Debt is complicated. It happens to the best of us, for a variety of reasons. Some people are dealing with addictions, or lifestyles, others are dealing with medical or student loan debt, or simply a mortgage. All of the reasons for going into debt have an emotional root and various psychological branches. In personal finance, everything is personal so everyone has a different rhyme or reason for their situation.
The one aspect of personal finance I don’t agree with is the conversation around “good” debt and “bad” debt.
I don’t buy it. Debt sucks any way you look at it. This sort of thinking helps shield one’s decisions and shame others. Some people are lauded for making good decisions, while others are demonized for buying too much crap. I feel like this discussion detracts us from actually dealing with debt.
I used to buy into the “good” debt trap. I have student loans, my intentions were in the right place, and I gave it my best. Yes, I probably shouldn’t have gotten a master’s degree in the arts, but I thought I wanted to be a professor. I had viable career experience as well, so it didn’t seem like I was making a terrible decision at the time. Like most people with debt, I am currently wrapping my head around my decisions that got me into this situation to begin with.
I take full responsibility for being in debt. I chose to go to school. I chose to go to school, again. I chose a damn near useless major. I signed the papers myself.
I am in debt and it is all my fault.
I am all for people taking responsibility for their actions and decisions that got them into debt. It’s a key part of the reflective process, and getting out of debt — knowing your mistakes and moving forward.
But I’d argue that it’s not that easy. There is a lot of shame and blame that goes with being in debt. Speaking from experience, it’s as if people want to rub it in your face what an idiot you were for going to school in the arts. I am sure people who have consumer debt, mortgage debt, and the like have experienced the same thing.
People talk to you as if they have had the answers the whole time and you were the idiot that didn’t see the right choice in front of you. There is so much more to it though.
We live in a culture where it’s pumped into us from an early age that education is the pathway to success, regardless of your major. That you too, can be anything you want! That having a house is part of the American Dream. There is an insidious notion that we must keep up with the latest trends, latest technologies, and if we don’t we’re at risk of being outdated and pushed to the side. As we grow older, it’s no longer acceptable to wear the clothes you did in college. People will judge you for driving a dirty beater. In some cities, public transportation is actually a class issue.
So, wait a minute? Maybe it isn’t just me? Although I made this decision that got me into debt, I made it for a lot of reasons; some selfish, some stupid, and some because I wanted to buy more privilege. I was buying a name.
In short, what I am saying is that you should take responsibility for being in debt. However, I don’t think people should be chastised so harshly considering the culture we live in. To overcome debt, we have to change our relationship to money AND to the culture we live in. We don’t live in a bubble and there are reasons why you are in debt that you probably can’t articulate in words.
So accept your reality, keep working hard at overcoming debt, and don’t feel so alone.