The (im)morality of debt


This is kind of an addendum to my last post, but I found I had so much I wanted to say to the commenters on that post that I should probably just add a whole new topic. (Please note that I adore both of these commenters, I just happen to take issue with them on this topic.)

Christine said:

I believe a large group of people in trouble are where they are because they can't separate needs and wants very well.

Crystal said:

We've lived with minimal "stuff", many handmedowns, and no vacations for years, because paying off our debt (and not accumulating MORE) was our priority, as I think it should be for anyone with a debt.

I have a problem with both of these statements. It's not that I don't think there are people in trouble because they spend unwisely (been there and done that and still paying the bill), but I'm bothered by the assumption that we can judge for other people what a need versus a want is, and whether paying debt should be a priority. I am increasingly bothered by the overtones of morality in fiscal conversations like this one. Not having debt does not make you a better person. Have a frugal lifestyle and not spending frivolously isn't going to get you into heaven.

The older I get, the more I believe that our financial system is a game of random luck. Working harder doesn't get you more, being in the right place at the right time does. Sure, stringent habits can keep you afloat, but so can not getting sick or losing your job. Given that, what is the use of attaching morality to who dies with the biggest savings account balance?

Obviously it has become important to me over the course of the past year or so to pay down my consumer debt. I've worked at it, and I'm almost finished. I'll have paid something like $11,000 in 18 months--not pocket change. But I bristle at the idea that whether or not to try to do that is a decision I can make for anyone else (and at the idea of being judged myself for running up the debt in the first place and for not being more frugal and paying it down faster). Lenders sought me out and lent me money. There is absolutely no shame in my having taken it, nor, as long as I meet with whatever interest conditions are agreed upon (most of which are, in my opinion, ridiculous) in taking my sweet time to pay it back. Deciding I didn't want it in my life and paying it back was my decision, and it's one I'm happy with, but it doesn't make me a better person.

Similarly, deciding that I don't need to buy X, Y, or Z doesn't make me a better person, at least not for fiscal reasons. Supporting small businesses and fair labor practices and environmentally friendly products, and forgoing those I know to be made with slave labor and of environmentally damaging materials, might imply moral growth, but just spending less doesn't. A large majority of what I spend my money on may well be considered luxuries by many people, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be doing it. The important part, to my mind, is that you use your resources--time, money, whatever--in ways that make you happy. Letting someone else judge what those should be makes absolutely no sense.

I understand that it's natural and even necessary for people to get more frugal in a recession. And I roll my eyes at a lot of big spending, too. But why can't all of our discussions about how to do things inexpensively come without the heavy layer of self-righteousness? What does a discussion about frugality look like without the moral underpinning?


Thanks for this post too! I've been on a mission to convince myself of exactly what you're saying, only with regards to myself...that MY financial status is not a moral failing (or achievement).

For me, frugality is less important than buying the right things. By which I mean, rather than talking about frugality, because as you say saving money is not inherently a good thing, lets talk about making sure our spending is consistent with our priorities. Lets talk about generosity towards others. Lets talk about buying products that have a positive impact on the world around us.

I spend a lot on certain items, and I spend very little on others...and you know what? I'm damn proud. For the most part, the "luxuries" I spend on are things that I really love - that really add to my enjoyment of life. I reduce, reuse and recycle. I buy products that are made with as little impact on the earth as possible. I buy from companies that treat their employees well. I give to charity. Some of the things I do are consistent with frugality, and some are inconsistent...but I'm happy and proud about all of them, even if my debts aren't being paid down as fast as they otherwise could.

(Not to say that all my financial decisions are good ones...but you get my drift)

Yay, I got quoted on Grace's blog! (Boo, she's mad at me ;-) )

I think, honestly, you're getting unnecessarily defensive about this. I didn't say that anyone was Teh Evil for having debt. Heck I have debt. I've had lots more debt than what I have right now. I don't think I'm Teh Evil (not for the debt, anyways).

I guess what I do take issue with is the "woe is me" stuff (which externalizes the "problem", if I may be so bold as to call it that, i.e., makes it someone else's fault -governement, poor paying job, taxes, cost of living, whatever), when a person has it completely within their own power to make different choices that would make their financial situation differently.

