The (Not So) Great Escape Via Debt

“something to look forward to”

The bell had rung, signalling the end of the day, and students started to come into the library to help plan the upcoming school leadership camp. Two teachers, one entering the library and one exiting, exchanged quick greetings and a mini-conversation.

“Are you looking forward to it?” asked Mr. T.

“Yes!” answered Ms. G.

“But have you told Ruth yet?”asked Mr. T, with the clear intention of having me hear.

“I know!” laughed Ms. G, covering her face in mock shame.

I joined in the conversation. “Are you talking about your trip?”

Ms. G, like many staff members at my school, is now aware of my debt reduction mission. She has also read the posts I’ve written about staff who have given me permission to share their stories in personal finance. “You should write a post about me,” she said to me one day, shortly after having read about our colleague Curtis and his wife Allison getting on the same financial page. “You know – about someone who is on the fence when it comes to money management.” Some things, claimed Ms. G, were worth going into debt for. Like the trip she and her family were considering for the March Break. “What about saving up for that trip ahead of time?” I had asked. But I didn’t pursue it. I have to watch it, because I don’t want to be that money-smart know-it-all.

Today, Ms. G talked to me about her decision to take the plunge (and to take on a $3,000 + credit card debt) for a family vacation. “I need something to look forward to,” she explained, “to make it all worthwhile.”

Her words struck me. “That’s the trap of our times,” I said. “We don’t see anything to look forward to in our day-to-day lives. We create lives that we want to escape, and usually that escape costs money. We end up even more stuck in our day-to-day because we have to pay off our escapes from it.”

The Great Escape

The Great Escape, both the book and the movie, tells the historically-based story of a Nazi prisoner of war camp and the men who plotted escape from it. Extensive planning and a willingness to take high risks characterized the prisoners’ focus on their hope for freedom.

The word “escape” has meanings that differ in subtle ways from each other, as stated at

  • to slip or get away, as from confinement or restraint; gain or regain liberty
  • to slip away from pursuit or peril; avoid capture, punishment, or any threatened evil
  • to slip away; fade
  • Botany. (of an originally cultivated plant) to grow wild

The prisoners from The Great Escape wanted to be free of the confines of the Nazi prison camp. They wanted to be safe from the perils of enemy control. They wanted to fade out quietly so that no one would notice their departure. They wanted to be “back in the wild” – to have the full life promised by liberty.

But what about Ms. G? And what about the rest of us who spend our way to great escapes from the lives we have created? I don’t think we’re all that different.

  • We want to get away from the restrictions of the treadmill of life.
  • We want to have a break from the evils of constant pressure and stress.
  • We want to disappear from “reality”.
  • We want to let ourselves loose – even “grow wild”.

A life you don’t want to escape?

“Imagine living a life you don’t want to escape,” I said to Ms. G. It didn’t really go anywhere though. It was the end of the work day, and Ms. G had to leave and pick up her kids. There would be supper to make, homework to supervise, activities to drive to, and bed-time routines to oversee.

But it’s not a bad thought. Can you imagine a life that you wouldn’t want to escape? In what ways is it different from the life you’re leading now? What can you do to take a step closer to it? I’m going to guess that most of us would like lives characterized by less stress, greater freedom to pursue our fun, fewer pressures, and more time for the people and the work we love. I’m also going to guess that finances are the biggest barrier between you and that life, and that any step you can take towards financial strength is a step towards it.

“Do you have mixed feelings about it?” I asked Ms. G.

“Oh yes,” she said, “because of course that $3,000 could be going towards something else. But we’ll have it all paid off by the time we actually go on the trip.”

I believe that Ms. G and her family will have a wonderful trip. I know that they’ll all look forward to it in the months ahead, and I hope that it will offer the escape that they seek. But what I wish for them even more – what I wish for all of us – is that we would know what to do to cultivate that day-to-day life we can only imagine. A life filled with things we look forward to. One that leave us with no desire to escape.



21 comments on “The (Not So) Great Escape Via Debt

  1. I know this sounds crazy, but apart from the 18-22 set, I think debt is the most tempting for parents with elementary aged kids. Although kids are rewarding, they can be draining and if you’ve got 2 parents working full time and slightly older kids- the pressure can be relentless. Vacations offer a very real alternative to the pressure.

