I remember when I was a freshman in college, I applied for a credit card. I was shocked when I was turned down. I vowed then that I would never use that particular card, a vow I have stuck with for 50 years to date. Instead, I should have written a thank you note to the company because that “insult” forced me to use cash and learn the real value of money – and to avoid debt. These were all good lessons!
That insult/lesson saved me a lot and cost that credit card company even more. In hindsight and having seen many other people struggle with credit card debt, it gave me an opportunity to see how easy it is to fall into the traps that lead to debt. “Traps” is the correct word. Debt is a monstrous slave master. It seeks to captivate and devour the innocent and foolish and it does that well. Few people really want to go deeply into debt. But many people fall, literally, deeply into debt because the tricks and the traps of modern consumerism are brilliant.
Let’s look at a few of those traps.
Student Loan Debt
Nationwide, the student loan debt is almost $1.5 trillion across 44 million borrowers. The average student loan payment is $351 per month. I doubt anyone realistically expects any result other than much of the debt eventually being passed off to taxpayers. It is a mass of debt that is unpayable for many and financially crushing for even more. See The Student Loan Debt Crisis Is About to Get Worse by Riley Griffin.
For the class of 2017, the average debt was above $39,000. The highest balances due were for students who attended for-profit schools. Unfortunately, many students graduated with degrees that offered few, if any, high paying jobs.
The student loan traps have included creating hope for high paying jobs that do not exist, the failure of schools to help students weigh the risk of debt against the likely income, and the lack of clarity involving repayment options, leaving many students paying far more than they should for an education of questionable value. The proliferation of for-profit schools added to the problem greatly.
He Who Dies With the Most Toys, Wins
No, he who dies with the most toys, still dies, or at least that is what one of my favorite t-shirts tells me.
You are not your stuff. However, the American way is to earn more so you can buy more, making saving, giving, and financial wisdom hard to achieve.
Most Boomers grew up with one TV (ours was black and white), three channels from which to choose, one phone in the house (ours was a party line), and a car without an air conditioner (which in Florida mattered a lot). Now, we are sold on the “need” for a large flat screen smart TV in almost every room in the house (a much bigger house than the one in which we grew up), hundreds of channels plus DVDs and Netflix for virtually unlimited entertainment, at least one phone for every person, a smart critter named Alexa in the house, and more cars than will fit in a home’s garage and driveway. How has this happened? Through very carefully and skillfully targeted marketing.
Social media has only made it worse. Rich Relevance, an e-commerce consultant, says that Pinterest shoppers will spend on the average $170 per session while Facebook shoppers spend “only” $95 per session and Twitter shoppers spend $70 per session. See How social media sites make you spend more.
The modern American spend-before-save mentality is powerful and appears to be winning.
I Can Handle This!
Independence in thinking and decision-making can be financially destructive. Parents do want their children to grow up and become independent, but there is little logic in young adults rejecting all advice from their parents without regard for common sense. Why “reinvent the wheel” and why refuse to learn from the mistakes of those who have already been there and done that?
The Bible promotes the concept of seeking wise counsel. Proverbs 1:5 and Proverbs 20:18. But instead, our society promotes independent thinking, even independence to the point of rebelliousness. See Teenagers: Why Do They Rebel? by WebMD.com.
Bigger Is Better
Over the last generation or two, the American dream has transformed from a dream of equal opportunity for that “good life” in the future after earning it, to wanting that good life right now. People used to start small in their home ownership. Then, as their incomes grew, they moved up. That is far from the normal way of thinking now. Normal, modern American thought is to buy big because a large mortgage is okay.
Well, it isn’t, and many of the “buy big” home owners discover that the mortgage is just the beginning. After that, there are utilities like electricity, water, sewage, garbage. And don’t forget that grass that grows way too fast in Florida’s hot, wet summer months. And then comes insurance, real estate taxes, maintenance and repairs, and the need to actually have furniture to use in the home. Then, things start to break and wear out!
Most advisers recommend that these costs attributable to your home be less than 30% of your net income. That is likely too high because that level does not allow for stewardship, just survival. It might be an acceptable level if you factor God and your future out of your life and neglect saving and giving, but that is unwise. Haggai 1:5-6 shows us God’s response to His people when they chose to live well and neglect Him.
5 Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways.
6 You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”
A better percentage for these home-related expenses is 20-25%. That allows you to give to God as well as to save. See It’s Time to Start Saving on saving for emergencies as well as on saving in general, for the future, and especially for retirement.
I Love That New Car Smell
The reality is that cars are very expensive. It isn’t just the car payment, it’s the gas, oil, tires, brakes, maintenance, tags and registration, license renewal, parking, and insurance. It’s also the fact that the minute you drive off the new car lot, your car loses value, perhaps as much as 10% and by the end of your first year of ownership, it has probably lost 20% of its original cost. The loss is less for a good used car, but the simple truth is that most cars depreciate – lose value – rapidly.
Your car-related expenses should never be more than 15% of your net income.
This one is not new to American marketing, but it slapped me in the face this past Christmas as we looked to buy presents for family, friends, and charities. I discovered the “joy” of children’s toys. For toddler girls, there were purses loaded with “essentials” like a make up compact, a smart phone, car and house keys, a wallet and either a credit card, a debit card – or both! Of course, they were all toys, but they were toys with a marketing purpose with a second (or perhaps silent, primary) purpose of training children on what is the new normal. Or perhaps rather than call it training, it should be called indoctrination, because that is what it is.
Avoiding the Traps
First, don’t think you can handle it alone, but don’t automatically either accept or reject advice. Proverbs 1:5. The wise counsel you seek should include multiple sources, including some people who have already been down the road you are about to travel. The wise counsel must be someone who is not afraid, or even hesitant, to say “no!”
Second, avoid decisions under pressure or on impulse. If you set in your mind that you will always seek wise counsel, impulse purchasing will become almost impossible. Include God as one counselor by praying – a lot – before major financial decisions.
Third, have a financial plan and a budget. That is a wise move at all ages, from first starting to spend as a child to seniority even when you may think you have plenty of money. For ideas on creating such a financial plan, see It’s Time to Start Saving. In short, build into your plan giving to God and giving to yourself for the future through saving.
Fourth, include God in that plan. Luke 12:13-21. He is Lord of all, and “all” includes your finances.
Fifth, save. The idea of saving money is not exciting. I know of no one who stays up late dreaming about the exhilaration of opening a bank (or even an investment) account. On the other hand, I do know people who lose sleep because they had no savings and then an illness or accident puts them upside down and in heavy debt. Dave Ramsey and Financial Peace University strongly promote having an emergency savings fund. Don’t just take that advice, take the Financial Peace University course. In 2021 taking the course is online and free at Idlewild Baptist Church.
Finally, either cut up all of your credit cards or perhaps just keep one credit card. If you do keep one and you are at risk of using it at a time when you might not be able to pay off the full monthly bill, leave the card at home when you shop. Pay cash and you’ll spend less.
Will you avoid every trick and all of the traps? Probably not, but you can avoid some traps and make your financial future brighter.
About the Author
John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.