Okay I’ll admit it—Thom and I enjoy tales of the supernatural. For years we watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer on television. Together we’ve seen all sorts of movies and shows about werewolves, vampires, aliens and all sorts of bizarre characters doing all sorts of strange things. Most of them are pure entertainment. However, one of the more sinister creatures is called a succubus. While never fully fleshed out in most episodes, it needs little description. Simply put, a succubus is something that sucks out the very essence and joy of a person in all sorts of horrifying and painful ways. When you think about it, oppressive debt feels exactly the same. The good news is that just like how Buffy knew ways to slay vampires, there are at least five ways any of us can rise above even the worst sort of debt succubus on the way to a happy life.
In case you are wondering, Thom and I know how painful a succubus of debt can be because we lived it. A number of years ago we lived on credit. As self-employed entrepreneurs we never used it to live extravagantly. Instead we used credit and credit cards to finance our lives during several particularly lean income years. The more debt we accumulated the more we were sucked into the “rob Peter to pay Paul” lifestyle. You know you’re in trouble when your biggest business expense is interest paid on loans and you use credit cards to pay for groceries. It was a time of many sleepless nights, lots of feelings of frustration and helplessness, and predictably, lots of tension between Thom and I. As we all know, overwhelming debt is a succubus of personal happiness.
I won’t lie and say it was easy. But I can say that slowly but surely we began making progress and can now say that over time we slew that succubus. In the event that our example can help others, here are the five main ways we did it over a period of years:
1) Make freedom your goal. The first and foremost intention I believe a person must take on is to desire freedom. I think that most of us just assume that debt is a regular part of life so we don’t even attempt to fight it. When you’ve grown up with debt all around you, you seldom even consider that there might be a better way. If everyone else is struggling to pay their bills, most people decide early on that there is no other way. Our society often even fools us into believing that debt is a good thing. Ever heard that it is good to have a mortgage on your house so you can write off the interest? Trust me, having no payment at all is much better than a write off!
When freedom becomes a primary goal then you will analyze every expense BEFORE you take it on and decide whether that cost is worth feeling jailed by debt.
2) Practice Mindful Consuming. A big part of the problem is that most of us really don’t pay that much attention to how we spend our money. I know we sure didn’t when we were younger. In many cases we’d buy something we needed without considering all the options. And then before you know it, spending becomes a habit just like smoking or overeating or any one of a dozen bad habits. That’s why making a budget can really help. When you ask yourself to be very conscious and aware of what your income is, and then ask how that corresponds to what you want or need to spend in EVERY instance, it can help your break the bad habit of overspending.
Something that worked well in our relationship was giving each other an amount that each of us could spend without discussing it with the other person. It started out pretty low because we didn’t have much money in the beginning and then gradually grew. Now we are so accustomed to talking about purchases before we even consider them that we don’t have to even think about it. This keeps you conscious and makes you hyperaware of your purchases.
Plus, by staying conscious you are less likely to buy things impulsively and instead research for the best bargains available. I’m really good at researching so that job usually falls to me. Staying mindful about expenses and purchases is critical.
3) Have Patience. I know from experience that we all want a painful experience to be over as quickly as possible but the deeper you are in debt the longer it takes to get over. A couple of things we learned along the way were to take our time and think of long-term instead of short-term when making purchases. We also started thinking of things as an “investment” rather than just a purchase. When you start thinking that way you remember that quality always trumps quantity. Plus, we came up with the “sleep on it rule.” No matter how badly you think you want or need something, always tell yourself and each other than you have to sleep on it before you buy it. Patience is an essential tool to overcome debt and help with mindful consuming.
4) Overcome your excuses. A big problem with the bad habit of debt is the continual excuses we tell ourselves. A few of the favorites we used are:
a. I/we can afford it. i.e. What’s $5 a day for a Starbucks?
b. I/we deserve it. i.e. I work so hard I should be able to treat myself.
c. I want to make (my husband, my wife, my child, my_______ happy. i.e. I’m not buying it for myself. But I know it will make my ____________happy.
d. I don’t have time. i.e. I’m too tired to cook so I think we should go out tonight instead.
Unconscious excuses are really bad habits that can lead to spending money you don’t have. Once you recognize them, you should be able to stop buying anything that needs an excuse and instead make conscious and aware choices that fit your budget.
5) Find the right friends. One of the things I always appreciated about Buffy The Vampire Slayer was that she had a group of friends who would fight to the death with her to overcome the bad guys. I don’t think we can overlook the fact that our friends (and/or family) will either help reduce our debt or they will feed us to the succubus. Even when they don’t have sinister motives, if they are in the grips of the succubus they might think that misery loves company and encourage you to stand beside them instead. Don’t be fooled.
If people tell you it is not only okay but desirable to have debt, please consider that very carefully. Back when I went to college there wasn’t the pressure to get student loans that there is today. But remember; just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t make it SMART. Try to find a way to get your education without debt. I know it is harder but it can be done. Hang out with people who will tell you it’s possible and avoid those who don’t.
Back when we were heavily in debt the big story going around was how the only way to get rich was to use OPM (Other people’s money!) We were encouraged to take on as much debt (and leverage ourselves) as possible. That line of thinking was behind the big real estate collapse five years ago—and while you’d think people would learn better, it is still alive and well. Sure you might catch a few licks in there—but trust me—there is a huge downside of oppressive debt that sucks the enjoyment out of every single day. Pick friends that know it is possible to do well in life and succeed without oppressive debt. They’re there—I know it because those are the kind of friends we have now.
So where are we now? I’m happy to say that once Thom and I used the above avenues to achieve financial wellbeing we went even further and are now living completely debt free. What is important to realize that now without all that debt we have lots of excess money to save, invest and even enjoy doing the things that are really important to us—like travel. Although it took us quite a few years to accomplish it, the advantages of the life we are living now so exceeds the struggles we endured in the past that there is no going back. We also stay very aware and keep our focus on the above five elements so that we continue to stay debt free. Never forget that just because you slew your debt succubus in the past, that there isn’t another one lurking nearby.
Looking back over the years I can still remember how it felt to be in the firm grip of the succubus of debt. It was tempting to believe that someone like Buffy would come along and save us, we’d win the lottery, or Aunt Millie would die and leave us a fortune. But now I know that it is both SMART and possible to slay any succubus that keeps any of us from living a happy, peaceful and meaningful life.
*Here is another SMART Living Post about financial management: Rightsizing your finances–A SMART way to manage money