October 18, 2012

Choosing Debt

Posted in Backstory, debt, Perspective, Recovery at 4:01 pm by otherdeb

Okay, before I begin, I know there are people who are suddenly thrust into debt due to circumstances totally beyond their control.  This column is not about those people.

The truth is, as much as most of us do not want to face it, we chose our debt burdens.  We did so by making less than optimal choices repeatedly.  That retail therapy when we broke up with a partner, or lost a job; the need to have the latest shiny, new technology object the moment it’s offered for sale; those are choices.

For me, this slide into debt was a result of a number of choices:

  • Choosing to buy my sister and myself digital cameras, when I could not really afford to do so,
  • Choosing to spend money on indulgences such as Starbucks, rather than saving it
  • Choosing to buy things instead of paying off my credit cards in total every month
  • Choosing to retire before I had sufficient funds to do so
  • Choosing to eat out once a week, even when it meant borrowing the money to do so
  • Choosing to let payments slide
  • Choosing to bail out my roommate  from her various financial missteps
  • Choosing to help friends in worse financial condition than I was

Those are the main choices that led to my situation.  There are other reasons, to be sure, but if I had made better decisions when I could have, the impact of those things I could not control would not have been nearly as rough as they have been.

I am trying to do the internal work that will help me make better decisions and choices going forward, even as I am struggling to pay off the debts I have incurred — after swearing that I would never get into debt again (sigh).

It is a long process, and it is not fun, but it does need to be done.  I pride myself on not running away from problems, especially if I have created them, so facing them squarely is the only way I know of to get myself out of this mess and not create another one.

The last time I dug myself out of most of my debt, I was able to keep from falling back in for over two years, so the history is that I am capable of making the choices  to keep myself clear of problems.  The trick is to remember the consequences of choices I have made in the past BEFORE I make the less optimal choices.

The final truth is that whether you chose your way into debt, or have landed there from some catastrophic occurrence, being in debt stinks.  It’s uncomfortable, time-consuming, stress-inducing, and generally sucks the joy out of living.  Choosing better, so that you can get out, and stay out, of debt may be hard, but being in debt is harder.

So, in my usual spirit of inquiry:  Is your debt really the result of things beyond your control?  If not, what are the choices you have made that put you into debt?   What choices can you make going forward to ensure that you don’t incur greater debt while you are trying to climb out of the hole?  What choices can you make that will keep you out of the hole once you get there?



  1. turtle said,

    I’m a graduate student. I do not feel in any way that my debts are uncontrollable nor do I feel they are not justified. In my mind, school is a very legitimate debt reason and not something to be ashamed of, stressed out over or otherwise upset from. It does not make me uncomfortable nor does it suck the joy out of living. I think there are a lot of negative attitudes toward debts which broad-brush all financial owing with one huge stroke and in some cases those attitudes may contribute more to people’s stress levels and discomfort than the actual debts themselves.

    • otherdeb said,

      Hi Turtle. There is debt and there is debt. The debt you are choosing to accumulate will likely further your career, and is certainly reasonable and justifiable, and you will notice that I did not include *my* student loan debt among the poor choices I have made. And, yes, one chooses to amass student loan debts, but that is in order to eventually place one in a position to earn enough money to live comfortably. It’s not a choice I would consider a poor choice, but it is still a choice. If, when your grad work is over, the only debt you have is for your student loans, then you will be doing better than a great many people, and I congratulate you for your good choices.

      The debts that I am referring to are the ones we tend to acquire long after college and grad school are over: the gratuitous expenses that are signs of living above one’s means. These are the expenses that put us into the hole, then keep us there, especially if we cannot change our habits and start making better choices. Maxing out one’s credit cards, paying only the minimum, not having an emergency fund, owing thousands of dollars to friends, having to scrabble to figure out where your next load of groceries is coming from while having the most up-to-date wardrobe, are all signs of poor money management decisions.

      These are the decisions that people in debt, including me, must look at and face so that we can start making better decisions.

  2. Shepherdsmom said,

    I have to say that I too have been in debt and are now working on getting out of it. However, This blog is a start in the right direction. I find that by talking about it to like minded people they will give you the support you need to stay debt free and cheer you on when you don’t make the next purchase of “Stuff’ you really don’t need….

