The less you have, the less you have to lose

by Alan Kesselheim

The other day a friend of mine made a comment that has been rolling around in my head ever since. "You know," he told me, "you're pretty recession-proof."

I didn't know how to respond. I was taken aback at first. I'd never thought of myself that way, but I guess I know what he means. What he means is that I don't live under looming debt.

Some years back I was able to pay off my house. Goodbye mortgage. I own an older vehicle that I finished loan payments on long ago. I am allergic to credit card debt. I hate to use plastic in the first place. There's something vaguely suspicious about the whole scheme that makes me wary. Every time I swipe a card, I can't help feeling I've been bamboozled. As a result, I don't think I've ever even made a late payment, and so what if my airline miles rack up at a glacial creep.

I don't know where this aversion to financial risk came from, but I've always hated owing money. I don't have any family history of debtor's prison, bankruptcy court, or fiscal mismanagement that I'm aware of, but even as a youngster, when I went into a financial hole, it really bothered me. I felt it as an oppressive, hovering weight that would bear down on me until I could make enough money mowing lawns or delivering papers or caddying on the local golf course to finally pay off that new bike or pair of skis. The liberation of that last payment has always been, for me, like breathing deep again after a long, chronic state of partial suffocation.

So what my friend was saying is that I'm invulnerable to the collapse of leveraged material wealth that this culture is so tragically addicted to -- expensive homes, new cars, entertainment centers, glitzy vacations. The stuff a lot of us want but can't actually afford. Lucky me. Of course, another way he could have put it is that when it comes to the tumble of recession, I don't have far to fall because I live close to the bone.

I admit to feeling a little pulse of pride when he said that. Yeah, recession-proof; I like the sound of that. But it didn't last long because while I may not be in immediate danger of being buried alive under mountains of debt, I can't say that I feel particularly secure, either. Because I'm not.

I live on a modest, mostly freelance, income. When magazine ad sales dry up in a recession, my assignments tend to dry up, too. I'm one of those 50 million Americans without health insurance. In terms of a savings safety net, mine is pretty frail.

I keep putting off buying the new garage door my house needs. I've been thinking about a new roof for several years now, and am about to gamble on another season in exchange for taking a summer canoe trip. If my car, or computer, or furnace goes out, I'll have to scramble. To say nothing of something really big, like heart surgery. A little slip of fate could tap me out tomorrow.

It's a conscious choice. I've decided that there are other things besides money that matter to me, and that make a certain level of vulnerability worth it. I value my flexibility, my independence, my time with the kids, my ability to go off on adventures, more than deep financial pockets and the brand of slavery that those deep pockets would require.

There is no way I would want to trade places with folks who have accumulated the trappings of wealth on the back of debt. It would feel desolate to live in a house of cards and feel the walls start to collapse around me. No thanks.

But I can't say I feel smug. Not in the least. It never occurs to me that I have it made in the shade. I can't remember a single time in my life when it did. But now that I come to think of it, that awareness might be the most recession-proof thing I have going.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Bozeman, Montana.

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