I experienced panic the other day. Real, serious, heart-beating-fast panic. All because we’re going to be out of debt soon.
I know. That’s weird. It’s not that I enjoy being in debt, by any stretch of the imagination. Yet there is a certain boundless possibility to life without debt that, while exhilarating, is also deeply terrifying.
It reminds me of an old Simpsons episode in which ants are released in zero gravity. They make squeaking sounds that the subtitles translate as “Freedom! Horrible freedom!”
It’s laughable, of course. But in a way, I understand it.
I’ll soon be in the financial black, and I’m realizing that, despite all the stress and angst it brings, debt does make life simpler sometimes.
The thing is, debt is the evil you know. It’s the bad guy, which means you’re automatically the hero valiantly fighting it. You can say no to that dinner out and put that money against your credit card balance. You can say, “I can’t afford it.” Heck, you can even realize you just prefer the money go against debt.
Not only do you feel virtuous but it’s also just so obviously… right. When you’re in debt, it’s always pretty easy to know what you should do.
After you pay it all off, though, it’s the end of the Cold War all over again. We spent so much time defining ourselves in opposition to something, be it debt or Communism, that it’s hard to know where to go after the threat is neutralized.
There are still obvious goals, of course. You’ll want to bulk up your emergency fund, save up for a down payment on a house. It’s all very smart, and the goals are certain good ones. Still, it’s not nearly as motivating as having a villain — an evil — to rally against.
Budgets aren’t surveyed to find every extra cent. Quite the opposite. Now, we get to loosen the purse strings and enjoy having money to play around with.
Except now the hard and fast rules are gone. When you wanted to eradicate debt, you put your nose the grindstone and threw anything you felt you could spare at that credit card balance. But you don’t want to live like that just to build up savings.
So where’s the line? How much do you concentrate on savings, and how much do you let yourself spend? When are we not being serious enough about creating a safety net, and when are we being too hard on ourselves and missing out on a lot of fun?
Everyone will have a slightly different answer. Nothing new there, technically. After all, even debt reduction methods vary greatly from person to person. But the central tenet is always to get rid of debt. Once you’re out of the red, priorities jostle for attention.
There are just so many obligations that we put off until we’re out of debt. My most immediate goals will be a three-month emergency fund, IRA contributions, starting a car repair/replace fund, building a savings account, and working toward a down payment for a house.
And that’s barely skimming the surface. There are still issues like wills (mine is horribly outdated), learning about insurance options, finding investments we’re comfortable in and plenty of other goodies. Frankly, just thinking about it all makes me a little light-headed. And, as I mentioned, a little panicky.
Suddenly, I don’t feel free anymore. Instead, I just feel overwhelmed. And a little more sympathetic toward those ants.