The pandemic, money, and the stop-start economy.
In May 2005, I flew into Cincinnati, and was promptly put on a plane back to the UK. My offence? I'd been coming to the States a lot, and immigration got suspicious. Earlier that year, I'd spent over three months in San Diego, overstayed my visa waiver for 5 days because I hadn't realised that the 90 days don't restart if I cross the border into Mexico and back again, and had done several free shifts at a local youth hostel. It's the last bit that border officials were interested in, and informed me that even though it was unpaid work, it was still work, and I didn't have an appropriate visa.
How did they find out? I was carrying incriminating paperwork on me, in the form of a day-to-day diary in which I'd diligently written up my shifts. I was also carrying on me a copy of "The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous and Broke" by financial advisor Suze Orman (Suze is pronounced 'Suzy', by the way, and not 'Sooz', contrary to how I've pronounced her name in my head all these years. I know. It bugs the crap out of me too). Enclosed inside it was a bit of paper on which I'd scribbled down my money-related issues and concerns, as part of Ms Orman's self-actualising exercises in the book that were supposed to 'unlock my potential'. As far as the immigration officials were concerned, that sealed my fate. I clearly didn't have enough money to support myself, hence my working at the youth hostel, and I was a walking mess of financial woes. Had they applied logic, they could've figured out that someone straight out of university, carrying a book designed to teach you how to manage your finances wisely, was perhaps not hellbent on breaking the financial side of the visa waiver rules. But here we are. Having fruitlessly applied for a visa later on that year, and then again in 2007, I haven't tried since and have made peace with the fact that perhaps I may never return to the States.
Why was I in San Diego, and why was I so keen to return? Well, back then, I was involved with a troubled man with various issues, whom I'd met while backpacking in California five years prior. At the time, I was fully in the grip of a 'saviour complex', trying to rescue him from his demons, as a subconscious way of atoning for what I perceived to be a lifetime of mistakes. I'm doing A Good Thing, I thought. He can't possibly survive without me, I thought. Only I can help keep him on the straight and narrow, I thought. Of course, I was kidding myself and my sense of self-importance at the time was about as inflated as a hot-air balloon. You can't solve another person's problems for them and you can't save someone from themselves if that's contrary to what they want, and if they're not prepared to do the hard work. As it happens, the man in question was a mess for several more years, but then sorted himself out and is now living in some retirement home in Vegas, the last I heard.
After I was denied entry to the States and unceremoniously returned to the UK, for the longest time, I was tented in despair. I was 23 years old and convinced that my life was over unless I'm allowed to go back to the States. (I was a bit of a melodrama queen). It took me a month to unpack my bag. Each day, I'd look at it, sitting at the foot of my bed, and bawl. I was a mess.
Looking back from a distance of 15 years and the perspective of a well-travelled woman in her late 30s, I can honestly say now that not being allowed to enter the US at the time was one of the best things that's happened to me. For one thing, it put a natural end to a relationship with a man who was no good for me; it spurred me on to travel further afield than the US and Canada, and to stop being such a timid traveller. And while there's no denying that my life would have taken a very different turn, had they let me in that time, there are some wonderful people that I know now, whom I wouldn't have met otherwise, had it not been for that timely 'calamity.'
Ironically, when I got turned away from the United States 15 years ago because immigration officials were concerned that I didn't have the funds to support myself, that was the one time in my younger self's life when I was actually reasonably solvent and filled with good intentions with regards to tackling my student loan debt. I earnestly tried to absorb Suze Orman's 'Laws of Money'. But failed. My money management skills remained below par for many years, to the point where I was juggling credit card debt with the dexterity of a circus performer, using one to pay off another. I shuddered at the sight of brown "late payment" envelopes. On a number of occasions, I used a credit card while shopping, not knowing whether or not the payment would go through. Maybe some of you have experienced this as well. When most of my friends said "I have no money", that translated as "I have several thousand in savings, but none that I care to spend right now." When I said "I have no money," it meant that I had about £1 to my name.
