Once, when I was younger, I asked my father a question: “If you could only give me one piece of advice for the rest of my life, what would it be?”
You know what he said? “Don’t go into debt.”
I remember it well, though I only remember it, it seems, after I’ve put it through the shredder, thrown it on the ground, stomped on it, and set it ablaze. Why is that so common an occurrence for me? I must think I know better than everyone else. Damn kids.
Today, I’d whole-heartedly (and often do) puppet my father’s advice to anyone who asks or will listen. If you can help it, it’s probably best if you don’t go into debt. When in doubt, don’t do it. As I said, though, I screwed that up a long time ago. I had a (then-current-generation) corvette well before I was 25. I had a Shelby GT500. I sold both at a loss. I even (to this day) have a signature loan in my name that I took out JUST TO COVER THE NEGATIVE EQUITY when I sold the car for nothing.
I’ve always been a fairly-intelligent person- or at least “book-smart.” I’m not trying to brag or anything, it’s just the way it is. I’m fat and can’t skateboard, if that makes you feel better. There’s usually a trade off somewhere. Anyway, let’s assume I’m a smart guy. I coasted through high school and got A’s, not paying a lot of attention. I was bored. I never really figured out what I wanted to do with my life because I hadn’t been challenged or bothered to think about it (plus I was an 18 year old kid). I read car magazines in class and, eventually, modified and street raced my cars (Remember: book-smart. No common sense). I signed up for votech in my junior year because I was bored- and because votech kids only had three hours of class in the morning and then got to go work on cars or weld or do nails or whatever it is they’re into. I was pretty good working on cars. I got sent to a state-wide auto diagnostic competition my senior year. My partner and I took 3rd place. Wyotech automotive school gave me a full-tuition scholarship. I didn’t have anything better to do after high school, so I went with it. All I’d have to do is get a loan to pay for my living expenses in Pennsylvania for a year.
Let’s put aside the fact that I just sort-of stumbled into a career (one that I stayed in for an unhappy decade thereafter) without giving it any thought or consideration, or the fact that I kneecapped my college potential (turns out I don’t really mind that as much as I thought I would). I took a loan. I took a loan that I was responsible for and would have to pay back. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was 18 years old. I didn’t even know who I was or what I wanted to do. I just went with it. I won the scholarship, right? That’s a cool thing. It would be stupid not to go. That was the beginning of a decade-long downward slide for me- and for my future wife, who I was to drag down the hole with me.
Debt is like a drug and, as is the nature of drugs, it can be used for good or evil, depending on the type of drug and the way you utilize it- think Advil to fix a headache versus shooting up behind a 7-11. Debt can be used for (subjectively) good things like buying a house for less than you might pay in monthly rent while also building equity in said house. You could theoretically make money, or at least break even, when you’re done with the place- barring some huge housing market crash, but when does that ever happen?
except for that time when it happened.
So, debt can be good. Hell, we went into significantly more debt last year to make the move to our tiny house, but we considered it carefully and had a solid plan in place to deal with it and pay it off ASAP. Debt can move you forward in life much faster than you could have done so without it. Just remember that debt is indentured servitude at best, slavery at worst, and a drug at all times. It can be addictive. It can be dangerous. Let’s make up a simple/silly example scenario:
Let’s say you’re a young guy who likes cars. Maybe you went to Wyotech, who knows. You take a loan out to get a new car and suddenly you’re locked into paying for that car until you either pay it off or build enough equity in it to sell it and break even. You’ve got a bill. Now you’re an adult with responsibilities. You have to have a steady job that pays well so you can afford this car. So, you go to work every day in the new car. At first it’s fine because the job is new and the car is new and everything is novel. Cool beans. That won’t last. Eventually, the “new toy high” wears off and your mood drops back to the baseline, but now you have to go to this job you don’t necessarily like very much to pay for a car you sort-of like, but could honestly take or leave.
Your level of “happiness” (pleasure is NOT the same thing as happiness) is right back where it started before you got that car, but now you’ve stacked TWO items on the side of the scale weighing AGAINST your happiness- your real happiness: the job you don’t really like but you have to go to (Just an example here. We know you love your job.) and the car payment you’re stuck with for a car you no longer get the high from. You can’t sell the car, it’s worth less than you owe on it. You can’t quit the job, you need it to pay that car payment. You’re less happy than ever. What to do?
