Debt Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Symptom

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In the spirit of the holidays and before everyone goes bat sh*t crazy over holiday shopping, I figured I would talk a little about debt. Since many people pull out their credit cards during this time of the year and swipe until their fingers bleed, why not speak about debt.

So many people are going to be in debt when the holiday drunkenness wears off and we wake up on January 1st wondering what happened. No matter if you plan on buying gifts for your husband, wife, friend, kids, siblings, or anyone else, you need to make sure you know spending more than you have is going to cause debt. The worst part is debt isn’t the problem, it’s the symptom!

Debt Doesn’t Come First


We don’t just wake up one day in massive debt. That’s not how it happens. Most view debt as a serious problem, but it’s not. Debt is a symptom of a problem. Most of those problems come from overspending, not budgeting, not having enough insurance (or any), and many other factors. We don’t start our life in debt, we start it at zero. It’s our responsibility to build our wealth over our lifespan and some of us do it and others don’t.

Since being in massive debt, I realize the debt wasn’t what was causing my constant stress. It was my action which caused my debt, which in turn caused my stress. Debt is the byproduct of bad financial decisions.

Sorry to be blunt, but most of us put ourselves in debt with poor money management. I’m not talking about people who faced massive debt due to health issues. Our healthcare system needs a revamp, but John has spoken about that plenty. That kind of debt is a symptom of a systemic issue, not really poor money management. Only millionaires can handle fronting the bill for complex or ongoing medical treatment.

Bad Financial Decisions Were My Problems


I’m not going to make any qualms about my poor financial management. I did not do a good job in my twenties. I was excited when I graduated college to get a paying job and earn real money. Going from earning a few hundred a month to a few thousand is a big change. My mind wandered many times and it caused me to do stupid things.

I made poor decisions in running my e-commerce business and it put a lot of debt onto my plate.  I did shut that down after four years, but not before the damage was done. The debt wasn’t the problem, it was my thought processes and hoping for the dream. That dream ended up being a small nightmare, but we only live and learn, right?

On top of my poor business decisions, I was using money which wasn’t mine. I leased cars, financed cars, used my seven credit cards every day to buy things I didn’t need. I had no idea where my money was going, except for in the pockets of the credit card company.

My debt was a symptom of my lack of understanding about my own financial well-being. I had no idea how bad my problem was until my wife smacked me around a little bit (not physically). She had to open my eyes to my poor spending habits and overall financial decisions. I can thank her for doing so.

The Symptom Can’t be Fixed Without Understanding the Problem


There is no mystery in knowing there are millions in debt. Some of us have beaten the beast and moved on. I am one of those people. It wasn’t an easy journey. In fact, it was filled with both constant struggle and despair. In the beginning of my debt payoff journey, I was just going through the motions.

I was paying off debt, but wasn’t really paying attention to my entire financial picture. I never really grasped onto the notion of my problem. I was only taking care of the symptoms. I was paying off my debt and feeling better about myself.

The problem with this approach is you will never truly be debt free unless you take care of what put you into debt in the first place. If you have issues with over spending and not understanding where your money is going, then that is what you need to tackle. You have to change your mindset and attack the problem along with the symptom. If you don’t do this, then when you pay off your debt, you will go right back in.

That’s how problems work. They don’t just go away. We just mask them for a time being and then they come right back.

Think of this in a different scenario. Let’s say you have a mouse problem in your home. You put traps down to catch them and you do. The problem with this strategy is you are only dealing with the mice which actually get near the traps. You aren’t tackling the problem of how the mice are getting into your house. Until you find their entrance point, you will never get rid of them. It’s the same issue with debt.


So, do you believe that debt is just a symptom of a bigger problem? If so, what is/was your problem which led to debt? If you’re paying off debt, how are you addressing the deeper issues that got you in debt in the first place? What keeps you going on your debt payoff journey?



Image via modified by me.

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Grayson is the owner of Debt Roundup and Empowered Shopper. He also co-owns Sprout Wealth and Eyes on the Dollar. After going to battle and winning against consumer debt, he decided it was time to learn how to use credit wisely and grow his wealth. He discusses all things personal finance and is not afraid of being controversial. He also is a freelance writer and blog manager.

Latest posts by Grayson Bell (see all)


  • “debt doesn’t come first”- it seems so obvious when you say it that way!

  • Amen, Grayson!!! We are “bucking the system” and working to make December a “spend less” month by spending less in groceries and entertainment, etc., in order that we make sure we have plenty of cash on hand for those unexpected holiday expenses that tend to pop up.

  • It’s tough to say exactly why I’ve been in debt at various points in my life. Part of it was just being young and stupid and not really thinking of the consequences or how it affects your future, part of it was burying my head in the sand and not wanting to spend money I earned instead of borrowing from my future, and even a small part of it was thinking investing some money now could help me with my future. But no matter what, it all came down to not sitting down and thinking things out. Being impatient or impulsive. That’s what really changed things for me.

  • I totally agree with this Grayson. When I typically see high credit card bills or consumer debt with clients, I know right away that they are probably what I call “Financially Fat” and there are all sorts of things we have to do to help them not only pay it down but to change their mindsets so that they do not build it up again.

  • Kassandra says:

    I can definitely say that in my case, my former debt masked a much larger (emotionally based) problem. I had to discover this and then full-on deal with it in order to succeed in paying off my debts and remain debt-free to this day.

  • dojo says:

    It’s true, debt is a RESULT of our bad money management, it’s not the problem itself. We need to understand how we ‘work’ and then see what solutions can be found.

  • I don’t think anyone can ever really stay out of debt until they face the problem. We had a few, mainly feeling like we deserved things and not giving our money a purpose. Until we figured that out, we were unable to stay out of debt, even after paying it off a few times.

  • Love this, Grayson! “Debt is the byproduct of bad financial decisions.” So true! We love to blame others for our debt but most often it is something we did to ourselves. Often times without fully realizing the consequences of our actions. But in order to fix it, we have to own our mistakes, educate ourselves and adjust our money mindset. It’s a tall order and unfortunately not everyone will choose to do the work, but those who do – will be so grateful that they did.

  • Well when you put it that way…it really makes sense 😉 Once the debt is recognized as a really awful “symptom” it’s much easier to change your actions for better results

  • Your point is essential for people looking to get out of debt to understand. Getting out of debt means nothing if you don’t change the behavior that got you there to begin with!

  • It’s all about breaking those bad habits, once you do that you can conquer any amount of debt.

  • Ben Luthi says:

    Spot on! There are very few people that go through bankruptcy that don’t end up going through another one

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