Getting into debt often feels like the result of unfair circumstance. A bad turn here, an unlucky land of the dice there, and before we know it we have hundreds of dollars leaving each month to pay for interest on our debt. Those dollars could be building up our savings for a home, or for the kids’ education, or just a nice vacation. Instead they are fleecing the pockets of the financing companies we borrowed from.
While for some of you this may be true — that your debt was simply the result of a bunch of bad luck all at the same time — a majority of us have debts that are purely by our own choices. Perhaps these choices are ones we never anticipated how badly they could go or how they could snowball into something so large, but it was still our choice that started us down the path.
We have to own those choices. And we have to realize that most likely an unhealthy chunk of those choices were in relation to wants instead of needs. Our insatiable appetite for new, bigger, better, next version, and shiner stuff has kept us from the financial freedom we desire.
Needs Normally Don’t Lead to Debt
Unless you have a string of bad luck, providing for your most basic needs won’t lead you to overwhelming debt. You’re not going to buy so much food that you end up crushed under credit card payments. Eventually throwing out all that bad food would make you realize you were wasting money.
Just earning minimum wage provides you with the absolute bare minimum needed to provide for yourself. Sure you might have a roommate and eat rice and beans every night for dinner, but it is definitely possible to survive on. And needs are about surviving, not thriving.
What Qualifies as a Need?
Since it is definitely okay to spend money on needs, what exactly qualifies?
Food and Water
Obviously you need food and water to avoid dying from starvation and dehydration. Food and water doesn’t mean fancy steak dinners. It might mean some white bread for toast, rice and beans, and tap water. You might have to eat this for an entire month just to scrape by. But that’s okay… because going into debt for these items means you will never crawl out from underneath that crushing weight.
Having a place to sleep and be kept warm or cool (depending on the season and climate) is also a necessity. You can’t sleep on the street, but it also doesn’t mean you can get a mortgage you cannot afford just because shelter qualifies as a need. You might have to split an apartment with a roommate, or rent a house with four roommates. As long as you have four walls, a roof, and a place to sleep then you have met the shelter need. (Plus splitting a rental with other tenants can save you a ton of money.)
Fancy clothes are great, but buying everything from Wal-Mart is affordable. You don’t need 16 pairs of shoes, 12 pairs of pants, and 47 different t-shirts. You can survive on a limited but resourceful clothing budget. You need decent threads to be able to get and stay employed, it just doesn’t have to be designer brands. (Don’t believe me? One lady in Seattle wore the same little brown dress for an entire year straight.)
Income and the Ability to Get to Employment
This doesn’t normally fall under a need category, but from a financial perspective it absolutely is a need. You must have employment or some form of income to be able to provide for the rest of your needs. Without an income you are doomed to financial failure.
How Self-Control Over Your Wants Can Save You Thousands
Have you spent money in the last month on something besides these items? Of course you have. We all have. A majority of the American economy is based on convincing you that all those wants you have are really needs. That you’re good enough, that you’re worth purchasing that shiny new item. We’re easy to convince — we do want to buy that shiny item — so we get out the credit card.
But — this is where the rubber meets the road — could you really afford to spend that other money if you are up to your eyeballs in debt?
Even if you aren’t up to your eyeballs in debt but still have a substantial amount, the truth is that money that was spent on wants could have been better used to payoff your debt. You can have all the wants in the world once you are free from debt; delaying that occasion means you are paying interest for no good reason.
Why do we fail to do what is in our best interests? In my opinion it is primarily a lack of self-control. People who eat too much usually know they eat too much, yet they still munch away. Others know they need to exercise, but never do. And yet others know they need to stop spending so much money, but continue to do so at their own detriment.
In other words we are really efficient at setting ourselves up for failure by letting our wants run rampant on our finances. Controlling those wants and delaying that gratification is key to moving forward.
No Hermit Lifestyle Needed
You don’t have to live as a hermit to solve your debt problem: get up, eat plain breakfast, go to work, come home, eat plain dinner, go to bed, repeat. (Although one could argue that would help.)
You can have the nice things in life that you want. You just can’t have them all, today, right now, when you are standing in line at the big box retail store. Delayed gratification is a really important concept to master. You tell yourself, I can have this… in 3 weeks. You then save up the money, avoid debt, and pay cash for whatever it is you are wanting. This limits your ability to have everything of course because there is only so much money to go around. But that’s kind of the point — you can’t whip out the credit card and buy everything right now. Buy one thing, save up for the next, purchase it, and build from there.