Guest Opinion: On debt and personal responsibility

Published 3:41 pm Thursday, May 12, 2022

By Woody White

Tammie and I were 25 years old when we married in July 1995. I had been an attorney for 10 months, having graduated from law school and passed the State Bar the summer before. Our folks helped us as much as they could with the wedding costs, but Tammie and I paid for much of it ourselves.

I remember getting my first credit card just a week before the wedding so I could pay for our wedding reception, and the banquet space in Fayetteville, Arkansas, maxing it out at the $3,500 limit. It took us over three years to pay that card off.

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My folks sprang for our four-day honeymoon to Freeport, Bahamas, where on the second day, a real estate agent called us and said we had to tour the property to get the discounted nightly rate.

We did not go on the real estate tour. And they gave us the discount anyway.

When we purchased our first home in Wilmington three months later, we had no credit and no cash. Our finances were so shaky that to have the “first-time buyers” 5% down payment, the bank allowed me to take out a second note on my Ford Mustang, an innovative banking maneuver that would not be allowed today.

We financed the $81,000. The interest rate was nearly 7%, and the monthly payment was $746.

Our combined student loan debt was $119,000 and the monthly payment was over $800.

Those were some lean years.

I entered my second year as an attorney taking every case that walked in my front door, in court five days a week, to get trial experience. Tammie got a job as the campaign manager for Bill Caster, who was running for Congress in the 7th District.

We did whatever was necessary to earn enough money to buy food, pay our mortgage and the student debt. We often could not afford a full tank of gas, settling instead to put just enough in the tank to get around town.

But as close as it got, we never missed a payment and things always worked out.

The fear of failure and the prospect of success kept us awake at night. We would lay there in the dark and worry about how we would pay the bills, but then our talks would turn to the dreams we shared for the future.

Would we ever dig out from under all the bills, especially the student loan debt? Would we be able to save enough to start a family?

These questions about our future motivated us and pushed us forward.

Those were some of the best times of our lives.

We were learning important lessons of life; how to persevere, sacrifice and survive. But we were also learning what it took to become successful and make our way in a challenging and uncertain world.

The thought never occurred to us that our debts were the responsibility of others or that someone else might pay our bills, forgive our mortgage or pay our student debt.

But today, debt forgiveness is being talked about by politicians desperate to bribe young voters as if it is a perfectly sane idea instead of a stunningly idiotic policy consideration. It is unfair to the millions who were denied the opportunity to go to college in the first place. It is unfair to the millions who went to college, borrowed money and then paid it back.

Life’s lessons about what it takes to succeed, be continually motivated to do better and sacrifice today for tomorrow’s rewards are lost when we devalue hard work and sacrifice by gratuitous debt forgiveness. If these lessons go unlearned by the next generation, we will be a worse society.

There is not, and never will be, any substitute for climbing life’s mountain one step at a time. To be successful and have gratitude for the harvest that awaits, you cannot skip steps. Having someone else pay for your debts is skipping steps and is anathema to everything we know that works in the world.

I will never forget the day we sent in our last payment on our student loans when the $119,000 debt was finally paid off. I wrote the check at my office and made a copy of it. I kept looking at the envelope in the passenger seat next to me all the way home, thinking about what that piece of paper meant to Tammie and me.

I walked into our tiny house over by Hoggard High School, sat down at the kitchen table and put the envelope down. We sat there looking at it for a minute, and then we started laughing and then crying tears of joy. That final payment represented so much more than just paying a bill. One day at a time, one payment at a time, we had paid it off. No one paid a dime of it for us. Nor should they have.

If you want to go to school and pursue higher education, do it. You will never be sorry for trying to improve your life.

But if you borrow money, it is your responsibility to pay it back.

Not ours.

Like millions of others who have pursued the same American dream, we have already done that.

Woody White is a resident of New Hanover County, practices law as a courtroom attorney and just completed two terms as a New Hanover County commissioner. Email him at ww@woodywhitelaw.com .

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