Guest Post: How I Charged Myself Pretty: Vanity and the Quiet Burden of Credit Card Debt
People with credit card debt are often talked about like moral constructs, but they are real people. Not like this stock photo though.
Today’s blog post is guest authored by Martina Dorff. Martina is someone my partner and I met once and, after this chance encounter, has continued to be a conversation starter in our household (apartment-hold?) with her humor and wit via her writings and social media.
She recently wrote about her own experience with credit card debt. It is rare for such a candid insight into what can feel like a very shameful experience. But it is oh so common and, frankly, nothing to be ashamed of. Societal pressures are a very real and very powerful motivator. For better and, in this case, for worse.
Martina even talks about an alternative way she is working on tackling her debt by working with a nonprofit debt counseling organization, which may be an excellent option for those with overwhelming loan and credit card payments.
I hope that folks who are going through similar debt worries read about Martina’s experience and learn that they are not alone, they are not bad people and that there is a way out.
Please check out her writing at https://medium.com/@martinadorff.
It took about a week for me to cave to the 2009/2019 meme. When I first saw someone compare their own decade-apart photos on Twitter, I searched for photos of myself from a decade ago. But scrolling through Google Photos, I couldn’t find a photo from high school I was willing to post, couldn’t find one in which I looked the way I wanted to look. It took me a few days to realize I don’t like many photos of myself from a decade ago because I really did not like myself, or rather my appearance, a decade ago.
2009 (or 2010?)
In those photos I didn’t like was a girl with cheap clothes, ungroomed eyebrows, frizzy hair, no makeup, and no credit card debt. Looking at that 17-year-old made me feel nostalgic for a time I have pushed out of my mind as best as I can; the years when I was full of self-doubt, but free from debt.
As I usually do when confronted with uncomfortable feelings and distant memories I have tried to forget, I began to write. At first just to process my feelings about my teenage self and how much of my life I now dedicate to my own appearance. But I soon found myself veering from the topic of vanity to credit card debt, something I still have not written about (despite the fact that its presence entirely dictates the way I live my life). I found myself connecting my childhood need to feel beautiful with the soul-crushing financial mistakes I made in pursuit of beauty.
After I wrote it, I expressed my fear of sharing it on twitter:
It didn’t take long to elicit responses. Four women, four smart as fuck and talented and dedicated women, responded in solidarity to my tweets and were transparent about their own experiences with credit card debt. They encouraged me to share my story if I felt ready, and reminded me that being in credit card debt does not make you stupid.
When you feel shitty about something, having people you know who are Definitely Not Shitty share their own stories in solidarity makes you feel less alone. But it also makes you wonder what the fuck is going on. Why the hell am I, and some of the best people I know, drowning in debt?
We have all walked (sometimes crawled, sometimes sprinted through) our own paths, we have all achieved great things and things not worth mentioning, and we have all slid pieces of plastic through a machine when we knew we wouldn’t have enough money to pay it off the next month. Why?
The answer, broadly, is capitalism. Duh. While each of us have fallen into the trap perfectly laid out for us by the axis of evil that is credit card companies and big banks and fast fashion retailers and the beauty (and now “wellness”) industry, how each of us got to our own predicaments is entirely personal. I want to be transparent about my own descent into debt because, frankly, I am tired of the quiet burden of keeping it a secret. And by being open about it, I hope others will feel empowered to do something about their debt (much harder than it sounds!!) without the shame and feelings of inadequacy I encountered.
This is what I originally wrote:
a good 70% of my life is dedicated to how i look; buying things to wear, putting looks together, doing my hair and makeup, researching and practicing how to do said hair and makeup, physical maintenance like plucking my brows and smearing heinous-smelling depilatory cream on my upper lip and shaping/painting my nails, scrutinizing my own appearance, thinking about attractiveness and what it means for me and other people.
in high school, i wrote in my journal that i hated makeup and everyone who wore it was fake for hiding who they ~truly are~. but, at the same time, i also spent an embarrassing amount of time thinking “when will i be pretty?” pretty didn’t feel accessible to me as a young fat girl, so i simultaneously pined for and rejected the pursuit of it. though i was critical of makeup, i did actively try to dress in a way that would suggest prettiness (or at least normalness [re: thinness]). but it was a struggle because 1) plus size options were even worse a decade ago and 2) my mom was buying my clothes and options were limited to the clearance sections of kohls and target.
so i used my allowance to buy occasional vintage pieces and almost exclusively wore kohl’s cocktail dresses to school my senior year. if i couldn’t be cute in the way others could, i would stand out. when i got a job at 18 and started earning a whole $9.25/hour, i began buying my own clothes and allowed myself to dip my toes into makeup. but after a toe dip (aka a couple of maybelline and covergirl purchases), i knew i had to plunge my entire being into it (aka earn sephora’s vib status in a few months’ time). the urgent need to get good at makeup, to make myself the pretty i had always yearned for, consumed me.
