I, Breadwinner?

Your dad had a job, a wife, a house. You've got loans and fear of commitment. Hello, manhood.

This wasn't what our parents had in mind for us. Many young men grew up hearing their fathers lecture on the importance of financial stability, business success, and home ownership. The thrust of these soliloquies was that if you make the right choices you won't have any problems. If I did it, so can you, son. But there was a caveat: Don't be stupid with your cash. (Also: You'll get none from me.) Implicit in all this was the suggestion that foolishness with money equals weakness. Debt was a moral deficiency. It's not the way a man conducts himself.

Easy for them to say, we thought. They didn't grow up in the age of easy credit. The credit card is just 40 years old, and it wasn't until the 1980s that a young person could get one without a signature from a parent. They didn't have to struggle to pay for an education. College is now hugely expensive—and a required step on the pathway of American citizenship. Avoid the university, we are told, and you'll wind up as a telemarketer. (You probably will anyway.) They didn't have to carry debt. We do. It's part of our life today.

"You have to remember, in the past, credit wasn't in common use," said Ryan. "You didn't have people slipping a credit application into the books you are buying at the college bookstore. Back then, nobody borrowed on credit. Bankruptcy carried a huge stigma. You would literally sell everything you had of value to repay your debts. You often knew your creditor—it was the butcher or the plumber. Now creditors are faceless."

Illustration: Anthony Freda

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    The average man doesn't think about the problems of debt until the first bad credit report prevents him from buying a car or obtaining a mortgage (both of which, of course, would grant him the luxury of more debt). That's when he feels the sting. That's when his life begins to feel ill-considered and wasteful. He curses himself for taking that trip to Jim Morrison's grave on collegiate plastic. He kicks himself for enrolling in two semesters of Hungarian instruction, a beautiful language no doubt, but about as useful to him today as a hole in the cranium. Indeed, at times like these his entire college education looks like a waste of money.

    "It's painful," said Barry Glassman, a certified financial planner who counsels law students. "If you don't make those monthly interest payments, you get a horrible credit rating and it goes on your permanent record. It's part of that anchor that is dragging you down. I see it with law students who I think would be great in the public sector. But they can't afford it. As a financial planner I can't see the numbers working. It forces people to take jobs they wouldn't normally take.

    "It's tough to think long-term when there are so many pressing issues month to month," he said. "You cannot fathom buying a house when you are trying to make a $400 payment every month."

    The problem is heightened if you have trouble finding a job in this time of fewer opportunities. "It's especially hard on people who are trying to get established, trying to get their foot in the door," said Gregory Kuhlman, director of the personal counseling program at Brooklyn College. "If you already have a decent job, you might be nervous, but it doesn't hit you like it does if you are pounding the pavement for six months."

    At this point in the saga, the typical young person might feel a little resentment, particularly when he reviews his parents' history and decides that they had it easy. They had no trouble finding decent work and buying that first home. The system then in place was designed to give them a good chance to achieve a chunk of the American dream, however they defined it. The system now in place rewards those wise folks among us who at age 19 had the foresight to worry about how their financial statement would look at age 30. All 10 of them.

    The solution is to begin chipping away at your debt burden. "The only way to empower yourself and take the power away from the debt is to face up to it," said Ryan. And quit charging—anything. Chuck your cards out the window, she suggested. Detach yourself from a way of living that depends on the "drug" of easy credit, said Ryan.

    In my experience, I saw that things have a way of improving over time. I slowly dug myself out of the hole. I was aided by the fact that I wasn't able to accumulate more debt, even if I wanted to. Incremental increases in my salary enabled me to pay off my early-college credit cards. I made peace with the banks that issued my student loans and began paying restitution to them. In short, I figured out a way to manage my debt, which is, after all, the most any of us can hope for in the worker's paradise of 21st-century America. Like Michael Jordan on the basketball court, the average American's debt cannot be stopped; it can only, with luck and fortitude, be contained.

    As long as you stay out of graduate school.

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