Friday, February 01, 2013

Counting the Cost

It was time for the semi-annual balancing of the American Express Account . . . Okay, we actually accomplish this each month, no thanks to me who would put it off indefinitely, all thanks to my much more organized husband.

I poured a fresh cup or Joe, polished my specs, and got to work. I noticed a warning prominently featured at the top of the statement:
Minimum Payment Warning: If you make only the minimum payment each period, you will pay more in interest and it will take you longer to pay off your balance. For example, if you pay only the minimal payment, you will pay off the balance in 8 YEARS! and you will pay an estimated $1700 in interest on $1700 in purchases.
Good for American Express, I thought.

If there is anything people should understand now more than ever, it's long term costs.

A friend recently took her daughter to visit an expensive private college. This young woman is a top student, valedictorian of her class, in fact. The college offered a variety of scholarships and then explained the loans she could get to make up the rather substantial shortfall.

Most seventeen year-olds have never paid a bill or calculated a budget. What does fifty thousand dollars in student loans mean when you've never earned a pay check, never paid taxes, never rented an apartment, never scrounged enough cash for security deposits, never tried to land a job with a B.A. in English lit? Nothing.

I was finishing up some after school grading one day way back when, and a friend came into my classroom. He had just graduated and landed a prime job. Time to ditch the rust bucket he had been driving for five years and purchase a real car. He handed me a pile of gleaming photos of the nifty SUV he had picked out. It was awesome and so was the bottom line, especially when you considered not just the car payment, but the insurance as well. He bought it, and his loving friends nicknamed it "The House." It really did cost about that much.

The American Express warning left me thinking about how other elements of life should come with a warning about the long term costs, the long term consequences.

When I moved to Augusta, Georgia, twenty-five years ago, I had a friend who was then about the age I am now. "Floss and wear sunscreen," she was always telling me. She had hit mid-life, that point at which teeth and skin begin to show the cumulative effects of both use and misuse.

I am there now. To my young friends, I would say, "Floss and wear sunscreen!" And then I would add, "If you don't want a wrinkle between your eyes that makes you look like you're perpetually annoyed, wear sunglasses, too!"

When you're seventeen and basking in the sun, no alarm comes over a P.A. system shouting, "Warning! You will have a scar three-quarters of an inch long at the left side of your hair line because you NEVER manage to slather that part with sunscreen, and a basal cell carcinoma is now forming. P.S. Your diagnosis will follow the most embarrassing physical exam EVER!"

One of my unspoken new years resolutions is to take better care of my body. I've shared before that I have the early, early stages of osteoporosis, the bone disease that causes my mother so much suffering. My mom was diagnosed late. I was not. In a sense I have the American Express Warning right in front of me. I can see quite clearly the cost of a crumbling spine and repeat fractures. I have visited the nursing home, gone through physical therapy, pushed the wheel chair, assembled the port-a-potty. What clearer picture do I need?

And the result? I take my calcium intermittently and still do no regular exercise. Shame on me!

And then there's the moral life.

We recently dealt with one of young sons who has suddenly begun swearing. I could easily have blown my stack over the whole affair, but instead we had a little heart to heart chat about how actions morph into habits.

"Years ago I never struggled with swearing," I told my son. "Then I started using curse words when I was joking around. All of a sudden, I found myself swearing a lot and really struggling to stop."

Things have a way of getting away from us.

A trivial example, perhaps, but I'm reminded of the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny. 

We can apply this to any one of a hundred decisions we make in a week: Do we say the kind word or the impatient one? Do we tell the truth or fudge? Do we dither on the Internet for an hour or read our kids bedtime stories? Do we sleep in or make it to church?

No one gets into drowning debt after a single trip to the mall. A spine doesn't crumble when a patient skips her calcium for a day or a week or even a month. But habits eventually brush up against destiny. 

Would that we all understood and could quantify the final cost of our choices.  That cigarette . . .  that website . . . that cold response . . . that lie.

And in the midst of all our tallying -- moral and medical and financial -- let us never forget that there is grace and healing. Always, always, always there is grace and healing.


Kris said...

The problem is, when you are young, you think you are invincible. And that older people know nothing. If I could convince my kids otherwise, it would save them a lot of trouble!

Anonymous said...

Kris' comment reminds me of the Mark Twain quote, something along the lines of "When I was 15, I thought my father knew nothing; when I was 17 I thought he'd figured out a thing or two, and by the time I was twenty, I couldn't believe how much the old man had learned!"

The whole money thing is very difficult even for people like me who are careful with money and who try to plan for the future. At the moment I need to decide whether it's worth paying into a pension fund, or if it would just be better putting the money in the bank every month. The statement reads, "At today's rates, you may receive X amount each month by the time you retire" - and I think, oh yeah, or it could be worth nothing at all...

Kate said...

Always better putting money in a tax deferred vehicle.

Kelly said...

I definitely had my fair share of the invincibility mindset when I was a teenager. Yikes, I'm glad I'm in one piece.

When I read through some of our retirement info, I tend to get a tad glassy-eyed. It all seems so distant (but not as distant as it used to) and, yes, there are plenty of unknowns in any investment. As Kate points out, a tax-deferred investment has a guaranteed return.