First, a little good news. Back when the housing bubble burst and banks tightened up on credit card lending in the fall of 2008, I was one of many people who started worrying about public debt. I don't just mean our federal debt, which I've been worried about for a long time, I mean the debt that we, the public owe to various banks in the forms of loans, credit cards, mortgages, etc. We live in an era where many people live beyond their means. I used to drive around and see all these new housing developments filled with half million dollar homes and brand new cars and wondered, who can afford to live like this? It turned out, of course, that a lot of people couldn't afford to live like this. Now that credit has tightened up, I know of some high dollar developments built at the peak of the housing bubbles that now are ghost towns. There was an article I read recently that said that over 100,000 mortgages for Bank of America were over a year deliquent; there would be even more abandoned houses if the banks had the resources and the will to foreclose on all their bad debts. And, at least mortgages are secured by actual property. The banks are in even bigger trouble with credit cards, which are secured by zilch.
That last paragraph just doesn't seem like it should start, "First, a little good news," does it? I meant for it to be a much shorter introduction to the news that I just got my American Express bill yesterday, and the balance was zero. Nothing. Nada. Back in 2008, my worry about debt wasn't just a worry about the behavior of others: It was a time when my eyes popped open to my own stupidity as a consumer. In August 2008, I had four credit cards, with a combined debt total just shy of 20,000. ($19,434 to be exact.) I justified this debt because all the interest rates were fairly low. Since I have good credit, I was a frequent recipient of offers for new cards with deals like 3.99% rates on balance transfers for the life of the loan. So, my debt was spread between cards with 2.99, 3.99, a small balance on a card at 7.99, and a card with a variable rate that hasn't been above 5% since I got it. Since it wasn't costing me a tremendous amount of interest to manage the debt, it was easy to pretend it wasn't a problem. Secondly, my debt compared to the equity in my house and the value of my 401k was pretty small. As long as my 401k was growing at a healthy clip, and as long as my equity in my house could wipe out all my credit card debt when I sold it, I wasn't worried. But, of course, when the housing bubble burst, I could no longer count on my house maintaining value and my 401k was losing money with each statement. It was time for me to stop being complacent about my debt. My strategy was to look at the minimum payments on all four cards and double that total... but pay that extra on the highest rate card. So, I effectively maintained the debt on three of the cards, while knocking down the highest rate card in big chunks. When that was paid off, I moved to the next card, maintaining the same overall payment level, so the second card fell even faster than the first card. I was also helped out, I confess, by some large lump sum payments from my book income. Now, two and a half years later, I've paid off three cards and am left with the variable rate mastercard, which I still owe way too much on ($8,500). But, I can now attack it with the sum I once paid over four cards. The math doesn't quite work out for me to be out of debt by the end of 2010 like I'd hoped, but 2011 looks doable. All in all, it's a nice milestone for me to be back to one credit card bill. I'd throw a party to celebrate, except that I'd have to go into debt to buy the booze and food, since I've spent all my freakin' money for the last two years on getting rid of debt.
Now, a little bad news: I sat down this morning intending to link to a previous "Jawbone of an Ass" post where I discussed my personal credit card debt and my resolve to eliminate it. I googled "James Maxey credit card debt." The article I wanted wasn't on the first page, so I tightened the search by adding "Jawbone" to it, which pretty much guarantees hits from my blog. And, I still couldn't find it! There were just too many pages of hits to filter through. But, no matter. I could write the article without the link. Except, as I was writing the first paragraph, I thought about linking to the article I read about the number of mortages in default by over a year, and, after a half dozen tries, I gave up. There were just too many articles being turned up by the words "delinquent" or "default" and "mortgage."
This was really disturbing to me, because my own, personal, biological memory has been tanking over the last few years. I'm sure it's just normal aging, the kind of stuff other people over forty have to deal with, but it really sucks. At work, I used to be a person who could remember some obscure job from five years before when a customer would want to reorder it and I'd remember details like what printer we'd used, what paper stock had been chosen, etc. Now, I can't remember jobs from the previous month. Part of this was a change in workload. Like many workplaces, fewer and fewer employees are used to keep track of the work, and the time I spend on any given job has shrunk. But, another part just seems to be that the little shelves in my brain where I store and organize information have just gotten filled up and cluttered, and any new information I jam in seems to dislodge old information. My brain seems to have exceeded it's storage capacity.
While I was aware of the growing weakness of my memory, I took some comfort in the fact that my memories were now mechanically augmented. If there's a song that I have a tiny fragment of lyric stuck in my head, I can google that lyric fragment and the next thing I know I have the whole song. Or, if there's some article I read that I want to recover some detail from, I just google, and there it is. And, since I've been blogging for years, I frequently google my own blog to discover the dates of certain events in my life. But with my two google failures this morning, I'm starting to wonder: What if our ability to store information is outpacing our ability to organize and recover it? The number of articles, blog posts, photos, etc. put online on any given day keeps growing exponentially. The sorting tools don't seem to be improving at the same rate. What does this portend for the future? Will our electronic collective memory suffer the same clutter and decay that our biological minds endure? Will we be unable to find the information we want not because it's forgotten, but simply because it's lost among too many similar things? It's easy to find needles in haystacks. But often I'm looking for a single straw, and we keep piling on straw.
My debt, I knew how to fix. My memory... I have no idea.