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Worry isn’t currency, a penny saved really is a penny earned, and floss your teeth!

What Older People Won’t Tell Younger People About Surviving Economic Stress

How the hell did it get to be April already? Wasn’t it just December — of 2003? Such is the lament of those who have crossed the great meridian into middle age and are well on their way to what I thought was old age — but to see my dad and his wife lead their lives, ain’t nothin’ old about it.

These tough economic times are taking their toll on everyone, but for the very young adult and the very old adult, the sources of stress are very different. For the younger set it’s all about getting through the next month by getting and staying employed, paying rent, and buying food.

For the older set (especially those who lost a great deal of their life savings because of Wall Street’s douchebag, gambling-addict pisswads), it is an issue of completely overhauling a budget to stretch out a set amount of money over what could be upwards of 20 years — some of which might not be delightfully mobile.

Both the older and the younger sets have inherent advantages — each of them a disadvantage to the other. While youth has its energy (that includes you middle-agers; unless you’re disabled, you’re not even old-ish until you can’t get out of bed without a prescription), the older set has knowledge and experience.

When knowledge and experience are combined properly, this is wisdom. When combined improperly, this is crotchety old people shuffling around with nothing notable to remember or say. My grandmother once said — after I was smirked at by what I called a grouchy old man — “Make no mistake. He was once a grouchy young man.”

A number of younger people in my life (early 20’s to mid 30’s) have begun to experience the anxiety and frustration that is a call from a collection agency. As the calls pile up — not necessarily from a lot of bills, but just from one overly aggressive collector — so does the stress. I’ll tell you how to deal with collectors in a bit, but first let’s take a look at the kind of and amount of stress you kids these days are feeling — and why.

It’s the responsible thing to be mindful of and attentive to one’s financial obligations and responsibilities. It’s not responsible — or at all healthy — to allow these worries to drive you batty: crying yourself to sleep, raging behind the wheel of your car, being short-tempered with co-workers, spurning family members, and refusing to clean your apartment (the latter of which is an understandable but still immature attempt to gain control over just one facet of your life when everything else seems so out of control).

If you’ve got tension in your face, jaws, neck, shoulders, upper back, or stomach then it’s time to address this now before any of it turns into chronic headaches, dental issues, hypertension (high blood pressure), back problems, ulcers, chronic fatigue, or depression.

Think none of that can happen to you? What are you, a superhero? I’m sooo sure your skin is as supple as the day you were born and your eyes are as bright as they were in first grade. Nope. You’ve already aged more than you know, and worrying about that which you simply cannot change is a waste of resources that will prematurely age you and suck the life right out of that athletic gait, smooth skin, or silky hair. Are you listening? A waste.

If you can pay a bill right now, then do it. Don’t put it off, procrastinate, or plan to do it later: do it right this minute. If you’re anything like me (and more of you are than not, I’ve come to learn in my unscientific researching), bill paying is anxiety-provoking even when you do have enough money. So get it out of the way, right now. The person you’re going to be in an hour or two will be grateful to you and relieved of that burden. You can almost feel the weight come off and the sigh of relief — but that’s only if you get it done.

Go do it. I’ll wait.

If you can’t pay a bill right now, then you can’t pay a bill right now. Your worry is not currency. Read that last sentence again: Your worry is not currency. It is not a magic drug floating through the air that can sedate the collector and make him/her stop calling you. It isn’t an acid that eats through the paper where the amount you owe is printed.

The human emotion of worry exists for one reason only. If you’re stressed the hell out, you’re misusing it. There is a way to feel relieved and to lessen the weight of your burden even if you don’t have enough money to pay all of your bills.

Worry and anxiety are alerts brought on by your fight/flight instinct. They are supposed to be temporary and a call to immediate action. When you experience worry and anxiety longer than is necessary, you’re subjecting yourself to a chronic state that can aggravate any condition you already have and cause any number of personality and behavioral disorders.

While some would suggest you just “get over it,” I’m going to tell you to get to it. The very fact that you’re so worried about things means you’re aware, attentive, and responsible about your finances. Not having enough money to pay your bills because you’ve lost your job or have fewer hours at work is not the same thing as blowing money on non-essentials when you have bills. There is a difference. Note it and take it into consideration whenever you (or some nasty-mouthed bill collector) start getting down on yourself for that which you can’t help right this minute.

The immediate action you should take is two-fold:

1) When you can’t pay your bills, make sure you have written down whom you owe and how much you owe them. Put that paper in a safe place and only reference it when you have money.

2) Now go do something that moves your body, but does not involve your mind: take a hot bath or shower, tend to any plot of dirt you may have, clean your car or a room in your home, or put on music and dance and/or sing.

Yes, it’s this simple. What were you looking for, physics? That was physics! Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For you, your finances, and your worrying about your finances, this means that when the force of your energy-draining worry is applied to the paper upon which you write your bills, it causes the opposite reaction of energizing your body which you then exert with physical movement which then results in the mood-enhancing release of endorphins in your brain. It’s win-win-win.

Newton may be rolling in his grave right about now, but it’s still sound advice, so take it.

