Dragons, it seems, are the ultimate evil. In fairy tales, when the hero slays the dragon, he is considered the bravest of the brave, he wins the treasure and the adulation of the townspeople, they throw a parade and he marries the princess. The dragon is his final obstacle between Once Upon a Time and Happily Ever After.
If my life were a fairy tale, my dragon would be $100,000 in unsecured consumer debt.
Over 25 years of married life, Downtown Dad and I fully own the fact that we created that dragon ourselves. We gave it its own cave and fed it regularly, not by extravagance and luxury, but by all of the large and small demands of life. Aided and abetted by the banks’ out of control finance charges and over-limit fees, even when we stopped charging on our cards, and stopped borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, our debt dragon continued to grow. It increased steadily from a monthly annoyance to a major catastrophe until finally, it ate up all of our income, held our future hostage, and generally made a real mess of our kingdom.
Any ability we may have had to save for retirement, send our kids to college, or even to pay for our groceries, dwindled daily. We were one water heater emergency from fiscal ruin, and it was clear that no knight in shining armor was coming to save us. We were going to have to do something drastic, heroic even. We were going to have to kill the dragon. But how?
We were unwilling to ask for help, in fact, few people were aware of the magnitude of the debt we carried. We knew one thing for sure though, that bankruptcy would not be an option. Like the round table knights, our integrity was at stake here, and however far in debt we were, we’d given our word to pay back that money according to the terms of the various credit card contracts. We would not back out of our responsibility simply because it was too hard to pay the money back.
We needed a mentor – a wizard to give us the armor, the weapons and the magic amulets we needed to prepare us for this battle. Our wizard came in the form of a debt management program almost mysteriously, recommended by one of our creditors. Granted, the wizards armed us for the battle by magically corralling all the creditors, negotiating a halt in late and interest fees, and setting us on the payoff path; but that’s where the magic ended. It was we alone who trudged into the deep dark dragon’s lair, slogged past the charred bones of previous victims, and hacked at the beast ‘til our arms were weary.
That was five years ago. Next month, at long last, we will make our final payment. We can finally lay down our swords, emerge from the darkness and enjoy the freedom we have earned. We have learned our lesson about how debt can turn into a fire breathing dragon and spiral out of control. We now pay cash for almost everything, live within our budget, and are even able to save for college, retirement and the eventual furnace or water heater replacement.
Triumph! Right? So why am I not dancing in the streets, throwing a parade? What is that I’m feeling? Afraid? Depressed?
Battling that debt, as grueling as it was, gave Downtown Dad and me a common enemy, a bad guy to blame for whatever problem arose, a reason to endure, and most important of all – a goal. Our struggle to get from paycheck to paycheck shaped our attitudes. Now that those restrictions are gone, now that our heroic quest is finished, we’re nothing more than unemployed knights, trudging across the countryside tilting at windmills.
And then I remember, life with all of its obstacles is a journey, and doesn’t end at Happily Ever After. There will always be more epic adventures to be had, especially now that we have the wherewithal and the wisdom to afford them. Maybe what I’m feeling is just that I still can’t believe we actually did it.
Or maybe, just maybe I’m going to miss that dragon.