Don’t assume debt is necessary

Debt is so much a part of our culture that we forget it’s a bad thing. We just accept that this is how things are for most people without stopping to think about how we can change the situation, at least in our own lives.

First I think I should make a distinction between different kinds of debt. Certain types of debt could be viewed as an investment, such as a mortgage or a student loan. The key here is to borrow only the bare minimum that is needed and to choose with care what you’re buying. If it’s a house, have a reasonably good idea that it will go up in value (or that you can increase the worth of the home yourself).

For student loans, be sure you choose your field of study wisely, one that will give you real skills to enable you to stand out in the job market. You can also decide whether it’s better to take more hours per semester to get finished faster, or to take fewer credit hours in order to work at the same time so as to borrow less. Remember that funding your social life is not the purpose of student loans.

A car loan could arguably be a necessity, as you most likely need one to get to work. A loan could enable you to get a more reliable vehicle than you could purchase out of your savings at the moment. Then you don’t get into the trap of buying a cheap car every few years, probably one you will have to spend more money on for repairs.

Even in these three situations, you still need to think into the future about how long you will be paying this off. The monthly payment might be reasonable, but do you really want to be beholden for several decades? Borrow less or else find a way to double your payment. And make sure the terms of your loan allow you to pay it off early without penalty. Then do just that.

For anything else, you shouldn’t go into debt to purchase it. Boats, second homes, RVs, vacations — if you can’t pay for these up front, then you simply can’t afford them. If anything on this list appeals to you, think about saving up for it first. Then when the time comes around, you might decide you don’t really want to give up that large chunk of change you’ve accumulated.

Now let’s turn to that big ugly monster of credit cards. There is really nothing good about them. I know there are some cards that give you benefits for using them, and in theory if you pay everything off every month you’ve come out ahead. But the temptation to overspend is too great. It’s just too easy to splurge with a credit card because it doesn’t seem like real money.

Motivational speaker Dave Ramsey suggests paying cash for everything and going into stores with a set amount of money. You then have to keep track of what you are putting into your cart, because you don’t want to be that person who holds up the line because they overspent. More importantly, you are forced to stick to your budget.

Credit cards are a result of our want for instant gratification — we think we need something right now rather than working for it first. This also leads to a sense of entitlement; we think we deserve it. Our consumer-driven culture brainwashes us into believing we need to buy all this stuff and convinces us that we won’t fit in with everyone else if we don’t have it.

And don’t even think about going to one of those paycheck loan places. I’m not even sure how they are on the legal side of usury laws. Those places are a slimy pit that is almost impossible to climb out of. Even credit card debt, that it seems like everyone has these days, can have this effect. If you find yourself putting common items like groceries on a credit card, then you must make some serious changes.

There are many financial counselors out there who can work with you in your particular situation to help you to get out of a cycle of paying off past expenses. It may not be easy to make those adjustments, but I promise it is worth the peace of mind it will bring to your life as you take control of your finances.

Stephanie Haines is a writer from Greenfield who now lives in Bloomington. She can be contacted through her website,