Youth in focus: I’m in a lot of debt. I wanted the latest cell phone, new clothes and to have fun and so I took advances on my salary and borrowed money from friends. My boss will deduct the advance from my salary but it will take a long time to repay the advance. My friends are calling me all the time, but I don’t respond to their calls. I feel depressed and hopeless. How can I handle this situation?

In debt, Thimphu

You are not alone in this situation, and debt has become a major social problem that is destroying friendships and families. 

Anyway, I’ll answer your question in two parts: specifically and generally. In your specific case, you first need to work out a clear plan to repay your debt. As a base, calculate how much you need to live each month – rent, food and perhaps a little in reserve for emergencies. Deduct that figure from your salary and then decide how much you can afford to give your boss and friends each month. As a gesture of good will, I suggest that you offer an extra amount to your friends for the inconvenience you have caused them. 

Once you have done this, speak frankly and politely to all the people to whom you owe money and try to come to an amicable agreement about the repayment. Whatever you do, do not reject phone calls or switch off your phone. You messed up. Face it, and speak frankly and apologetically with the people who you have inconvenienced. 

Now I want to discuss the issue more generally as it is affecting many people’s lives. First of all, rejecting phone calls is like using a drug to avoid problems – in the short-term it offers some relief, but in the long-term it exacerbates the situation. In reality, hiding from people to whom we owe money just causes anger and resentment, which makes it all the more difficult to finally reach a mutual agreement. For everyone’s benefit, it is best if we face issues and not avoid our responsibility. Basically, we need to pick up the phone and deal with problems directly and frankly. 

In addition, it is really important to avoid getting into debt in the first place. Of course, during our life we may need funds for school/college fees or to purchase a place for our family to live. In such cases, we can negotiate a loan with a bank and repay the money over an agreed period of time. Other than essential items, however, we should follow a simple rule: “If we cannot afford it, go without.”  

Basically, if we want the latest cell phone or a new T shirt, then we should save part of our monthly salary and buy these things when we have enough money. Of course, it takes patience to wait, but in reality buying things with the money we have already earned saves us a lot of stress and prevents problems arising between us and our friends and employer.      

Furthermore, we need to really think why we always need the latest cell phone and new clothes. Do these things really inspire our lives and free our minds or do they enslave us to an ever changing world that is created by fashion and technology designers in faraway lands? 

Instead, would it not be better to enjoy simple things, such as cycling, hiking, reading, playing a guitar, making a pizza with friends, watching a DVD, relaxing over a coffee? Furthermore, if we really want to be cool, we can slowly learn to just appreciate daily life – the characters that we encounter on the streets, the clouds pouring into the valley, street lights reflected in a river. Instead of suffering with a poverty mentality – the feeling that we are somehow deficient and always in need of something from outside to fill an inner emptiness – we are content with what we have and who we are.  

In reality, if we are satisfied with simple things then we will always be content, because simple things are always available.  This does not mean, however, that we have to reject fashion and new electronic devices. In reality, we can still enjoy these things. It is just that we no longer feel compelled to buy them. Basically, we are happy when we have them but equally happy when we don’t. If we can adopt this kind of outlook, our lives will be stable and we will not live beyond our means.

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes.

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