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5 Fairy Tales That Keep You in Debt

As seen in the February 2012 issue of Reader’s Digest

If you’re struggling to pay off debt, you’ve probably spent some time asking yourself, “How the heck did I get into this mess?” In fact, you might be reading this because you googled a variation of that question.

For a species that is supposed to be intelligent, we sure make some dumb choices at times! Many of us have difficulty understanding the reasons behind our mistakes, especially those that cost us in the long run. We can’t figure out how we make so many wise decisions every day, like wearing seatbelts and not peeing in our pants, yet mess up in the area that matters most – our finances.

Lest you think I’m pointing fingers, I’m including myself when I say “we.” Because I have spent years doing the whole “swim against the tide” thing – paying my minimum payments, trying to figure out how to survive until I get paid again, watching my paycheck drain away the second it hits the bank… Yep, been there. Luckily I’m pretty much done with that part of my life, but not before I nearly drove myself insane trying to get to the root of the problem.

I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your bank balance down!

As children, we grow up surrounded by stories, songs, and movies that are supposed to teach us lessons about life. We all know what happened to the boy who cried wolf. We know you aren’t supposed to take a shower or say “I’ll be right back” when there’s a killer on the loose. And if your bedridden grandma suddenly develops fangs? Forget about it – you’re going to drop that picnic basket and run like hell.

Unfortunately, while we’re basking in the glory of all that media goodness as kids, many of us absorb some lessons that aren’t so helpful. And while we don’t sit around going, “Wow, my Visa is maxed out again! I knew I shouldn’t have watched that episode of Spongebob,” we can learn a lot about our adult financial choices from the stories we heard when we were young.

Not buying it? Check out these fairy tales and their unintended messages..

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

  • Summary: Snow White’s stepmom is jealous of her beauty. Snow White hides out with some dwarfs, but her stepmom dresses up like an old lady and convinces her to eat a poison apple. The dwarfs put Snow White’s corpse in a creepy glass coffin, and Prince Charming shows up and kisses her, breaking the spell and saving the day.
  • Intended Message: Love conquers all, good triumphs over evil, etc. etc.
  • Unintended Message: Sometimes people do things even when they know it might be a bad idea. But if we’re lucky/kind/beautiful enough, someone will come along and save the day!
  • How it keeps us in debt: None of us are dumb. We know we shouldn’t take on debt. But deep down, I think many of us believe something will come along to save us. An inheritance, a six-figure job, a wealthy husband or wife… Even if we don’t consciously admit it, we believe it just might happen.

 Robin Hood

  • Summary: Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor. The new king is taxing everyone’s pants off. There is an archery contest where the winner gets to kiss Maid Marian, so Robin Hood enters in disguise. He wins, he’s discovered, and there’s a huge brawl. People end up getting put in prison. Robin Hood helps them all break out, steals all the king’s gold, and marries Maid Marian.
  • Intended Message: Sometimes you have to break the rules to do what’s right, especially if it involves helping people who are being treated unfairly.
  • Unintended Message: We deserve to have the same things as the wealthy. So what if we have to do it in less than honest ways? It’s okay as long as everyone benefits.
  • How it keeps us in debt: We grow up thinking “That’s not fair!” every time we see someone who has more than we do. We get sucked into advertising that tells us we can have all those things, too – it doesn’t matter how broke we are, because we can use convenient financing! We justify it by telling ourselves it will benefit us and/or our families in the long run.

 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

  • Summary: Charlie’s family is totally impoverished. He wins the chance to meet his idol, candy maker Willy Wonka, who ends up being a total weirdo. During the tour of the candy factory, the other kids are brats who break the rules and nearly get themselves killed – Charlie is the only one left at the end. Except he did something dumb, too, but he’s really sorry and Willy Wonka gives him the whole factory. His family is rich, hooray!
  • Intended Message: If you’re a decent person, you’ll be forgiven for your mistakes and get all kinds of cool rewards. If you’re a crappy person, your life will suck and no one will like you.
  • Unintended Message: It’s okay to screw up, as long as you screw up less than the other guy.
  • How it keeps us in debt: We tell ourselves that we may be borrowing money, but at least we aren’t in debt like Bob at the office or Carol down the street! It’s easy to make excuses when you compare your actions to those of others – you start thinking in terms of “it could be worse.” Many of us also think that if we do our best, everything will work out. But if you allow yourself to carry around a bunch of debt instead of saving for retirement, there won’t be an awesome candy factory waiting for you at the end of the tour.

