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.
- 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.
- 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.
- reducing your monthly expenses to free up income to put towards debt repayment. Cancel the cable. Stop eating out. Shop your car insurance. Cut your own hair. Bicycle to or from work. Get radical.
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.