Your bills will get paid eventually, and unpaid bills are not what you want on your headstone as the reason you gave up or gave in to the stress. I used to live in my car with two very young, hungry, cold children. It was still worse to be in a warm home with food and find out my husband’s military unit was caught in a firefight, suffering numerous casualties and life-altering injuries, and I wouldn’t know for several days if he was hurt or killed. Before that, I found out on one day my mother would be dead of terminal cancer in about 30 days. I wasn’t there when she died.

“Peace of mind” is a state of mind, and no amount of money will even rent it, so get it in perspective before it gets you so down you can’t get back up.

If you’ve read this far, it’s safe to say you’re the kind of person who, if $50 fell out of the sky, you’d pay an essential bill with it. This means that even if you do manage to get your bills off your mind for a few minutes, President Grant’s face floating down out of the clouds would be all you’d need to remember your obligations.

Let’s be clear about what constitutes an “essential” bill. This includes food and essential non-food items (toilet paper), water, electricity, shelter, and clothing. If all of these are paid, then next in the line of essentials is socking away money in a savings account. The habit is more important than the amount. One dollar is more than nothing, and the habit will reap generous rewards for the person you’re going to be. (Yes, you’re going to be someone in a few years. Even if you’re 20 years old, you’re still no closer to being 18 again than I am.)

Once that’s done, and if you still have money, then pay for your phone (one line) and transportation. If you have a car this includes car insurance, which I’ve been reading is seen as somewhat optional for some people.

You want your life to suck? Get hit by some red-light-running moron on his cell phone when you don’t have car insurance and see how quickly you go into more debt than you thought imaginable while the moron skips out of the courtroom with an ice cream cone he bought with your freaking money. Buy a bus pass, walk, or ride a bicycle. Your bank account, your body mass index, and that part of your brain where “peace of mind” is kept will thank you for it.

What have we learned so far? Worry isn’t money, save money, and floss your teeth! I didn’t mention flossing before? Floss! Let me tell you something, youngsters — and I speak from experience, not that bullshit “Just Say No” mindset:

Tooth pain, seeing blood when you brush, and a nagging headache is not just for old people. Still, tooth loss can be alleviated with implants or dentures.

Gum disease, however, is for life – beginning now, to the first time your love interest brushes his/her teeth alongside you and you spit blood into the sink (much to his/her disgust), on to when your doctor tells you the chest pain you’re having (at the ripe old age of 28) is from the bacteria in your gums entering your bloodstream and wreaking havoc with your heart, continuing through until you have trouble eating pizza and drinking anything fizzy because it sets your mouth on fire.

There was something else I was going to tell you…oh, right, bill collectors! Those mangy, life-sucking sons-of-bitches make the people at the Department of Motor Vehicles look like puppies and kittens. Bill collectors seem to exist for the sole purpose of making everyone in their wake suicidal. At the very least they leave most people feeling completely defeated.

Sure, there are those collectors who will work it all out with you calmly and quietly, but they are the exceptions. I know this because I was a collector for six weeks until I was fired for being — and I’m not kidding — “too professional sounding,” “accommodating,” and “only mildly productive.” Never mind that I was able to collect on accounts others failed to — even though I was “professional” and they were “pathological dickheaded asswipes” (my quotes, not theirs).

If you can pay a bill, pay it. If you can’t pay it now, but can pay it later, tell the collector when you’re going to pay — and then pay it. Same with a payment plan: tell them what you’re going to do and then do it. If you honestly don’t know when you’ll have money again, give them a forwarding address: the nearest intersection to your house where you will be propping up a cardboard box. I’m not kidding — and when they ask if you are, meet their incredulous questions with silence.

While the Fair Debt Collection Act dictates what collectors can and cannot legally say or do, there is no law that says you can’t 1) hang up 2) call back until you get a collector who doesn’t sound like they screeched the voice for a Disney villainess 3) set your own terms.

“You can’t get blood out of a turnip” is not just some trite old saying; it’s the God’s honest truth. That some collectors failed that science lesson — and in a moment of frustration suddenly realize bitter vegetables don’t excrete human body fluids — doesn’t obligate you to do or say shit. So don’t.

Specifically, don’t let them get to you. Please, I’m begging you. If only I could convey the sick and maddening satisfaction I have seen in the smiles of my (then) co-collectors who, once they were able to reduce a debtor to tears, hung up with glee in the knowledge that the debtor was going without running water and electricity for a month to pay an overdue medical bill in its entirety. It would’ve been fine for the debtor to have paid it over time, perhaps going without water or electricity instead of both, but that wouldn’t have given the collector the orgasm s/he so desperately sought upon dialing.

Don’t put yourself on the wrong end of a hand-job, people. You can — and it is your legal right to — state the terms; and you don’t have to listen to someone deride your sense of worth. Repeat after me and use appropriately — for good and not evil: “If I wanted your opinion I’d pop off your parietal bones and dip it out.”

Okay then, to summarize: worry is for immediate action, not constant reaction; put money away no matter how little; do your best to stay the hell out of debt; pay when you can (which often means when you don’t want to, and you’ll have to skip the video rental or a concert with your friends; suck it up); and for crying out loud, floss!

About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.

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