The Shackles of Debt

Propped up on piles and piles of debt, our world is imprisoned by false realities. But I'm no economist. I can't tell you exactly, in the most technical of terms, how debt plays such a large role in our world. But I am a culture expert, which means I can tell you in the most exacting of terms what debt means in the lives of people. People like you and I.


And the message is bleak.

PREVIEW: "Chains don't break themselves. We must break them."

But before I get totally locked down in the mire of what I call "money-pain", let me share a quick freedom story.


A number of months ago, probably not under the best of circumstances, I took liberties to encourage a great couple we know to reconsider buying a home. They were expecting their first child, unsure of what the future held for them, and still shackled with student debt. A lot of it. And they felt considerable pain because of it. I could see it in their eyes, not to mention how seriously they spoke about it. Debt was a burden, and they wanted it gone.


I've been there. It wasn't until recent years when I, myself, felt the financial freedom to invest in businesses with cash, purchase cars with cash, and etc. Student debt was a chain in my life as much, if not even more, than it was for them. There were so many things I lost out on because of its presence in my life. So many decisions affected.


I didn't even really need the degrees. Ironic, right?


Well, knowing the pain myself, to hear them wanting to purchase a home under their similar although uniquely different circumstances, especially against the backdrop of a pandemic, seemed obtuse and out of place. I had to tell them what I thought.


Months later, I received the most exciting news. They used what they had saved and payed off their education debt! No longer would they be tied down to decisions that regretfully factored the liability of non-dischargeable student debt! No more! No more consumer debt! No more student debt! No more $1000+/mo. payments soaking up their humble resources! They're free! And I'm so proud of them.


An entire sentence of exclamation points and emojis wouldn't do it justice.


Now, these kind folks probably didn't close the book on debt because of anything I did or didn't say. They're smart folks. What's more likely, they made the series of decisions they did because they realized how many exclamation points they would type on Facebook when they could finally say it's over. They saw the significance. They saw the meaning. They saw the future freedom from pain, and they new how it would change their lives.


And that's what this post is really about. It's about seeing. Particularly, it's about seeing the truth of our modern circumstances and our general unwillingness to do the hard work of getting freed from it; that is, freed from the depth of the pain that real people, most people, feel from the kinds of debt that drastically affect the decisions they make.



Do you know how much work it took for that couple to pay off their debt? Maybe you do know. But more likely, you're in the midst of it, yourself. Or you haven't even started. So, I'll elaborate.


It takes years. Not months. Years.


Years of resized decisions. Instead of a home, they lived in a small condo that, to my knowledge, existed before they even became a couple. There was no up-sizing. Little going out. Few trips to Starbucks, perhaps none at all. Stay-cations. And the list goes on and on. Lots of giving up of the fun, normal things we all like to expect as modern fixtures in our daily lives.


And without compromising their privacy, I'll just say that they had it easier than most people by a long shot.


Most people do not make what our friends have been able to make, thus also what they were able to save or put toward paying off debt. Instead, the average household in the U.S. makes far less, around $60k/year, with many of those more normal folks living in urban centers that entail extremely high living costs and expectations for modern lifestyle standards.


Notice how I used the term "modern" as opposed to "modest." Of course, I wouldn't use "modest" there. Without going down some semi-irrelevant tangent, I call out this not-so-subtle distinction, though, because we need to start becoming aware that there's virtually nothing modest about our modern, American lifestyle. A change needs to happen.


So, back to you. I could easily write down a list of the top-5 things you waste your money on. But, I don't need to get Google's attention.


Well, ok, fine. Here you go:

  1. College

  2. Home/Rent

  3. Vehicles

  4. Going out with friends

  5. Clothes/Make-up

And now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about why you waste money in the first place.


Two reasons.


First, because the world tells you it's ok to do so. Nothing new here. Although we're starting to come out of a multi-decadal frame that told us college would surely be worth it, including a government that made it possible for everyone to do it, an ideology that said that everyone deserved it, and an experience that said it would be fun on top of it, we're still not there yet. And it goes well beyond school decisions.