    Of course, we should build lives that we don’t want to escape, but that’s not easy. Also, I can think of many vacations that cost less than $1000 but that’s beside the point.

    1. I’ve been there, Hannah, and I agree that vacations – especially in the thick of raising a family – offer that break from pressure. I also believe that we can build in less costly relief from pressure. As you say, vacations don’t have to be expensive. Staycations are cheaper still. And I believe that they can be full of appeal too. The vacation get-away is so relentlessly marketed that I think we all long for it without even realizing that there are alternatives. It isn’t easy to build lives we don’t want to escape. But how worthwhile!

  2. We have two kids and we enjoy giving them experiences and getaways, but we have a solid committment to never, ever get into debt to do so. We are splurging on a vacation to Disney World next month that has cost us thousands, but the thing is, we have spent the last two and a half years saving up so that it’s paid in full up front. In the meantime, we provide experiences that do cost money, but on a lot smaller scale. We go camping for family vacations in the summer. We go to water parks as a mid-winter break, going during off times and taking advantages of specials that we now know will be offered. It is completely possible to ‘escape’ and to provide family experiences, but it requires time and commitment to being able to do so along with staying out of debt.

    1. Finding those alternative, less expensive getaways is worth the effort it takes. Off-season doesn’t work for Ms. G and other teachers, but there are still options. I hope that you write about your experience at Disney World! That is a trip we are tempted to take since my husband goes to an annual conference in Orlando. Like you, if we make that happen, it will only be after having saved for it in advance.

  3. Composing a lifestyle where there is less need to “escape” is really the key. With day to day contentment, and happiness you won’t feel the need to impulsively spend to get away. You can plan and save for it and truly enjoy the experience that much better. If you are just constantly chasing a week long vacation to escape you’ll never be happy.

    1. I know what it is like to constantly dream of week-long vacations (or two-week-long), and it is definitely a symptom of unhappiness. Ms. G and her husband don’t always “chase” the next getaway, but I believe there are people who do. The day to day contentment you speak of is a real prize.

  4. That’s our main goal for our Fully Funded Lifestyle Change – to get a lifestyle where we don’t want to escape. Right now, I can totally see why people would do what they do for a break. Life and schedules can be brutal.

    We have friends that when they found out Mrs. SSC wasn’t getting laid off told her, “You should come on the Disney Cruise with us! It’ll be great and you can relax!” Mrs. SSC replied, “Well, my idea of spending thousands on a vacation like that before the kids can really appreciate it isn’t very relaxing.” These are friends that are making 2 oil salaries and still living paycheck to paycheck due to all the “retail/vacation escape” choices they make. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s what you want to choose.
    When that same friend found out we were set up to be able to “retire” in 3 years, her jaw nearly broke hitting the floor. It’s all about what you prioritize, I suppose.
    Like the above commenters, we plan on taking some of those vacations, but will save up for them, and have them essentially already paid for when we take them.

    1. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” I can see that you don’t want to be that money-smart know-it-all either : ) It’s hard to bear with the very wealthy living paycheck to paycheck. It sounds to me like you and your friends are on opposite sides of the Matrix. You’ve made the paradigm shift out of marketed excess and they are firmly rooted in it. I suspect there will be several jaws hitting the floor once you reach your FIRE date,

  5. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned since starting my debt-repayment journey, is the importance of contentment in life. My reaction to this post was how sad it is that Ms. G wants to escape her life, and needs to schedule a vacation to have something to look forward to. I anticipate “big” things as much as the next person, but I’ve found it much more fulfilling to incorporate gratitude and contentment in my day-to-day life – especially since we’re never guaranteed any more days beyond today.

    1. It’s a sobering thought to consider – “we’re never guaranteed any more days beyond today.” That’s a thought that leads some people to a “YOLO” way of life – spending it all now while they can. But to cultivate a day-to-day life of gratitude and contentment really does make the promise of today more than enough.

