Sort out needs from wants to unload burden of debt

Austin Mardon

AUSTIN MARDON
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
January 26, 2015

The New Year brings all sorts of traditions. My wife has to eat black eyed peas because that is the tradition from her Southern roots.

We make New Year's resolutions. Those usually involve adding a good habit, or getting rid of a bad one. Most of us have trouble maintaining them for long though. It can take six weeks to six months to add a new habit or break an old habit. Our fast-paced society isn't geared to anything that takes so long to master.

January brings lots of unpleasant things that don't include blizzards. It's time to start thinking about tax receipts and government forms. Many of us have yearly payments for things like insurance or memberships that come due in January.

Those aren't the biggest burdens that can come in January. The biggest bombshells are those pleasant notes we get from our credit card companies about the amount of money we spent during the holidays.

No one decides over the Thanksgiving weekend to spend the gross national product of a small country in the coming weeks, but still it can happen. Even when we set realistic goals to contain our holiday spending, things sneak up on us. There's that $40 bottle of wine that we buy to take to a dinner at our college roommate's house.

How about the all-night babysitter so we can attend a Christmas party for a boss or important client? We need to buy that really ugly sweater for another Christmas party, that new gown for a New Year's Eve gala, or the plane tickets and hotel rooms so we can attend what may be Great Aunt Mildred's last Christmas party.

Christmas extravagance can create a burden of debt that lasts well into the new year.

Christmas extravagance can create a burden of debt that lasts well into the new year.

The season of merriment can quickly become the season of debt and regret. It's a bit like going to a restaurant when you're hungry. When we have stuffed ourselves, we get the bill and wonder why we would buy so much food.

Just as financial planners and diet counselors say one shouldn't buy groceries on an empty stomach, we shouldn't make big financial commitments with an empty bank account.

A CIBC poll showed that for the fifth year in a row, the top priority for Canadians in the New Year is to pay down their debt. The stress of carrying a heavy debt load can feel like carrying a 100-pound backpack everywhere you go.

BUILDING STRESS

Money issues are a major contributor to divorces and stress-related health issues. Canadians now have $1.5 trillion in personal debt.

So why do we do it to ourselves? One of my favourite authors, Dave Ramsey, says we often buy things we don't need, with money we don't have, to impress people we don't really like. We do this to make ourselves feel better, even if in the long run it makes us feel worse.

Pope Francis has spoken about the dangers of giving into materialism. He knows materialism can squeeze out authentic spirituality.

We are all born with a hole in our soul that only God can fill. When we try to fill this hole with mere things, the sensation of fullness is fleeting. In order to get out from under the weight and stress of debt, we must first learn to tell ourselves "no."

The "inner child" that many self-help books talk about is actually a spoiled brat. The maturity to tell the difference between real needs and simple wants doesn't come automatically when we turn 18 years old. Sometimes it comes due to hardship or necessity. Sometimes it comes because we are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

For the disabled, and others on fixed incomes, the solution isn't to take a second job or work more overtime. We have to tighten our belts in a significant way. Many people can't bring themselves to do the work it takes. They believe everyone has debt, or a mortgage, or car payments, and that it is normal.

PROFITEERING

Our grandparents survived without credit cards. Our parents had one or two cards that were paid off immediately. Somewhere along the way, we've been encouraged by companies that make more profit off of the interest from our purchases than the product itself, that it's okay to mortgage our future for today's pleasures.

We are called to be good stewards of our time, talent and treasure. When we are in debt, there is no treasure to share. We can't contribute properly to our parishes or to local charities that need our support.

Becoming debt-free can free us of a burden both emotionally and spiritually. It's one of the best gifts you can give yourself, and ultimately your community as well.

(Austin Mardon and Catherine Mardon are advocates for the disabled, especially the mentally ill. Their book Financial Stability for the disabled is available on Amazon.com and lulu.com.)