Debt is not a disease; it’s a symptom. Tracing it to its root cause is essential for anyone wanting to be done with debt once and for all.

This isn’t theoretical stuff for me. I once had $20,000 of credit card debt.

I know what it feels like to stare up at a huge mountain of debt. I know what it feels like to spend over four years leveling that mountain. And I know the freedom that comes from living without debt.

Since there’s no quick fix for debt, this is the first of what will be two posts that address the sixth of my 11 principles for simple, meaningful success: Ruthlessly Avoid Debt.

Searching for the Source

Whenever I teach workshops on getting and staying out of debt, I ask people to fill out an anonymous survey. One key question is, “What is the cause of your debt?”

People can choose more than one answer, including: unemployment, divorce, medical problems, small business failure, overspending, lack of a budget, lack of an emergency fund, and others.

Many participants check boxes indicating they have been through some very tough times, such as a divorce, medical problems, or extended periods of unemployment. However, the people with the best chance of getting and staying out of debt are those that also check one or more of the boxes that indicate some acceptance of personal responsibility.

Not a Victim

The one car accident I’ve been involved in was clearly the other person’s fault. He was the one who got the ticket. However, according to Illinois law, the fact that my vehicle was moving meant I had to accept a portion of the responsibility.

At first, I was upset about that. Hey, he cut right in front of me, put me through a somewhat traumatic experience, inconvenienced me as I had to get my car repaired, and by the way, my back didn’t feel so great.

But the law states that because I was moving, there was probably something I could have done to lessen the severity of the crash.

It’s the same thing with debt, and pretty much most things in life. As someone once said, if you think about all the many things that happen in your life, the one consistent factor is you.

A key step in my journey out of debt was facing the facts and taking responsibility: I wasn’t using a budget, had no emergency fund, and was using money to support a consumer’s worldview I didn’t even realize I had at the time. Life was all about me – my pleasure, my comfort, my happiness. The most casual observer would have easily seen that I believed money and what it could buy were the keys to my identity, happiness, and self-worth.

How’s that for a recipe for financial failure?

What’s the Source of Your Debt?

My bad habits and misguided thinking left me approximately 100 percent responsible for my debt. Chances are, you had other contributing factors.

Still, just as with my car accident, you probably weren’t standing still when debt happened to you.

Asking you to take some responsibility for your debt is not intended to add insult to injury. It’s intended to help you get out of debt in a way that is likely to keep you out of debt.

We’ll get to some helpful, practical steps for getting out of debt in the next post in this series. But before we do I want to make sure we trace the problem to its source so that we don’t just treat the symptoms.

If you have debt or once did, what personal responsibility factors contributed to your debt?

Other posts in this series on the 11 principles that lead to simple, meaningful success:

Matt Bell is the author of three personal finance books published by NavPress, leads workshops at churches and universities around the country, and serves as Associate Editor at Sound Mind Investing, America’s best-selling investment newsletter written from a biblical perspective. To learn more and for a free subscription to the Sound Mind Investing blog, go to www.SoundMindInvesting.com.

Publication date: June 8, 2012