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The Petersons run up against their debt ceiling

One of the most popular sayings among conservative politicians these days is: "If the government had to run its budget the way a family does, we'd see a lot of changes real quick." The government, though, does run its budget the way a lot of families do. Imagine if journalists covered the finances of households:

As the deadline to approve an increase in the Peterson family debt limit approached without a compromise in sight, tensions rose Friday.

Expenses for Debbie and Frank Peterson have traditionally exceeded revenue, starting with a Caribbean honeymoon in 1991 that they paid for entirely with Visa at 27.99 percent interest (it has now cost them $72,000). Their debt limit has been increased 16 times since.

Lately, each new authorization has come only after an extended battle. The Peterson family rules require both Debbie and Frank sign off on any increase.

The situation is dire. While the family's debt load is high, its payment record is sterling. Now, if the two do not take out a second mortgage by Aug. 2 and use the proceeds to pay existing debt, they would likely default, pulling down the whole house of cards.

Both say the second mortgage is necessary, but Debbie won't sign until Frank agrees to spending cuts. Frank is willing to cut expenses (entirely different ones than his wife), but demands Debbie also get a job.

"We don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem," Debbie said. "The man is dropping $15,000 a year on golf memberships, greens fees, balls, tees, clubs and hideous pants. He's a 34 handicap. That's the kind of low-hanging fruit that we need to cut."

"Cutting golf is a jobs killer, and it's off the table," says Frank, a consultant who claims links funding is repaid three times over by the clients he picks up there. Economists call this the "golf multiplier."

"Debbie, by not working, imposes a double whammy," Frank adds. "She's not bringing in the income we need, and she's left with endless free time to spend a fortune on shoes."

Debbie argues that any money she earned would go to day care for the couple's three children. She says she cleans house, cooks meals and chauffeurs the kids 16 hours a day, and doesn't believe a just plan to balance the budget would be based on her going barefoot.

Experts say neither fix would solve the family's issues, because over 85 percent of Peterson spending goes to "entitlements" — their home, cars, camps and enrichment activities for the children, and vacations.

Neither side is willing to address those items, the "third rail" of Peterson politics.

Even if these expenses could be slashed, the Petersons face trouble down the road because crucial investments have been ignored.

Their retirement plan consists of lottery tickets and prayer. College funds are nonexistent, and any hope the kids might attend on athletic or academic scholarships has been quashed by coaches and teachers.

It's almost certain the two will agree to raise the limit. The most likely scenario involves Frank canceling a winter golf trip to Myrtle Beach and Debbie returning a pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps. But most financial advisers agree that without increases in revenue or cuts in the big-ticket items, the stage will merely be set for the confrontation to play out again next year. Eventually, the couple won't be able to maintain the debt they have, or find anyone to lend them more, and the whole situation will collapse.

That's what's going to happen with the federal government, too, not because our politicians are awful, but because they're just like us.

© 2011 Newsday

The Petersons run up against their debt ceiling 07/17/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 17, 2011 5:30am]

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