Just like plaque, debt leads to decay

National Public Radio recently ran an excellent segment on the virtues of dental floss. Their conclusion? Whether waxed, plain, glide, flavored, it doesn’t much matter — as long as one uses it to dislodge the plaque that leads to tooth decay.

We may be seeing a similar build-up of plaque — financial plaque — in the form of rising consumer and government debt. And, whether oral or financial, plaque always means increased risk. Consider some facts:

Subprime auto loan delinquency rates have risen dramatically in the past year.

Student loan borrowing has exploded, up 274 percent since mid-2010 (share of loans held by parent borrowers has skyrocketed over the past couple of decades).

Federal debt hovers at $19 trillion.

While we have only indirect control over federal debt (we can vote and voice our opinions!), we have direct control over our own family’s debt. The big four of consumer debt — mortgage debt, auto debt, student loan debt and credit card debt — have been referred to as the four horsemen of the debt apocalypse. If you have one or two of them you’re probably OK; have three or four and pain is likely to follow. That pain will come from insufficient emergency funds, inability to save enough for old age, inability to service debt and vulnerability to financial shock.

Some say debt levels aren’t a major threat — and maybe they’re right. After all, debt levels ebb and flow over time. These cycles occur due to variables such as interest rates, economic confidence, employment rates, etc. But there’s no denying that debt presumes upon the future; it presumes that I’ll be healthy, that I will have a job, that I will still want the car, home or education. And that means risk.

So what’s the antidote — or floss (to return to the analogy)? The antidote is developing behaviors that run counter to constant cultural messages to spend. Healthy debt-reducing behaviors include spending less, saving more, and, importantly, giving generously.

Stepping back, our behaviors are always dictated by our beliefs, which are tied to our character. Some key character traits we can all strive for include self-control (“I don’t need that now.”); contentment (I don’t have to keep up with the Joneses.”); humility (I don’t have to have the newest/nicest.”); mindfulness (“I understand my financial situation.”); and diligence (“I tend to my affairs.”).

Here’s an interesting mind exercise. Think about these statements:

Debt is expected and necessary.

Possessions bring happiness.

A little more money will solve all my problems.

Are they true, or are they cultural myths we’ve been sold by a culture that often values appearance and comfort over reality and prudence? I’m convinced they are deceptive myths that lead too many to a debt stranglehold that limits freedom, choices and peace-of-mind.

Thankfully — and as always — where there’s a will there’s a way. When we get sick and tired and disgusted enough with our current financial trajectory, the pain of change becomes preferable to the pain of the status quo. That is a great starting point.

There are lots of good resources online and in print to help a person transition from debt to financial peace. Check out Dave Ramsey’s “7 Baby Steps” for getting out of debt. They are thoughtful and doable. His radio program’s introduction is genius: “Welcome to The Dave Ramsey Show, where debt is dumb, cash is king, and the paid off home mortgage has replaced the BMW as the status symbol of choice.” (Neither I nor my company endorse Dave Ramsey or his sponsors and/or his recommended providers. We have no affiliation.)

Try making out a budget. But don’t call it a budget; instead, call it a spending plan (it’s different psychologically). Just the awareness that comes from attempting a spending plan helps change behavior.

For most middle-class Americans, a big financial scourge is eating out too often. We do it as hobby, as sport, as a default. I’m not suggesting cutting it out completely. But consider cutting back on eating out by one meal per week.

The concept of living below our means, while not sounding like much fun, leads to peace of mind and freedom. The alternative — the plaque of too much debt — leads to decay and pain. Let’s get flossing.

Fred Sirianni, certified wealth strategist, is a vice president and financial consultant at D.A. Davidson &Co., member SIPC, in Everett.

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