    • otherdeb said,

      Hi Shepherdsmom, and welcome to my little corner of the blogiverse. Thanks for your kind words about this blog. I started it partly as chronicle, partly as vent space, and partly as a way of becoming more conscious about what I need to do, and how far along I am in the process (and, yes, recognizing how far we have come toward resolving an issue is part of the process).

      I look forward to your comments, since what is true for me may not be what your experience says is true for you. And, yes, the support is amazing. I find that I am less likely to make an unplanned purchase when I know that I will have to look at it in the cold, hard light of day. I also know that my readers are smart people who have lots of ideas that I haven’t thought of yet, or found in my reading, so I’m always happy to have input from them.

      • Shepherdsmom said,

        Have you ever tried little tricks to keep you from making that “stuff Purchase”(I call them that because it is just stuff you really don’t need just want…LOL)

        • otherdeb said,

          What little tricks are you talking about? I suspect we all have stuff we tell ourselves to discourage the making of purchases that are wants rather than needs.

          And what do you do when the “I want it” rings louder than the common sense?

          • Shepherdsmom said,

            For one trick … I have found that if I force myself to come back one week later and buy the item instead of buying it right then … Most of the time I can live without it … and I say I force myself because sometimes logic goes out the window …. lol …. If you do have any tricks what where they and did they work …. I am always looking for ways to pass things by and save that money to pay on something else that I really need to pay off

          • otherdeb said,

            Yeah, coming back for the item a week later is one good way to deal. I tell myself that if something isn’t there when I get the money, then it wasn’t really meant for me to have it.

            The thing is, when I am not being overwhelmed by other crap, I can usually make the distinction between wants and needs. But when I’m trying to deal with crisis after crisis, all I can think of is that I want it, and I want it now.

  3. Janet Wilson said,

    An education is a good thing to buy, and paying for it over the course of time makes sense: like buying a house and paying off a mortgage, or like a couple of choices I’ve made and don’t regret. One does get something of lasting value. On the other hand, eating expensive dinners makes me happy temporarily but the effect on my wallet and waistline cancels that out, so that’s piling up debt and having nothing to show for it. Trying to live up to someone else’s standards has run me into debt, and that’s mainly what I’m trying not to do any more. My priorities are worth losing my money for, others’ priorities may not be. If I ever get out of debt I hope to remember that and stay out.

    • otherdeb said,

      Hi Janet! Exactly, and whether or not an expenditure will have lasting value is probably the best bar by which to judge the choice one is going to make!

      Like you, many of my choices over the years have been of the “instant gratification” type, and those are the ones I regret.

      It is only over the last few months that I have learned that my friends will still be my friends if I say, “C’mon over and I’ll cook” rather than agreeing to go out to dinner, or if I choose to say that I cannot afford to go out to a movie. I’m just glad I learned that, while I’m still young enough to have time to crawl out of the hole I dug for myself all the years I didn’t know that.

      The hard truth is that people who are only my friends when I have money to burn — well, those are not really my friends. And who I choose to hang out with is another choice where, if I make good choices, I not only have good friends who have my back, but I have friends who are truly supportive of my learning and growing.

      (oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, I consider my readers the second kind of friends — the kind I can be honest with!)

      • Janet Wilson said,

        “Still young enough to crawl out of the hole” — that’s one of my worries, Deb. I’m coming up on my birthday, past retirement, and unable to imagine who might employ me, so it’s all a question of outgo, not of income. The climb out of the hole is so slow I just hope I live long enough to manage it, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to speed it up. But I do expect and hope to make it out.

        • otherdeb said,

          Re “still young enough to crawl out of the hole” — I’m being thoroughly optimistic here, Janet, since I am already 60 years old, and I’m also retired — was kind of forced to retire early — with a miniscule pension. The climb out is slow, there’s no doubt about it, especially since the likelihood of finding a job that pays enough to live on these days is difficult, especially for older Americans.

          Still, I’ve reinvented my life before, so I believe I can do so again.

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