Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Enslaved

"There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country. One is by the sword. The other is by debt."

I saw this quote, attributed to John Adams, on a billboard alongside the highway a few weeks ago. As I was driving, I was listening to Marketplace Money from American Public Media, this episode about credit and debt. Peanut and I had just paid off his student loans a few days before, and were waiting for the transfer to complete so we could see a zero balance where before there had been a big number. 

So it's no surprise, really, that that quote stuck with me for such a long time. We can be enslaved by so many things - literally, by other people, but also by relationships, by jobs, by ways of living, by the things we own, by the things we tell ourselves. I would guess that debt is the most common enslaver in our modern society. Most people I know have some sort of debt, and I know that some of them are staggering under its burden. 

I don't believe there's some great conspiracy out there where the government or the market or The Man is keeping us all down with debt. But the effect is the same, isn't it? People who are dependent on their jobs to pay their student loans and credit card bills don't have much choice when their boss tells them they need to stay late. They work such long hours that they don't have time to cook from scratch, depending on less-than-ideal prepared foods or fast food, which can cause health problems resulting in medical costs, which mean you have to keep your job so you have health insurance but then you're working long hours and in order to unwind you spend money on entertainment - going to the movies or watching tv, where you see ads that show you all the things you want to buy, but in order to buy them you have to keep working and you're working so much that you have to spend all your money on convenience...it's a vicious cycle that we've gotten ourselves into. 

There's been a lot of research into happiness in the last few decades, and I remember when they discovered that $75,000 per average family (or, more accurately, about $20,000 per person) is the happiest income. Beyond that, additional income does not increase happiness in any measurable way, and well beyond that, it measurably decreases happiness. But we are inundated with messages telling us that we need "more", "better", "new". And if we can't afford it, we can get it on credit and pay it back later. Without even realizing it, we just volunteered to be slaves. David at Raptitude put this in really great perspective a few years ago - Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed

Stepping off the treadmill of work and career advancement has got me thinking about these things in a different light. I really liked my job - I had a very cool career and I got to do some really neat things. But I am happier and more fulfilled in a way that I would not have expected. I don't feel an urge to go shopping and acquire things. It's easy to talk myself out of spending money on non-essentials. I have more fun enjoying free things like going to the park or sitting on the floor making faces at the baby than I ever did going out for happy hour with coworkers. My life has slowed down. I check my email less frequently, and talk to people a lot more. I don't see or hear much advertising, so I don't really know what's "hot" and I don't feel an urge to go buy it. I feel a lot freer, and since we paid off our last non-mortgage debt, freer still. I feel more creative, and have been doing a lot of baking and more cooking. I have been reading books that open my mind and make me think instead of books that just entertain me. Sure, we have less money, but it turns out, we don't miss it as much as I thought we would.

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