About a decade ago, it got to the point where I had a ton of debt, my interest rates were soaring because of late payments, and I had no chance of paying everything off ever. So I finally swallowed my pride and applied for an IVA (Individual Voluntary Agreement) that's a halfway house between solvency and bankruptcy. My debts were frozen, a payment plan was put in place for several years, I had to give up my credit cards and bank overdraft, knuckle down and pay back as much as I was able to, with the rest written off at the end, and my credit rating restored. It was a necessary learning experience for me; since then, I've been completely solvent, and my credit card bills are paid off in full every month.
Suze Orman reappeared on my radar a couple of days ago when she was a guest on one of Kara Swisher's podcasts, Pivot. I was thus alerted to the existence of Orman's newish podcast, Money & Women, and discovered that some things in my life have come round full circle.
In Money & Women, Suze Orman gives advice to women on how best to manage their finances and what pitfalls to avoid. Recent episodes are pandemic-specific. At the moment, many people's finances are especially precarious. Many people have lost their jobs, some have been furloughed for a short period of time, the stock market is acting like a yo-yo, and rent, mortgage and other payments are looming. Through Suze, I've learned that 60% of Americans have $400 or less in their banks accounts. That the stock market (which is not the same as the economy) is up and down because many of those who've been furloughed and have had their rent/bills payments frozen for several months suddenly have money, and don't know what to do with it, so they're trying to make a quick buck. Others are freaking out and selling stock that's tanking. Others still are rushing out to buy stuff that they don't really need - both in the States and in the UK, where non-essential shops have opened up in a bid to prevent the economy from collapsing. Most people are in debt, and that's bound to only get worse.
Debt is one of Suze Orman's biggest bugbears, and a subject she devotes much time to, stressing the importance of solvency and financial security. She's highly critical of people who juggle vast amounts of debt - mortgage, car payments, holidays - but have no savings to speak of, who spend their lives in a whirlwind of stress. So why do people get into debt? For many, it's a desire to own more stuff. Many of us, Suze says, spend their lives in pursuit of the latest car, the latest iPhone, a bigger house, trying to maintain an unsustainable lifestyle and ending up with constant headaches, a hernia and a bankruptcy for their troubles. For others, if Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City is to be believed, it's an addiction to owning dozens of pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes. (For me, it was travel; all my spare money went to fund my wanderlust, and while I regret getting into unsustainable debt, I don't regret my life's experiences). If you don't have money, if you're not making an effort to be solvent, if you keep giving in to desire for impulse purchases, you don't deserve to have things, Suze says.
But some people get into debt no matter how hard they work, even if they don't have particularly extravagant tastes, simply by living in an expensive city and falling further and further behind on payments, or falling victim to illness or other misfortune. Which is why, Suze intones in that low, mellifluous voice of hers, everyone needs a money 'cushion'. Listening to Suze in her stern schoolmarm mode the other day, I've come to realise that after all these years I've absorbed a major lesson from The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous and Broke: that I have an 8-month 'cushion' to tide me over, without having to worry about rent, bills and food, even if I have no work during this time. I've learnt something after all.
So what does Suze have to say about the pandemic? She says the following. Do reassess your life and figure out exactly what the essentials and the non-essentials are. Do not spend your money on non-essentials. Do make sure that you have enough set aside to cover rent and bills. Do not freak out and sell stock just because it's currently tanking - unless you desperately need that money right now. It's likely to bounce back. Do not freak out and buy stock, especially if you don't know the first thing about investing. Always diversify. Don't make any major decisions about stock until at least Feb 2021, when the market should be more in less of a state of flux. Don't get any crackpot ideas, such as withdrawing money from your pension fund to try and buy property right this minute. Wait. You really need to know this stuff, she emphasises. Most of all, Suze stresses the importance of self-care above all else: "you, then money, then things."
Our respective governments in the States and in the UK are presenting us with a false choice: either our health and the economy. Suze dismisses this as utter bollocks. You can't have a healthy economy without a healthy population. Yes, the economy must reopen, or our countries will be hit by the Big Mama of all recessions. But there is little point in reopening unless there's a solid plan in place on how to manage the pandemic. You can reopen shops and restaurants all you want, only for people to be too frightened to go, or else not frightened enough, forgetting about social distancing and bringing about successive waves of contagion, which decimate the workforce, overwhelm healthcare systems and pummel the economy into oblivion in turn. I really hope that both Boris Johnson and Trump have the good sense to be among the "men smart enough to listen" to Suze Orman's Money & Women, but I'm not holding my breath.