Three Character Traits that Lead to Debt

Getting into debt never happens by accident. Everyone has their own reasons, but those reasons are usually just surface symptoms of a deeper character trait. The good news is that you CAN change these character traits. I did.


One trait that lead me into debt was the ignorance of how debt works, and how it works against me. I was the willing victims of credit card issuers. Though I never went into debt with small finance companies or payday loan sharks, I was constantly looking to refinance my home to “pull out the equity.” I didn’t have a good grasp of how my credit was slowly destroyed and how I really wasn’t getting ahead. I believed that by pulling out my home’s equity, I was putting that money to work for me now, even though I was spending it irresponsibly.

I was ignorant on how to resist the marketing efforts of retailers and manufacturers. In college, I was the first to sign up to get a credit card just for the “free” T-shirt. I had been programmed by the marketing media to constantly think I needed to have to have the latest and greatest gizmo, gadget, or toy. I was told, and subsequently believed, that student loans were my only option to get me through school. You can read about my college experience here.

I was ignorant about how to develop the self discipline to resist the desire to constantly acquire stuff. I thought having a new car made me look cool and successful. I used to love getting the letter from my credit card issuer with a raised credit limit. That meant I could get more stuff!

What’s the solution? Education. Learn about how money and personal finance works. Read. Listen. Ask questions. Seek advice. Follow it.

Poor Planning

Poor planning was the second trait that I possessed in ample supply. I was poorly prepared for my wife quitting work after the birth of my first daughter. I was poorly prepared for unexpected health concerns. I was poorly prepared to face those unexpected emergencies that always crop up.

I’m a planner by nature, but when you combine ignorance and poor planning skills, you have a recipe for disaster. Mostly, it was pride that kept me from learning how to plan for the future and budget. We eventually went through Consumer Credit Counseling Services (CCCS), who encouraged us to budget for entertainment and eating out, but my pride kept me from listening to their very wise advice.

What’s the solution? Don’t make decisions that will affect your financial picture without examining and planning for a worst case scenario.


The third trait that I allowed to lead me into debt is by far the worst. I call it the “I saw it. I wanted it. I bought it.” syndrome. Money never comes into the picture. A budget never comes into the picture, neither does self discipline, or actual need, or comparative shopping.

Indulgence is like a drug. Once you allow it to control you, you’re in trouble, and usually in debt. It manifests itself in impulse buying and getting into get-rich-quick schemes.

What’s the solution? Realize that stuff is just stuff. Your life is more fulfilled by the things that don’t cost money (or cost very little). Time with your spouse and children. A simple walk in the park or trip to the museum costs nothing, but can be more relaxing than a trip to the mall, and a lot less expensive.

How I changed:

I had gotten into debt so deeply during the early years of our marriage that we were barely surviving. Then my wife got pregnant and quit work to raise our daughter. I didn’t make nearly enough to support our family’s lifestyle, so we continued to use credit to live. I was digging the hole deeper and deeper! When my second daughter came along (surprise!) 12 months later, she required home health care that was uninsured. Then my wife had an uninsured gall bladder surgery.

At one point, I had just been promoted to a store manager position and found myself unable to buy enough gas to drive the 500 miles to my new assignment. My wife was already there so I had her pawn my guitar, a gun, and some of her jewelry so I could buy gas to get to my new store. I never recovered enough to get those items back. I regret that to this day.

I never considered bankruptcy but eventually admitted that I didn’t know what I was doing and sought help through Consumer Credit Counseling. They helped my wife and me get a debt snowball rolling and we attacked it with incredible intensity, paying off everything (except the student loans) 2 years early. That was the only reason I was able to buy a home in the first place.

Most people tend to think that more money will always solve their problems. It won’t, it will only magnify them. If you cannot manage $50,000 per year, what makes you think you can manage $500,000 per year? You’ll just be broke at a different level, unable to put gas into your leased Lexus LS400, rather than your bombed out 1988 Hyundai. You’ll be late on your $8,500 house payment rather than late on your $850 house payment. There’s no real difference, just add a zero.

I began to listen to Dave Ramsey and read a book by Larry Burkett called Debt Free Living. I realized the importance of frugality and stewardship. I’m still learning, but I have come a long way. I still struggle with indulgence and I’m still paying off those insipid student loans.

I’ve learned to listen to my inner voice that says, “You don’t need that.” I’ve had to cultivate that voice and it hasn’t been easy. I also began to think about how my rampant consumerism and willingness to incur debt for trivial things would affect the future of my young family. I think we all want the quick fix to get out of debt, but it never comes quickly. Get used to it.

The good news is I know anyone can change their personality traits for the better and that includes you. I’m in significantly better financial shape today than when I was 10 years ago because I learned:

  1. How debt works against me.
  2. Planning and budgeting skills.
  3. How to ignore my desire to buy buy buy!

You can learn these skills as well. The key for me was finally seeing that I wasn’t going anywhere by getting deeper in debt and the thrill of finally paying off one bill at a time.

[tags]debt, life, relationships, money, personal, finance, weblog[/tags]