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The Whippet #79: On debt, financial and emotional

McKinley Valentine — 13 min read

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Headsup new subscribers, this is a bit of a weird issue!

Someone wrote in for advice - “If someone gifts you money, are they allowed to tell you what to do with it?” – and I’ve answered directly-ish in the usual spot at the end of the newsletter, but it brings up a whole lot of things to do with the concept of debt and obligation that are too big to fit in my brain.

Everything below is a network of related concepts that have really, really helped me understand and function in the world.

Debt is a mental and emotional construct, not a tangible thing. That is, I loaned you $500 and now we both have the memory of that event, we share the opinion that you now need to pay me back that $500, and we share some values that you would be a garbage friend if you didn’t pay it back (unless you couldn’t, yada yada). So debt is the word that encompasses a bunch of ideas that we both have, that creates a relationship between us.

But those beliefs can also exist in the head of a single individual. Maybe you asked for $500 as an outright gift, because you knew you’d struggle to pay it back. But I misunderstood and thought it was a loan. And now the debt exists in my head, but it doesn’t exist in yours. FRAUGHT.

Technical debt vs the emotion of indebtedness

There’s a difference between what I’ll call the technical aspect of the debt (the literal money changing hands and discussion that it would be paid back) and the emotion that you feel when you're indebted to someone. It can be some mix of gratitude, guilt, obligation, tethering, awareness of a task undone, that's always at the back of your mind. A lot of the time they go together – you borrow money from a friend, and you have both a technical knowledge of the debt and also a keen sense of obligation to repay them.

But not always - maybe the friend says, “hey, don’t worry about it, consider it a gift” and the technical debt goes away but you still feel a strong emotion like you owe them and you might try and find a way to repay them anyway, or do them some other favour. And corporations get into debt and repay or default on loans as makes financial sense to them, with no emotional quality to their debts at all.

It’s really, really, really important to understand the difference between these two things – the technical fact and the emotion. Our whole society – all our societies, as far as I know – are founded on that emotion, the feeling we get when someone has helped us, that we owe them help in return. It’s incredibly powerful. And like other fundamental emotions (anger, fear, loyalty, desire to protect your loved ones), it can be manipulated and used against you.

(Here I deleted like four paragraphs on advertising, consumer debt, and so on. tl;dr if you owe money to a bank, you have the technical debt, but please try to free yourself of the emotional sense of guilt and tetheredness, because it's misapplied in that situation)

Loan-sharking / favour-sharking

This term (I've heard both used, take your pick) is when someone does an unasked-for favour for you, in order to create in you that sense of indebtedness.

The term comes from The Gift of Fear, a book about recognising predators (which I highly recommend) - and in that context, it's pretty dark. If they want you to do something that you're not totally on board with, they might do a favour for you first - leap in and help you with a heavy box you're carrying, say - so when it's time to say "No, I can't let you in to use the bathroom", you feel like you're being really rude, after they helped you and everything. (It's fine to accept help from strangers, the vast majority of whom are just helpful. It just means don't let that emotional sense of indebtedness rewrite your boundaries, and don't trust people who are pushy about offering you help, especially if you've already said no to it.)

However! It's also done way more often and less harmfully by just mildly manipulative and/or abusive family members.
"I bought you plane tickets to visit us over Easter!"
"But I told you I have to work this Easter..."
"But I already bought the tickets... surely you can take this ONE WEEKEND off?"

Doing you a favour you didn't ask for and then using it to guilt you into doing something you didn't want to do. Useful term to know!

Scams are a scam

Before I went to India, I was warned of a ‘scam’ to trick tourists out of their money.

But it’s not really a trick. You go into a clothing shop, someone hands you a shawl and says “look, it’s lovely, feel how soft it is, just try it on to see if it suits you” and you try it on and agree it looks nice, and then you try to give it back, and they say No, you’ve bought it, trying it on is an agreement to buy it, and now you owe them money. And if you argue, they’ll suddenly have a bunch of friends spring out of nowhere, all insisting that you owe the money. That’s not really a scam, is it? You weren’t tricked into buying it. It’s just that when six guys are surrounding you, yelling at you that you have to give them money, you do it. It’s just a regular mugging.

Most, maybe all countries have some variant on this so-called scam – e.g. in London there’s one where you go into a strip club and are offered free drinks, then when you go to leave, you’re told the drinks actually cost like $40 each and they don’t let you leave till you pay up. Or you go for what’s clearly a $10 or less cab ride, and then the driver says ‘that’ll be $50’ and you’re trapped in a car with them so you give them the money.

But this isn’t some fancy Three Card Monty con, and you didn’t fall for anything. It’s just someone demanding money with the physical ability to make you. It’s a mugging presented as a ‘debt’ (and for some reason described as a scam in guidebooks).

