A Life Without Debt: Am I a More Organized, Responsible Person?

The other day, a friend and I were having a general conversation about personal finance. My friend began by complaining about some debt he has and then he mentioned how he had no idea what he had in his checking account and how he kept getting hit with overdraft fees. He kept railing at the bank for charging him and I finally had enough. I mentioned that it doesn’t take that long to balance a checkbook and that if he would just take five minutes a day to write down his receipts, he would know what he had. I think this person was having a bad day to begin with and my comment, which I intended to be helpful, not snarky, rubbed him wrong and he went off.

“I guess you think that because you’re debt free that you are more organized and responsible than the rest of us. I guess compared to you the rest of us are just losers,” he said.

Well, wow. I never would have characterized myself that way, but I had to think about what this person said. I wondered: Does being debt free confer upon me some sort of honorary degree in organization and responsibility?

In some areas, the answer is probably yes. I don’t think it’s possible to be debt free without a certain level or organization and responsibility. If I weren’t organized enough to pay my bills, balance my checkbook every month, and know exactly how much I have coming in and going out, I’d probably be in debt. If I weren’t responsible enough to save for the things I want and to refuse to buy what I can’t pay cash for, I’d probably be in debt. But does this make me a better overall person or some kind of super organized, never been irresponsible person? I doubt it because I know full well that organization and responsibility are but two components of a debt free life.

Not all people who have debt are organizational disasters or irresponsible jerks. Some people have run into circumstances beyond their control that no amount of organization or responsibility could have staved off. Some people are very organized and very responsible, but they got laid off while their emergency fund was in its infancy, or they got cancer two weeks before the new health insurance plan was to kick in. That has nothing to do with their level of organization or responsibility. Call it bad luck, karma, or whatever; it stinks. I’ve been fortunate and I know that, which is why I would not classify myself as better than the rest of the world, as the person I was arguing with seemed to think. And it’s also why I would never say that someone who has debt is a total loser without knowing the full story.

But on the flip side, it’s true that I don’t know any debt free people who are not at least moderately organized and responsible. I think the two do go together, although you don’t have to be some an organizational Rain Man to be debt free. I’m disorganized in some areas of my life. If you ever saw my desk you’d wonder about me. And I’ve been irresponsible in some areas of my life, as well. I’ve screwed some things up pretty good in my time. When it comes to money though, I employ my organizational skills and responsibility to their fullest and it has kept me debt free. Why I can’t (or won’t) do that in all areas of my life is a mystery.

So, yes, maybe I am more organized and responsible than the person I was arguing with. But only when it comes to money. Where I am organized with money, he can tell you every last car part in his garage and where to find it. I’m lucky if I can find a rake in mine at times. Where I am responsible with money, I happen to know he watches his kids like a hawk and knows their friends, their whereabouts, and everything about them. So what if he has debt where I don’t? He has other aspects of his life well under control. He is responsible and organized, just not when it comes to money. He could certainly apply his skills to money if he chose to, which is why I got so frustrated with his whining. He knows how to be responsible and he has the organizational skills to become debt free, he simply chooses not to apply himself to that goal. It makes him no better or worse than me, just a case of different priorities.

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6 Responses to A Life Without Debt: Am I a More Organized, Responsible Person?

  1. Stacy Adcock says:

    I agree and I beleive your friend “chooses” not to apply himself to a goal of becoming debt free. My friends who continue to live life in debt choose that lifestyle. They wouldn’t entertain the thought of cutting off cable TV or lowering the phone bill or balancing the checkbook and that’s the choice they make.

  2. Monkey Mama says:

    We’re in general responsible people (noticeable compared to many in our generation, really).

    & I think that is REALLY the key. You don’t know how many conversations I have had with friends who made all sorts of excuses for being up in debt up to their eyeballs. Everything is everyone else’s fault, so why bother trying, right?

    This REALLY came to light recently when a couple of different people told me I was lucky I never had any financial setbacks. All my success is chalked up to LUCK. HUH? Who said I never had setbacks? We just suck it up and move on instead of whining about it for the rest of our lives. That is what responsible people do.

    Organization helps and makes it a little easier. Of course, you could argue that responsible people are organized. I am actually not a highly organized person by nature. I prefer chaos on some level. I don’t care if things are askew. But to function, I need to know where things are. I am organized as I need to be.

  3. bRobert says:

    I can identify with both of you. I’m debt free as of February. I finished paying off over $30k in debt starting November 2006.

    I occasionally overdraft as well, but its not because I don’t have the money, but enough money in the right account. My wife and I have difficulty with budgeting and keeping track of things.

    It has helped that we have one checking account for bills and one for expenses. I put the average of the last six months expenses in the expenses account, and the rest goes into savings. Sometimes we both go crazy with the little purchases and empty our expenses account, resulting in a overdraft. But when we are out, we are out, and don’t rob from the other accounts. We make ourselves feel the pain, regardless of how stressful it is.

    I guess I would say that it is possible to be somewhat disorganized and irresponsible with money and still be debt free. But I am always amazed that people much more educated and intelligent than I continue to make the dumbest financial mistakes. Risking the security of their families because they want more stuff. Oh well…

  4. Jackie says:

    It is possible, in this instance, that he was just complaining to complain. He might have lashed back because you assumed he was complaining in the hopes that you could offer a solution rather than commiserating company. Of course, just because he is complaining doesn’t mean you have to be sympatheric especially for something so easily rectified.

    As for luck – haha. Literally 10 minutes ago one of my coworkers was congratulating me on my plans to pay off my car tomorrow. She said, “that’s great, you’re so lucky!” On one hand, I am lucky. I haven’t had any recent misfortunes (car wrecks, hospital visits, etc). But on the other hand, it isn’t luck that I’ve been systematically putting more and more money towards my car loan. Just like it isn’t luck that I’m then going to put more effort into bulking up my emergency fund and my down payment fun for my first house.

    Oh well, I just take it at face value and take the well wishes. 🙂

  5. baselle says:

    Ah, I think you both missed a teaching moment – something as simple as complementing him on the organization of his garage, and reminding him that his garage is like your bank account. He knows where all his tools are, you know where all your dollars are.

    Money holds a strange place in our society – its one of the few items where people are encouraged and even rewarded to be “bad” with it – witness BUY BUY of ads and the message that “thrift is good – but this is no time to be thrifty-paradox of thrift” hammering that savers have heard in the last year.

    Consider yourself a free spirit willing to buck the system.

  6. minny says:

    Monkey Mama, I am with you there. What others see is what people like you and I have on top of what they have. In their minds the debt free simply have more money to start with – as well as an easier life.

    It never occurs to them that maybe the others don’t spend all they have and more. That they live below their means and save the balance. That they exercise self-control that they are not self indulgent, they don’t think they ‘deserve’ those little luxuries and treats on a daily or even weekly basis!

    Yup, responsible is the word here!

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