  6. You know, Ruth, we’ve had a sucky year here, and I get it on some level, but since we’ve started a plan to pay off our debt and are working toward debt freedom, I find myself needing to escape less and less. There are definitely days (and months 😉 ) when I want to (and have) take an escape, but there is something about having a financial plan to stop running on the hamster wheel of debt that gives you a boatload of contentment. 🙂

    1. I have found that to be true as well. The plan we’ve committed to and the progress we’ve made just feeds a contentment based on hope. It’s a drag when that progress grinds to a halt (as it seems to be doing now), but there is still a hope that it’s a temporary thing, and that if we handle it well, more encouraging days will lie ahead. I’m sorry you’ve had a “sucky” year, and I hope those more encouraging days lie ahead for you too.

  7. That is a thought we should all think more about it. I personally cannot relate (yet??) to Mrs G’s desire to take a step back in order to “look forward to something”. But easy for me to say as I’ve never been in a similar position to even make that decision.

    What I can relate to, though, is the general want of antipication; to look forward to something. My wife and I just had a talk about that. I had asked on sunday if we could play tennis after I got home bc it makes my day go faster when I “have something to look forward to.” Her reply: I look forward to coming home and being you and Sam. I dont need something to look forward to.” It was a great reminder that we need should be right in front of us. And it is for me – I just fall into the trap of wanting “more” and “exciting”.

    1. Hmmm… I’m thinking that it’s kind of nice that you would like to play tennis with your wife. I understand her desire to just come home from work and be together, but I don’t think it would be right for you to squash your desire to come home and play a sport together. One desire isn’t better than the other, and both should be accommodated if they can be. Not that you asked for my opinion! (Sorry.) A want for “more” and “exciting” is not necessarily bad in itself, and if it can be satisfied by a tennis match, what a frugal, healthy, bonding way to go about it!

  8. Hubby and I always knew that we needed to take mini vacations quarterly to relieve stress. But then we’d go beyond that to 6 months, then a year, and then 2 years. When the pressure would become too great, we’d pack up and move to another state, only to end up going back to NY again. This is actually the longest we’ve stayed away this time, going on 9 months now. What have we learned? Well, #1 ~ Florida truly is a nice place to visit, but to live in? Nah, nice winters, but brutal summers. #2 ~ We should’ve stuck to those quarterly trips and found a place with a much more moderate climate. #3 ~ We all agree that I was right (why don’t they just accept this in the first place?), we should have gone west. I love your summation that if we are living the lives we want, we won’t feel the need to escape. I can tell you for sure, that my escape fantasies are even stronger down here, so striving for the goal of getting into a good life-fit is at the top of my continuing to-do list. Keep panning those co-worker’s minds, Ruth! You have a goldmine of post material there! 🙂

    1. It’s true about that goldmine! That’s not something I expected. My guess is that there are goldmines all around us when it comes to finding food for pf thought. I sure hope that you don’t move back to NY, and I hope that if you do move out west, you won’t expect the location itself to be the whole answer – even if it’s perfect. I suspect there’s more than extreme climate that you’d like to leave behind, and I have no doubt that you can succeed in doing so. It just won’t all be accomplished by a move. (I might be overstepping my bounds here. Tell me if I am.)

      1. Nope, you are totally correct. You know a lot of backstory, and your observations are right on the mark. There is no overstepping your bounds when it comes to me, Ruth. There’s no such thing with me. I think it’s adorably Canadian that you’d think so though. 🙂

  9. I have found as I have gotten older that I really and truly don’t need the “big vacation”. They sound nice in theory, but besides the cost, I am one of those people that usually by day 3, I already want to go home 🙂 I think the only trip that would be the exception to that is London, England because well, it’s London, and I have been dreaming about that place since I was a kid. But I digress…. I understand the need for a bit of escapism, but usually a day-trip will do it for me, or even just having a couple of hours at the beach. You are right though, the trick is to cultivate a life that you don’t want to escape from 🙂

    1. I have also had that longing to get back home when I’m away. I think that’s a good sign. It means that home is a nice place to return to : ) The England trip is one that I also look forward to – after the mortgage is paid off. I went when I was 19 years old because my parents were there for the year. (I spent the summer after my first year at university there. Lucky, right? I didn’t realize just how lucky that was!) I hope you get to go some day.

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