Going back to favour-sharking, it also can fall into this level of unsubtle. There's the kind where you feel the emotion of indebtedness and it influences you to change your decision. And then there's the kind like these scams, where someone does a favour for you that you never wanted, and then insists that you now owe them something. And you have in no way been manipulated, but you still have someone in your life insisting you owe them something, and you have to deal with that person.

So you see that debts are an idea that can be mutually agreed upon, or there can be misunderstandings when two people have different ideas, or they can be forced on another person cynically, in which case it's not really a debt in the true sense, it's just bullying.

The Code of Hammurabi - "an eye for an eye"

The Code of Hammurabi is a bunch of laws written on a pillar in ancient Babylonia (1754 BC) and it's one of the oldest pieces of writing that modern humans have been able to translate.

It includes the phrase 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth', and how cool is it that we're still using an expression that's 4000 years old? To modern people, 'an eye for an eye' as justice sounds barbaric. But at the time, it was more of a limit than a threat.

Not: "If you knock out someone's tooth, we'll knock out one of YOUR teeth" but "If someone knocks out one of your teeth, you can get revenge by knocking out one of their teeth, but that's IT, you can't kill them or anything, take one tooth and agree to leave it there."

Because otherwise you just get escalating cycles of revenge until everyone's dead.

It's related to the idea of debt, and fairness, and two people having different 'debts' (collections of memories and beliefs about what's owed, measurement of what's been taken) in their head. Each cycle of retaliation seems fair and justified to the perpetrator, and wildly unjust and in need of 'repayment' to the recipient.

If you want to read more on this:

There is so much more to be said about the way we use debt as a metaphor for everything in society (how forgiveness relates to debt, the fact that we call prison 'paying your debts to society).

  • Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (she wrote The Handmaid's Tale but this is non-fiction)
  • David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years
  • I've cut a BUNCH of paragraphs from this issue, because it's already so long and because some of it's referencing politics, but I'll be posting them to Patreon if you'd like to sign up

If you want to read MUCH LESS on this, stay tuned for the next issue, which will be shorter and with more pictures and about a variety of different topics.

Solicited Advice

“A family member has reached a milestone age in their senior years. They have a bit of money saved up and don’t really need it, and want to give it to me, to “help me out in life”. It's a kind offer, for which I'm massively grateful.

However, there’s a bunch of things I want to do with my life that they don’t approve of - take a holiday to Japan, rent a city centre apartment, get a nice TV, etc. - it goes against their frugal post-war sensibilities. I’m concerned that they’ll have the right to criticise if I ever dare enjoy myself: “why are you wasting the money I gave you?”

… when I’ll be spending my money that I’ve earned. I’m aiming to earn enough through my career to afford those things, with or without said gift.

Whaddya think? Take the cursed money and have my spending habits forever under scrutiny? Or refuse a significantly life-improving amount for the sake of freedom?”

So I want to make it clear off the bat that I don't think your relative is abusive, or scamming you, or a Babylonian king. I hope you can see how our ideas about financial and emotional debt sort of swirl around your question, but they're not a direct response to it.

Direct response:

  1. For the love of god, take the money.
  2. People are allowed to give money-with-strings if they make it clear at the outset and they are alive.* If someone says “I want to give you $30,000 as a down payment on a house” then you should save it till you’re ready to buy a house or say “that is extremely kind but I don’t want to own a house, here is a different Life Goal that I have, it would mean a lot to me if you could help me out with Life Goal instead of a house”. (Maybe it has always been your Life Goal to give a newsletter writer $30,000?)
    And if it's house-or-bust I *think* you gotta decline the money. (I dunno, it's easy to imagine scenarios where betraying a relative is better, like if you need the $30k to pay kidnappers who have your child or something).
    But if you agreed to buy a house and then just spent the money on embroidered smoking jackets and rare cheese, I think you would be in the wrong ethically, although not sartorially.
    * I say 'alive' because I think if people put unreasonably onerous sentimental requests in their will, you are allowed to disregard them in as respectful a way as you can manage.
  3. But that's not your situation.
  4. In fact, it's not even close to your situation, because you're not even talking about not spending Relative's gift on things they would disapprove of, you're saying that if you accept the money, all your money will now have to be spent in the way they approve of, including future earnings (for how long? your whole life?).
  5. It's impossible for me to tell whether they really are going to subject all your future spending to scrutiny, or if you're predicting a worse outcome than is actually going to happen, but I assume your prediction is based on prior experience
  6. So, you know that they disapprove of some of your life choices and spending habits. I presume you know this because they've made comments. So... your spending is ALREADY under scrutiny. So what would be the change?
  7. In my view, people are gonna be who they are. Like, if Relative is judgey about your spending, they're gonna be judgey regardless of whether you take the money. (Giving you money might make it feel like it's their business, but just being an older family member is probably enough to make it feel like it's their business.)
  8. I've been poor a fair bit, which means I've borrowed money from loved ones a fair bit. And three (a friend, a boyfriend, and my mum) have explicitly said "please don't live on instant noodles to pay me back. I'd rather you took a bit longer and felt like you could go to a cafe with friends sometimes. I really don't want you to feel like I'm judging you if you get any kind of treat." Obviously them not needing the money back urgently was a privilege, but the attitude was about who they are as people and their feelings about spending and poverty and stuff. People are gonna be who they are, the money doesn't change who they are.
  9. So in terms of the types of debt (not paying Relative back, but owing them the right to judge your finances), there's no technical debt, every one agrees on that, the money wasn't earmarked for anything. There's the debt (beliefs) that live in Relative's head, which you can't control, and there's the debt (beliefs) that live in your own head, which you can. Do you feel like you will owe Relative the right to make those sort of comments? Can you work on that feeling, the way you would work on any incorrect belief you'd noticed?

