for more than an hour when I discovered the wallet.

More than a decade had past since I last saw it. The stitching, once so white, had turned gray and was coming apart at the corners. The leather was in surprisingly decent condition. (There was no money inside and not the dreaded first credit card either.) It’s too maudlin to think that if I hadn’t bought that wallet I might never have gone into debt. If it hadn’t been the wallet, it would have been a belt. If it hadn’t been a belt, it would have been a new bra. If it hadn’t been a new bra … the list is endless. But holding that wallet that day in the garage took me back to my dreary dorm room junior year of college. It took me back to that living room at my friend Sarah’s house where we giddily inserted the VHS into the player and watched what we had no business watching and certainly no chance of understanding. I thought that writing about debt was the moment I finally came clean, was the moment I finally forgave myself for the needless burden of 10 years’ worth of worry and shame in the form of $40,000. But I think the real moment, or at least the moment that might have felt better—but only slightly—than selling that novel, was throwing away the world’s ugliest wallet.

 

Hannah Pittard is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Fates Will Find Their Way. Her second novel, Reunion, is being published in October 2014. Her stories have appeared in The American Scholar, McSweeney’s, and many other publications. A consulting editor for Narrative Magazine, she is recipient of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She teaches fiction at the University of Kentucky’s MFA program in creative writing. For more information on Hannah Pittard, visit her online at www.hannahpittard.com or follow her on Twitter @hannahpittard.

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