A Christmas Carol

  • Summary: Ebenezer Scrooge is an old fart who hates Christmas and hoards money. He screws his employee, Bob Cratchit, out of every dime he can despite the fact that Cratchit has all these sickly children running around. Scrooge has some trippy dreams where the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future show him what he’s missing and how he’ll end up if he doesn’t change his ways. Scrooge freaks out and goes to celebrate Christmas with the Cratchits, who generously allow him in despite the fact that they probably secretly want to punch him in the face.
  • Intended Message: Don’t be all evil and greedy or you’ll regret it later. Have a giving heart.
  • Unintended Message: Life is short; better spend that money!
  • How it keeps us in debt: No one wants to be a Scrooge. We spend an insane amount of money on gifts to show how generous and caring we are. We don’t just buy for our family; we buy gifts for our coworkers, our kids’ teachers, the neighbors we don’t even talk to, and even our pets! With so much pressure to give something to everyone we’ve ever met, is it any wonder we pull out the credit cards to pay for it all? We live in the moment instead of considering what the future might hold, because we’re convinced that having fun now will pay off later.

Aladdin

  • Summary: Aladdin is this mangy vagabond who finds a lamp with a magical genie inside. He wishes to become a prince so he can make the amazing Princess Jasmine fall in love with him. The evil sorcerer, Jafar, steals the lamp and exposes Aladdin as a fraud. Oh yeah, and Jafar also makes himself ruler of the world. With the help of his friends, Aladdin saves the day and everyone forgets he wasn’t a real prince because he’s just so darn nice. He marries Jasmine and they live happily ever after.
  • Intended Message: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
  • Unintended Message: If you want to be accepted, you have to pretend to be something you’re not.
  • How it keeps us in debt: So much of the urge to spend comes from trying to be like everyone else. Look at your credit card statements – are you using credit to buy clothing, finance vacations, and furnish your expensive home? Many people feel the need to keep up appearances even when they know they can’t afford it.

Are you living in a fairy tale world?

We’re all adults here. Of course we’re not seriously influenced by children’s stories! Or are we?

If you’re still adding to your mountain of debt, you’re absorbing messages from somewhere that tell you it’s okay to do so. I won’t say it all comes from stories and movies, but those are just examples of the way these beliefs invade every part of our lives.

The reality is, debt never leads to a happy ending. You don’t hear people on talk shows gushing about how glad they are to be in debt. We don’t go to credit counseling agencies to learn how to borrow more money. Couples don’t divorce because they were so debt-free they fought all the time.

If you want a real life lesson to share with your children, let it be the story of how you stopped believing in fairy tales and became debt free.

About Andrea Whitmer

Andrea is a freelance web designer and single mom trying to maintain a sense of humor in an otherwise chaotic world. She blogs in hopes of helping others avoid the same mistakes she made in the past. Join in the discussion here on So Over This, or connect on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, or Google Plus. You can also subscribe to new posts via RSS so you never miss out!

Comments

  1. 20's Finances says:

    Wonderful! I love the creative "juices" here. I was reading and kept thinking, "oh, this will be my favorite one" and I could leave a comment to that effect. I have many favorites here. Nice work.

  2. Great post! Maybe thats why I really like any of those shows, ceppt maybe Aladdin but only because of Robin Williams (I grew up with Mork). I am more into shows like Pinky and the Brain, they teach you perseverance :)

    • Yes, to keep trying no matter how many times you fail to take over the world! I love Pinky and the Brain.
      Have you ever seen the episode of Spongebob where he and Patrick decide to sell chocolate bars and become entrepreneurs? That's probably the funniest cartoon episode that has ever aired on television. Ever.

      • When I read the Spongebob reference I thought you were talking about the episode where Mr. Krabs tells Spongebob to hang on to his wallet and not let him overspend because he was in love with Ms. Puff. But now that you mention the chocolate episode, that one is pretty hilarious!