the complex i had fostered since the first time i was called fat to my face (2nd grade, a younger student mouthed “so fat” at me during lunch and i thought about it for weeks after) drove me to make decisions i had previously thought i was above. i opened a credit card. and then another. and another still. i bought the clothes i had always wanted, the high-end eyebrow waxes, the name brands my mom passed over for more affordable options. i opened credit cards at ulta and victoria’s secret, and the promise of earning redeemable points made $200 seem absolutely worth it. i started paying monthly minimums while i watched my credit limit soar to amounts of money i have never had in my checking account. i remember swiping my cards and thinking to myself, “future martina will have to deal with this.”
i am now future martina, and i’m a little under a year and a half into a debt consolidation program that is supposed to pay off all my debt in five years. it is embarrassing to owe $16,000 to credit card companies. it is even more embarrassing to think about how much of that $16k was spent on luxury makeup i rarely use or have thrown away, clothes i have re-sold in desperation for a fraction of what i bought them for, fleeting hair treatments and manicures and lost accessories and now-tarnished jewelry.
it is embarrassing to admit that i have financially ruined myself because of vanity. not solely because of vanity, but mostly. it is embarrassing that, with hindsight, i can trace my feverish acquisition of debt back to my perceived teenage shortcomings. but when i imagine myself going back in time to give myself advice, i wouldn’t give myself a platitude about beauty being on the inside.
i wouldn’t tell 17-year-old me to be less fixated on her appearance because caring about my appearance is an important part of me. choosing an outfit and putting on makeup is absolutely art to me now. it is what i’ve spent my 10,000 hours on. you can pathologize my vanity, you can scrutinize it through a moral lens, you can tie it in a neat bow with patriarchy and capitalism.
but it won’t change the fact that i fucking love being pretty and i will never fucking apologize for it. if i could tell my 17-year-old self anything it would be, “don’t charge more than you can pay off each month.” and also maybe, “skip the gel eyeliner, liquid is where it’s at.”
A few weeks ago, my friend texted me that she had creditors calling her. I told her to call me.
On the phone, she explained the situation to me and asked what she should do. I was more than happy to help. Finally, all the anxiety and nightmares and scraping by would pay off; I could actually help someone in the same position I had been in.
On the phone, she explained the situation to me and asked what she should do. I was more than happy to help. Finally, all the anxiety and nightmares and scraping by I experienced would pay off; I could actually help someone in the same position I had been in.
The gap between realizing I had a problem on my hands and actually taking action was too long. Fixing my problem meant I had to admit I’d made a mistake, and thus completely froze me in place. My biggest regret is not starting my debt consolidation a year earlier. So I gave my friend the name of my consolidation company, sent her a referral code for an automatic savings app I’ve been using, and told her about apps that track your spending and help you budget. I told her to start everything the next day.
After I loaded her up with info, we talked about how soul-crushing debt is. How we’re both smart people who have been made to feel like absolute idiots by credit card debt. How we’re both going to get through this.
If you have gotten to the end of this and have your own credit card debt on your mind, I would love to help you too. I do not have all the answers for fixing your credit card debt, this is what has helped me:
DEBT CONSOLIDATION — I use American Consumer Credit Counseling. There are many consolidation companies out there, so find a nonprofit one that works for you. Set aside an hour or so to call a counselor. They’ll need info from all your credit cards in order to decrease your monthly minimum and get you on a payment plan. You’ll have to cancel all your cards through this process, but they will be the best cancellations of your life.
SAVE — Saving money isn’t just transferring money from one account to another less-used account. It’s also spending less money; stop going to Target when you’re bored, stop online shopping when you’re sad, unfollow the businesses that constantly tempt you on social media, unsubscribe from the barrage of retail newsletters you get every day. Something that has really helped me is the practice of coveting items, telling myself I’m going to buy them, and then thinking about how my life won’t be significantly different without purchasing the item. I put things back more often and decide that if I am still thinking about them weeks later, I’ll come back to them. I rarely think about them weeks later.
BUDGET — Okay, this is the thing I’m still not very good at. But I’m better than I was a year ago. You do not have to become a financial planner to get yourself out of credit card, but you do have to look at what you are spending. I like using Mint to show me what I’m spending most of my money on and where I can control my shopping impulses better. (Nowadays, it’s food and not makeup.) Set goals for yourself and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet those goals right away.
GET SUPPORT — I told my boyfriend about my credit card debt on our third or fourth date. I figured it was a big part of my life and a person I want in my life should be aware of it. He has been tremendously helpful in budgeting and calculating what I should be saving each month, as well as just being super encouraging. I still live paycheck to paycheck, and I still have moments of financial anxiety. When I do, he reminds me how well I’m doing compared to how I was before. Have people in your life who can remind you how well you’re doing.
REMEMBER YOU’RE NOT A DUMMY — Some of the coolest and smartest people you know are in debt up to their eyeballs. Do not let shame eat you up or paralyze you. You will get through this.
I used to tell myself, “Future Martina will have to deal with this.” I am now future Martina and I am now Dealing With It as best as I can. Now I tell myself that these are the years I’ll look back on and marvel at how the hell I got through them. These next 3.5 years of paying $351 every month are the years Future Martina will be impressed by, the years she will come back to when she doubts herself.