The War on Debt: The Battle Begins at Home

Lots in the news lately about our national deficit. While the national debt is an issue I am concerned with, I decided some time ago that I needed to clean up my own household before worrying about the country’s budget.

This was the serenity prayer for finances in action. I needed to focus on the things I could change, rather than worrying over the things I can’t (or at least not directly).

For too long I carried credit card debt on a handful of plastic cards that controlled every aspect of my life. The debt represented years of poor financial management followed by more years of sticking my head in the sand and ignoring the debt that had accumulated.

It wasn’t unusual for me to sit down on a Friday evening and send off half  of my take home pay to banks and credit card companies in the form of minimum payments and car loans. You would think seeing 50% of my income disappear would have motivated me to get out of debt sooner, but it didn’t. In fact, a dangerous pattern began to emerge.

Using Frugality as an Excuse to Stay in Debt

Stay with me here.

Because we were living on half of my income, we became masters at frugality. We clipped coupons, reused towels, ate every meal at home, skipped vacations, canceled the cable and on and on. It became sort of a game to see how little we could live on. We got so used to it we became complacent.

It was easy just to send along my monthly payments to the credit card company and live on the rest. Sure, we weren’t making much of a dent in our debt, but we weren’t hurting either. We had plenty of food, a (rented) roof over our heads, a decent car, etc.

Our resourcefulness was now our downfall. Because we were comfortable, there was no push to become debt free. If nothing had changed, we’d still be in the same debt trap we were back then – cash in from paychecks, cash out to credit cards, charge monthly expenses on credit card because we had no cash. Repeat…over and over again, month after month.

Unfortunately, as the debt continued to grow, and the minimum payments consumed more and more of my paycheck, we soon found ourselves not so comfortable.

The breaking point finally came a few years ago when I found myself eating a soggy hot dog from a convenience store on my lunch break because my checking account was overdrawn, my credit card was maxed out, and my wallet was empty. I had to rely on a gas card to buy my lunch. Had I really gotten to that point? Yes.

But it wasn’t just the soggy hot dog that got me to see the light.

It was years of lying awake in bed thinking about what it would feel like to be debt free.
It was the years of getting up every single morning dreading my day at a crappy job that I only stayed at because I felt I had no options.
It was the realization that our debts were taking an emotional toll on our family. I was unhappy. My wife was worried. And our kids could feel it.

We became debt free several months ago now and haven’t looked back. Our family motto is “never again.” As in never again will we go back into credit card debt. From this point forward we will finance our own emergencies, education and occasional luxuries.

If you’re reading this and are in the same state of complacency I found myself in a few years ago, don’t wait for a soggy hot dog to awaken you. Get fired up about getting out of debt.

Back to the national economy. Of course, there is no way for me to predict what might happen to our economy in the next few years. I’d like to think we’ll pull ourselves out of this dive, tighten our belts once prosperous, and begin to repay our obligations. I also recognize this is probably overly optimistic given the hole we’ve dug and the steepness of the climb ahead.

No matter what happens, if your household is a debt free one you’ll weather the storm better than your neighbor who is drowning in credit card debt, paying for a mortgage he can’t afford, and has no savings.

With no debt, and some cash in the bank for emergencies, you can keep the lights on and put food on the table even if you have no income for a while. With no debt you can take advantage of the opportunities that show themselves in tough times.

So sit down today, develop a game plan and get busy becoming debt free.

Comments

  1. Jason, what you said definitely makes sense. If you’ve been in debt for a long time, it’s easy to become complacent about it. My wife and I had some debt for a while due to our business and I didn’t really think it was that big of a deal. Once we got to the point where most of it was paid off and I began to feel the burden lift, it scared me to realize how serious it really was. Having a lot of debt is very dangerous and risky. Looking back, we really didn’t have as much financial flexibility as I thought.

  2. This is excellent! For those who are debt-free, it is often hard enough trying to pay basic living expenses, electricity, car repairs, etc. If there are car loans and credit card debts on top of that, it must be misery!

    This quote is so comforting:

    “”No matter what happens, if your household is a debt free one you’ll weather the storm better than your neighbor who is drowning in credit card debt, paying for a mortgage he can’t afford, and has no savings.”"”

    Thanks for another inspiring post!

    Blessings
    Mrs. White

  3. My sister is dealing with some past credit card debt, she had paid a lump sum on it once for what was supposed to settle the account, but the collection company said no, now we want the rest. So she got frustrated and quit, so the fees and interest have racked up the past few years and now she’s getting engaged and wants that mess taken care of–how can she protect herself so that when she pays it this time, it’s truly done? This terrifies me, I’ve never personally dealt with anything like this, so I feel helpless when she asks my advice.

    • Amanda, I would advise anyone negotiating a settlement on bad debt to get a settlement offer for payment in full in writing. Many collection places will initially refuse to do this, but I’d demand it before sending them another dime.

      If she had something in writing, made a full payment, and they continue to harrass her, I’d threaten legal action in writing and/or dispute the debt with the three major credit bureaus with the settlement offer and proof of payment showing she fulfilled her obligation.

