Stop Being a Slave to Debt (and Banks)

Over the years I have seen a good bit of information posted on how to get out of debt. In fact, I shared much of our own struggle to claw our way back to even. Getting out of debt is certainly much more difficult than getting into debt, however, given enough time and disposable income freed up by a frugal lifestyle, it is certainly doable. So why are so many Americans still deep in debt?

To answer that question, we must first consider the less obvious answer: some people don’t care. Seriously. They are apathetic, believing debt is just something people are supposed to have. After all, who can afford to buy a house or a car with cash, and even if they had enough, who would want to drop that much cash on such a large purchase?

Ignoring for a moment the side argument on whether or not it makes sense to pay cash for a home, I can understand how people have come to accept debt as normal.

Unfortunately, we live in a debt-driven society. We are told to get out and spend to resurrect our economy, even when we don’t have the money, or prefer to save it for a rainy day (and even when we see storm clouds gathering on the horizon).

A Debt-Driven Society

We are inundated with advertisements from credit card issuers, banks, car dealers and on and on. Our media is saturated with messages that make us feel inferior, or somehow inadequate, if we don’t own the latest gadget, a bigger house, a fancier car, nicer clothes, more bling, more toys and more payments (OK, so they don’t advertise that last one).

The only way to break yourself and your family free from the vicious cycle of debt is to finally scream ENOUGH! Enough of the marketing. Enough of the feelings of inadequacy. Enough of being compared to others. It is time to start living withing our means, not the couple down the street with two sports cars, a boat, a bigger house and a condo on the beach.

I have nothing against those people, but I am not in competition with them either, because financially, we have little in common. We have more mouths to feed. We make different choices. We make less money because my wife stays home with our children. We forgo the trappings of today for the promise of financial independence in the future. And that is just fine with us. But it hasn’t always been.

For far too long we tried to keep up with those people by augmenting our lifestyles with debt. It was all a facade, and the funny thing about it was people probably expected that we were simply using debt to finance a lifestyle that they could afford, but we couldn’t. Who were we fooling? Ourselves.

Then one day I woke up broke with a dead end job, a wife and two kids and nothing to show for seven years in my first career but a pile of debt and high blood pressure. We decided it was time to quit fooling ourselves, and to dedicate our lives to a more frugal existence. If you can’t first be honest with yourself, you can’t be honest with other people.

It’s difficult to admit to yourself you’ve screwed up. But this admission is very important, because continuing a lifestyle of financial denial only leads to a bigger hole to dig out of down the road. Like the saying goes, when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

STOP…

  • paying minimum payments on your credit cards.
  • writing balance transfer checks from one card to pay another (yes, I did it).
  • getting cash advances from ATM machines because having a wallet filled with cash makes you feel rich.
  • shredding bills without even opening them because you’d rather stick your head in the sand than face reality.
  • reaching for your card to finance “emergencies,” sales and groceries. So many people rail against those dependent on the government, but are just as dependent on Visa and Mastercard. Don’t be a slave to big banks.
  • opening credit card accounts for free t-shirts (been there), or 10 cents off a gallon of gas (done that), or some silly rewards program that accumulates points so you can exchange them for more crap to put next to the crap you’ve already stuffed inside your home using credit cards (done a lot of that!).
  • turning to debt to finance cars because you lack the discipline to save cash for a car, or the discipline to buy a less sexier car. Cars do not define you.

START…

  • finding ways to boost your income. Overtime, part time work, a side hustle, selling your crap all qualify as potential ways to get your income up. There is no shortcut to getting back to even.
  • accepting responsibility for the actions that got you in debt. For years I blamed my employer, school, medical issues, lack of financial education growing up, etc. for my debt balance. How ridiculous. So many people have had it much worse, and managed to live within their means. So could we.
  • educating yourself about personal finance. Much of what I’ve learned along the way I learned from reading. I checked out books at the library. I read magazines about money. I even watched and listened to media geared towards personal finance (radio shows, television shows, etc.). Turn off the football game, or the IQ-draining sitcom, and pick up a book about personal finances, or budgeting, or investing, or mutual funds, or insurance, or maybe even a biography about someone whose financial situation you admire.
  • thinking about ways to get money working for you, rather than the other way around. How much better would your financial life look without debt? Create a dream budget and replace your debt payments with contributions to savings accounts, college savings funds, and your retirement account. Replace interest payments with interest income. Figure out just how much being a slave to debt is really costing you.

So, You Want to Be Free?

