Sell Your Options Dearly: DEBT

Eddie Braverman's picture
Rank: The Pro | 21,095

Andy note: "Best of Eddie" - while Eddie is on vacation we're throwing up some of his classic posts from the past. This one from June 2010 is part of the very popular "Sell Your Options" 5-part series. More to come later this week & next. If there's an old post from Eddie you'd like to see up again shoot me a message.

Unsecured consumer debt is a relatively new phenomenon in our country's history. Believe it or not, I can remember a time before Visa. When I was a little kid, credit cards were so rare that most businesses didn't accept them (debit cards didn't exist either because, well, ATM machines hadn't been invented yet). The mere suggestion of paying for a restaurant meal on credit would have precipitated a sound thrashing from a member of my parents' generation.

But the popularity of consumer credit grew quickly in the 1970's. Before, there was only American Express (a "charge" card that had to be zeroed out each month), Diner's Club (for the wealthy), and MasterCharge. MasterCharge was the first company to really market revolving credit to the masses. When Visa came on the scene in the mid-70's, MasterCharge became MasterCard and the ensuing competition between the two buried America in a mountain of revolving debt over the subsequent three decades.

The majority of Wall Street Oasis readers fall into the "Millenial" generation, made up of those people born between 1980-2000. This generation is also perjoritavely known as "Gen Y", and the people who refer to it thusly usually do so to point out what a shiftless bunch of fuckwits you guys are. Nothing could be further from the truth. You were, however, raised by a generation (in some cases mine) where bad fiscal behavior was more or less institutionalized and a buy-it-now-pay-for-it-later mentality prevailed.

What was once unthinkable is now commonplace. It's not unheard of for high school kids to have a credit card. If a kid tried to pay with a credit card when I was in high school, somebody would've called a cop. Consumer credit has become so ubiquitous, that only the oddballs don't have some form of credit card in college.

The first major credit I ever received was an AT&T calling card when I was 19. It practically took a colonoscopy to qualify for (I didn't ask my folks to co-sign or anything) and when it arrived it had a $100 limit. This was in the days before cell phones, and you needed a calling card unless you wanted to walk around with rolls of quarters in your pockets for the pay phones. To illustrate how massive the explosion in credit was (and virtually overnight), my responsible handling of that $100-limit calling card qualified me for a mortgage on my first home at age 22 and a $25,000-limit Visa card at age 24.

I'm here to tell you that nothing can ruin your life faster than excessive debt. Even a bad marriage takes a while to go South. Debt is an absolute dream killer. Debt takes all your options and trashes them. You become a slave to debt service.

Your career mobility goes down the tubes. You can't take a risk on that exciting start-up with the disruptive technology, because you have to pay your bills. You can't take a year off and travel around the world, because you have to pay your bills. God forbid you get hurt or sick, your life will spiral into a whole new nightmare when you can't pay your bills.

I speak from experience. My first decent paycheck in banking was just over $12,000 (we were paid monthly back then - total pain in the ass to get used to). I was so excited that I actually cashed the check, because I wanted to see what that much cash looked like. I went out that weekend and bought not one, but two brand new vehicles (a sedan and an SUV) for $35,000. In the bargain, I traded in my cherry 1968 Mercury Cougar that was all-original down to the 8-track player in the dash. My wife gave up her still very reliable Toyota. We had a very non-PC term for this style of faux affluence back in the day. Some of the older guys probably know what I'm talking about.

So here I am at age 24 with a mortgage, two car payments, and a couple of credit cards whose balance never seems to get lower. But I sure feel like a big shot when I pull into my own garage in a new car after signing for a bar tab. Fucking jerkoff. It's nice when you make $10,000 a month at age 24; it sucks when you have to.

Unfortunately for the Millenial generation, avoiding this trap has to start earlier in life than it has for any previous generation, including mine. You've been tempted, marketed, and cajoled into using revolving debt since high school in most cases. College tuition has increased 400% in the past 25 years, while the percentage of students accessing student loans to cover it has increased from 39% to 65% over the same period. It is now commonplace for a young person to enter the workforce buried in debt.

These are the real numbers you need to be aware of:

  • 37% of people 18-29 have been unemployed or underemployed during the recession, more than any other demographic
  • Millenials carry an average of 3 credit cards each, and 1 in 5 carries a balance over $10,000
  • Only 58% pay their monthly bills on time
  • 70% have no savings
  • The average Millenial graduates college with $23,200 in student debt
  • 60% of workers in their 20's cash out their 401(k)'s when they lose a job or change employment

If you fall into any of those categories, stop whatever you are doing spending-wise immediately and get to work fixing the situation. The debt will kill you. It will indenture you to your employer even if you hate your work. There is no feeling in the world like being debt free.

If you are very young, and are preparing for or just entering college, seriously reconsider going into debt to get a degree. Be aware of the statistics. 20% of students who take out student loans don't even finish college, so they end up with the debt and no degree to show for it. Even the kids who qualify for Pell grants are forced to take out loans for school, and they finish up $2,000 in deeper debt than the average ($25,200). It's no way to start out in life.

If you feel yourself falling into the debt trap:

  1. Stop spending immediately - cut out all discretionary spending and commit any overage to debt repayment
  2. Curtail your lifestyle - if you are living above your means, and the numbers resoundingly indicate that you are, cut back. Move to a cheaper place, get roommates, move back home if that's a possibility. Take extreme measures to pay off your debt.
  3. Pay cash for everything! - if you can't pay cash for it, don't buy it. PERIOD.
  4. Sell your shit - look around you. There's a ton of shit you don't need. Sell it, and use the money to retire debt.

I can't stress how serious this is. Debt will ruin your life. Plain and simple. People who are debt free can do whatever makes the most sense for them career-wise, lifestyle-wise, travel-wise, etc... Do you really want a $5 latte you charged two years ago to dictate whether you can take a career risk?

I'm almost done, I just want to touch on the concept of "good" debt. Many people will tell you that there is such a thing as good debt. They'll usually give you an example of mortgaging a rental property that brings in more in cash flow than is required in debt service, or they'll tell you that buying a house is better than renting, etc... While I'll make allowances that some debt is better than others, I'll never say that any debt is good.

When it comes to buying your own home, buy far less than you can afford, get a fixed-rate loan for no longer than 15 years, and pay it off in 5. Actually, if I remember correctly (and correct me if I'm wrong), monty09 said he bought his house for a little over $100,000 and had it paid off in 11 months. That's fucking baller, and that's how you "do" debt.

Anything else is just a trap.