  3. This is absolutely true! Every example has some form of misconception that we pick up as we were growing older. I completely agree that being in debt never leads to happily ever after, and it's up to us to learn and teach future generations the new meaning of happy ending. Thanks for sharing this super creative and educational post!

  4. This is great! I enjoyed this post. Actually, I do think that some of our way of doing things, as adults, are in some way comparable to the mindsets of some of these fairly tales.

    I have always been neutral toward such tales, just never really paid attention to them. Lately though, I've been wondering if my young daughter has been influenced into thinking that men are supposed to sweep women off their feet and take care of them forever. The reality is that over 1/2 the undergrad and grad degrees are earned by women, so I don't think it makes sense for any girl to think that Prince Charming will come along and provide for his princess forever :)

    Best to be independent and view yourself as self-sufficent, and later when married as an equal partner. The expectation that someone will rescue another is dangerous!

    Of course that's many years away, but as a parent it's easy to think of these details:)

    • Totally agree.  I hate that there are so few shows giving women a very strong lead.  Where are the stereotyping female stories when the woman slays everything, outsmarts everyone, and becomes rich and powerful?

      • I think that's why Belle is my favorite Disney heroine. She is actually the one who did the saving. Plus she's smart and walks around with a nose in a book, even though people think she's weird for reading all the time.

  5. This is a great story.  I was thinking of doing one like this myself because I agree with you, many cherished and popular stories are really terrible examples and send out demeaning message!

  6. Ah, this is such a great post!! You are so right that often fairy tales just give us further incentive to keep our heads in the sand, when we should just be figuring it out! Though I have to admit, you've listed some of my favourite movies. :)

  7. This is just fantastic. I am in awe of your.. awesomness.

  8. What a great trip down memory lane. I loved these tales as a kid. It's amazing how much the lessons we learn as a child still apply to us as adults. 

  9. I think Aladdin is a weird story- he grows up without parents, in poverty, stealing to survive.  Then he has a chance encounter with a princess and is able to get closer to her by being something he's not.  I get that we all need a little bravado to impress, even if we're broke- but lying to a potential partner and deceiving her about your financial situation doesn't end up happily ever after!  

    I had a situation like this in real life- a bf didn't mention his debts or reveal how he was getting by on credit cards and borrowed money from friends.  When I found out the truth it didn't bring us closer together, I felt deceived, not only because he was going out of his way to lie to me and cover up his financial blunders, but he was using others to make himself "look good."  Pretty annoying and not a happily ever after for most people.  

    • Maybe it's because Aladdin was just so stinking hot. When do you ever see some horribly impoverished orphan who's all dreamy?
      Seriously, though, I agree. If someone lied to me, I don't care how cute he was – he'd be out the door.

  10. I loved this post, Yes I do believe in fairy tales and my finances prove it!  But I am working to overcome my giddy ways.  Still waiting for prince charming!

  11. I've read this post 3 times now because of how much I love it!  Well done, Andrea!!!  Would you mind if I shared this on my blog at some point??

  12. Love your Robin Hood summary.. very true. Steal from the rich, give to the poor?

  13. Absolutely, positively fabulous.  I love the moral of your stories.  You must be related to Aesop.

  14. Cute idea for a post! Love it. I also love the idea of re-writing your family story with what you teach your kids about money. So important!

  15. I can't exactly agree that debt never has a happy ending.  A business loan or a student loan can get you places that you wouldn't otherwise go.  

    • Very true, and a good point! I wouldn't have a career without my student loan debt. But the repayment is definitely a sad aspect of the experience. It would have been much more rewarding if I had worked my way through school and avoided student loans altogether, though I know that's not a realistic option for most people.

      Thanks for your comment!

  16. IMHO, the problem isn't that we're all living fairy tales. The problem is that we have few, if any, real-life role models to educate and inspire us (You think Suzie Orman is inspiring? Please.). People who live our lives, who make the kinds of income we make or who have lost jobs, had serious medical problems that were not covered, etc.

    We know plenty of hard-working (two or more jobs) folks who can't make ends meet. They don't go out, they don't buy stuff, they can barely afford to feed themselves and their kids. Then one or both get sick, lose a job. And boom, they're suddenly way behind.

