Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fiscal Cliff Notes

On shopping local, credit card debt, and cash mobs.

Posted By on Tue, Dec 11, 2012 at 8:37 PM

This past weekend, I was mobbed in Cooper-Young. Luckily, I was with about a dozen other women, and the mob consisted of eager holiday shoppers looking to buy some stuff we’d made. As part of the Memphis Women’s Creative Collective, I was a beneficiary of the second-ever Memphis Cash Mob, the local outlet of a national effort to ambush small businesses (with their blessing) with a scheduled burst of paying customers. It’s a deeply simple concept, and so far, very successful. I was a mobber the first time and a mobbee the second, and on both occasions, I was surrounded by friendly Memphians with open wallets.

The whole “shop local” movement has gained traction over the last few years, as the community-related effects of Wal-Martization have set in and even large chains like Borders haven’t been able to fight their online counterparts. I have to make a confession, though: I’m terrible at shopping locally. I want to, I try to, but when it comes right down to it, I usually can’t afford to. I shop at my desk or on my couch, during random off-hour pockets of time, and I hold “50-percent-off-retail” as a standard for what I’m willing to pay.

click to enlarge mw_1113_FISCAL_CLIFF_620x350.jpg

By all appearances, I should be willing and able to make the small and rewarding sacrifices required to shop in my own community, but the reality is, I’m on my own fiscal cliff, and have been teetering on its edge for four years now. That’s when, as a recovering small business owner (oh, the irony), I began a debt consolidation program that has redirected a significant portion of my paycheck toward the mountain of credit card debt I built while trying to keep my store above water. For 50 months now, the equivalent of a mortgage payment, or a week in a 2-bedroom Gulf Shores condo, or semester’s tuition for one course at the University of Memphis, has been automatically withdrawn from my checking account. Poof! Gone! Worst magic ever!

It’s been happening for so long now that I barely think about it, but now that the end is in sight (April, if I’m doing the math right … which clearly may not be the case), I’ve started pondering what life will be like when that sturdy sum stays put each month. No more end-of-the-pay-cycle panic, no more due-date juggling, and, Maude help me, no more credit card balances. Ever.

I’m no economist (I mentioned that I kept a business afloat on personal credit cards, right?), but I start feeling a little like one when all the current budgetary rhetoric flies around because the financial mess we’re in as a country feels a little too familiar. Simply put, we overspent, from the top on down. No matter how noble or frivolous the intent, the money’s gone either way. And it wasn’t just The Administration. We helped. We sent in those no-interest-rate credit card applications and applied for mortgages that seemed a little too good to be true because, well, they were. Welcome to my cliff, everybody. Pull up a chair. And don’t look down.

The problem with the national parallel is that going through a serious buckle-down period as a country may not resolve anything, because we can’t guarantee that everyone will hold to their part of the deal and stop making the mistakes that caused these issues in the first place. I have no problem making major, long-term sacrifices if I know I’m coming out better on the other side.

My neighbors, however, are giving me hope. Seeing hundreds of people forgo the mall – at least for an afternoon – and spend money in their own communities, even though it’s a little less convenient (sorry about the downpour, people who parked two blocks away!) is reassuring. I think it’s safe to say that Memphis doesn’t tend to be at the forefront of many trends, so there’s good reason to believe that this mentality is already catching on in other metro areas. And if a growing number of people are buying into the idea that paying a little more, working a little harder, and supporting our own is worth the trouble, we just may be able to step back from the cliff.

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