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AustinMama offers up some Daddy props.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein

Creeping Debt

When I had hair to my waist, I remember head-banging to a song by then-fledgling band Metallica entitled "Creeping Death." Like most of the heavy metal I listened to, and later sang with my own band, it had literary pretensions beyond the purely sophomoric; this one's about the angel of death sweeping through Egypt to convince Pharoah to let Moses' people go. Now, I haven't been pissed-off enough to require a regular diet of heavy metal since my music collection was mostly vinyl, but that song kept coming into my head today, with one alteration. The big bugaboo in my life today is creeping debt.

As with many folks, it started small. Sure, the mortgage of Damocles is going to dangle ominously over us forever, but it's no worse than rent. Huge ticket items, like renovations, we only planned when we knew we could budget for them. What in retrospect I believe has done us in is attrition debt. Some new dishes, a bargain on sale. A restaurant meal of convenience here and there or just because it felt like a treat. Movies that we couldn't pass up because the video store was going out of business. Curtains, cheap in Ikea's as-is department. A hundred bucks here and there, throw it on the plastic and we'll pay it down. Then there's the unexpected: the day our insurance company told us we had two days to replace or remove our fireplace or have our house insurance terminated, the astounding bill for Hugh's dental surgery, repairs to the van. Suddenly we're being nibbled to death. Relationship stresses inevitably result, and drastic measures are called for.

We cover the harvest table with receipts, bills and scribbled calculations. I cancel the daily newspaper and, with only a little grumbling, we lose everything beyond basic cable, too. With the insane amount they charge for reconnection fees, this is actually cheaper than disconnecting it entirely, if we want it back anytime within eight months. With some juggling and further trimming, it still looks grim. Swallowing our pride, we hit up friends and family for minor loans, and it looks like we just might squeak through this month.

Then we turn a really critical eye on our possessions. Those Disney videos seemed like good ideas at the time, but what can we get for them on eBay? There's even a couple of boxes of memories from Jan's childhood we can hock - vintage Barbie clothes and an original Punkinhead teddy bear. An ad in the paper turns the old car seat into some cash. Every bit helps.

And one day I walk into the local grocery store with a mission - can I feed a family of four for a week on about $70? That's $2.50 per person per day. At first, the mere prospect terrifies me, but as I walk around, forgotten resources well up in me, and I enter a surprisingly zen calm. Truth be told, I haven't yet in this life been particularly good at making money. I work hard, I'm meticulous, and I have a real flair with a number of valuable skills, but some deep-seated self-worth issue I haven't yet surmounted often dogs my efforts to effectively market that brilliance. Lean times, though, summon inner resources I don't doubt whatsoever. When forced to, I excel at scrimping to live within my means. Twenty minutes later, I emerge with six dinners planned and $30 left over for whichever staples we run out of first, and it feels heroic. It helps, of course, that some of the foods our kids will be excited to eat are cheap crap. I served a Kraft Dinner analogue for the first time in a decade and Keefe was ecstatic. "This is great: you never buy this stuff!" We're also reacquainting ourselves with what the back wall of the freezer looks like, which feels rather nice. My obsessive-ness about diet has to take a temporary back seat to expedience.

I feel guilty, but not much. Like any parent, I wish for my children never to know want. Want is instructive, though. Whatever frugal instincts I have are inheritance from my mother's herculean efforts in my own financially limited childhood. There will be a day, not too many months from now, when I can again wheel around the aisles planning gourmet meals without an aftertaste of stress, and I will be reminded what a blessing it is. For the boys, too, maybe the gift of this process will be some perspective. After all, we're still far wealthier than most of the planet. Times of adversity inevitably draw people closer together or drive them apart. Our family is strong and full of love, and this transient trouble can only, in the final reckoning, serve as glue. When you're counting your pennies, you've got to count your blessings, too.

Michael Nabert is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh and Keefe.  Send feedback for Michael to: poprocks@austinmama.com


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AustinMama operates on a shoestring budget, which is often untied causing us to trip a lot.  Our noses could probably use a good wiping, too.  But we are decent people who will never be too proud to accept charitable donations to our cause.  We promise.

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