The truth is not "I'm so broke", it's: "I spent all my money, plus money I don't have".

I'm saying this as a person who USED to make terrible financial choices (in the red and overdrawn everywhere) and complained about how broke I was and how stressed it was making me. It took a serious personal shakeup for me to see what I was doing was MY FAULT and no one else's and that only I could make my financial situation different - by making good choices about spending, saving, and earning.

I have to add one more thing(s) after reading some of the other comments...

this isn't an issue about morality AT ALL, and I think if folks are feeling defensive about other people questioning their spending habits, they need to ask themselves "why?"

Second, I'm pretty sure I saw someone say that people are "entitled to their luxuries". WHAT???!!?!? Seriously? No offense, but that's just a wild idea to me. Someone needs to explain that to me better. I would LOVE a weekly facial/massage, and would LOVE to have a house that didn't have a leaky basement, and would LOVE to quintuple my wardrobe...but I'm not entitled to any of those things. If I want them, I have to shape my situation in order to be able to obtain up, cut back on other things, increase my earning potential, etc. etc. If I can't get them, I'm not going to die. I'm certainly entitled to safety and shelter and nourishment and freedom of speach etc. etc., but not facials.

I'm hearing this undertone as well, and it irks me. I find the occasional Vanilla Rooibos Latte from $tarbucks to be a need, if I want to maintain any kind of sense that my life is rich, even when I'm not. Long country drives, while wasteful in one sense, are a necessity in the 'I'm raising teenagers, dude, and I need a long drive in the country before I kill someone' sense of the word.

Being in debt is *not* a moral issue. It is a fact of life and of a culture that drives certain lifestyles down our throats as 'must haves or we don't measure up'.

Most of us are doing our best, even if we have facials, or go to movies, or take long drives in the country, and what's a need for me might make you laugh, but that doesn't mean it isn't a *need*.

It seems to me sometimes that people just need another reason to rag on other people. We all seem so hell bent on judging one another. I'm sure those who are incredibly financially responsible have other issues that they wouldn't want slagged all over the Internet.

We are no longer kind. This bothers me way more than what who spends on what.

I definitely agree that there's a moral underpinning to discussions of debt, one that plays to the "traditional American" ethic of hard work = morality, laziness = immorality, and debt = immorality on several levels.

However, had I seen your first post sooner, I would have argued that "No, a person recieving food stamps shouldn't get a facial,"

It's not a matter of entitlement; I agree that people deserve, even "need" luxuries. However, people with credit card debt have entered a contract with a bank. The bank lent them money voluntarily, because there is a possiblity of profit.

Taxes are compulsory, and there's no possiblity of a taxpayer benefiting from someone else's food stamps. In my opinion, the food stamp recipient has a responsibility to taxpayers-- to only rely on financial aid if they can't pay for essentials of survival.

1. again I think the major difference if you're supplying the money or if someone else is. when someone else is they get a say.

2. All American issues are moral--esp. those surrounding enjoyment--sex, booze, food, spending money, etc. Welcome to Puritainia.

3. I generally don't know/notice what people spend their money UNTIL they start complaining how broke they are. When you start complaining you lose rights not to be judged, IMO. Especially if YOU put yourself in the situation. I feel empathy if you complain about getting sick, but not as much if you insist on going outside without a jacket in the dead of winter.

4. I think the difference between our understanding in this is evident in your use of frugality. Not going into debt isn't being frugal. Living within your means isn't frugality. Living way BELOW your means is frugality. However our culture is so endorsing of living way beyond your means, that this it's framed this way.

Living beyond your means is irresponsible. I feel like it's reasonable to point that out as a bad choice.