    I get tired of hearing how people "save" this and that when most folks we know cannot even live on what they make, let alone save. They're not worried about flat-screen tvs, new cars, bigger houses, designer clothing, new smartphones or any stuff. They're worried about putting gas in the car, getting the roof fixed or the washer repaired on salaries that humans can't live on today and jobs that provide NO benefits.

    Debt will be a part of this country until people can get jobs again, make more than a "living" wage (whatever the heck that is) and can afford reasonable healthcare. And, oh, yeah, while we worry about the poor college grads who can't get jobs, let's consider those of us in our fifites and sixties and seventies who have to work, but can't get or keep jobs due to ageism. We have two sets of families (our parents and now our kids) to support as well as ourselves.  Twentysomethings live at home far better than they ever could on their own and often contribute nothing. So who is footing the bill for these "poor" kids? Their parents! And you wonder why we are in debt?

    • Thanks so much for your comment – you raise some interesting points!

      I try to be thankful every day for the advantages I have. Many of my friends are living in conditions like you described – I have one whose son has cystic fibrosis, and she's making $8.50 an hour with no sick time. So when her son gets sick or goes to the doctor, she's not getting paid. I honestly don't know how she makes it. And all the Dave Ramseys and Suze Ormans of the world are talking to an audience that doesn't live the way she lives. Where is SHE supposed to go for help? I don't know the answer but it's a good question.
      I think 20-somethings (and even 30-somethings) are in a unique position to take advantage of opportunities. You're completely correct in saying that older adults don't have the options afforded to younger people – I know very few people who are able to retire, yet they struggle to find even the most menial jobs to make ends meet. There are definitely problems in this country that are being ignored by the majority of politicians, and the voices of real Americans are seldom heard.
      I invite you to check out a post I wrote recently about poverty that explains some of my views on these issues: http://www.sooverthis.com/2011/08/29/poverty-is-n
      Thanks again for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate the time you took to share your opinions, and I hope you'll visit again!

    • I feel for your situation, IRG. As a Christian and active church-member I'd like to share a story: A faithful family in our church (and I mean, faithful to Jesus–not just "religious activity") recently has been in a super-tough situation in life. They are young, in their late twenties. They tried to be wise with their money but didn't have much to start out with. They also got caught up in the "keeping up with the Jones'" mentality and a little of the "Snow White" complex. They have a 2 year old son. Then the kicker…he looses his job. Not a career to begin with but now they are living paycheck to paycheck on Mommy's hourly job. They're barely making ends meet. They're living with his brother and new wife. Last week they're car needs $800 of work. He came crying to my husband with his situation. We sat down with him, asked for some accountability on how he was spending his money and what he was doing to help himself out. (Maybe he needs to get a job at McDonalds till he finds his career path) And then the church and a few close friends paid for the car repairs.

      I hope this encourages you. There is hope out there.

      Another challenge I have for you is, what is your definition of "need"? I can't imagine being in a situation of medical challenges. Such as Andrea mentioned with her friend who has a son with CF and has to support that situation herself. I'm not trying to belittle that situation or any others like it. I think Americans in general (including myself, as I sit on my couch, in my house, on my MacBook Pro laptop, my husband watching the flatscreen TV, kids in their separate bedrooms, ready to go to my separate bedroom, belly over-full, heat cranked up to 70)…I think we need to re-think the word "need".

  17. we do mistake in this world because everyone is adult here (new experience) I know debt never leads to happily ever often but  when its end this is the most beautiful time and enjoyable, we get debt because we don't have experienced of it but when somebody get out of debt second time he is so careful about debt .

  18. I love this article!!!! It has so much truth to it… Great job Andrea.  You are such a talented writer. :)

  19. Idea is cool, no doubt. But the story telling is awesome. I only can hope to master the language this way.

  20. Found this in Reader's Digest. "But if you allow yourself to carry around a bunch of debt instead of
    saving for retirement, there won’t be an awesome candy factory waiting
    for you at the end of the tour." is my favorite part. They didn't put Charlie and The Choc Factory in though! I had to share this on Facebook. Great wit. You're a great writer. Thanks for the insight and very real reminders. It's funny b/c it's true!

    • Thanks so much for visiting and commenting, Virginia! I'm not sure whether they left out Charlie for space reasons or because of copyright, but I was sad that he didn't make the cut. I appreciate the share on Facebook as well.

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