When I was a lot younger – freshly married and child-free – I spent a lot of time with a small group of young professionals who were in fields similar to my own.
We would go out to eat for lunch a few times a week. We went out for drinks quite a few nights each week. Sometimes, we’d meet up for other events as well.
A big part of that group was professional relationship building and some friendship building, which was helpful. At the same time, though, that group involved quite a lot of “oneupsmanship.” All of us were reasonably successful young professionals, but almost everyone in the group wanted to be seen as a very successful young professional.
How did we show it? We used the same method that an awful lot of groups use – we bought expensive items and expensive meals to show off our affluence.
We ate at expensive places. We had only the best drinks. We went golfing with nice clubs. We drove shiny vehicles. We had the latest gadgets.
Of course, we all also had student loans, and none of us were really earning that big of a salary.
Still, we were able to pretend to afford all of these things. We were able to play the role of earning a lot more than we were actually earning. For a while, anyway.
Credit cards can pay for anything, and if you have a decent salary and no missed payments, you can easily get a pretty big credit limit.
A person can make $40,000 a year, yet spend like they’re making $60,000 or $70,000.
For a while, anyway.
Three years later, I was stuck. I now had a child and a changing life, but I also had a bunch of credit card debt and other consumer debt. I couldn’t pay my bills.
The credit cards had given me an illusion of wealth. They made it possible for me to pretend that I was making far more than I was, and I didn’t have to worry about the bills in the heat of the moment.
Instead, I found myself years older with nothing to show for it. I was in (more or less) the same job, except now I had a big pile of debt in front of me.
Three years earlier, the world was my oyster. Now, all of a sudden, I wasn’t going anywhere at all.
I was held in place by the consequences of spending years pretending I was making more money than I was actually making.
I traded career and personal freedom for a steady diet of forgettable gadgets and forgettable dinners and items that just built up dust in my closet, and it took me a long time to dig out of it.
The biggest mistake I ever made was allowing myself to buy into the illusion of wealth, even just for a moment. Spending more than you earn is just like jumping around and thrashing in a pool of quicksand – you just keep sinking deeper and deeper.