If anything in my comment made anybody think I feel debt-free and frugal is better, that is not what I meant. I think Jess said perfectly what I feel: spending needs to be consistent with priorities. Of course priorities are different for everybody and highly personal, and they change a lot. But in this documentary I mentioned before, I saw a woman talk about her financial situation and explaining how her kids couldn't go on a field trip (with a definite "woe-is-me" tone) with their school because she couldn't afford the 10 euro contribution for it, and the whole time she was talking she light up one cigarette after another. Two packets of cigs cost 10 euro. This infuriates me, and I can't help it (probably because I felt sorry for the kids and I'm an ex-smoker). I feel this woman had her priorities all wrong, so in a way I'm not surprised she's in trouble with money, to be honest. Also, for a lot of people it's just so hard in this day and age to admit they can't afford certain things, almost as though it's a shame if you have limits to your budget. I don't know why this is but it keeps amazing me, and I wish it would change.
I don't think having more money makes people more entitled to anything, but it's just a fact money buys a certain amount of freedom, and it also means you can do more things that are beyond the basics. It's sour for those who have the bare minimum, but that's just how it is. And even if your budget is so tight there is hardly any room for anything but basics, there can still be some money for a luxury once in a while. Even just going to the bakery and buying 1 cupcake can be a huge luxury (it is to me, lol).
Interesting discussion. And Grace, please don't take offense about anything I said because that's not how I meant it. :-)

Whether someone makes 200K or 20K a year, I don't think anyone is really "entitled" to luxuries. That's why they're called "luxuries".

In an attempt to rephrase what I said earlier so as to not come across as generally judgemental of people who are not debt-free:

People who have debt are neither better nor worse (morally, ethically, etc.) than those who have no debt.

People who have debt and complain about it, but continue to spend money they don't have on luxuries to a point where they're unable to pay for their basic needs (food, rent, etc.), annoy me. I don't want to hear the complaining.


Still love me?

It is interesting to me that in our society, money is almost as taboo a subject as sex. I mean, one of the questions you NEVER get to ask someone is how much they make: why?

We don't talk about money, we don't teach kids about money and we somehow expect people just to become financially responsible without any way to learn except by trial and error.

You can go to 4 years of college and study a subject and prepare for a career without anyone ever mentioning ONCE how much you are likely to make and what the prospects in the field are. THAT IS NUTS.

Most people aren't stupid about money - they are ignorant, and there is a big difference.

"I am increasingly bothered by the overtones of morality in fiscal conversations like this one. Not having debt does not make you a better person. Have a frugal lifestyle and not spending frivolously isn't going to get you into heaven."

Sorry, but failure to find something morally wrong is still a moral judgment. It seems like you're just substituting your own morals for the ones that you don't agree with.

Since we're all making moral judgments here, I'll chime in with my own:

I do think that striving for frugality is a morally good thing to do, and the more money that I make, the bigger (I feel) my responsibility to live below my means. My main concern is environmental stewardship and the direct and indirect impacts that that has on the health of other people and the planet. Consuming anything--whether I "need" it or not--indirectly negatively impacts other people and things around me. Sometimes it also positively impacts people and things around me (or myself), so the trick is striking a balance between the good and the bad. I cannot justify buying things that won't significantly improve my quality of life, due to the negative impact (use of resources, pollution) that goes into their production and disposal.

Of course, it is a personal decision for everyone about what will significantly and positively impact their lives. Richer people have more means to buy things that have little impact on their lives and, so, are more often in a position of buying things that probably don't have a good justification. However, poor people aren't exempt from thinking about the impact that their actions have on others, too.

Sure, things can be morally neutral. I was just pointing out that deciding whether something is or isn't morally bad is still making a moral judgment. Several people here seemed to suggest that only those who said that poor people shouldn't be spending their money on facials were making a moral judgment, and I don't think that's the case.

I'm not trying to be petty or argue semantics. I just thought it was important because some comments here seem to suggest that "judging" is inherently wrong, when in fact everyone judges what they think is right or wrong (or not right or not wrong). Similarly, a lot of times people seem to use "morals" or "morality" to talk only about viewpoints that they disagree with. Since the conversation had turned more toward how moral decisions are made about who spends what, I thought it was relevant.

Is tumbled into your blog by accident, read this post and wanted to say, "Hell ya!". I recieve food stamps, I'm in school full time, and I support a 17 year old soon off on his own to college. If anyone needs a facial with my levels of stress, I'm not sure who does. It might mean something else doesn't get bought, but at least I feel a bit more able to face the world with new nails, new clothes or whatever is my equal to that facial.

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