We still think that the established system and all it involves requires us to buy into the hoopla. Well, true, most reasonably paying jobs require degrees. Competition is fierce. And how else would we gain the skills?


Good points. But those aren't reasons to make bad decisions.


Reason #2. Because we say, "F*** it. I want those things and am going to get them anyway." Hey now, I'm just repeating what I've actually heard people say. I've quite literally heard people say those words related to big, outrageous purchases they've made after they've bought into the system of debt-justification.


"Since I've already got tons of debt, what's a little more?" they say.


They throw their hands up in the air. After all, the debt holds the cards. The debt wins. The debt holds the power. They throw in the towel. They concede to the debt. They actually bow down to it.


Debt now their evil master, Debt shackles them in submission and keeps them from ever thinking seriously and practically about what they want or why they want what they want ever again. Debt says, "You can't do that. As long as I, Debt, remain in your life, that's not something you can do." Almost whatever that something is. If it's worth it, you probably won't be able to do it.


Truly, not to sound overtly hyperbolic or Shakespearian, anyone who's felt Debt lay claim to their hopes and dreams knows what it's like to lose the battle. It feels like the never-ending fight is over before it's fought, yet there's this thing that keeps you standing up in the ring taking blow after blow after blow after blow. The links get longer and longer and longer. The grip grows tighter and tighter and tighter.


The chain, whose weight grows heavier and heavier, thus refuses to break. But that's just it, chains don't break themselves. We must break them.

And how do we do that? How do we break the chains it seems like society forces on us?


First, we recognize that society does not, in fact, force anything on us. The decision is ours. It always was, and it always will be. But that doesn't come without undesirable implications.


We have to come to terms with the idea, no reality actually, that some of us, should not make foolish financial decisions (or any kind of decisions for that matter) just because they look good to the masses. Our results are always, in everything, our responsibility.


I'll give an example. But it might be kind of hard to hear.


If you didn't grow up in a family with money in the bank, you should recognize that debt was likely their crutch. Rather than continue the trend, put at an end to it no matter how well-equipped your brain is for college. Get a sub-par but money-earning job. Save some money from that job. Gain an experience or two that matures you and helps you answer the question, "Who am I?" and then think about how college could help you answer the next question, "What am I here to do?"


Even if that means you may never actually get to go.


You see, you must take contextually relevant risks like these fully acknowledging your less-than-perfect circumstances. And here's why. If your circumstances are bleak enough, you take far greater risks with your future by not weighing what's unfortunate about those circumstances when you make big decisions. It simply isn't wise to overlook what seems unfair. That road leads to ruin.


And this brutally honest kind of risk assessment applies to literally any decision.


So, I tell you, take the time, spend the money, and assess your situation. Accurately. With a bent towards wisdom.


Now, second. After admitting that society doesn't actually force you to go to college, buy homes you can't keep up, lease ridiculous cars, wear expensive clothes and make-up, and go out with your friends all the time and drink 'til your heart's content, you can do something else. You can take the freedom already gained from not buying into false narratives and ask one really important question: "What should I do?"


That's le mieux. If you can ask that question without fear of the answer, you've made it to a new level of maturity in life. Literally, the best level. One that explores more than it implores. Asking what you should do is far more powerful and freeing than asking what you have to do.


So, if freedom is what you want, you'll need to reach this point. If freedom, because of debt, is something you don't have, then you'll need to start taking the steps to get out of it before ever reaching this second step of thinking about what you should do.


And those steps for getting out of debt, a more Google-ific topic, will be coming soon.


For now, let me leave you with this. If you want to make great decisions in your life, you'll have to be willing to shape the circumstances that might make them possible first. Not after. Nothing worth doing was ever done truly well without circumstances to boot.


I'd like to see you get there.


-Tom

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