Giannis:* “My business collapsed during the Greek financial crisis, so we could no longer keep up with our mortgage and credit-card payments. I couldn’t sleep because of the stress.”
Katerina: “We had built our home with love, and I couldn’t bear the thought of losing it. Giannis and I fought many times about how we would deal with our debt.”
DEBT can strain or even destroy a family. For example, researcher Jeffrey Dew found that couples in debt spend less time together, have more fights, and are less happy. Compared with other topics, arguments about debt and finances last longer, generate more yelling and hitting, and are more likely to carry over into other issues. It is no surprise, then, that the leading cause of divorce in the United States is disagreements about money.
Excessive debt also brings health risks, such as insomnia, headaches, stomachaches, heart attacks, and depression. A wife named Marta relates: “My husband, Luís, was so depressed about our debt that he slept most of the day. The man I had always relied on had become helpless.” For some, the stress becomes unbearable. For example, BBC News reported that a wife in southeastern India committed suicide after falling behind on payments for loans totaling the equivalent of $840 (U.S.). She had borrowed the money to pay for her children’s medical treatment.
What if your family is under stress because of debt? Let us consider some common challenges that couples face in dealing with debt and look at Bible principles that can help you to meet them.
CHALLENGE 1: We blame each other.
“I accused my wife of wasteful spending,” admits Lukasz, “while she complained that we would have enough money if I had a job that provided year-round work.” How can a couple keep debts from driving them apart?
A key to success: Work together against debt.
It will not help matters if you vent anger on your mate—even if you had no part in incurring the debt. Now, perhaps more than ever, the Bible’s counsel at Ephesians 4:31 applies: “Let all malicious bitterness and anger and wrath and screaming and abusive speech be taken away from you along with all badness.”
Fight the debt, not each other. A husband named Stephanos describes how he and his wife worked together: “We viewed our debt as a mutual enemy.” Such cooperation is in harmony with Proverbs 13:10, which says: “By presumptuousness one only causes a struggle, but with those consulting together there is wisdom.” Rather than presumptuously trying to solve things on your own, talk candidly about financial problems and then act unitedly.
Your children can join in the effort. A father named Edgardo, in Argentina, describes his family’s experience: “My young son wanted a new bicycle, but we explained to him why we couldn’t afford it. Instead, we gave him a bike that had belonged to his grandfather, and he enjoyed riding it very much. I learned the value of working together as a family.”
CHALLENGE 2: Getting out of debt seems impossible.
“I had run up a large debt in my business, which was made even worse by the financial crisis in Argentina,” recalls Enrique. “Then my wife needed surgery. I felt that I could never get out of debt, as though I were trapped in a spiderweb.” A man named Roberto, in Brazil, lost all his savings in a business venture and was in debt to 12 banks. He says: “I was almost too embarrassed to face my friends. I felt like a loser.”
What can you do if you feel overwhelmed by discouragement, guilt, or shame about your debt?
A key to success: Take control of your finances.*
1. Determine your current budget. Keep a record of all money moving in or out of your household for two weeks—or a month, if that is more practical. Add to this record expenses such as taxes, insurance, or clothing, which may occur much less frequently, and use monthly averages for them.
2. Increase your income. You could take on extra shifts at your current job, perform seasonal work, tutor a student, recycle, or make your hobby into a home business. Caution: Take care not to allow work to encroach on activities that are more important, such as your spiritual routine.
3. Reduce your expenses. Buy an item only if you need it, not just because it is on sale. (Proverbs 21:5) “Waiting to buy is good,” says Enrique, quoted above, “since it helps you to decide if you really need the item or just want it.” Here are some additional tips.
Housing: If possible, move into a residence with a smaller monthly payment. Reduce your utility costs by conserving electricity, water, and heat.
Food: Pack a lunch or snack instead of eating out regularly. Use grocery coupons and other special offers. “I save on fruits and vegetables if I shop at street markets just before they close,” says Joelma, in Brazil.
Transportation: Sell nonessential vehicles, and maintain what you have instead of quickly trading in for newer models. Use public transportation, or walk whenever you can.
After you reduce your expenses, you are ready to make the best use of your remaining money.
4. Analyze your debt and act. First, determine for each debt the interest rate, the fees, the impact of a late or missed payment, and the possibility that a payment is already overdue. Examine the wording of the loan or bill carefully, since creditors may be deceptive. For example, one short-term loan service in the United States stated that its interest rate was 24 percent, when, in fact, it was over 400 percent.
Next, determine the order in which you will tackle your debts. One approach is to pay toward debt with the highest interest rate first. Another option is to pay off smaller balances first, since receiving fewer bills each month will likely boost your morale. If you have loans with a high interest rate, you might benefit by getting a new loan at a lower rate to pay off the existing ones.
Finally, if you cannot meet your obligations, try to negotiate new payment plans with your creditors. You could ask for an extension or a lower interest rate. Some creditors may even be willing to reduce what you owe if you can pay the lower amount in full right now. Be honest and courteous in explaining your financial situation. (Colossians 4:6; Hebrews 13:18) Put any agreements in writing. Even if your first request is not successful, be willing to persist in asking for an adjustment if necessary.—Proverbs 6:1-5.
Of course, you will need to be realistic as you manage your finances. Even the best plan can fail as a result of factors beyond your control, since money often “makes wings for itself like those of an eagle and flies away toward the heavens.”—Proverbs 23:4, 5.
TRY THIS: Once you have prepared an initial budget, discuss how everyone can reduce expenses or increase the family’s income. Seeing one another’s sacrifices can help to pull you together in the fight against debt.
CHALLENGE 3: Debt consumes our thinking.
The struggle to deal with debt can crowd out more important aspects of life. As a man named Georgios put it, “the biggest problem was that our whole life revolved around our debts. Matters that should have had priority got pushed into the background.”
A key to success: Keep money in its proper place.
In spite of your best efforts, you may be paying your creditors for many years. In the meantime, you can choose how you will view your circumstances. Rather than being obsessed with money or the lack of it, we are wise to heed the Bible’s advice: “Having sustenance and covering, we shall be content with these things.”—1 Timothy 6:8.
Being content with your financial situation allows you to “make sure of the more important things.” (Philippians 1:10) These “more important things” include your friendship with God and with your family. Georgios, quoted above, says: “Even though we have not completely paid back our debts, they are no longer the focal point of our life. Our marriage is happier now that we spend more time with our children, with each other, and in spiritual activities together.”
TRY THIS: List things that are truly valuable to you and that money cannot buy. Next, determine how to increase the time and energy you devote to each item on your list.
Debt problems create stress, and dealing with them calls for sacrifices; yet the results are worth the effort. A husband named Andrzej, in Poland, admits: “When I learned that my wife had guaranteed a large loan for a workmate who then vanished without repaying, our home atmosphere was tense, to say the least.” Looking back on how he and his wife responded, though, he says: “We actually became more united—not by the problem itself, but by working together to solve it.”
Some names in this article have been changed.
For more suggestions, see the cover series “How to Manage Money” in the September 2011 issue of Awake! published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
ASK YOURSELF . . .
How can I help my family to get out of debt?
How can we keep our debt from dominating or even destroying our relationship?