Leading up to last week’s election a popular theme was personal and economic freedom. Some people think government is infringing on our freedoms. Others think government isn’t doing enough.

I say many in both groups are forgetting that they have already given up their freedom. They are totally dependent on banks to finance their emergencies, their businesses, and their households. They willingly sign away future paychecks in exchange for borrowed money.

Businesses turn to banks when they can’t make payroll. People ask for loans to pay off other loans, or loans to finance their education, or loans to finance an emergency car purchase because their other one just died. They often find themselves begging someone thousands of miles away in a call center for credit limit increases to finance emergency travels to care for a love one.

So if you really value freedom, you will join me in first ridding yourself of the bondage of debt. When you sign up for a loan, you are at the mercy of the bank and its well-crafted fine print filled with legalese and the many ways they can control you for the life of that loan. And if you don’t play by their rules, remember they have your credit held hostage, and they don’t mind reporting to the credit bureaus the first time you slip up.

The next time you have an emergency, you can still call the bank, but this time it will be to move a little money from your emergency fund to your checking account to cover the plumber’s bill, or the hospital, or from your business emergency fund to cover repairs on the company truck. No longer will you be at the mercy of those holding the credit. Now, you are truly free.

Comments

  1. My wife is from Russia, and we often have conversations about the different cultures. Here, we’re so debt-driven. Her mom would probably be shocked if she knew that we are currently making payments on a mattress.

    In Russia, you either pay cash for something or you don’t buy it. It’s that simple. Save up for something and then buy it once you have the money. They might not have all the fancy things in life like some of us do over here in the U.S.A., but they actually have money.

  2. Thanks for the article. We had our wake up time a few years ago. It was both sobering and frightening to us. Not only had we been slaves but neither one of us had even noticed.

    Paid off the credit card debts and no longer use a credit card. We re-evaluated all of our spending habits and slashed as hard as we could wherever we were able. No cable tv, no cell phones, older but paid off vehicles and limited eating out have become our way of life. Our debt now is our mortgage and we wish we didn’t have that.

    I keep wondering if people will plow straight ahead into the holiday season with their credit cards in tow. I hope not.

  3. This was such an inspiring post! I’m definitely on board. It’s time to get radical. Luckily, we didn’t compare ourselves to others; if anything, people compare themselves to us! Yes, we still have some debt to pay down. We could be a little more frugal, and save a bit more, but we’re definitely on the right track.

  4. One thing that makes me sick about modern economics is that “prosperity” is fueled by irresponsible debt. If we were all responsible as you advocate, rather than ushering a new age of fiscal responsibility (as I would expect) that has been lacking in every administration for the past half century, it would destroy the American economy completely.

    Something is seriously broken when wasting is better than conserving.

  5. It is amazing how our government policies right now are promoting spending and punishing savers. The banks are benefiting from low interest rates, but savers are not being helped at all. It’s hardly possible to find a decent interest rate on a savings account and other more liquid options. A lot of people who have done the right thing by saving, saving, saving have been frustrated by the damage being done to their nest egg by low interest.

    On another note, one of the best things my husband and I ever bought was a DVR. We hardly ever watch television, but when we do, we don’t see commercials. Our little girl who is old enough to watch TV doesn’t see them either. This does wonders to keep us out of the reach of marketers and the best part of this is that my little girl doesn’t whine and beg at the store (at least so far!).

    • Emily,

      It is a shame that savings account rates are less than 1% (mine was .2% before I closed it). What I discovered instead is a rewards checking account in my area that some banks are going to that is currently yielding 4.01% annual variable rate. What is so neat about this account is that there is not minimum balance so you don’t have to have a large amount of money to open the account or keep it (and no fees if you go below a certain balance). But there are a few rules that you have to follow in order to get the 4.01% rate (which is what we already do anyway). My bank requirements that you make 12 debit transactions per month, have one electronic payment or deposit per month, and receive e-bank statements. If you don’t reach those requirements per month (and who doesn’t!) then they still will offer you the standard .2% that a savings account offers. And the cool thing about this rewards checking account is that you get to try again the next month to meet the requirements (again, who doesn’t!) to get the 4.01% so there is monthly compounding interest (not quarterly like some savings accounts do). This rewards checking account is not with every bank so you might want to Google it to see if there are any banks in your area that offers this type of rewards checking account.

