One of the most haunting movies I’ve ever watched as a student of behavioral economics is The Joneses. The movie is based on the concept of stealth marketing, which is just that— an aspect of marketing in which the audience is not aware that they are being marketed to.
In The Joneses, a marketing team pretends to be a model well-heeled family living in a well-to-do suburb. Under this guise, they host parties and get-togethers to show off their latest gadgets, extravagances, and luxuries.
One particularly vulnerable neighbor commits suicide after going into debt and losing his home in order to compete with this “family.” (Sorry for the spoiler.)
It was a powerful movie because I never made the direct line between suicide and debt until I saw this film, although I knew it was plausible. I guess I was just unwilling to wrap my mind around the idea that someone would end their life over money.
Although it was selfish, it gave me more comfort to associate financially-driven suicide with a drama rather than real life.
Two weeks ago, I could no longer lie to myself.
One of my coworkers didn’t return to work after a long weekend because he took his life. As an office community, we were devastated and couldn’t figure out what could have led to this decision.
As we packed up his belonging, we found a wad of “final notice” letters from an electrical company. The total cost was close to $3,000. We also found a print out of the Blue Book value of his newly purchased BMW, which had been traded in for a Honda and parked outside his home when his body was taken to the coroner.
Finally, we found a post-it. On the post-it was the title of the book The Number, a few calculations, and a seven-figure number circled. After we a quick search on Amazon, we learned that the full title of that book was The Number: What Do You Need for the Rest of Your Life and What Will It Cost? And while there’s no way to confirm, we figured that the mysterious 7-figure number was the amount of money our dear coworker needed to have to retire, but didn’t.
His suicide hit me hard as a co-worker, but especially as a personal finance writer. The personal finance writing world has an unspoken air of derision and disdain for the millions of Americans that chronically live above their means. Whether intentional or not, we look down on those that carry heavy balances. We wave our fingers when they go off budget. We tssk when they are past due on bills. We scoff when they buy more house than they need or could afford.
In so many words, we shame.
We shame individuals, families, and communities for not being able to harness self-control and discipline. So while I was mourning the loss of my office buddy, I was also grappling with a heavy sense of guilt and partial responsibility as a member of the personal finance media community—an industry that needs to offer as much advice on how to manage the emotions of debt as the step-by-step guides and action plans.
This experience helped me see the need for financial empathy for those of us living in constant financial crisis. It also helped me realize the need for the following gentle reminders about money, life, self-worth, and debt.
Help is close by. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling is the nation’s largest and longest-serving nonprofit financial counseling organization. They offer credit and debt counseling. You can also reach out for free confidential help at The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Debtors Anonymous meetings give attendees hope, support, and skills to manage their debt.
Your debt is not a reflection of your worthiness. In the world of personal finance, we make it very clear that all debt is bad debt with very few exceptions. However, your debt is not you. And you are not your debt. In other words, you are not bad because you have debt. Debt is a function of the decisions that you’ve made around spending and saving, which are skills that you can improved with support and over time.
Choose life…always. For those of us drowning in debt, financial freedom is a life goal. It can be disheartening and debilitating to feel that we can never get past our financial hurdles. But ultimately, the debt can wait, so let it, if you’re unable to move forward. However, if you have to sell your car and downsize into a smaller living place, do so. Decisions that keep your safe should be top priority as you move forward.
You have rights as someone carrying debt. Know them and use them. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to collect from you. If you’re contemplating suicide because of a threat made by a debt collector, it’s time to empower yourself and protect yourself from illegal practices.
Debt is not a death sentence. As a society, we have to learn to be more compassionate about dealing with debt as we push our communities to healthier ways of handling money. But as we figure out the best to do so, it’s important to know that suicide is a permanent solution to temporary stress, no matter how overwhelming or embarrassing it may feel.