The Top 10 Worst Things to Say to Someone in Debt

22 Mar

We all know the phrase, “let me offer my two cents.”  Regardless of who says it, it only ever means one thing- unsolicited advice is coming.  Sometimes the advice is actually worth two cents, but often the advice offerer has overvalued their opinion.  In that case, you’re stuck with Penny Advice- unsolicited opinions that no one really wants, and that just end up clinking around loudly in your head until you can “accidentally” drop them on the sidewalk and leave them behind.

I get a lot of penny advice on debt and student loans.  Here are the best (or worst) ones I’ve heard.

Top 10 Best (Or Worst, Depending On How You Look At It) Pieces Of Penny Advice.

10. “Spend within your means.”  This makes the list for being both stupidly common sense, and wonderfully ambiguous.  It’s the corporate jargon of the debt world.  We’ve all heard it, but do we really know what it means?  Obviously, don’t spend more than I make, but in what time frame?  Don’t spend more than I make in a week?  In a month?  In a year? Society tells men to spend 2-3 months salary on an engagement ring, and the general rule for car buying is to not spend more than you make in a year.  Nowhere in this advice do you mention that I ought to have that money in my hand (ie SAVE IT FIRST) before making a purchase.  This leads right into number 9.

9. “Credit cards are evil.”  Once again, fairly common sense but ambiguous advice.  For the younger set like me, we need a credit card to build our credit rating.  Even if we don’t plan to finance anything, potential employers will pull our credit scores to see how we are managing our money.  No credit card means no credit score, and therefore no job.   Also, let’s face it- we don’t all have emergency funds.  We should, but we don’t.  It boils down to this: don’t go crazy with the credit card.   Just because we have a $5,000 line of credit doesn’t mean we need to use it.  Spend within predetermined monthly means.

8. “Have you thought about/ looked at…” or any variation therein.  This implies that I have not fully explored all my options, and that I’m making a yet another poor financial decision.  It also sort of implies that I’m not smart enough to navigate the perilous financial waters on my own.  Now, it is possible that you have some knowledge of a new program that I am not familiar with, but there is a better way to frame this question.  Ask me why I’ve picked a certain debt-reduction program.  That gives me the chance to prove that I’ve done my research.  If I haven’t, then you can bring up what you know.

7. “Things will get better soon.”  This is a wonderful sentiment, and I thank you for the encouragement.  It is not, however, actually helpful.  Please do be supportive, as I need to hear that, but maybe only say these sorts of things after you’ve let me whine about my debt over a cup of coffee, or as I launch into a monologue about debt for the hundredth time.

6. “You could always sell your iPad/car/computer/blood/soul.”  All right.  Can we all assume that if I’m serious about getting out of debt, I’ve already taken inventory of my possessions?  Perhaps I’ve even, as Dave Ramsey says,  “sold so much that the kids think they’re next.”  Even if I haven’t sold off all my worldly possessions, you can rest assured that I’ve looked into it.  The price of a soul is not what it used to be, you know.  Also, I probably need those “fancy” things like a car and a computer to earn money- after all, don’t you?

5. “That’s nothing, my best friend’s daughter went to Harvard medical school and she owes $200k” DO NOT BELITTLE MY DEBT.  Pure and simple.  I know you’re trying to put it all in a rosy perspective for me, but I can assure you that telling a bill collector, “Well, Mrs. Donavan’s daughter, Nancy, has a much higher balance than me” will not get said bill collector to hang up and call Nancy instead.  Rather, they will continue to insist that *I* send them a check.  Tell me that Nancy owes $200,000.  That actually will make me feel better about my current balance, but don’t try to one-up me.

4. “How did you ever get yourself into this mess?”  Don’t ask me to relive my financial mistakes for you.  If you don’t already know, chances are that you’re not a good enough friend to need such information (or that you haven’t read the About Me page).  Spilling my financial guts to you will only a) make me feel bad about the choices I’ve made, and b) make you think less of me because I’ve made poor decisions.  Save us both the grief, and compliment me on my efforts to get out of debt.  It doesn’t matter how I got into the hole, what matters is that I’m trying to climb out.

