Guest Post: Does Debt Really Have To Be a Fact of Life?

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Amanda is a wife, mom, black belt and creator of CentsiblyRich.com. Her family changed their lives by successfully paying off $100,000 in debt on one income. She is passionate about living a “rich” life with a focus on the important things.

My Story

Several years ago, I confessed my family’s latest car purchase to a friend. I remember him saying, “You’ll always have a car payment”. So, why not upgrade, right!? Both of us saw debt as a fact of life.


I had accepted debt as an inescapable part of my life. My husband and I went from one car loan to the next, effectively wasting an estimated $85,000+ over several years, not to mention the mortgage debt we carried.


But I know we weren’t alone. The average household debt in the U.S. is growing faster than ever. And average student loan debt is at an all time high of $48,000, surpassing all non-mortgage debt.


We collectively know our debt is a growing problem, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. Most of us don’t view debt as a choice. Our culture indoctrinates that massive amounts of debt is the American way.


Student loans, consumer debt and mortgages are an accepted fact of life in our culture. We think debt is an inevitable consequence of living the American dream. And, since everyone does it, everything will be just fine, right!?


By perpetuating the cultural standard of debt as normal, we encourage it. The mindset becomes, ‘It’s okay to get a loan because it’s acceptable and it’s expected’.


Just because everyone else has a car payment (or student loans, credit card debt, mortgage) doesn’t mean it’s something you have to do. It is a choice.


Sure, you can make the payment, but that doesn’t mean you can afford it. The amount of debt you qualify for may be a far cry from what’s actually affordable. And leaving that determination up to the lenders is treacherous territory.


Believe me when I say I’m far from perfect here. Though we have paid off all consumer debt and student loans, we’re a long way from becoming 100% debt free (we do have a mortgage). I don’t know how much mortgage lenders would actually qualify us for, but according to on-line calculators, we cannot afford to borrow what they say we can. At least, not if we ever want to retire or, realistically, pay off the mortgage before we die.

What if our society viewed debt differently?

What if having a car, house and student loan payment wasn’t the norm? What if the opposite were true and few people had debt? What if debt was only used only as a last resort? What would that be like?


Debt has been around since the beginning of civilization, in one form or another. Yet, the personal debt in our not too distant history was meant to be re-payed in a short time. Today’s debt can take more than a lifetime to pay off, if it ever gets paid off at all.  


Honestly, as I try to picture life in an anti-debt culture, I can’t even fathom what it might look like. I don’t even think it could, realistically, work. It’s hard to imagine, but I’m guessing it would throw the economy, supported by debt and consumerism, into a spiral.


If our society took a more anti-debt approach, what would be different?


If we weren’t borrowing money, banks would have to find another way to stay afloat. No more free checking accounts. They would have to start charging fees for checking, savings and money market accounts. (Though I doubt that would be enough to keep them going.)


If everyone was saving to pay cash for a house, the housing market would change in drastic ways. Demand for housing would decline and new construction would take a nose-dive. At the same time, the demand for rentals would rise.


The economy would change drastically, but so would our lifestyles.


We’d drive older cars. Refuse to go to expensive colleges. Make saving a priority. Start more small businesses. Delayed gratification would become routine.


Maybe we’d spend more time with family and friends, in nature, and creating with our own two hands. We’d make our material things last, rather than throwing them away and buying new. We’d develop killer DIY skills and pass them on to our kids. We’d cook meals, grow some of our own food, and waste less.


We’d appreciate what we have and what we need and we’d be more in tune with our imagination and creativity.


Maybe we’d develop a bartering system that forces us to pay attention to exactly how much an item costs, rather than simply handing over a piece of plastic. We would physically see exactly what we are trading, giving more thought to the connection.


I admit, this is a simplified version of what could actually happen if debt were a rarity, rather than a commonality. But help me dream here. Despite the economic implications, how do you think our lives would be affected in a culture that is anti-debt?

 

Mustard Seed Money

Welcome to the website. A mustard seed is a very small seed but astonishingly grows very large over time. My hope is that through your financial journey that your small investment in time, money and faith will grow beyond anything that you could ever imagine.

23 Comments

  1. I often wonder the same thing. I think it might be both positive and negative. Positive as people in debt with 0 net worth would be less which would be good for them and society. Bad because I suspect the leverage effect has goosed growth rates in this country over the last century. In the same way companies leverage debt to get higher returns so too does the economy, even if it’s usually a poor personal decision. Consumption and productivity are tied and the later drives jobs, wealth, and quality of life.
    FullTimeFinance recently posted…Should I Write A BlogMy Profile

  2. I think the availability of credit is a good thing, sometimes it very much is needed. If you need a car to secure employment (or better employment) a loan for a second hand car would overall be a good investment).But I think in an anti debt society, paying it back as soon as possible would be the norm.

