The Longest Night

Over at I Will Teach You To Be Rich, Ramit is collecting stories about debt, and as the first anniversary of my financial armageddon approaches, it feels like the right time to write about it. I wrote about the meltdown before in passing:

So, what finally happened? One night, I came home from work and found five bills in the mail that added up to more than I had or would have for the next two weeks. I literally didn’t have the money to put food on the table at that point. I walked into the house and down the hallway to my son’s bedroom, where I saw my infant son bundled up in his bed taking a nap. I looked at him and realized that everything that I was doing was setting things up to make a very difficult childhood for him, not the wonderful one I wanted. I was worried all the time about money and I had learned that all he really needed from me was my love and attention.

When I wrote that paragraph, the pain of that time was still very fresh in my mind, and it was not easy to think about it at all, let alone write about it. Yet, even now, I can still close my eyes and imagine that day very, very clearly, and now it’s time to talk about it. I hope you’ll learn something from this story.

I remember standing there next to the mailbox, flipping through the mail, and seeing bill after bill after bill. I tore open a couple of them immediately, wanting to see the terrible news in its full glory.

And it was indeed terrible. When I went inside and began to calculate what I could afford to pay and what I could not, I began to quickly realize that the pile of bills I just received not only wouldn’t be covered by the current balance of my checking account, but that my next paycheck would not cover them either. In fact, my first glimmer of hope of actually having the money to cover these bills was over two weeks away – and that was if I spent absolutely nothing at all on food, gasoline, or anything else.

I sat there completely stunned for a moment, then I went for a walk. My wife and son weren’t home yet and so I had some time to walk around the neighborhood and think things through. But my mind wasn’t working very rationally at that point – thoughts of killing myself for the insurance money passed through my mind. My mind kept floating in circles, trying to find a way out of this, a way out that I had always been able to find before.

Here was the truth. I had credit card debt that extended into the five figures. I had a vehicle that was more expensive than I could handle that was barely half paid off. I had a huge amount of student loan debt, a large electrical bill, a stupendous cell phone bill, and a cable bill that was completely out of control. We were two weeks behind in paying for daycare, my truck was more than a thousand miles past needing an oil change, and a rent check was due in three days. My checking account balance was less than $100.

In short, even though my mind kept searching for a way out, another saving grace, part of me began to realize that there was no way out this time. I began to feel completely sick to my stomach and disgusted with myself, so I walked back home. My wife was there on the couch, flipping through a magazine, and my son was in his room taking a nap.

I went into my son’s room, closed the door behind me, and sat down in the rocking chair across from his crib. He was so tiny laying there, less than six months old, and he was sleeping so peacefully there without a worry in the world.

At first, I envied him. I wanted so badly to be in a situation without responsibility, to have my life in a place where I could just lie there in innocent sleep, without a worry troubling me.

But as I watched him lay there, gently breathing, another set of emotions began to take over. Guilt. Shame. Embarrassment. Pain. I was failing this wonderful little boy, this child who had already brought incalculable joy into my life. He looked to me and relied on me for everything, and because of my poor decision making and my selfishness, I was throwing it all away.

I closed my eyes and imagined the future I wanted for him, and then watched it dissolve into the future that he would have if I didn’t change things immediately. And I cried, almost uncontrollably. My wife, not entirely knowing what was wrong, came in and put her arm around me, and eventually my sobbing woke up my son, who also began crying. She held us both.

That very night, I stayed up the entire night searching the internet for information about personal finance, and I spent several hours in the darkness, holding my son and rocking back and forth in the chair with him. The next day, I went to the library and checked out an armload of books. I started trying everything I could get my hands on to see what would work, and every time I was tempted to spend money, I thought about my son.

It was not easy. It still isn’t. But all I have to do is remember the pain of that day – and then think about the promises I made to my son during that long night – and I realize what decisions are really the right ones.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.