3. “Here’s $20…”  While most of us will very rarely turn down the offer of free money, this doesn’t really help (unless you are planning to write a check for the entire balance, at which point let me mention that it is currently $10,318.15).  True, I may need that $20 to get groceries, gas, or clothes (or CDs, DVDs, video games, etc), but you’re also wounding my pride by handing me cash.  You’re implying that I can’t manage my money well enough to keep myself fed or clothed (or entertained).  If I haven’t asked you for money, don’t offer it.  Instead, fill a specific need, like paying this month’s water bill or buying an extra loaf of bread and jug of milk at the store (or let me burn a copy of that new Coldplay album).  It will let you help me without beating me down more.

2.  “You should have known better.”  Ok, how is this advice?  It’s not, and it makes me furious every time I hear it.  It’s arrogance and prejudice and a few other things that would make this entry NSFW.  Of course I should have known better.  I get it.  In fact, I’d wager that everyone in debt understands that concept.  You reminding us of our mistakes doesn’t help us get out of debt any faster, just like shaming a person with depression will not make them snap out of it.  Either offer some good advice or please keep your opinions to yourself.

1. “It’s not your fault.”  This one is my absolute least favorite bit of debt advice.  It’s a cop-out, and it’s a lazy cop-out at that.  Of course it’s my fault that I’m in debt.  No one held a gun to my head and forced me to sign the promissory note.  (Note- if someone has done this to you, I’m pretty sure that makes your debt invalid).  This is true for all kinds of debt.  We all got ourselves into this mess: we spent beyond our means, we didn’t take the time to make sure we understood all our options, we let ourselves get sweet-talked into refinancing, etc.  We all made our choices.  We gambled on the world being different, and we lost.  Now we have to pick ourselves up and dust off our wallets.  It’s time to take personal responsibility and teach future generations that blaming others isn’t going to fix anything.

Ok, stepping off the soap box now.  It’s your turn to speak.  Let me know if you’ve heard these things before, or if you have one that should be on the list.  Tell me your favorites, or tell me I’m way off base.  Post a comment and let me know what you think.


7 Responses to “The Top 10 Worst Things to Say to Someone in Debt”

  1. Billie March 22, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    You are an inspiration to many who are in debt. Love you!!!

    • Losing My Cents March 22, 2012 at 10:36 pm #

      And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why you have your mother follow your blog. I love you too, mom. 🙂

  2. Sue Maden March 22, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    Advice can be priceless…but it’s the “unsolicited” modifier that brings cringing and eye rolls. We say a lot of things in an effort to be well-meaning, don’t we? We’d be better off listening rather than talking…and this applies to more than just conversations about debt. Great post Katie, as always.

    • Losing My Cents March 22, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

      Thanks Sue! Of course, advice from you is always welcome. 🙂

  3. Robyn Olson March 22, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    OK I’m not in debt. Right now. Took me years to get here and one big blow out (car repair, dentist disaster etc) could change that. But I can say with the eye of a debt survivor that is a great post. I appreciate the time and thought and honesty you put in to your work. Now I need to go write The Ten WORST Things to say to somebody who has just bought a beat-to-snot fixer-upper mini farm 🙂 You have inspired me.

    • Losing My Cents March 22, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

      Now that is a post I’d like to read! Thanks Robyn. I love hearing updates on your farm. I’d love to have my own farm someday. Maybe once I get rid of all this. 🙂


  1. The Worst Things to Say To Someone In Debt, Part II « Losing My Cents - May 17, 2012

    […] March, I wrote a post called The Top 10 Worst Things to Say to Someone in Debt.  A lot of people liked it.  Some of them wondered if it was all true (sadly, yes).  Others […]

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