    Your use of the word 'freedom' to describe not having someone make judgey comments seems pretty full-on, and I feel like a lot of the perceived non-freedom is kind of in your head, and more a cognitive fallacy you need to work on.
  10. So the way I see it, if you accept the money, assuming your prediction is correct. you will have two separate things, and you are tangling them up as though they're connected, but they're not.

    You will have received a generous gift. In exchange for this, you will owe Relative gratitude, which you should express freely and sincerely and maybe with a bunch of flowers.

    You may also have an unrelated situation where a relative is being judgey and disapproving of your spending. You deal with THAT in the way you would generally do boundary setting, like a relative being judgey about your appearance why you don't have kids yet. (For example, Captain Awkward's recommended method of being really boring and not engaging with them in conversations about it. Like, if they say something about what you've spent money on, or what you should spend money on:
    - "I'll think about it" + subject change
    - "It was the right choice for me at the time" + subject change
    - Vague responses that sound like they agree but don't really mean anything
    - Direct the conversation back to them, ask questions about frugality tips or whatever (someone saying 'here's what works for me' is way less annoying than 'you should')
    - If they reference the gift directly, express gratitude for the gift and ignore the judgey biit + subject change.
    - "I know we don't always agree on this stuff, but I don't want to have a fight about it"

    Definitely don't defend why it's actually good to spend your money the way you are. Just don't get into that. (Easier said than done I know, but resist temptation.)

    This post gives some ideas but CA writes about it a lot.

    If you're hearing about their disapproval from an intermediary, not from them directly, then just shut that down entirely, it's unnecessary drama, tell them to stop passing it on. If they want you to know about their disapproval they'll have to do it directly. (I am a hypocrite here, I don't shut third-party reports of family members disapproving of my choices, because I get curious, but I really should.)
  11. If you are planning to spend your general wages on the holiday and stuff, can you put the gift money in an investment account (an index fund, not gambling on specific stocks)? And then be like "Thanks Relative, I put it in an investment account" and then keep referring to that account being the money they gave you, whenever they bring it up? (Also, this would be a good idea if you can do it, your money turns into more money without you having to do any work, it's a scam but you might as well get in on it.) There must be at least SOME things you and they would agree on re: the money, talk loudly about those things. I have some relatives who disapprove of a lot of my life choices and values, and one way I deal with it is really leading the conversation - ask them a lot of questions, constantly steer it away from any dangerzones. (cf. The Onion: Entire Conversation With Parents Spent Changing The Subject; and Every One Of Man’s Priorities Unrecognizable To Grandfather)
  12. Judgemental people don't get to know stuff about your life. Avoid talking about your finances as much as possible. Obviously they will find out you've moved house and are in Japan, but as much as possible, it shouldn't be something you discuss with them.
  13. Always remember in your heart that their judginess is not the price you paid for the gift, and you're not obligated to listen to it because you accepted it. Gratitude for the gift, boundary-setting for the judginess.
  14. Don't brace yourself for the worst, they are doing something very generous and kind, and you should try to start off with an approach that they won't use it as a manipulation tool. If they say something ambiguous, respond as though it was the nicer interpretation.

    This is for them, but also for you. Their judgement only has to have as much power over you as you let it have (again, I know it's not as easy as 'just don't care). You can respect them as people and still privately think they're wrong on this matter, and you'll be helping both them and you by not letting that one issue ruin the rest of your relationship.
  15. When I said "people are gonna be who they are" (pt 7?) I was talking about the judginess, but it includes the generosity, as well. That is also an offer they are making because it is who they are. It seems kinder to me to accept it as a genuine expression of their character, rather than with suspicion.

Just put a whole 'easier said than done' next to everything here though, yeah?

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