Dealing with Debt, Hardyville Style
By Claire Wolfe
February 15, 2006
I was so deep into note-scribbling that I jumped when Carty came up behind me and read aloud over my shoulder.
“‘Dealing with Debt, Hardyville Style.’ What’s that?”
“Notes for my next column.”
He snorted. (He does that a lot.) “No such thing as getting out of debt Hardyville style. Hardyville style is not to get into debt in the first place.”
“Horsefeathers,” pronounced Janelle, arriving with a pot of the Hog Trough’s famous coffee imitation. “Husband and I hadda go into debt to buy this place. It was an investment.”
“Yeah, horsefeathers, Carty,” I agreed. “People get into debt for all kinds of reasons. Even Hardyvillians. I’ll bet even you’d go into debt if you had a chance to get a quick deal on … oh, a Barrett .50 cal rifle.”
“Well, that’s different,” he snorted. (See, there he goes again.) “That’s an essential tool.”
“Exactly. Not to mention an essential toy, my gunnie friend. I saw your eyes light up. And I once went into debt for an EBR myself.”
“But I’d rather save for it than go into debt over it.”
“Amen. I agree that’s the Hardyville way. Or better yet, make so much money that you can buy Barretts and ‘Have a Nice Day’ Serbus out of your pocket change. But that ain’t reality. Boy oh boy, that ain’t reality.”
The reality outside of Hardyville, is pretty darned grim. They — you know ‘they,’ those relentlessly upbeat propagandists in Washington and those cheery financial columnists who follow them — tell us that the U.S. economy is (except for a minor glitch or two, now ‘n then) just crankin’ away.
So how come:
- More than 2 million Americans filed bankruptcy in 2005 — a record.
- Savings have dropped from 9 percent per year in the 1980s to less than 0 percent now.
- Household incomes are flat — or negative — when compared with inflation.
- Americans are spending more than we make.
The sorry fact is that most of our economic recovery or prosperity or whatever you want to call it is fueled by people taking equity out of their houses and spending it on stuff — or running up credit cards to spend on stuff — and not even stuff made by Americans.
Somewhere, we seem to have gotten the idea that we can make nothing, go into debt, and just keep buying what Asians produce forever. We’ll stay on top of the world, masters of a proud and eternal Empire of Debt. And we’ll do it just by spending (and printing) more and more money.
Nope. No way. Doesn’t work like that.
A Financial Reckoning Day will come.
When that day comes, people who’ve run up their credit cards and mortgaged their houses well beyond their falling value are going to be in deep yogurt. And with the new changes in bankruptcy law, they won’t even have that “out” for so-called consumer debt. All they’ll be able to do is either chip away at their mountain of debt or bail out of their sinking economic lifeboat into the icy sea of financial ruin.
This would be a good time for those people to start getting out of debt.
Carty’s right in a sense. The true Hardyville way would be to stay out of debt. Period. Or perhap’s Janelle’s right; debt is a useful tool for one purpose: getting future return. That is, a loan to build a business or get an education could benefit you greatly, if you use it well. But getting a loan to buy a DVD player or a car is just bassackwards.
But even Hardyvillians have to face reality. Few people in the real world can get a house without a mortgage. A reliable vehicle for getting to our job costs more than most of us can think about paying cash for. (But that’s partly because most of us are so deep in debt already that we can’t save that cash.) An unplanned pregnancy or an auto accident can mess up our best-laid plans. (Although you know … if we’d been saving 9 percent or more of our income, we’d be in better condition to face the unexpected.)
Still, debt even for good purposes is painful. We’re promising to enslave ourselves in the future to get something we want now. Somehow, we forget (or ignore) that.
We’ve disconnected action from consequence. When we use that credit card to buy a $200 dress or a $2,000 laptop computer we don’t think, “I’m going to have to work XX hours to pay for that and XX more hours to pay the finance charges on it. Egads! That’s a bad deal.” We just think: “Cool. New stuff.” Then when the bills come we think: “Bills are inevitable. But hey, if I pay them on time, I’ll have a really good credit score! Whoopee.”
But every debt is a pledge to surrender part of our future. And you know what Mark Twain said about pledges: “To make a pledge of any kind is to declare war against nature; for a pledge is a chain that is always clanking and reminding the wearer of it that he is not a free man.”
And when the pledge we’re making is a pledge to spend hundreds or thousands of hours of our future for gratification today … we really are planning our own unfreedom.
So how would Hardyvillians deal with debt? How do we deal with it? And since Hardyville is known for having quite a few strategies that (alas) aren’t so easy to apply in the outside world, can any of those Hardyvillian anti-debt strategies work for anybody else?
We shall see. Next time.
But in the meantime, do this: Make a list of all your debts. Then think about the one debt you’d most like to get rid of. Not the one you think would be easiest to get rid of (unless that’s the one you really want to start with). Not the one the experts say you’d be smartest to get rid of (unless that’s the one you really want to start with). But the one you most hate having, the one you’d like to drive a stake through and bury at the crossroads at midnight. The one you’d be most motivated to kill.