Well, you’re already gonna have to go to work because you have obligations, but you do have this extra money. Might as well buy something else. Maybe that motorcycle will boost you back into the happy spectrum. You buy it. The toy is fun for a while. The mood returns to baseline. You now have a motorcycle payment AND a car payment.
This is a pretty nasty cycle. People get unhappy with their lives for any number of reasons. They sometimes medicate their mood with things instead of digging down to fix the real problem. It’s like taking morphine every day for a nagging pain instead of fixing what’s causing the pain.
Eventually, you end up with so many toys or hobbies or habits or whatever that you have no disposable income remaining. You get credit cards so you can still live the lifestyle you’re used to. Eventually, those cards max out because, like we already established, you have very little disposable income after your bills are paid, so can’t pay down the cards. You’re still unhappy, but now you’re married to the job you don’t like, you’re married to that car, that bike, that jet ski, that swimming pool, that Rolex watch, all those credit cards or whatever it is you used to try to pull yourself out of the unhappy-hole (trademark).
You’re working all the time. You can’t quit because you’re a slave to all the stupid crap you bought. Only when you’ve fallen all the way down this hole- and can’t dive any further down because you’re broke- do you realize that things don’t make you happy. You dig around and figure this out, but now you have very little money to use to dig yourself out. You’re expending most of your energy treading water and have nothing left to swim to shore. Forgive me for switching metaphors.
This isn’t exactly the way my life went over the last decade, but it’s uncomfortably familiar. It’s uncomfortably familiar to a LOT of Americans. We live in a culture that thrives on this sort of self-feeding cycle. Advertisers make a living figuring out ways to convince you that the next thing will make you happy. People are unhappy with their lives so they buy more crap that’s supposed to make them happy and then the economy grows 1 percent. Economists declare it a success.
Obviously, this isn’t always the way people get where they are. There are a lot of unfair things that can force you into debt. Medical problems. Legal problems. Kids are always a variable in the equation. Some other obligation thrust on you out of nowhere. Drug addiction. The route to crushing debt is paved with many paths. This example isn’t meant to be all-encompassing or put you in a box, it’s just an example.
All that said, the most important thing is realizing you are in the quicksand. That’s the first- and most important- step. Step one is realizing you have a problem. Sound familiar? Once you realize this, you can start to consciously do something about it. Stop eating out all the time. Stop going to the gas station for food and snacks. Stop paying for twelve different monthly subscription services. Quit smoking. Stop the compulsive shopping. Sell all the excess crap you don’t need on ebay (you might be shocked how much you can recoup from the crap you don’t even care about anymore). Go over your budget and required expenses/bills exactly. See where it might be possible to cut back. Find out what areas you are bleeding the most unallocated money to each month by checking your bank statement- for me, it was cigarettes, restaurants, and gas stations. Stop all the bleeding you can and find out what you have left over. Apply that leftover money, however much it is, toward your debt- smallest to largest.
My wife and I are using something similar to the snowball method. I also created some spreadsheets with a log of all incoming and outgoing funds for each category of the budget we are trying to control- after the required bills are paid. I attached an envelope to the back of each sheet. Each pay period (or once a month), we pull out the amount of money we’ve allocated for each budget category and put it in the envelope. Say, 100 for eating out, 80 for gas, 300 for groceries and animal feed, etc. I really recommend implementing something like this because spending cash is harder than swiping a card. It’s more real and more deliberate. You notice it more and hesitate more. Do it if you can.
Most importantly, don’t despair. I suffered with that a lot. Falling into despair over the situation does nothing but hurt you and make you even MORE prone to making destructive decisions. There are options and plans out there that can help you. Look around and read all you can. You CAN do it. You just have to figure out what’s stopping you and start to make changes. A little at a time adds up to a lot over time. With our current budget plan and cut-backs, our previously-insurmountable debt (including our two fairly-new cars and our new tiny house) will be paid off in three years. Putting a solid plan in place to pay off the debt and being able to see, plainly, where the road ends has made me happier than any sports car or gadget or gun I’ve ever purchased. Cut out the excess and buy your freedom. Do it today.
“Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.” – Henry David Thoreau