I was talking the other day with one of my aunts and she told me a really sad story about a couple she and my uncle were really good friends with. It is the story of how credit card reliance and a shopping addiction can ruin a family. It is also a cautionary tale for burning bridges or only contacting your friends when you need something.
What is amazing is how in extreme cases such as this one, after all those purchases, all those “things” bought over the years, there really is nothing left. No value. No way out. Nothing. (The facts of this story are for the most part true, but with names changed and creative license taken as to some of the emotions, etc. Again, I do not know these people, but this was the sense I got from the story).
The Good Times – The 70′s
It was the 70′s and this family, we will call them the Pederman’s, for anonymity sake (I do not even remember their real name anyway) were young and in love. They both had solid jobs and were working hard towards their future. After the lavish wedding paid for by the bride’s parents, they quickly purchased a home in Philadelphia, with down payment help from their parents. Shortly thereafter they began growing their family and two children were born. They would often take a modest vacation to the Jersey Shore each summer, but overall they did not splurge all too often.
It would later be viewed as an error by others, although never admitted as such by the Pederman’s themselves, that the marital residence was purchased in the city rather than one of the developing suburbs to the west of the metropolis.
The Ok Times – The 80′s
Greed was good and the market was on the rebound, but things were no longer on the upswing for the Pedermans. Mrs. Pederman had become somewhat withdrawn after she became a part-time worker, full-time mother. She would often try to fill the void by treating herself to expensive shopping trips. Many a quiet morning was spent with Mrs. Pederman solitarily pushing a stroller up and down the big city department stores.
Perhaps with a designer handbag around her arm or a delicate scarf wrapped around her neck she felt more secure in her station in life. Maybe it allowed her to indulge her whimsical ideals of life in a far off country, or the sense of romance she now realized she would never possess in her present situation.
Credit card debt began to accelerate while the city neighborhood they lived in slowly became a diminished version of its prior glory. Crime increased and funding to the local schools suffered. Property values depreciated. An expensive private school was chosen for the children.
The Bad Times – The 90′s and 00′s
Despite several $10,000.00+ economic bailouts from their families, which were always accompanied by a promise to cut up their now fully paid off credit cards and never use them again, they would also return to The Card.
The plastic cards seemed to possess a power of persuasion over the Pedermans that they could not control. The always accomodating families eventually passed away, leaving a sizable inheritance. This too was soon blown.
Mr. Pederman was now working two jobs, and would often eat out for every meal of the day. He would treat himself to expensive vintage vinyls and other collectibles that for a moment would maybe bring back remnants of his youth. He worked hard and he deserved to indulge himself a little, right? After all, if he didn’t spend it she would.
There were no fancy vacations. No trip to Europe. The kids were sent back to public schools and their grades suffered. The house was never paid off but a home equity loan or two was added on top of the mortgage.
They drove somewhat nice, but non-luxerious leased cars, but other then that it would prove difficult to say exactly what the Pederman’s possessed for all of their hard work and despite all of their spending. There was certainly no money set aside for their retirement, their children’s college education, an emergency, or even a rainy day. The debt load became more and more unbearable, but bankruptcy largely discharged their mistakes for a period of time.
The Worst of Times – 2011
A few years passed where my aunt never heard from the Pedermans at all. It was as if they had vanished. She hoped in her heart that they had gotten their financial act together. Perhaps sought counseling for their shopping addictions. They were after all, now in their 50′s. Maybe they had matured or been forced by life to atone and try to get past their issues. She knew that some compulsions are more difficult to break than others, and doubted they would ever be willing to admit they had a problem.
The last time she spoke to them their children still lived at home even though they were now adults and were not attending college.
She assumed they would never speak again, despite the fact that both couples were once inseparable friends. But then one day not too long ago late at night she received a telephone call. It was at a decidedly strange hour and the caller id did not show a recognizable number. Rain beat against the window panes and the dogs awoke at the ringing. The sound pierced the quiet house. ”Whatever it is, it must be bad news,” she remembers thinking.
She picked up the phone. It was Mrs. Pederman. The voice still instantly familiar despite the gap in time.
“It has been too long!” Mrs. Pederman said. How are you guys?
My aunt was suspicious. ”What’s going on?” Mrs. Pederman certainly didn’t sound drunk.
“We lost our house in a foreclosure. And now we are being evicted from the apartment we were living in. We need help.”
“Well—-I am so sorry to hear that. What can we do for you?”
“We need somewhere to crash. Just for a few days, maybe a week.”
My aunt felt terrible. She put Mrs. Pederman on hold and went to talk to my uncle.
“If they come in here, they will never leave.” My uncle pleaded. ”They are users. Always have been. Used up their parents generosity and never learned a thing. Only called here the last few years when they needed something. When you stopped throwing them a little money they stopped coming around all together. They have never repaid a cent, to us or anyone else!”
My uncle was a tough critic, but he had some good points. ”Let me see why they are so down on their luck.”
“Because they are addicted to shopping!” My uncle replied, tersely. ”But isn’t it our job to help friends in need. Particularly if they have a problem?”
“They will not be helped by another bailout. Maybe they need to hit rock bottom.” It was a harsh sentence, my uncle will fully admit. He didn’t feel great about himself having said it, despite its indicia of truth.
My aunt shuffled back to the phone with a feeling of extreme tension and terror in the pit of her stomach.
“What kind of a person am I,” She though to herself. She slowly moved the phone back to her ear. She could hear her heart beating through the phone.
The voice on the other end of the phone was slightly pushy. ”So… can we come over or what?” My aunt answered the question with a question. Something in the tone of Mrs. Perderman’s voice turned her off. It was the undertone of entitlement, she would later say.
“What happened? How did you become…..?” (She didn’t want to use the word homeless).
“We got evicted. Before that our house was foreclosed on.”
“I know…but what occurred for those things to happen? You bought your house 35 years ago. There was no equity in it after all these years?”
“Did one of you lose your job?”
“Was there an illness or another health type emergency?”
“No. Everyone has been healthy as can be.”
“So, what happened?” Mrs. Pederman began to get frustrated.
“Look, are you going to let us come over or what?”
“No….I’m sorry….I’m sorry but I can’t allow that to happen.”
The next question came out immediately, in an unaffected tone. ”Well then, I guess you will at least lend us some money.”
“We’ve got a wedding to pay for and our kids college, we really can’t.”
There was silence.
There was no point in finishing the sentence, Mrs. Pederman was gone.
Probably to call the next person on her list.
So….were my aunt and uncle too harsh? What would you have done in that situation? What should have been done? I am pretty on the fence about the whole thing. I think they were justified in what they did but at the same time I know it would be tough to say that to someone who was once my best friend. Very sad story. Thoughts?