Last week, my soon-to-be wife paid off the last of her debt. This technically makes her the first of us to be debt-free, since I have some very low-interest student loans and have mortgages on our rental properties. Her path to zero debt was a journey that we undertook together: I tracked the budget and payment schedule, and she did all the hard work to earn, save, and pay down some particularly nasty consumer debt. Credit card debt. Delinquent taxes. Overdraft fees. If you could owe someone money and they were willing to call you fifteen times a day to try to collect it, she had it. During the three years it took to pay off every penny, her entire relationship with money has changed. She follows her budget, maxes her 401(k), and even saves a little extra besides.
Even now, with all the debt paid off, it can be pretty difficult for the soon-to-be Mrs. Vagabond to tell others about her formerly troubled relationship with money. Only her closest friends know more than a few details, and when she shares those, she often ends up in tears. That’s no surprise– our society has an incredibly unhealthy relationship with money, and money mistakes tend to bring with them a heavy burden of shame and self-doubt.
“Normal” people all over the world take on debt because that’s how you get stuff, and everyone needs stuff. You need to go into debt to get an education, to get a car to drive to school or to work, to own a house to live in, and to finance all the things to furnish that house with. Yes, everyone needs stuff, so everyone needs debt too, right?
Like “everyone,” you pile on more and more debt until you’re buried beneath it. Then, one day, you miss a payment, and you have to take out another loan to pay the first loan, and before you know it, your phone is ringing countless times a day. You can’t pay your original debts, let alone the debts that you took out to pay those debts.
Finally, when you have so much debt and stress you can barely breathe, you wake up and suddenly you’re abnormal. You’re not allowed to tell anyone about your problems or ask for help, because if you’re having trouble supporting the stereotypical American two-car-three-bedroom-house lifestyle, then there must be something terribly, terribly wrong with you. Talking about money is taboo, handling it badly is taboo (whether or not you’ve been taught to handle it properly), and not knowing how to fix your problems is taboo.
In the past, this has been me, and it has been the future Mrs. Vagabond too.
Climbing Out of the Hole
If you’re reading this and see a little of yourself in me or the future Mrs. Vagabond, I want to acknowledge the toxic emotional toll that accruing debt and other poor financial decisions may have taken on you. Both the future Mrs. V and I both know what it’s like to feel like you can’t answer your own phone because you don’t recognize a number. We know what it’s like to have the sound of your ringer immediately give you a sick-to-your-stomach feeling. We know what it’s like to go weeks without checking the mail, and then throwing it away unopened when you finally do. It’s easy to explain the concrete steps that will make someone wealthy or financially independent, but if you’re have trouble figuring out how to pay your rent, then the thought of retirement seems a little like a joke.
If there’s one thing that’s keeping otherwise intelligent and motivated people from starting to change their relationship with money, it’s that sense of hopelessness.
Hope is the Spark that Ignites FIRE
Hopelessness is a complete inability to believe that things could possibly change for the better. It’s the sinking suspicion that no matter how you act, factors outside your control will conspire to keep you from getting ahead. It’s a powerful, oppressive, poisonous train of thought.
There’s just one more thing about hopelessness: It’s an illusion. Hopelessness is our mind’s natural reaction to extended adversity. It’s mental and emotional exhaustion in its purest form. That’s when your intellect has to kick in and remind you that every day is a new opportunity to change for the better.
Imagine this tough scenario: you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer. You have some symptoms, but you mostly feel alright, so hearing you’ve got The Big C really knocks you off your feet. You’ll be missing a lot of work. You’ll lose your hair. Still, you’ve got to take care of yourself, so you start treatment.
The thing nobody tells you about cancer treatment is that even in the best case, you’re going to feel a lot worse before you start feel better. In the weeks and months that follow, you feel sick, tired, and unmotivated. You can’t do any of the things that brought you joy in the past, because you’re just too damn sick. You resort to counting slowly to one hundred during treatments because you can do anything for one hundred seconds. Some of your friends stick by you, but others move on with their lives after sending a card or a text. You feel alone, and angry, and…
Despite feeling hopeless, you get up every day. Fighting cancer on a daily basis isn’t about being cured a year from now, it’s about getting through the blood draw they’re doing this morning.
A Public Health Crisis
Now step outside of the scenario and consider this possibility:
Bad financial habits are a public health crisis.
If you struggle to make ends meet, then you won’t eat right. If you don’t eat right, that leads to obesity, heart problems, stroke, and diabetes. Stress makes you more prone to common illnesses. Even worse, poor finances are a communicable disease. Your children will see and emulate the example you set when it comes to money, and years from now when you’re long gone, they’ll be on the road to the same basket of illnesses you are.
There are relatively few resources for those in serious financial trouble, and what’s worse, we don’t even teach people the habits that would help people avoid indebtedness! Heck, we glorify consumption and consider debt just another rite of passage!
Excuse my French, but that is bullshit. You are not abnormal or broken because you got into debt and developed bad financial habits. You have nothing to feel shame about. You are not the first (and sadly won’t be the last) to make some unfortunate decisions. You only have a reason to feel shame if you refuse to do something about it.
Do it because you’re saving your own life. Do it to save the lives of your kids. Do it because there are at least two people out there, the future Mrs. Vagabond and myself, who understand, have been there, and have gotten out. If you are breathing, there is still reason to hope.
And when it all just seems like too much to bear (and those times will come)… that’s when you count to one hundred.