  4. I can’t imagine how awful it must have felt when all of that hit you while eating a soggy hot dog. The sad thing is, there are many people out there eating that soggy hot dog, and going back for more the next day.

    As a matter of fact, I think our country is eating a gas station hot dog too…

    • Even worse, think of those who would love to just have a soggy hotdog. Consider the number of those turning to shelters, the record numbers now on food stamps, etc. We are certainly in difficult times as a nation.

  5. We are unfortunately in a situation where using the credit card for *emergencies* has become the norm. I am recently unemployed (unemployment benefits) so we are struggling as I am working to make some additional income. I def do NOT like being in this place! Soggy hot dogs are not my thing!
    And the best thing each family can do for the country is become financially secure for themselves!
    Bernice
    Being productive in stressful times

  6. I think the main points in this post are important, but I disagree with your opening.

    The national debt will affect us and our kids for a long time, and the only way it’s going to change is if “we the people” demand that our elected officials make hard decisions to get the spending under control. If we all just brush it off as something we can’t change, it’s just going to keep getting worse and at some point it’s going to fall apart.

    • Fair point. What I really meant was that I could do more to impact my household’s budget than the nation’s. Certainly didn’t mean to sound dismissive about the financial trouble we are all in. I do have a chance to work on that every couple years around November.

  7. Thanks for your article today. It brought back a flood of memories of when we had way too much debt. I stayed and suffered through a job that I detested because it paid excellent and our debt load would not allow me to quit. Ugh.

    Finally, the lights came on and we threw ourselves into our debt and changed our lifestyle. Three years of frugal living and then we were out from under the debt. It was tough, we were used to eating out, taking nice vacations and making a lot of unnecessary purchases.

    I left the job. Hooray! I found a different job that didn’t pay as great but I was happy. We never have gone back to our wily ways.

  8. Great post about how slippery the slope during the descent into debt really is. It feels good at first, and it’s so easy to fool ourselves into believing that our lifestyle is sustainable. But sooner or later, the debt will invariably catch up to us, hopefully not in such dramatic fashion as it did you, but perhaps just as dramatically as the crushing weight of payments and interest stack against us.
    Pat
    http://compoundingreturns.blogspot.com

  9. Too bad more people don’t stop being a slave to debt. It is very liberating.

    I haven’t used a credit card in years. I love being free from debt. I don’t even have a car payment. I am currently looking for a newer car, but I’m happy to say I am paying for it in cash.
    :)

  10. Considering the hole our country is currently in, your advice is truly important to take to heart. I’m very glad I learned of the dangers of credit card debt long before I even had one, and so have never had any. I really hope more people start digging themselves out the their own holes, because they will need that extra room in the future I fear.

  11. Great article! I have never really been in debt, but my savings were never as big as I’d like. The state of the national economy in recent years is what has prompted me to be more frugal and save more. Like you said, I should be better prepared to battle any downturns in the economy that might arise than my neighbors if I have a solid financial footing now.

  12. Absolutely. Instead of spend, spend, spend, let’s save, save, save. Living below your means is the key and a constant struggle for me. Gladly, my wife and I keep each other in check.

  13. I’m worried about the country too, but I can’t help but think that when more people experience how great it feels to get out of debt for good, there’ll be a movement to get the country out of debt too.

  14. Being debt free, I have a lot of choices! I notice that I have much more freedom than my contemporaries. I can travel, buy things (no debt) or enjoy life. It is harder to say no or stay out of debt than spending freely. It a nutshell, it takes discipline.

  15. We’ve been guilty of hiding our heads in the sand too. We let ourselves get in way over our heads and we were way too slow to react. I feel like we’re finally on the right path now, but we have our work cut out for ourselves and it’s going to take some time before we can call ourselves debt free.

  16. It sure does feel better with a bit of a safety cushion. Although I’ve never been in credit card debt, my turning point was Dec 08. My kitchen was gutted, I just had my second child and the company that my husband and I both worked at had massive layoffs. I remember having like $24 in my checking account the week of the layoffs because we just made a huge payment for our cabinets. I was so thankful we both were spared and swore I wouldn’t throw money around like that again. All of it went to mortgage for the next 2+ years and I’m so happy for it. I feel so much better now.

  17. Great post…. I only have one critisism — the title.
    Why is everything “The War on…” ? War on Cancer, War on Terrorism, War on Drugs, War on Debt… to tell you the truth I’m tired of fighting everything. I hate cancer, terrorism, drugs and debt of course! It’s just so violent a phrase… after all they say “all is fair in love and war”, so does that mean that we give permission to fight without any consequenses for our actions if we call it “war on…”? I have a problem with that mentality…. there are always consequenses and there should always be accountability and fairness even against drugs, terror, cancer and debt too.

    Now that I have that rant off the table, I found your story inspiring! I hope your soggy hot dog moment is a lesson to tons of debt carrying folks.

