Debt has to be the most talked about personal finance topic of the past decade.
Somehow, financial planner Shannon Lee Simmons has found something fresh and useful to say about it. In her brand new book, Living Debt-Free: The No-Shame, No-Blame Guide to Getting Rid of Your Debt, she draws upon her personal experience (yes, she once had a big credit-card debt) and that of her clients to present the most humane guide you’re likely to find on debt reduction. There are no lectures here, just practical advice and insights.
Here’s an edited transcript of a Q&A I did with Ms. Simmons on debt and her new book:
Why do we need a ‘no-shame, no-blame’ guide to debt repayment?
I have found that there’s a shame-and-blame mentality that goes with a lot of the prescriptions for debt. I wanted to write a book that was shame-free and blame-free.
Let’s, just for a minute, play the blame game. Who or what deserves the blame for this country’s sky-high personal debt levels?
It’s a combination of a lot of things. Low interest rates were a good thing for a lot of economic reasons, but they also made borrowing cheap enough that it didn’t seem so scary. Social media is also a big thing – there is so much access to how people live beautifully and wonderfully. It costs money to do that.
Give us a quick composite profile of your indebted clients – what’s their story?
There are two main types, one of them being those who graduated with student debt, didn’t get a job out of school or didn’t get a job that paid a lot of money and have struggled. They’ve taken on debt for the daily grind of life and they’ve never really known a life without debt. The other type of client has maybe been debt-free for a while, except for a mortgage or car loan, and then something happens. Like, they bought a house they couldn’t afford and then they had kids and then started borrowing on a line of credit.
Of all the types of borrowing you see your clients using, what is the one that causes the most damage?
I would say lines of credit. Credit cards get a lot of hate because they’re very high interest, and I do think they’re a problem. But where I see the really crushing debt is often on lines of credit. I see some lines of credit that are $30,000, $40,000, $50,000.
You have a whole section on the emotional cost of debt. How stressed about debt are your clients?
Hugely. When people talk about it in the office with me, they often don’t realize they’re putting their hand on their chest, almost like it’s oppressive. People cry at the drop of a dime. There’s so much shame with debt.
What motivational tricks can you offer to help people see their debt repayment plan through?
Giving permission to someone to still live their life, even though they’re paying down debt. I think that’s hugely motivating. I think there’s a fear when someone sits down in my office that I’m going to just obliterate their lifestyle. I’m not going to do that. I’m trying find a reasonable, realistic middle ground where they’ll actually pay down debt and they’ll stick to it for more than three months.
Aren’t bold strokes sometimes needed to reduce debt – go down to one car from two, fewer or more modest family vacations, even downsizing a home?
Totally – I call those debt slammers and there’s a time and place for all of them. If someone has been locked in a debt battle, a serious one, for quite some time, they’re typically more open to sweeping changes than someone who has a stubborn $4,000 on a credit card that never seems to go away.
It’s by design that you launched the book in January, right?
There’s something about January. It’s a new financial year, it’s a new tax year – there’s a whole “I’m ready to tackle this” mentality that happens. I wanted to harness that.