Rex, his wife, another couple, my wife and I shared a big booth to celebrate our recent marriage. I called it a wedding aftershock party. A few days earlier, the temperature had dropped more than 50 degrees to below freezing just in time for our outdoor mountain ceremony. The day after, it had rocketed back up. Short sleeves and air conditioning were back. So was talk about business, because, as owners or self-employed folk, we couldn’t help ourselves.
All the couples were sharing their origin stories, which included some struggles. Rex frequently wins the award for the best story and has no trouble admitting it.
“I owed over $183,000 and I paid back $5 per week,” Rex said.
Owing a person almost two hundred thousand dollars when you’re broke won Rex this conversation’s best story award, too.
Later, I did some rough math. At $5 per week, he’d need over 703 years to pay back the sum, assuming 0% interest. So, Rex either looked remarkably spry for someone nearly a millennium old – and possibly had some juicy stories about Charles V – or there was more to his secret.
“I have three rules for when you owe someone a lot of money and you can’t pay it back,” Rex said and began ticking them off. I’ll reveal them below.
When I heard his advice, I groaned. It was so easy.
I could have spared myself a world of pain.
“Rex,” I said, “Could you go back in time to when I was 20 and punch me in the face?”
“You mean I can’t do it now?”
When I was in my early 20s, I let bills pile on my condo’s brown carpet, unopened. They formed miniature mountain ranges. I should have named them. “There’s Capitol One Hill. Oh and over there is Chase Peak. And let’s not forget Mount IRS…”
Back then, I followed only one of Rex’s rules – tell the truth. I’m glad I did, but it didn’t do much good when I still sabotaged the other two areas.
Over a decade ago, someone knocked on the door of my Boulder condo. I pulled the door open and a UPS man handed me an 8.5” by 11” envelope. I hadn’t ordered any packages. And what the heck would get delivered in a big envelope?
I tore it open.
The express envelope, which must have cost several dollars to mail, contained a single piece of paper.
It was a letter from one of my credit card companies.
“Why are we sending you this letter in a UPS express envelope?” the letter began. “Because we want to get your attention and we want to work with you. Please call us…”
If I weren’t so emotionally shut down and psychologically asleep – that’s the best way I can describe my multi-year stupor of racking up obscene levels of credit card debt and shoving my credit score through the financial equivalent of a sink garbage disposal – I would have called. I should have called. I probably could have worked out a payment plan. At least, I would have spoken to a human being who could have talked some sense into me, who could have woken me up, just a little.
But I didn’t call. I trashed the letter.
Or maybe I tossed it on top of one of the mini-mountains. More likely, it went straight to the recycling bin. Hence me wishing Rex could go back in time to punch me in the face.
The wisdom of Rex’s Three Rules can change your life, even if you’ve never owed anyone a penny. If you live by these, you can reduce stress and increase your respect, even if you’re struggling. Here they are:
1. Pay something, no matter how little.
Imagine you lend a friend money. They lose it. Who knows why. Bad investment. Hookers. A bad investment in a business of hookers (I supposed it’s possible). But instead of burbling up a baker’s dozen of excuses, they apologize and say, “I’m going to send you weekly payments, no matter how small.”
Seven days later, you receive a PayPal notification. You got $5. Seven days later, you get another $5. Would it seem weird? Probably. Would each $5 maintain the thread of respect you have for your friend? Almost certainly. Would the thread thicken as payments kept coming in? Definitely.
Actions speak louder than words. Even teeny-tiny actions.
Small, consistent actions roar so loud that their reverberations ripple out like a 9.5 earthquake. As far as I know, actions echo through every atom in the universe. Words whimper like the squeak of a rat.
Actions matter just as much with your relationships. When you hurt a friend’s feelings, the smallest apology heals more than the grandest gesture of avoidance. This is a rare case of words and actions melding. “I’m sorry” is a pair of words but the action is admitting you’re wrong and that you’re acknowledging how you wronged the recipient of your apology. If you don’t take the action of apologizing, no matter how sweet you treat someone, they’ll always think, “Yeah, but they never actually apologized…”
Same with your health.
I’ve had former friends who proselytized how healthy it is to cut grains from one’s diet while they munched on a giant sub.
One action, like five minutes of daily exercise (or putting down the sub) would have been worth more to them than all their nutritional know-how. I’ve read social media comments directed toward my wife, pontificating on the process of goal-setting as she works on her business. These same people are unemployed, morbidly obese through their inaction, and have flung themselves into such horrific downward spirals with such commitment that, if they told me they were failing on purpose, I would actually love to hear their secrets
Actions may speak louder than words, but when the words are coupled with no action, they speak loudly about you, too… and what they say ain’t good.
Onto Rex’s next rule:
2. Always take their call.
Imagine the friend to whom you lent money did something worse than lose it – they disappear. You call. They don’t answer. You text. No Reply. Where they’d go? You know they’re still alive and well, thinking about you, remembering you lent them money, but they don’t grant you the respect of communication. There’s a word for someone like that: Coward.
When the credit card company sent me a letter via UPS, I behaved like a coward.
Years later, when my testicles dropped, I did things differently.
For example, my friend Wally loaned me money for an advertising campaign. It failed to make a profit. Wally and I got on a Skype call and I shared my computer screen with him. It was logged into my bank account.
“Uh, you don’t have to show me that,” he said.
But I did. I wasn’t going to avoid or hide anything. “This is how much I have.” It was probably less than a few hundred dollars. I owed him $3,000. “I make $300 per week. I will pay you back $500 per month until the debt’s paid in full.”
A couple months later, the State of Colorado came after me for state taxes owed. They siphoned money from my weekly paycheck. Then, the company I worked for went bankrupt.
Instead of suddenly “forgetting” to pay my rent and avoid my landlord’s calls, I asked my landlord for a few more days to pay my rent.
I also updated Wally on my situation. I got a job loading trucks and I paid my friend back. No avoiding. No whimpering words.
When you screw something up and a friend is still willing to call you, then take the call. Even better, make the call yourself.
3. Tell the truth.
People who don’t tell the truth are either sociopaths, mentally ill, or young children picking up traits that bring them closer to becoming one of the former two categories.
Let’s talk about the so-called white lie. Don’t do it. In the midst of my financial death spiral, the IRS emptied my bank account because I hadn’t paid taxes. I had just sent a company a check for several thousand dollars to pay for services rendered. I sent them an email asking to delay cashing my check. Why? Did I say it was because I had to move some funds around various systems? Because my Account Department was slow? No.
I said it was because the IRS had just drained my account.
The company was polite about it and waited to cash my check.
There’s also a lesson in avoiding people who disregard Rex Rule #3 – they are irredeemable. Without truthfulness, you have nothing to work with. Don’t avoid them 80% of the time. Avoid them 100% of the time, no matter how painful it is to do. You’re saving yourself from more pain down the road. Count on it.
The wonderful thing about Rex’s Three Rules is they’re in your control. You can scrounge together five dollars, just like when Rex owed over $180,000. You can make an action that ripples beyond pretty words. You can refrain from disappearing. You can tell the truth – the whole truth. You can demonstrate respect even if situations conspire to test your respectability.
When you do, you might be surprised by who notices and who respects you more, when they find out you do the right thing even when you’re screwed.