    • That’s a fair criticism. I was trying to elicit a fighting spirit that I believe is necessary to get out of debt. Too many people give a half-hearted attempt, suppressing feelings like anger and anxiety – which I also believe are required to make a life-altering decision like getting out of debt.

  18. Debt is a part of life. The sooner you realize that, the less time and money you can waste trying to eliminate it. The debt really isn’t the problem: the worry about debt is. As soon as you become ambivalent to your debt, the better quality of life you can live.

    Besides, being debt-free is not going to make you rich. Many rich people are in debt and they even manage to get richer while being in debt. The fantasies about wealth were written decades ago. You NEED debt in order to get rich!

    • Debt is NOT a part of life. We’ve been cultured to think it is, because our economy requires continual consumerism to be successful.

      As for rich people being in debt, name me one rich person who has a negative net assets. Just one. You can’t, because rich people don’t have negative net assets. They have positive net assets. Debt to secure a line of credit when you have more than enough collateral to cover it is different than the debt this country is in.

      You do NOT need debt to be rich. The richest people in this country, and even the world, would tell you that. Sam Walton didn’t carry debt when he founded walmart. Ray Kroc didn’t when he bought out the McDonald brothers, instead deciding on trading value in the company to the company that built the first shop.

      • “As for rich people being in debt, name me one rich person who has a negative net assets.”

        Well there is no thing as a negative net asset. Either something is an asset, an expense, or a liability. Anyone who is serious about investing knows this.

        Besides, most people who are debt free are not rich. I know people that have virtually zero consumer debt, good credit, and money in the bank. But they are not rich. They also do not really appreciate what they have because they choose to defer their satisfaction until some date in the future. Those who appreciate wealth do so by spending money. What good is a million dollars if you are scared to spend any of it?

        • Here’s a good question. Do you think most people who are debt-free WANT to be rich?

          Because I don’t. I did at one time, and I put myself in the hustle-bustle world of corporatism, trading stocks on margin, laughing at the people in the $3400/year seats at the local arena, and scoffing at anything less than $30 a glass scotch. I could easily have made a million dollars. Two million. Five million. But I also would have killed myself doing it. Probably be in the ground by 50.

          SO, I traded that. I downshifted, slowed down, and now am chipping away at the massive debt structure that you say is needed. See, here’s the problem. That old maxim “It takes money to make money”, is often told to you by people who have gotten quite wealthy by selling the products that get you that “initial seed money” or sig-loc or HELOC or whatever.

          I don’t want to be rich. I don’t need ten million dollars, a house that’s bigger than my neighbor’s, and a yacht. I might still want a sailboat, though, hopefully world-ready. :)

          You’re talking about deferment of graitiication. Those people are idiots. Stuff that is mass produced in China by little kids and then shipped over by the thousands to the United States is not where gratification comes from. Again, we’ve been cultured to think that credit and debt is somehow always been a part of our economy. In 1903 , the average home mortgage went for 3 to 7 years. The multi-use credit card didn’t even get invented until 1950. Oh sure, other companies had credit before-hand, but it wasn’t big until then.

          In short, this “culture of debt” is new. Very new. My grandfather, by the way, ran a car dealership. He remained completely debt free from his exiting the navy after WW2 until his retirement in the mid 70s. He was told that debt made people poor, and that rich men carry no debts. His net worth now is over 10 million.

          But don’t worry. Most of America will follow your advice, and big Chinese multinationals will be right there to snap up the notes. And then , one day, we’ll wake up and wonder how it is that all the big American companies are owned by the chinese government.. they already own much of our commercial real-estate.

          • You cannot see the forest for the trees!

            You worry too much about the small inconveniences that rich people have. Of course rich people have issues. Everybody has issues. But why would anyone choose to have less?

            I think that most people who are not rich are just too afraid or lazy to do anything about it. People just see getting rich as some impossible or difficult goal and stop trying before they even start. It seems that you have fallen into the quitter mentality.

            And why do Americans complain about the Chinese overtaking us? Sure, China is on the rise. But China will need a lot of work to rival the American lifestyle. You have to remember: the Chinese want to be like us. They want to have nice things and a stable middle class with the ability to get rich. China is a far cry from becoming a superpower. They have a large workforce, but they are uneducated and lack innovation. Most people in China live at or below the poverty line. They certainly are not saying “less is more” and that “debt is evil”.

            Americans have just become too weak and passive to do anything except complain. It is unfortunate. Foreigners come over here, accomplish big things and become successful. All Americans do is complain about foreigners and politicians. They do not even try to improve or become smarter or better anymore.

            Smarten up America.

          • I love how you assume that I’m not smart.

            Did you miss the part where I said I could have all the money I want? I could have made ten or fifteen million and died early.. but I also could have made three or four in about six years, and not really had much difficulty.

            Except I don’t WANT TO.

            I don’t want to die rich. I want to live happily. Sure, I can be happy rich, but I can also do that with a hell of a lot less work and retire at 42.

            Why are you even ON a blog about frugality?

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