Our best friends are scarily, heedlessly in debt

We ourselves became debt-free in time. We're concerned our friends are headed for financial catastrophe.

By Cary Tennis
November 12, 2007 4:12PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

When do you stop keeping your mouth shut? My husband and I are very close friends with a couple about 10 years younger than us (they are very early 20s, we're pushing 30). I am increasingly concerned with the amount of debt they're carrying and continue to accrue. They have massive student loans ($40,000+), which I know is not uncommon, but they also have credit card debt, medical bills, etc. They make oblique and chilling references to creditor calls, but continue to buy each other opulent gifts.


They, like us, come from families where debt is a way of life and a foregone conclusion. Unlike us, however, they didn't recognize this trap early enough to avoid it, and I think they think it's too late. They are a great couple, but we see the stress this puts on their relationship and it will only get worse as they get older and realize what a terrible mistake they've made.

My husband and I have seen our families enslaved by debt all their lives, and both sets of parents are approaching retirement with basically nothing. We thank god every day that we were wise enough to choose another path early on, and it hurts terribly to see this oncoming train barreling down on people we care about. These are sweet, smart kids, and we want them to be free to live their lives.

What can they do? How can we help? What can I say?


Debt-Free and Loving It

Dear Debt-Free,

Perhaps your friends are living in the opium-like haze of pre-consequences compulsion, like man before the Fall, heedless of the approaching world-historical nightmare, buffered by innocence from consciousness of catastrophe.


But if you try to help, be prepared! As we were walking through San Francisco's Mission District last night on our way to hear Amiri Baraka and Roscoe Mitchell at the Victoria Theatre, my friend related how, one night in Manhattan, he spied a poor drunk man lying in the middle of a busy street, and rushed out into the street to drag him to safety.

"Leave me alone!" shouted the drunk man. "Get away! I'm fine!"


From his perspective, indeed, he was doing pretty well. He was drunk and happy and lying down. And he hadn't been run over yet.

Often, only consequences can be persuasive.

So what are consequences? How do we know when we are having consequences? When do consequences intrude on our consciousness in such a way that we begin to alter our behavior, deny ourselves pleasures, do the tedious, numbing work of straightening out our books, humbling ourselves before creditors, letting go of status symbols and cherished luxuries? How do we get there?


One thing is clear: Warnings are not consequences. A warning you brush off -- unless it comes with the force of prophesy, unless someone conveys to you the inevitable in such a way that you suddenly see -- with an unnatural clarity -- the dead insects flattened against the tarnished chrome grille of the approaching truck.

Having said that, I don't see the harm in trying to speak to your friends. But speak to them individually. Don't speak to them together. And before you speak to them, consider the possibility that they may have unseen resources. Do you know for a fact that they have no trust fund or expected inheritance, or stipend? Their apparent craziness may be grounded in good fortune, or expected good fortune.

Still, I could imagine a conversation in which you say that you are concerned for them and you tell them what happened to you, how you got into debt and how you got out. You might offer them whatever resources you used, whether you read "Your Money or Your Life" or followed Suze Orman (she may be good with money but she has a very scary face on her Web site, don't you think? It looks almost, um, drug-crazed!) or whatever you did to drag your stupefied financial life out of the street.


It's tricky area, of course, but if you approach it thoughtfully and with caution, perhaps you can, if not turn them around, at least plant some seeds of change.

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