I moved to Houston at the beginning of 2016 feeling optimistic about life, because I had a loving girlfriend and a new professional credential that would allow me to earn more than minimum wage. Little did I know, my year was going to be destroyed by ordinary people under ordinary circumstances. If you live near the poverty line, the same routine catastrophes are going to devastate your life over and over again until society makes some serious changes.
I won’t say what I do for a living, but I will say it it’s intellectually and physically demanding. I eat healthy, drink lots of water, take supplements and stretch daily, but my body always hurts somewhere. I endure it though, because I make $25 per hour, which is almost five times the minimum wage in Texas. Unfortunately, I can’t work full time, because I would live in constant pain until I suffered a career-ending injury. But I make enough money to survive and can spend a decent amount of time pursuing my passion of writing, which shouldn’t be too much to ask in life.
My employer makes about $1700 off the work I do every two weeks. Of that, I get to keep about $600, which covers my rent, utilities and cell phone. So I spend two weeks out of every month breaking my body just to survive until the next month. If I don’t have any fun, I can save about $500 per month, and since I spend most of my free time writing, that’s easy to do.
Rather, it should be, except every single month of 2016 I kept getting hit with major unexpected bills. The contract my girlfriend signed with her landlord before I moved in required us to pay half the cost of repairs to his dilapidated house. I had to replace my glasses, shoes, vacuum, and lawn mower. Now that I had a girlfriend, gifts became a mandatory expense at each major holiday. Every time I managed to save more than a thousand dollars, some disaster of the month would knock me back to the start.
My biggest recurring bill was truck repairs. I’d already spent $700 repairing my sort-of-new truck in Colorado. Even though the engine didn’t have many miles, it had spent almost 20 years baking in hot Texas summers. The tires and half the engine had deteriorated to the point of failure. After spending $1200 on repairs in the first half of 2016, the engine overheated and warped a head gasket.
Having been ripped off by enough mechanics to distrust them, I researched internet reviews until I found a place that presented itself as a good Christian business and had positive reviews.
I was able to have my truck towed there for “free,” because I get my auto insurance through USAA and pay an extra $2 per month for roadside assistance. $2 sounds like a good deal, until you realize, over the years I’ve been using them, I’ve given USAA $10k and never got anything in return other than a piece of paper that says I’m not breaking the law.
The staff at the mechanic shop were wonderfully friendly and made me feel like family at first. After the mechanic diagnosed the warped head gasket, the supervisor told me it would cost $2k to fix. Then he tried upselling me on replacing every other part under the hood. It would have cost $5k to fix everything he wanted, but the truck wasn’t even worth that much. In the end I agreed to spend an extra $1.5k on replacements, and I told him the only reason I couldn’t spend more was because I was flat broke and had to get a credit card through USAA to be able to cover the whole bill. So I could only get the most important parts fixed. He told me I should replace the radiator, but if I only had $1.5k to spend, I should fix other things first. In retrospect, he should have had more foresight.
As soon as I drove off the lot, the radiator broke. So I drove back, and told the nice supervisor what happened. He reminded me that he had recommended I replace the radiator. I reminded him I couldn’t afford to, and since I came in with a warped head gasket, he probably should have prioritized fixing the radiator. More importantly, if they’d diagnosed my problem correctly, they would have found out the radiator was busted before I drove it off the lot. So it would be harsh to make me pay the $500 they automatically charge any time they have to pull an engine out of a vehicle, which would need to be done to replace the radiator.
The supervisor told me there was no way to know the radiator would blow after driving it 1000 feet, and the fault is mine because, “I should have had more foresight to replace that radiator.”
After the fourth time he told me I should have had more foresight, I wanted to tell him, “You’re right. I didn’t have enough foresight to see you extorting me into six months of debt. If I’d known you were going to do that, I’d have broken my body working harder to prepare for the Christian ass raping you just gave me.”
He didn’t offer me any kind of loyalty discount. He just charged me $700 and acted surprised when I wasn’t smiling and laughing with him like family anymore.
I paid for everything on a USAA credit card, because a friend said it would lower my auto insurance, which I had noticed was higher than it used to be. When I checked my account, I discovered I’d never cancelled the renter’s insurance on my old house, and had paid $2k over the past two years insuring a property I didn’t own. Normally, that would be a bad thing, but USAA was gracious enough to refund me the money. In another lifetime I could have put that towards my retirement or used it to enjoy life, but it all went straight to back to USAA to pay down my credit card.
USAA didn’t have to refund me all that money. Most American businesses wouldn’t, but it didn’t surprise me when they did. In 2015 USAA distributed $1.6 billion of profits back to their customers. Every year I get a check from them for about $50 with a note that basically says, “We have too much money. Here’s some back.” In addition, their customer representatives are the nicest in the world. I’ve literally told people, “If you’re ever having a bad day, call USAA. I always feel better after doing any kind of business with them.”
I stopped feeling that way after a few months of putting all my disposable income towards my debt. Each month, my friends at USAA charged me about $50 in interest, which means I paid $50 per month to not have $4000. If I had less money, they’d charge me even more.
The leaders of USAA, and every other lending institution, are millionaires, who don’t need any more money. They could all stop working today and still live like gods for the rest of their lives. They know 50% of Americans live at the poverty line, all of whom need credit cards and loans to cover the cost of living in a country where every business charges as much as possible and forces those with the least money to pay the highest prices.
Economics is complicated, but it’s easy to calculate why half the country lives in poverty. Businesses charge their customers as much as possible and pay their employees as little as possible. That’s a simple recipe for bankruptcy. Charging people more money, the poorer they are, is a recipe for debt slavery. The problem isn’t that poor people are being targeted. It’s that everyone is being overcharged, and the only way to stay ahead of the game is for you to overcharge or underpay someone else. So everyone has to become part of the problem. The main reason we don’t stop is because we don’t even notice we’re doing it. Economic cannibalism is the only way of life we’ve ever experienced. So we assume it’s the way.
USAA and my mechanic may provide customers with vital services, but their business model is ultimately based on gouging desperate people. Jesus wouldn’t do that to veterans. Only someone who needs to seriously rethink their life would do that. Since everyone is guilty of the same sin, we all need to do some soul searching.
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