Debt Enslaves

Salesman talking to me, trying to run me up a creek
Says you can buy it, go on try it, you can pay me next week.
Ahh, too much monkey business.
Chuck Berry

With planning, determination, hard work, and a willingness to learn from mistakes, it is possible to substantially untangle from the chains of our materialist, consumerist culture.  As people discover that most of the things our culture tells us are necessary really aren’t, they can learn to live more sustainably, more independently, and with less reliance on money and stuff. Living that way is subversive of a culture that tells us it can’t or shouldn’t be done.  It is satisfying and authentic.  And of course it’s always a journey.

But there are plenty of things that can make living that way impossible.

For many people the most significant obstacle is debt.  Debt enslaves.

When people ask us about how to transition to a homesteading lifestyle we always start by telling them to get out of debt first.  By eliminating unnecessary expenses it is possible to live a peaceful and rewarding lifestyle with little income.  But if debt traps you into the necessity of income, then it may slam the door on your homesteading dream.

I’ve read plenty of stories from people who desperately want to leave the rat race but can’t, because they’re trapped by debt. I know people caught in the debt whirlpool, whose choices in life are dictated by the consequences of spending money they didn’t have.

These days students are coming out of college burdened with debt, often beyond what they can reasonably repay with the salaries they are capable of earning.  They are starting life encumbered by debts that will limit their career choices and control their life paths.

Thomas Jefferson’s legacy as the author of the beautiful, liberating truths of the Declaration of Independence will always be marred by his slaveholding. But because of his overspending Jefferson was so deep in debt he couldn’t free his slaves even if he wanted to.  They belonged as much to his creditors as they did to him.  He was trapped by debt.

When I was in college Amoco mailed me a credit card with a $400 limit.  I hadn’t applied for it. I guess they were just looking for victims.  Being young and foolish I used that card to go on a spring break trip to Florida that I couldn’t afford.  I paid for all the gas on my credit card and the people I was traveling with gave me their share in cash. And I spent the cash at the beach. It took me years to pay off that card, thanks in large part to the 21% interest rate.

Fortunately for me those kinds of bonehead moves were few in my life.  I’ve always been debt-adverse and so is Cherie.  We borrowed reluctantly when we had to (to buy our first house, for example) and paid back the debt as fast as we could. We managed to stay free of the debt trap that sucked in most people we knew.  We have always tried our best to live debt-free.

I’m convinced that the single most important step toward sustainable living is to stay out or get out of debt.  That won’t be easy.  We live in a culture that encourages and facilitates debt.  Debt is no longer considered a vice or a shameful thing.  It is celebrated as the driver of our economic engine.

But debt should be a last resort.  There may be times when it is necessary to trade future labor to meet some present need.  But the emphasis in that sentence should be on the word “need.”  Those times will be rare and when they happen all efforts should be made to pay the debt off as rapidly as possible.

We could begin to heal a lot of our culture’s problems (most of which relate in one way or another to overconsumption) by the simple common-sense policy of not buying something unless we have the money to pay for it.

I’m convinced that we should all try to live simple, sustainable lives, limiting our consumption to that necessary to meet our needs.

First and foremost, that means freeing ourselves of the chains of debt.