One day when I was 16 years old, I got curious about the cigarettes that a friend had begun smoking out of habit. I asked if I could try one. “Sure,” he said, handing one over, helping me light it and giving a quick demonstration of how to inhale.
My lungs rebelled immediately, and by the time I was halfway through my head ached and my stomach was turning. I extinguished the cigarette and never considered tobacco again.
When I first got out of college, I vowed never to buy anything on debt except a house and perhaps a car. It struck me that if I bought something on credit, a $100 purchase would end up costing me $120 or $180 or more depending on the interest rate and how long I took to pay it off. But I found myself unable (or unwilling?) to establish a substantial savings account. After a year or so, I bought a new stereo system on an 18-month plan.
That felt so painless that I took out a credit card, for “big” items only, of course.
I forget what the first “little” purchase was, but it wasn’t long before the revolving credit account was on its way to becoming maxed out. A second credit card followed, with a vow that I’d use that one properly and wouldn’t use the whole line of credit again. It was the beginning of my first trip to bankruptcy court, because that savings account would have been my first line of defense against the rainy days that inevitably arrived. I was right the first time, you see: Debt is dumb.
“Common sense” is a term we sometimes address only when we’re in a hole, as in, “Why didn’t I have more common sense?” Our instincts tell us when we’re crossing over into dangerous territory: The lungs rebel, the mathematics tells us we’re better off postponing a purchase until you have enough money to pay it off immediately. But the smoke gives pleasure or at least a release of anxiety (not for me, but those who enjoy smoking tell me), and the Stuff that borrowed money can buy beckons enticingly from the shelf. And so we overrule our instincts.
Every so often you may have a scream of consciousness: What am I doing to myself?!? At some point — either after five minutes in the case of my cigarette experiment or years later in the case of my spending habits — you will wake up sufficiently to produce the sensible next step: I’m not going to do this anymore! But depending on how deep is the hole you dug, that may be an early step in the process.
Some smokers find themselves with permanent health consequences, and I am still digging myself out of the debt hole as of this writing.
Better to trust your instincts in the first place. And the key to following your instincts is to keep yourself aware and therefore alert to danger. Yes, the same process that gives you the joy of being alive moment by moment also has the benefit of keeping you alive and safe, moment by moment.
If an alarm bell is going off in your soul, if something seems too good to be true, respect your instincts. Common sense will keep you in the present moment and, perhaps, out of trouble.