I’ve never had an empty bank account without some support from others. I’ve never hit zero dollars, and then decided what I need to sell to make ends meet. I’ve never run out of money, and been unable to make a co-pay or buy food. This is a privilege of my social class, but it’s also a consequence of this country’s acceptance of debt.
When I turned 18, I immediately applied for my first credit card. I researched and found the ultimate cash back card for my beginning credit line. At the time, that meant a $50 bonus for opening the account, and a check every time I hit $50 in rewards. The bonuses weren’t much, but they were a taste of the good life.
Even before I was accepted into graduate school, I started spending more. A computer sound system — that was amazing! A beautiful road bike. New smartphones whenever I wanted. Life was good, but it was all an illusion. It was all charged to credit cards, and my poor spending habits only descended as my academic career continued.
Eventually, I needed to take out a balance transfer, and opened a new credit card that allowed me to transfer and put off my debt. When I finally started getting student loans, I needed more to pay off the credit debt. This is the classic “robbing Peter to pay Paul” concept of debt payments. I constantly owed one bank something or another. Frankly, this life was stressful and full of unknowns. I constantly questioned, “Will I have enough to pay off this debt?”
But that was all behind the scenes. On the surface, I was a brimming success. Look at the materialistic items I was able to purchase — the “things” I had amassed! I could scan around my room and provide details about the latest purchase — all without addressing a gaping hole in my story.
Everything was purchased with debt. My things were the banks’ things.
Debt prevents us from seeing how little we actually have. It’s a scary psychological trick that banks prop up for us. Why should anyone be able to spend more than they have? Why must we finance our vehicles, homes, and dreams? If we do not have the actual money, why should we be enabled and empowered to spend?
I’m not sure that, as humans, we’ve evolved rapidly enough to adapt to taking out and handling debt properly. And yet, our system pushes people to adapt or perish in bills and debt collectors. The victims of this systemic problem are blamed and tarnished — left to bankruptcies (unless it’s student loan debt — you must die to rid yourself of that) and court proceedings.
We need to reevaluate both success and reality. In reality, the life I lead is a modest one where I cannot afford that European vacation I desperately want. But my credit card and possible student loan access says otherwise. In reality, I cannot afford to own a nice car I want. But my bank keeps offering me car loans at 2% interest APR.
Where can I find the middle path? Where can I compromise and meet my budgetary reality? The simplest answer I’ve found is realizing that I don’t need much. In fact, most everything I ever purchased served an unnecessary status function in my life. The only way I’ve been able to stay afloat these days is by realizing how little I “need” and how much can be thrown away as “wants” — some of which are extrinsically motivated.
When I want to spend more than I have because I can, I constantly remind myself about the stress and unknown feelings surrounding debt. There was such powerful shame because I couldn’t “control myself.” We need to take responsibility where we can, while also recognizing that we live in a system that ushers out goodies to perpetuate and encourage spending — then blames you for participating. The best we can do is remove the credit card chicanery and unveil the truth: debt is the illusion of success.