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Debt Weight

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There isn't much that Mary Hunt's classic 2005 book Debt-Proof Living (reprinted) doesn't cover. In detailing her philosophy of "living financially free," she covers everything from spending plans (your parents called 'em "budgets") to Emergency Funds to Freedom Accounts to credit reports to paying for your kids' college educations. (I mean, if you're gonna write a book, you might as well write a 377-page book, right?)

(As an aside, curious souls can venture over and check out Ms. Hunt's online presence at the Debt-Proof Living website. Yes, it's subscription-based. But that's okay. Even Ms. Hunt herself, I suspect, has to guard against a debt relapse . . . somehow.)

Though she spends barely three pages on the topic, Ms. Hunt raises an interesting point when she discusses five specific factors that, in her mind, cause "stupid debt" to be such a negatively powerful force. The influence of debt? It's an almost too-obvious topic, and one into which not enough authors delve.

Our society has become one of "Gratify me now, and I'll pay you later." It is no longer enough to be told, simply, "Now, little Jimmy, debt is bad." Of course it is; we all know that. We take it as given. (Although, admittedly, some folks know it and just don't care.)

But why is debt so negatively powerful? When it comes to your family's financial health, what is it about debt that makes it such a debilitating disease?

Ms. Hunt's five characteristics are listed below, denoted by the blue boxes. I've added a few additional ideas below them; these are marked with the yellow boxes.

Debt promotes discontent.

When everything you could ever want is only as far away as the painless swipe of a credit card, and when this fact is advertised in front of your face every 13 minutes on prime-time television, how could you possibly be happy with what you already have? Advertisers, retailers, and economic strategists alike go to tremendous lengths to embed the spend-and-consume lifestyle in our national mindset. Wherever you find large amounts of viewing eyes (prime-time television, slick magazine inserts), you'll find the well-organized encouragement of further debt, with prompt after shiny prompt activated by that man behind the curtain.

That noise you hear? It's his cash register, and it's ringing.

All because what we have is never enough.

Debt makes arrogant presumptions about the future.

You'll definitely be making more money next year than you did this year, right? And there's absolutely no way that you or your spouse could fall victim to a round of layoffs, right? And the odds of you or your spouse becoming temporarily disabled, seriously ill, or otherwise unable to work for more than a few days ... those odds are practically zero, right?


By taking the pay-for-it-later approach, you are committing an unspecified portion ("unspecified" because the longer you hold the debt outstanding, the larger that debt will grow to be) of your future income for today's needs or wants ... when in fact you have no idea what your future monetary means will be, or whether they will even meet your future monetary needs on a debt-repayment-excluded basis.

So if you're carrying debt, you'd better hope your Magic 8-Ball has a real good grasp on the future.

Debt requires you to transfer your future wealth to your creditors.

"Here," you're saying to the fine folks at Visa. "Take the money I think I'll have next [insert future date here]. I probably won't need it for anything important anyway." Like retirement. Or a nicer home. Or someone's college education.

Aww, what the heck. Financial security is probably overrated anyhow.

Debt limits your options — and heavy loads of debt eliminate your options altogether.

Taking a week's vacation might be just the thing you and your family need, but when you're up to your neck in credit-card or other loan payments, getting away for a while is going to be tough to pull off. Hate your job? Ready to bail and search for something else? The debtor's reality is that such a career move may be in the best interest of his tomorrow, but impossible due to the financial contraints imposed by his debts today.

Debt steals your freedom and makes you a slave.

This is it, summed up in a coin purse: The borrower is servant to the lender. The debtor earns her wages for the benefit of the financier.

Debt is its own self-fulfilling prophecy — a harbinger of itself.

So you have more debt than you can pay off now. That fact makes you more likely to have even more of it down the road. After all, if you can't pay cash for your purchases now, and you're using credit to carry the difference, then you're pledging some portion of your future income for that debt. Doing so means you'll be pretty likely to keep coming up short of funds in the future, which means you'll keep taking on debt then, too. And so, barring efforts to the contrary, the debt cycle will remain unbroken.

Debt is a discourager — a drain on your mental resources.

As if the world didn't put enough problems on your plate, now you have debt to worry about. But debt isn't a loner. Wherever it goes, it brings along a few pals:   Stress, anger, anxiety, discouragement, conflict. None of these emotions are conducive to living an enjoyable, productive existence. Nor do they aid your problem-solving skills.

Debt doesn't just cost money. It also costs life.