That same year, I met Paddy Page, a single mother of four in Idaho. After leaving an abusive spouse, she earned her GED and got a full-time job as a bill collector. Making ends meet on $12 an hour was tough, but her bank made it tougher: Instead of rejecting her debit card when the account ran dry, it socked her with $500 in overdraft fees.
These are the sorts of commonplace household money disasters that have moved me to spend the last quarter-century working as a journalist, helping ordinary people navigate the minefield of personal finance while exploring the relationship between money and happiness. These are the sorts of voices I will be drawing on often as I now launch my new column here at DailyFinance -- a column aimed at helping you make enlightened decisions about how to manage your money, while steering clear of the pitfalls.
The pitfalls have been multiplying. Never in recent memory have so many conventional ideas about household finance been so strenuously tested. For generations, Americans could count on hard work and common sense being rewarded with a decent standard of living. But today, with nearly 14 million people unemployed (and that's just the "official" number), retirement savings subject to a volatile stock market, a foreclosure crisis continuing, and growing fears that we may face a double-dip recession, the very notion of the American middle class seems in peril. Opportunists prey on those in desperate straits, while all but the wealthiest confront anxiety and confusion.
The Devil Is in the Debt Tales
At the center of many of our troubles is an untenable debt load, the result of years of speculation on real estate, and an over-reliance on credit cards to compensate for inadequate income.
Debt is a subject on which I've done a lot of thinking. I grew up the tenth of eleven children in an Irish Catholic family on the South Side of Chicago. My parents believed in hard work, education, board game tournaments and marching into church on Sunday in the order you came from God. Being Depression-era kids, my parents also avoided debt in all its forms.
Gallery: Money & Happiness With Laura Rowley
I got my first job at age 13, earned a degree from a reputable (and affordable) state university, moved to New York City and worked hard, stayed debt-free and started saving for retirement as soon as I got a paycheck. In the late 1990s. I was working as a producer/reporter for CNN Business News and went to seminary at night to get a master's in divinity.
I was motivated by a reporter's curiosity about what the Bible said in its original languages and context. But I came away from the experience fascinated by values, which dovetailed with my interest in personal finance: What drives people to do the things they do with money? What role does money play in happiness? Why do so many people trade what they want most in the world for what they want this minute?
So I wrote a book, Money & Happiness: A Guide to Living the Good Life. My theory: If you can figure out what you truly value, and use money as a tool to get those things, you'll be happy. By happiness, I mean what Aristotle called eudaimonia, or flourishing.
What Do You Really Value?
Flourishing demands wise, creative and intentional choices about earning, saving, investing and spending, based on your values. Because this is about who you are and why you were put on the planet. It's about giving yourself the freedom to make meaningful choices. That's really hard to do with excessive debt, no savings or retirement plan, living paycheck to paycheck, comparing and competing with the Joneses – things that come from not understanding what you really value and how to make the most of financial tools.
In short, to flourish, it helps tremendously to understand how to manage your money. At the same time, it hasn't been this hard to get ahead in decades. Annual wages have been essentially flat since the 1970s, while the cost of food, health care and college have skyrocketed.
Millions of Americans loaded up on debt to cover the gap when they lost their jobs in the downturn. Their home values have been ravaged and their savings pummeled by the sickening swings of the stock market on the one hand, and by the Federal Reserve's rock-bottom interest rate policy on the other.
I'm From DailyFinance, and I'm Here to Help
My mission -- and frankly, my passion -- is to help people, in whatever circumstances they find themselves, to achieve financial peace. Money, when poorly understood and poorly managed, derails dreams. The dysfunction and trickery that are rampant in the financial landscape today demand a militant commitment to defending your financial goals. It takes discipline and action. As the Irish saying goes, you'll never plow a field by turning it over in your mind.
At the same time, money isn't everything. Attitude, character, creativity and generosity of spirit count much more. And I suspect some of our dreams are a bill of goods sold to us by Madison Avenue. I doubt I'll ever afford a gigantic designer kitchen renovation (at least not without a budget-crushing rise in my property taxes). So I try to reframe my aspirations and remember what's meaningful. I recognize it's not the size of the kitchen that matters, but how many laughs you share there. Similarly, I hope this column will help you identify what you really value.
I'm not a zillionaire pundit issuing edicts from on high, but someone who faces the same challenges as American families everywhere -- paying the mortgage, educating the kids, trying not to argue about money with my spouse of 19 years, keeping pace with the rising cost of living, getting a decent return on investments and balancing the needs of the future with making memories today.
My daughters are now 14, 12 and almost 9, and I had been itching for some time to work again in a newsroom in New York City with smart people (bouncing ideas off the dog was getting a little old). I was delighted to find a home at DailyFinance.
I don't believe in moralistic lectures or financial smack downs, because there are an awful lot of ways to trip up these days. I hope to provide an independent, trustworthy source of smart guidance, from the holistic perspective of well-being. This column is about your aspirations and challenges in the money and happiness journey, so I welcome your questions but it's also about your wisdom, ideas, and experiences that may help other readers. Email me at email@example.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @MoneyHappiness.