  3. I can’t imagine (but would like to try!) how much better the world would be simply by reducing greed and learning patience by delaying buying things you really want if you don’t have the money to pay for them right now. Debt directly and indirectly causes so much unhappiness in our world.
    I’m not completely anti-debt, but feel that for most people, the only really justified debt is a reasonable mortgage and business loans. Sometimes, I understand a small car loan or even additional debt when hard times come without notice, but the vast majority of people could and should be saving for these things.
    I guess to change the world, we just have to BE that change and show them the impact that living this way has on our own personal life.
    Making Your Money Matter recently posted…What Paying Yourself First Looks LikeMy Profile

  4. Fantastic subject! One of the immediate implications of a world with no debt, is the sudden drop in prices across many big ticket items, like homes, college degrees, cars, and many other smaller things. The only reason all of these things have become unaffordable for most, is because of how they have been inflated by the readily available debt pool. No debt also rewards those of us who delayed gratification, and saved our money. The economy would look completely different if debt was managed more responsibly. The flip side of all of the above, is that passive income from dividends, interest, etc…largely driven by corporations, would also be much smaller. Would love to watch a documentary on how this would play out. Thanks Amanda!
    Max Your Freedom recently posted…The Big 40My Profile

  5. Stories like this always make me think of the time during the Great Depression. Up until the 1920’s, debt was NOT normal. If you financed cars and other things (and even mortgages) you were one of the crazy ones. I long for those days again, when debt is not normal. It makes life so much easier! Great job on bucking the system, Amanda!
    Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted…The Power of Freedom: Andrew’s StoryMy Profile

  6. Heck our entire country and Government continues to add to the national debt, so why can’t individuals? We need to change our minds sets. It makes me think of all the people who hold financial responsibility within their companies, do they have a balanced budget at home? I’m not sure if we’ll ever get to a world without debt, but we can certainly do a better job.
    Brian recently posted…Interview Series: From Cents to RetirementMy Profile

  7. Great post, Amanda! One thing perpetuating our debt-obsessed culture is the way society celebrates things like a new car purchase. When you know someone is struggling financially, it’s hard to get excited when they are showing off a new car, but how else are you supposed to act? I don’t know if that’s the proper time to give them a financial lecture, but if not then, then when?

    I let friends or family know I’m always willing to give guidance if they want it, but it’s up to them to take me up on the offer. I know unsolicited advice typically doesn’t accomplish much, but the people I know that need help the most never take me up on my offer. Should we just sit back and watch people ruin themselves financially or stage an intervention?

    It’s socially acceptable to post pictures of new cars and expensive vacations on Facebook, but I’m not so sure posting about maxing out your 401k would be as well received. Guess all we can do is keep blogging and hope we make at least a small difference.
    NinjaPiggy recently posted…Why I Stopped Paying Extra On My Mortgage (For Now)My Profile

    • Thank you! You make some really great points here, NinjaPiggy! It’s hard to sit back and watch people dig themselves deeper into debt when you know it will cause them more financial difficulties. But, unfortunately, I’m not sure there is much we can do about it until they decide for themselves it’s time for a change. I do think it helps to be an example to them, though, and to show that being debt free, or even financially stable, actually makes life much less stressful and not any less enjoyable.

      Ugh to Facebook. If I didn’t have a blog, I would not even have a Facebook page, for exactly this reason. But, maybe as an experiment, we should post that we maxed our 401k, or IRAs, or HSAs and see what the response is. Or maybe not. I’m guessing you’re spot on when you say it wouldn’t be well received. Not at all.

      Keep on blogging!!! Yes! PF blogs have had a huge impact on my finances and played a part in changing my mindset about money and debt. Though we may not always see it, I do think we are doing good here. 🙂
      Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Guest post on Mustard Seed Money: Does debt really have to be a fact of life?My Profile

  8. All great points! I would have done college differently if I’d had a different view of debt. Fortunately, my cluelessness “only” left me with $20K or so, not $48K or more! Definitely, living debt-free is a life-changer! It’s enabling me to stay at home with our kids.

    Such interesting ideas of “what if?” everyone avoided debt like the plague? It’s true it would have far-reaching implications, throwing off a whole lot of systems. I guess we don’t really need to worry about that happening on a larger scale anytime soon! At least we can keep trying to help our friends by talking about how debt-free living has helped us!
    Mrs. COD recently posted…Free Board GamesMy Profile

  9. This idea is so though provoking! I think if we all stopped using debt right away, the economy would crash, as you imply. But there was a time when people didn’t routinely go into debt for every little thing and I think that if we weren’t looking at it in the context of a drastic sudden shift, things would be different in a much better way. We have no debt, but we rent. I would love to own, but we would have to kill ourselves to buy where we are. Lots of people do just that – literally kill themselves. Imagine how much happier they would be if they didn’t have to kill themselves to pay debt on things that really couldn’t afford in the first place.

  10. We have debt free fo many years now the mortgage was the last to go almost 15 years ago. The money we saved has alowed us to live a stress reduced life. We are ready to deal with most of what life throws us. Dentist, plumber, new roof or what ever just pay the man. We were never stuff people I think that is the real key – no toys.

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