One of the things the Duggar family on TV talks about and so many Americans seem to truly respect about them, even if they generally find them weird and gawk-worthy, is their commitment to living debt-free. Most people don’t seem to actually buy the hardline Quiverfull interpretation that the bible discourages money-lending with interest and that they should not participate. Instead they are simply jealous that this big family is not underwater like they are. Thing is, the Duggars videotaped lives compare to ordinary Quiverfull families about as much as the Kardashians compare to ordinary businesswomen. They have all this reality TV money. They aren’t living all crowded up in a trailer, tripping over each other, and eating canned beans. I could go off on how this image they are selling isn’t real or practical in so many ways, but today I will just talk about the “debt free” thing. I have come to realize that this austere attitude on debt is another extreme in an extreme lifestyle and it can be just as bad as an attitude where someone goes out and cavalierly maxes out four credit cards. It can hold you back and hurt your quality of life. So now I believe that credit exists for good reason and should neither be abused nor shunned. It is all about moderation.
I didn’t always feel this way. Growing up I was deathly afraid of debt and remembered the arguments and shame my parents had about their student loans, saying that God viewed it as sinful. They had tried to avoid debt but apparently couldn’t, then were left feeling that they “fell short” in that area. I didn’t see eye to eye with them on most things, but debt still seemed like a bad thing, a big old scary risk to be avoided. So when I started college, I didn’t take out any loans at all. I went to a very affordable university, lived extra cheap in crowded housing, had a student work job, and got by without a car or the insurance and gas it would need. I had a budget of $40 per week on groceries.
It was a good thing and I was rightly proud of myself. Well, except when I realized I wasn’t eating a balanced diet and had bruises up and down my arms from anemia. Also, when I really wanted to do a study abroad program I didn’t, simply because I couldn’t pay for it out of pocket. I endured bad headaches for a couple years too because I needed my wisdom teeth pulled but couldn’t afford it and didn’t feel comfortable signing up for a medical payment plan. Finally I saved up $600 from a summer job and got it done with local anesthetic. I was awake to hear and even slightly feel the crunch of all four teeth being pulled out because getting put under would have meant an additional $500. I still don’t own a credit card. Never have.
Nonetheless, my feelings on debt have evolved. Perhaps it’s because I have had to actually face debt twice. Once when I bought a car and once when I went to grad school. The car was an economy model, I paid half of it upfront, and also got a special reduced interest rate for recent college graduates, so even though debt was so scary, I felt like I had found a good deal. After I signed the Stafford loan paperwork for grad school I kinda freaked out though, curled up in a ball in my bed and just laid down for a couple hours. That was when it really hit me. There are healthy attitudes towards money, debt, and finances and there are unhealthy ones. I was continuing with unhealthy ones.
As usual, the Quiverfull lifestyle takes an ostensibly good thing and brings it to the extreme. There is a reason denying black people access to home loans, something called “redlining,” was a civil rights violation. It held them back, kept them from growing and moving up in society.
I am glad I didn’t let this anti-debt idea continue to hold me back, prevent me from investing in my future and my life. I am glad I took on debt to go to grad school and I am glad for the economy car, which I still have. With my little bit of practice with debt I have realized it doesn’t just automatically open some portal to indentured hell, although it certainly can end up that way for people who abuse it, who have major emergencies happen, or who are banking on a career path that bottoms out. An investment and a risk are often the same thing just given different names.
So I try to choose mine carefully and then follow through on the commitment. I paid off the car and I just started on the student loans. I have seen many friends struggle with unwieldy levels of debt and am thankful that I took out loans carefully, not signing up for more than I needed. Even though my school was expensive, I currently owe about $20,000, a sum that is manageable, although, as someone who grew up in poverty, that still feels like a lot of money to me.
So I didn’t go in the opposite extreme and start to treat credit as free money, and I definitely don’t see it as a toxic or sinful risk to avoid either. I see it as a resource, an opportunity, and something to be treated with respect and seriousness as part of a well thought out decision. The key thing is to be responsible with it, making sure to get a good interest rate and paying it off faster than required, never falling for the trap of the “minimum payment.”
While I certainly hope to be debt-free in the future, I know that doesn’t mean I need to be debt-free now. I am young and investing in my life. If I choose to buy a house, I will take out a loan. If I start a business, I will take out a loan for that too.
I will enjoy the things I’ve invested in, carefully pay back the money I owe, and be thankful I have access to credit and the opportunity for growth and improvement that it brings when used responsibly.