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Debtor's Prison

by Patrick Reynolds

Moving back to America it quickly became clear that we needed a vehicle. This means I've been spending a lot of time sitting in car dealerships, trying to keep up with slick salespeople spinning out their deals and explaining with long faces that as much as they'd like to lower the price they're too far "in" on the car to possibly go any lower. Lots of "I'll need to ask my supervisor" and them disappearing for 5 minutes. It's during these times that I get to stare at this notice, hung prominently in every California car dealer's office:

"California law does not provide for a "cooling-off" or other cancellation period for vehicle lease or purchase contracts. Therefore you cannot later cancel such a contract simply because you change your mind, decide the vehicle costs too much, or wish you had acquired a different vehicle."

When we finally found a car we liked at the right price, this warning weighed heavily on me as I worked my way through the voluminous paperwork. When the moment came for the final signature, I felt a mighty burden. By scratching out my name on bottom line of that ridiculously long ream of carbon paper, I was committing myself to years of payments, insurance premiums, fuel costs and maintenance. Once I made that leap there was no getting out of it. With gritted teeth I signed the bottom line and we were off.

Throughout all this I've been thinking about how similar personal finances and personal fitness are. Getting into that car was the equivalent of diving into a large slice of cheesecake. It's fun to eat cheesecake. It's fun to have a nice car. But they both have costs, and once you sign that line or put that fork in your mouth, there's no cooling off period, you're married to that choice.

In the case of the car, I now need to account for a monthly payment that sticks around for years. The pleasure of having the vehicle is bought with the sacrifice of my future earnings. 

In the same way, the cheesecake puts me in caloric debt. I've taken 500 extra calories in my system, and in order to pay it off I only have two choices; eat 500 calories less of other food, or put in 500 calories of exercise to get me back to neutral.

The other option is not paying off the debt in full. In the case of the car if I only make minimum payments my interest will continue to accrue until I'm eventually paying more in interest than I am on the vehicle. For the cheesecake, not meeting my caloric debt means that I carry that weight around with me every single moment of the day, distributed amongst my fat storage deposits.

The reason debt is such a bummer is that it's inherently backwards looking. Your time and energy isn't going towards building a better future, or even enjoying the present moment. It's getting sucked into the black hole of the past.

One of my favorite ways of thinking about this is the phrase, "debt is paying in the present for the priorities of the past." Maybe your priority now is saving money for photography classes. But you can't do that because you're still dealing with a priority from the you of 3 years ago, which at the time was getting a car with leather seats. So you work and work for those leather seats while the thing you're really interested in, becoming a better photographer, languishes. Too much debt casts a pall over all your choices and limits the one thing we humans value above all else, our freedom.

"Debt is paying in the present for the priorities of the past." 

Caloric debt is the same story. Your current priority might be looking good in a swimsuit, being able to keep up with your kids, or making a good impression on your clients. But you can't do that stuff because you're dealing with the debt of old priorities, which revolved around sitting on your butt and eating a lot of cheesecake.

Financial advisors will always tell you to get out of debt as soon as possible. The faster you can get the debt paid down, the less long-term cost you'll incur and the sooner you can be free. I feel the same way about caloric debt. Carrying around a lot of excess body fat is a total loss. You don't look good, your confidence is lowered, your thoughts are muddled, and you have to sit out on some of the best parts of life. You create a prison of your own body.

Whether it's financial or caloric debt, the solution is the same. You need some austerity measures. You need to take a long look at the choices you're making and adjust so that you're on track to pay off your debts and get back to a place of freedom. For your finances this means saying no to some things you want and making do with what you have. For your body this means letting go of those foods and drinks which are putting you in the hole and opting for healthier choices and consistent exercise.

Austerity is painful, especially at first. It can feel very unfair of the universe to have put you in a position that you can't do what you want to do when you want to do it. You can feel just as trapped as when you were in debt. And indeed, you're still in a kind of prison, but the difference is that day by day you're using your little spoon to dig a tunnel out. And if you persist, you WILL have that moment when you break through and are breathing "free air". And a glorious moment it will be.

Once you're free, you can start moving towards the opposite of debt, which is investment. Your time and energy can be channeled into things that make your life more fulfilling and which pay off over time. Instead of just trying to be "not broke" or "not fat," you can work on "financially free" and "in awesome shape."

As humans, we absolutely suck as these kind of choices. We're hardwired to place more emphasis on the opportunities right in front of us than potential dangers in the future. Consumer culture and advertising add rocket fuel to the situation. You can see the results in the numbers; the average US household carries more than $150,000 in debt and 2/3 of US citizens are obese. We're carrying the stress of financial debt on our shoulders and the weight of caloric debt on our midsections. It makes life a heavy slog.

If this lesson rang true for you, don't think that you're suddenly going to find the willpower to make things better. That's not how our brains work. What you need is a blueprint that divides the pain up into manageable sections that don't overwhelm you. This is a budget for your finances and a training plan for your body. For your budget, we at Kenzai are big fans of You Need a Budget. And for your body, we're even bigger fans of... KENZAI!

No matter how you go about tackling your financial and physical debts, take heart in the fact that you're not a lost cause, that you DO have control, and that you're not alone.

Think about this as you go about making your food and drink choices this week. Remember that with every meal and snack you eat there's an invisible little sign on the wall that reads:

"Biology does not provide for a "cooling-off" or other cancellation period for eaten food. Therefore you cannot later cancel digestion simply because you change your mind, decide the food is too calorically dense, or wish you had consumed a different food!"

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