      So you might ask what did I do with the money that was in my savings account that I cancelled? I put it in my rewards checking account to take advantage of the monthly compounding and 4.01% annually! I also marked the money as Savings on my budget software so I didn’t spend it on something else. Currently I am getting an extra $10 to $15 per MONTH just on the interest from my checking account because of the combining of my checking and savings account into this rewards checking account.

      If this rewards checking account interest you then Good Luck in trying to find one in your area and I hope you do find one.

  6. My wife and I had our wake up moment last November. My appendix ruptured, I was in the hospital for 7 days. I ended up getting laid off from my job this past Feb. It was a blessing. I am now in a new career in which I love and it has taught me to also create a side hustle. While reading frugal dad in an earlier post he talked about creating a separate stream of income and the side hustle, boy do I wish I would have started it sooner. But a lesson my wife and I learned.

    • Francesco, sorry to hear about your health scare. That is certainly a wake up call! And then to lose your job coming out of that…tough.

      Glad you’ve got the side hustle going- it will certainly smooth out these short term dips in income.

  7. I agree–very inspiring. I was feeling discouraged once again at how easy it is to use those cards. Reading this helps; we know *what* to do, we just need to DO it. (And we are–but progress is very slow sometimes.) This was a good kick in the butt to keep going…thanks!

  8. I appreciated your “start” and “stop” lists. The economic downtown has really opened up my eyes to the importance of getting and staying out of debt (our only debt is our home and a rental property), reducing expenses, and starting side hustles.

  9. Great article! I have to agree that the norm is to finance everything. I fell into that trap when we bought a new house and had to landscape the yard. My neighbor commented that everyone has to get a HELOC to finance the landscape, so we did too. I finally woke up when I read The Total Money Makeover and saw the light. I still pay on that stupid HELOC, but I am making incredible progress. My rich neighbors look down their noses at me as I drive at >200K car, but it is a sign that I am on the right track. As I check out at the grocery store saving $50 for the week thanks to coupons, others complain, but again, it reinforces the fact that I will soon be debt free.

  10. Although I’m happy to have been able to get a mortgage and student loans to fund my current lifestyle, I was brought up with the mentality that if you don’t have the cash, you don’t buy it. My mom didn’t even have a checking account, let alone a credit card. Must be an Eastern European thing.

    I’m glad I was brought up that way because aside from the super large purchases, I’ve never financed any of my stuff.

  11. We see this problem in Romania too. We had another “mindset” for years, but now, you have to get all that junk so that you “seem” rich. I could understand a mortgage or a car loan, in the end these are big things one needs to save a lot to afford. But getting credit for everything is a huge mistake.

    I am currently paying for my car. Still have 17 months. Then, NOTHING. I pay with cash and that’s it. If I cannot afford it, then I need to save some more and then purchase the thing.

  12. Hi FD,
    I have been thru this cycle too many times to count! This time it is for real though. I have had it with a corporate job, and poor hubby is one day away from just losing it at work. We don’t want to retire, we just want to be happy with what we are doing. And have the freedom to do so. High paying jobs aren’t all they are cut out to be.
    I am determined this time (hear foot stomping on the ground, see hands on hips!)
    Bernice
    http://livingthebalancedlife.com/2010/the-minimalist-lifestyle/

  13. Don’t the banks and stores just make it SO enticing to use credit cards? Easy to pay with. No interest for 12 months. Free to apply. No wonder getting into debt is so easy.

  14. Great post! In my experience, you have to get fed up – even angry – with debt. Otherwise it just tends to hang around. Like Bernice above, I’ve been through this cycle a number of times in my adult life, but I’m ready to be done with it!

  15. Yes, it is true that we Americans (and other developed countries) need to stop being a slave to debt. I think we also need to remember the big ticket items – for example, don’t lease your car: no equity is left after years of car (lease) payments.

  16. To best break the bonds of slavery, we need to return to the Word of the Lord. He is willing, He is able, He is waiting… turn your hearts away from the things of this world and toward the Lord of hosts. He will bless and prosper our nation again… if we return to Him.

  17. Maybe you won`t agree with me, but I believe that we can enjoy more a thing we buy with some money we saved than a thing we buy with a credit. If we use a credit line to buy something we want, we might see that we don`t like it anymore, before we finished paying for it. But if we buy it from our savings, we can save for new things and if we don`t like it anymore, at least we know we don`t have to pay a few months or maybe years for a thing we want to change, or we are just bored about.

  18. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I can relate. I think the important take-away is personal responsibility, and getting yourself to where you want to be through diligence and planning. It’s not easy, but definitely doable.

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