The Scary Space between Financial Folly and Fitness

DH = Dear Husband

The strange phenomenon of fearing debt-freedom

We were about to pay off the last of our consumer debt. There was still plenty of debt left over – a business loan of $80,800 and a mortgage of $150,000 – but this was a significant milestone for us. Then why was DH so clearly agitated about it? I wrote about it 4 years ago: “‘I don’t know if I’m going to be comfortable not having any debt,’ he said. When I asked him why, he struggled to pinpoint the reason, but he came out with, ‘People in my class don’t have money to buy things. They borrow money to buy things.’ It was the first time I had ever heard DH refer to ‘my class.'”

This week, Laurie wrote about the fact that she still has a fear of being debt-free, and when I wrote in the comments section about DH’s strange words of discomfort about our milestone towards debt-freedom, she responded with,

“Wow – wise words from your hubby! I mean, wise in that he recognized that subconscious view. Amazing, Ruth! I would love to see a post on that, but no pressure.🙂”

So last night I asked DH to tell me more.

He has had a lot of time since that consumer debt payoff to get his head around our growing financial fitness. At this point, our business debt is gone, our savings are up, and our mortgage is down to $86,700 – and we are on track to pay it off in the next 2½  years. All good stuff, right? But last night, DH said, “The thought of paying off our mortgage scares me.”

Debt freedom = loss of something familiar

I remember the trip to the bank that DH and I took to pay off the last of that consumer debt. He was so off-kilter, he almost made a wrong turn on the way home. “We’ve had that debt for years,” he told me in an effort to explain it.  So it was a like a loss. No. It WAS a loss. Negative as it was, that consumer debt had been a familiar presence in his life, demanding attention, effort – and of  course, our money. Its sudden absence really was an absence.

DH first became indebted at the age of 17 when he borrowed money from his dad to buy a used car. Before he had finished paying for it, he had a credit card, and credit card debt. That debt soon blended with student debt, which then blended with a loan for a new car, which eventually blended with a mortgage, which later blended with a business loan . . . “I’ve been in debt for 40 years,” he calculated. “It’s provided structure – something I’ve had to pay into.”

“like a freed slave who chooses to stay on the plantation”

“It’s like the freed slave who chooses to stay on the plantation,” DH said. “I’m not sure I’ll know what to do with financial freedom.” The word “freedom” has very positive connotations, but compelling as it is, by its nature, freedom lacks structure. There are repeat criminals who prefer the boundaries and routines of prison. There really were freed slaves who preferred the familiar duties of plantation life.

Maybe DH is onto something. Maybe one of the reasons so many stay in debt is that they prefer the familiar structure and routine it gives them. “Think about it,” he said, “How many people go from one debt to another?” Just like he did from the age of 17 on.

“Wax on; wax off”: Debt repayment as a training ground

“I think of financial freedom as being like winning the lottery,” DH said. And he didn’t mean it in a good way. According to “the lottery curse”,  2/3 of lottery winners go broke within 7 years. “If we got a sudden windfall that allowed us to pay off the rest of our mortgage, that wouldn’t be a good thing. Our debt repayment is a training ground,” he continued. Then, DH quoted The Karate Kid: “‘Wax on; wax off.‘”

If you don’t know the movie (and he was quoting the 1984 version), a young boy is trained by a karate master who has him do menial tasks like wax a car. The boy is frustrated by it, unaware of the fact that his sensei is actually giving him valuable training to become “the karate kid”.

In the same way, according to DH, all of the budgeting, discussion, tracking, reflection, and cutting back we’ve been doing for years in an effort to become debt free – it’s all training. Mundane, yes, but leading to something worthwhile.

I challenged him on what he’d said about the negative impact a windfall would have: “If we suddenly got enough to pay off our mortgage now, we would know what to do,” I said. “We’ve been paying off debt for almost 5 years now. We’ve had our training.” DH had to admit that was true, but he is still strangely grateful for the years that separate us from complete financial freedom.

Will financial freedom be disappointing?

“You know how people strive and strive to accomplish something, and then they finally get there and it’s disappointing? Maybe financial freedom will be like that,” DH said. “And what about us? We’ve been so unified by our debt-payoff mission. It’s brought us together. What will replace it once the mortgage is gone?”

Again, I found his concerns strange, but they give food for thought. I’m approaching my word limit, so I’ll stop here even though there is more to write about what DH and I discussed last night. (Perhaps that will be next week’s post?)

Is DH off his rocker? Or do his fears resonate with you.

