Live debt-free: Where Does Personal Debt Come From?

Spending money is not a bad thing, but why do we impulse buy? Why do some people still have the “On Sale” price tag on items accumulating in closets, dresser drawers or cupboards, without ever being used?

In this and future posts I’d like to explore a few causes of indebtedness by considering historical as well as contemporary attitudes towards debt. I hope you will join the conversation by adding your own observations, experiences, and concerns.

Research suggests it is not uncommon for people who have grown up in poor families or in families where addictions consumed funds needed for basic necessities, respond by becoming excessive spenders in adulthood.1 From years of observation through pastoral care, children flourish in a home where love is present and basic necessities are met. Children also do well in a home where there is love but a lack of money. Even when resources are limited or modest, children will still thrive when they feel secure in parental love and care.

Instinctively, children will quickly sense when care is lacking. They may not be able to recognize what it is, but feelings of insecurity may begin to insert themselves into their daily lives. Children tend to also grow up anxious or hardened in a home, where one or both parents are habitually nice one moment and violent in the next. These situations highlight that unpredictable or inadequate parental love is difficult for children to qualify or assess; they offset this confusion with attempts to please or become invisible so as to avoid confrontation or physical outbursts; a potentially desperate response to a family situation they are powerless in changing. These ensuing feelings of helplessness and fear can have lasting effects that are carried into adulthood, affecting relationships and attitudes towards money.

On the flip side, and from personal experience, are situations where children grew up in a wealthy home, but where one parent held the other and the children in emotional blackmail. This often plays out when a parent is away from home for extended periods of time. The parent may try to buy his or her family’s love by bringing gifts or paying for extra-curricular activities. This often-misplaced generosity is spurred by guilt at being absent from home. Giving money or gifts is easier to deal with than the stress of trying to find time to be with family. A child may conclude that money is the band-aid to life’s messy problems. In a wealthy but abusive environment, a child may learn to survive by seeking to compensate feelings of insecurity and loneliness with material things and seek emotional escape through entertainment and/or substance abuse. As an adult, this becomes a tactic to buy favour and recognition from others, which often develops in a source of debt.
As these situations demonstrate, there are numerous possible triggers to a life of debt. I should underline though that childhood is not always the origin of a life of debt. Events later in life, for instance, unemployment; a divorce; the loss of a loved one, can also provoke persistent or chronic debt. In presenting these cases I hope to motivate you along your own journey into the how and why you find yourself in a cycle of debt.

Further along we’ll explore how you may be able to recognize the triggers that brought you to a place of seemingly impossible financial debt. In the meantime, you may want to start jotting down thoughts that might link your present situation to past events.

1Szalavits, Maia, “How Scarcity Leads to Spending”. 21 January 2013 Accessed 11.02.2017.


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