Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Are you allergic to debt?

To be allergic to debt is an inconvenient and annoying affliction. It’s worse than being lactose intolerant or breaking out in hives when you accidentally ingest a strawberry.

I do have a credit card, and a cellphone contract, but other than that, I don’t borrow money. I’ve just developed a credit education campaign for a client and stories like this remind me why I don’t want to buy a place, or a car, or even new clothes. The only reason I was able to bankroll one of my business partners this year was the fact that I don’t have dependants and, art materials and air fare aside, spend very little money on myself.

(According to the quiz we developed, I’m toned but could do with more credit fitness, because I am woefully ignorant of what’s in my bank account and pay as little attention to money as possible.)

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A lot of South Africans are going to go on a spending binge this December and wake up with a debt hangover in January. Some of them will open new credit accounts to pay off the accounts that can’t pay off already. A client told me not so long ago of a case in which an individual had accumulated more than 100 agreements in two years — an average of one a week.

Researching the material for the credit education campaign prompted me to do some thinking about credit, and how it shadows almost everything we do. I’m lucky in that I have savings, so I have a choice. We can’t all bootstrap our way through life though, so credit — and debt — is essential. South Africans are in credit up to their eyeballs, and they have to be if they’re going to keep the economy wheezing along.

Credit is a very dangerous drug, and society is addicted to it. Many of us are a paycheck away from disaster. The credit crunch led to the global downturn that ruined so many lives. Credit in the form of unsecured lending was behind Marikana. The credit amnesty will probably make matters worse.

There’s a price to be paid for refusing to go into debt, though. At its heart, credit is not simply a financial matter, but an existential one too. Not only do you alienate lenders (because a bad credit record is better than no credit record at all), you find yourself out of sync with the rest of middle-class society. Borrowing to pay off cars and houses is part of what we do. It keeps us in jobs we hate, and ensures that we support the status quo. To stay out of debt, I don’t own a car, and I live with family because I want to keep my overheads low — and that means being weird and lonely and always feeling just a little bit ashamed.

But I don’t have debt, and that feels good.

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