This is part of a Globe series that explores our growing dependence on credit — from the average household to massive institutions — and the looming risks for a nation addicted to cheap money. Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #DebtBinge
Frugality has become my life, almost without my even noticing it. Somehow, by scrimping at every opportunity and not even acknowledging the unavailable luxuries other people treat as necessities, I've turned out to be a paragon of fiscal responsibility.
Waste appalls me – my current favourite culinary creation is a kind of stale-bread porridge that my peasant ancestors would admire for its something-out-of-nothing survivalist charms. Half my wardrobe comes from charity stores. The thermostat knows its limits, the lights are flicked off, the curtains are closed to keep the house cool, the library books are thoroughly read and ready to be returned on the due date.
In a country prone to living beyond its means almost as a human right, I'm the low-fun, tomorrow-fearing guy who prides himself on blending the pioneer spirit of making do with the Depression-era mentality of don't even bother, we can't afford it, now go collect some kindling.
No one wants to be the poster boy for debt-avoidance. In my mind, I'm not tight-fisted, just a bit extreme in my reading of my economic limitations. I always behave as if I'm about to spend my last dime. The mortgage on my small, out-of-the-way house is paid off. I've stored up enough money to weather most of the impending emergencies I'm quite sure will arrive. No one likes a pessimist, but fearing the worst turns out to be a good quality if you want to have a cushion when the end days come.
Is it genetics, or upbringing or just a kind of high-minded virtue manufactured out of moderate-income necessity? Certainly there's a proud asceticism lurking in my Lutheran heritage, and as a first child raised long ago in grad-student penury, I could claim to come by my economical nature honestly – except that we aren't living in England under rationing in 1952. So why can't I move on?
Everyone else has, or so it seems when I contemplate my out-of-step attitudes. Canada's level of household debt is among the highest in the world – $1.63 owing for every dollar of annual disposable income, an unsustainable vulnerability that prompts all those national calls to action that go unheeded as overspending becomes normalized. When house prices crash and interest rates skyrocket (as those of us who've lived through too many boom-and-bust cycles believe they must), the entire edifice of civilization will come crashing down – see what I mean about being a pessimist? Learn to live cheaply now, and you'll be ready to face the zombie apocalypse with my grim, I-told-you-so contentment.
But when I look at my own personal campaign to be debt-free, I realize how sapping and dispiriting self-denial can be. Even if I've achieved something called financial security on paper, I've done so only by living a life of perpetual insecurity – an overriding discipline of anxiety that became ingrained in my personality and never quite disappeared. I've figured out numerous strategies to rebrand my cheese-paring ways as a well-lived life of authenticity and delight, and I think I've at least convinced my children, if not my wife, that our circumscribed existence is a kind of self-sufficient ideal. But I doubt it can work for everyone, particularly now.
The spendthrifts of the world go happily on their demented way with delusions of Hawaiian honeymoons and four-bedroom starter homes. Real estate porn turns granite countertops from an end point of covetousness into a twentysomething's must-have. Weekly manicures become a vain necessity of stress relief. And so, while eagerly waiting to be appointed the next tsk-tsking Governor of the Bank of Canada, I'm left to wallow in my monkish jeremiads.
"Debt kills dreams," the naysayers like to say. But refusing to dream is also a hope-killer. It's not just that you cut yourself off from all those other people who play by different rules, or impose boundaries on both your wardrobe and your aspirations that may turn out to be permanently self-limiting and perhaps even confine your children's future by a reluctance to take financial risks.
More fundamentally, you become the person that your sense of economy has created. I may want to believe I'm generous or fun to be around – but, really, how can I be when I'm thinking so hard about staying out of debt? Free-spending is a kind of liberation I just can't allow myself. Even my hedonistic outbreaks are value-based. I constantly test my pleasures by assessing them after the fact via my inner auditor-general.
If I'm happy it's a hard-won emotion, one that I sometimes think I've fabricated to face down the more complicated feelings of a penny-pincher's hollow triumphs. Checking the urge to spend is a numbing form of inhibition. And even in my most smug and self-congratulatory moments, when I'm walking happily beside a free-flowing river on a sunny day with a chatty companion and thinking life doesn't get better than this, I probably need to acknowledge that my style is permanently cramped, that psychologically I'm a bit of a case. In my overly calculated moments of self-indulgence, I love to find the bargain flight to Heathrow and savour the cost-free pleasures I've learned to replicate around the world through the ancient simplicity of sensory awareness. I feel like I've figured out something eternal and meaningful that a philosopher, if not a personal shopper, would recognize as happiness.
But when it gets to the point that I'm ostentatiously delighting in setting two alarms to wake up for the 3 a.m. long-distance stroll to catch the bus that will get me to the airport in advance of my crack-of-dawn cheapo flight, maybe I'm not the most appealing advertisement for self-imposed restraint.
Consider my shoes. But please don't examine them too closely. I've had them for 25 years or so, and they've been resoled six or seven times. The last time I took them to the cobbler (my vocabulary is as Victorian as my financial values), I got him to stitch the cracking leather so I could continue to pass for being properly shod in a free-spending society – it was either that or be called out by smug, rich people for letting my bright-red, bought-on-sale H&M socks poke through the frayed uppers.
Admittedly, they're classic Thomas Church one-piece leather Oxfords and cost more than $700 way back when, so maybe my definition of frugality needs some nuancing: It's okay to spend big on long-term value – always assuming that you've saved up the money to do so, and that you aren't trying to impress anyone other than yourself.
Overthinking every purchase is one of the burdens of being a debt-avoider, but I persuade myself that I'm getting enough pleasure and use out of these long-lasting objects to nullify the idea of expense. Every expenditure in life, at least if you want to get a handle on your spending, should be viewed as an investment, with the upfront cost measured against the rate of return. So a $300 restaurant meal looks like an obvious exercise in waste, unless you're prepared to talk about it to your bored friends for the next decade. But comfortable shoes earn back their cost over a lifetime of wear – those of us who think hard about spending are better at sourcing the long-term rewards that might evade the free-spending crowd. Among the good and wise purchases that have brought pleasure even as they depleted my bank account: top-of-the-line hockey skates; the most expensive snow shovel at Canadian Tire; a dependably comfortable pillow; pretty well any flight to Italy. Not much riotous excess there – my wife and I catered our own wedding, so she's probably unsurprised that years later I'm acting like Mr. Generosity when I hand over a souvenir scarf from an Oxford museum like it's the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
I don't think I'm generally mean. I'm happy to pay taxes and let government play the big spender, as long as it's for some credible version of the greater good. If I took public transit, I'd give up my seat to the old and infirm – but since I walk home to save money and breathe air, that act of generosity is more of an ideal than a reality.
Am I happy? Yes and no, but mostly yes. If you can accept that kind of compromise, this life's for you. And one final admission, just to undermine the certainty of my argument. I may claim to see the world of excess all too clearly, but I do so through Dolce & Gabbana frames. It's a harmless indulgence, right? And one I can't explain.