  • Do you fear the unknown and the lack of structure that comes with financial freedom?
  • Are you afraid you’ll blow your financial freedom once you reach it?
  • Do you fear that financial freedom will be a disappoinment?

Your comments are welcome.

*Image courtesy of Pixabay

28 comments on “The Scary Space between Financial Folly and Fitness

  1. I don’t think I ever had this type of fear, but I can see how someone might experience it. It’s what you know and when it’s gone it’s scary. Even if the thing you want gone is a bad thing and ultimately holding you back. Looking at it from 10,000 foot view doesn’t seem to make sense, but when it’s all you have know for 40 years, well you get the point.

    My fear is that we will slip back into our old habits and accumulate more debt at some point. I think it can be easy to lose focus or have a let down after achieving a big goal. Staying focused after the goal is the key. Just ask those lottery winners.

    1. I have a bit of that fear too, Brian – slipping back into old habits once we’ve “made it”. You mention losing focus, and it makes me think that one key to success is always having a goal to focus on. So we’ll be shopping in advance for a new goal. Thanks!

    2. Didn’t realize I’ve always had this fear, about loss of something familiar…Wow. Wow. Wow. Ties into other fears, the fear of letting go of a situation, for instance. Will take this to my FPU session this week. Laurie, thanks a million for this detective work, and thanks, DH, for talking about it.

      1. Helen, I’m so glad that the posts Laurie and I have written about the fear of debt-freedom have helped to clarify things for you! I am really interested in the FPU course, and would some day like to facilitate it at my church. All the best as you go through it. (I will be sure to pass your thanks along to DH too : )

  2. “Maybe one of the reasons so many stay in debt is that they prefer the familiar structure and routine it gives them.” I think this is it. It’s more comfortable to stick with what you know – getting out of debt would create a change. And change is uncomfortable, sometimes even when it’s a “good” change.

    This makes me wonder if our past cycle of consumer debt was because of the familiarity of it more than anything else. We would pay off one debt, only to take on another one a short time later. It was a huge shift in thinking to decide to pay it off and never do it again. Interesting!

    I do have some fear about FI. Not about what we’ll do, but the fear of letting go of the one income that’s supported us for 20+ years. That’s uncomfortable. Thanks for the thought provoking post, Ruth!

    1. I lived the yo-yo debting for a long time too, Amanda. And you’re right: deciding never to use debt involves a real paradigm shift. The thing about FI is that it doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t draw an income. It will be fun for both of you to explore different options for work – and to do what you love – not having to care at all about salary or wage : )

  3. He’s spot on that once you carry something like that for a long time, it’s a part of you. However, what he needs to realize is that as unfamiliar as not having that debt will first feel, eventually he’ll get used to it, and at some point having no debt will be the familiar feeling.

    We’re creatures of habit, but this is one area where developing a new habit (and he will) is going to be pretty darn awesome.

    Congrats!

    1. “at some point having no debt will be the familiar feeling” – I can’t imagine debt-freedom feeling familiar. I think we’ll be pinching ourselves for many years once we’ve reached it : )

  4. I get it. It will leave a hole. In 1999 we decided to pack up and head for Eureka, California. The weather is exactly what we like and we’d been dreaming and talking about it for over a decade. And then we got there. And it wasn’t at all what we expected. I won’t go into detail, but at that point we were so lost. Now what did we have to strive for? That had been our big focus for so long. So as Dr. Phil would say, you just have to fill one hole with something else. You will definitely find something positive to fill that negative hole with. I’m certain of it. 🙂

    1. I’m sorry you had such a disappointment, Kay – especially after a decade of dreaming. That actually sounds like a very post-worthy story. (And by the way, it’s great to see you again!) I have no doubt that we’ll find positive ways to fill in the void left by debt, rush hour traffic, work-life imbalance . . . Just being able to sleep in might do it for me : )

  5. I love that you two are delving into this thinking because it’s very real! I don’t have any advice, but you’re adding a very important perspective to the financial freedom conversation. I look forward to seeing it unfold further. I also hope that perhaps the next 2 1/2 years can give you and your husband time to figure out what’s next for your focus.

    1. Thank you, Mollie. You have hit upon something that Brian also brought up: “what’s next for your focus.” I have vague ideas of pumping up our savings until I retire – but that will actually come quite soon after we reach debt freedom. And then? Like you, I hope there will be some clarity developing in the next 21/2 years. (Sleeping in sounds good enough for now : )

  6. It is so freeing when we tell the truth about our feelings. Even if they make no sense, or seem ridiculous, especially our fears. Often when we speak it out loud, we begin to unravel the emotional knot. Thank you to your DH for being vulnerable and transparent, it will help bring others freedom from their fears.

