Every once in a while when I have a spare hour among my three jobs, I like to stream an episode of Locked Up Abroad. (Record scratch sound here.) Yes, Locked Up Abroad.
I started watching the show when I was still in my pricey apartment. Initially, I thought I was drawn to Locked Up because of my interest in seeing representations of exotic locales and the basic drama of the program. But as time went on, and I began to make plans to move and downsize, I realized that I was drawn to deeper aspects of the storyline.
Those of us making sacrifices to get out of deep debt often see ourselves in a metaphorical debtor’s prison. For many of us, while watching Locked Up Abroad, we can see the parallels in our own financial lives.
In Locked Up Abroad, a relatively good person gets into a tough financial situation. Sometimes this financial need is real, but most times it is perceived. Next comes the inevitable bad and life altering decision. For some of us, this may have been the need of a college education, and the bad decision to attend an expensive university with big student loans.
We enjoy the fruits of our clever moves for a little while. The expensive college environment, an off-campus apartment, the smell of ivy and textbook glue. We allow ourselves the luxury of dreaming of a future life that will be better than what we came from. With the right effort, we expect to experience upward mobility. We dream.
But we can’t stay in dreamland forever. After a while, it becomes apparent that it will be time to pay the piper soon. We get a wake up call when we see the loan debt we have accrued so far. We start getting cold feet. ‘Can I go through with this? Maybe I should stop now. But I can’t stop now. If I stop now, I’ll have nothing to show for all that I’ve done so far. I have people back at home counting on me to finish this.’ Next, ominous looking student loan notices start showing up at the door. We are becoming fearful for our future. But we buy into the sunk cost fallacy and decide to continue with everything despite the deep risk we now realize that we are taking. Reality is sinking in.
We have now graduated and are likely underemployed. We are barely paying our bills, just squeaking by. Perhaps we realize that with all the debt we have, we’ll never have enough cashflow to buy a house, or start a family, or take a vacation that we see everyone else enjoying. Meanwhile, either our loans are due after the six month grace period, are coming off of forbearance, or we simply have an unexpected financial expense. At this point, we have crossed the event horizon. We have passed the point of no return.
Around now, we experience a reckoning. Our bad decisions have caught up with us. We’re caught and exposed. There is no place to run. There is no place to hide. We feel embarrassed. We have to pay. We hit rock bottom. That’s when we begin to do hard time in debtor’s prison. On the show, it is the prison segments that really strike a chord with me. Now, living in my small 10 ft. by 10 ft. old rented room with three pieces of salvaged furniture, I sit and think about all the decisions that I could have made differently to avoid my current situation. With roommates, I have little space and little privacy. This is not the life I envisioned having at 38 years old.
The show helps me to see how they coped and survived their imprisonment; not knowing when or if their ordeal would ever end. I can relate in some small way. I would never try to compare my situation to theirs, but watching the show helps me to cope when I need it; if only to keep in mind that many others are facing much harsher consequences for their poor decisions than I am.
Even in the face of uncertainty, those of us in deep debt must stay hopeful. We must stay focused and disciplined when it comes to what we do with our money. We must protect it. The longer we stay on good behavior, the more of our debtor’s prison sentence will be reduced.
Remember that the prisoners on the show eventually regain their freedom, as will we.
“Debtor’s prison is real, and opportunity cost is a bitch.” (DDSW)