    1. It really does seem ridiculous, doesn’t it? But I’ve learned that since there’s nothing rational about indebtedness, we should expect to find anything rational as we delve into the forces at work behind it. Thank you for your kind words, Anne : )

  7. I have to admit that when my wife and I paid off our mortgage it didn’t sink in until a couple of months later. Even now I don’t feel that much different except for that fact that I no longer have to make the payment. I’ve replaced paying off the mortgage with saving for retirement. Although the best feeling is knowing that I’m not held by debt anymore so if I decided I didn’t want to work for a period of time, I don’t have to.

    1. Thanks Mr. Mustard Seed Money : ) I admire you for having the discipline to save at the rate you’d been paying off your debt. I really hope we’ll do the same. At this point, I just don’t get as psyched by saving as a do from paying off debt. It is probably because I have a good old fashioned pension coming my way. I hope you take full advantage of the freedom you’ve earned. Well done!

  8. When debt has become so ingrained in our life it does create a bit of apprehension to think about what life will be like when there is no more debt. Having a plan to pay down our debt gives our life structure – we know where our money is going each and every month … until one day after faithfully following our plan we are FREE – an exhilarating and yet uneasy place to be unless we have made a plan for “what next” before our last debt payment happens. In our case, we turned out debt payments into savings payments, so we still had that structure but with a much more positive outcome. The years of debt repayment training to save and forego “wants” have come in handy in making us wait until we have the cash to buy something and to really think about our purchases before plunking that hare earned money down.
    You and your husband have done exceptionally well on your debt repayment path and in adjusting your attitude toward wants and needs – do not be fearful – you will pass the test!

    1. Thank you, Nancy! I also think we will pass the test. The key is in what you say about the need to make “a plan for ‘what next’ before our last debt payment happens.” Clearly, you and your husband did that, and I’m so glad you’re enjoying your financial freedom now. I always appreciate your comments. Thanks again : )

  9. I think your DH’s insights are remarkable. I wouldn’t be surprised if his subconscious fears are more common than we hear about.

    It reminded me a bit of the way I felt over the last year, knowing my son was going away to college soon — uneasy but I couldn’t really pinpoint why. I realized that in spite of thinking I didn’t have any big goals, I’d had a full-blown quest for 18 years, to raise a caring, engaged human, and that quest definitely overshadowed all the other parts of my life. I had to figure out something new to work toward.

    1. I hope that you feel an enormous sense of satisfaction in a job well done. Having raised your child to be a “caring, engaged” young man is second to nothing in terms of significance. Good for you!! I believe that “other parts of your life” will surface in the year ahead. You won’t have to figure out what to work toward. It will present itself to you – and then your can figure out the “how” and “when” of working towards it. I’ll be interested to see how it all goes!

  10. I don’t personally share this fear, but I can understand the fear of the unknown, losing the familiar, and all the choices that come with freedom. Maybe with debt payoff you’re on autopilot to some degree, you’ve already set your course, and it doesn’t feel like there’s much choice involved, although you did make a big counter-cultural decision to pay it all off.

    My fear is of failing in the pursuit of financial freedom. I don’t think this is going to happen, but that’s my irrational fear.

    1. Interesting, Kalie. When you say “failure in the pursuit of financial freedom”, do you mean that you have a fear you won’t get there? that some unforeseen will get in your way? or that you won’t use it well once you do? You are on a great path, so I hope that irrational fear doesn’t hold too much sway.

  11. You know what this reminds me of? PiC and I talked about LASIK a while ago, and he told me that he had this irrational fear that it would be like missing something if he didn’t have to wear contacts anymore.

    He rationally knew that it would cut costs, and be so much more convenient not to have to wear glasses or contacts on a daily basis, but the huge change that it felt like it would be was intimidating because the way it had been had been an integral part of his life for most of his life.

    I could better understand this fear of not having debt better because of his experience.

    1. That’s a cool connection. When we are completely debt-free, I would like to get laser eye surgery too, so maybe I’d better be prepared for more irrational fears. I’m pretty sure I’ve been wearing contacts and glasses for a lot longer than PiC : )

  12. Great post. I think my biggest fear of financial freedom is working for my self. My wife and I plan on quitting our 9-5 in Aug 2017. But now as the time gets closer I’m feeling a little nervous. Our house is paid off and we will be 100% debt free March 1st, but the nerves are still there.

    1. Donnie, what an exciting point you’re at! August is not far away. I don’t think it’s possible to make such a big life change without some nervousness, Let it serve as your adrenaline and propel you forward! All the best with self-employment!

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