Forever in Debt

The Longform guide to being broke.

People line up outside the courthouse where Detroit’s bankruptcy was considered.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

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Crushing Debt Drove Me to Kosovo—And Then to Iraq
Anonymous • Billfold • September 2012

Ninety grand in debt and wanderlust can be a powerful combination.

After all, this was a chance to do something on an enormous scale, in an extraordinarily challenging environment, with potentially historic consequences. It was, quite literally, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Plus, I liked the guys I was working for. They weren’t zealots or ideologues; those guys had packed up their bags when Bremer left. These were smart people trying to make the best out of a tragic farce, and a little camaraderie is a valuable thing when you’re working on an impossible project with ridiculous deadlines surrounded by people that want to cut your head off. How could I say no?


I said that I could return in November, but now that I had a clearer sense of what I was getting into, I asked for a little more money this time around. They quickly responded with a 50% raise, a preposterous $50,000 for four months of work. Instead of paying off all my debts in a year, I would pay them off before Christmas, and have some money left over.

My Misspent Youth
Megan Daum • The New Yorker • October 1999

Life and debt in New York.

It’s tempting to go into a litany of all the things on which I do not spend money. I have no dependents, not even a cat or a fish. I do not have a car. I’ve owned the same four pairs of shoes for the past three years. Much of the clothing in my closet has been there since the early 1990s, the rare additions usually taking the form of a $16 shirt from Old Navy, a discounted dress from Loehmann’s, or a Christmas sweater from my mother. 


How Detroit Went Broke
Nathan Bomey and John Gallagher • Detroit Free Press • September 2013

Auditing the bankrupt city.

“It just makes me ill. Almost cry,” said former Mayor Gribbs, now 87, who served from 1970 to 1974. “You can’t continually borrow money and use it for operating expenses and expect never to have the trouble of paying it back. That’s where you end up going bankrupt.”


Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds
Michael Lewis • Vanity Fair • Oct 2012

A stop on the author’s world tour of economic collapse.

The long-term picture was far bleaker. In addition to its roughly $400 billion (and growing) of outstanding government debt, the Greek number crunchers had just figured out that their government owed another $800 billion or more in pensions. Add it all up and you got about $1.2 trillion, or more than a quarter-million dollars for every working Greek. Against $1.2 trillion in debts, a $145 billion bailout was clearly more of a gesture than a solution. And those were just the official numbers; the truth is surely worse. “Our people went in and couldn’t believe what they found,” a senior I.M.F. official told me, not long after he’d returned from the I.M.F.’s first Greek mission. “The way they were keeping track of their finances—they knew how much they had agreed to spend, but no one was keeping track of what he had actually spent. It wasn’t even what you would call an emerging economy. It was a Third World country.”


How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke
Pablo S. Torre • Sports Illustrated • March 2009


They make millions per year but, more often than not, lose it in retirement–78% of former NFL players, 60 percent of former NBA players, and even those in the MLB.

 What happens to many athletes and their money is indeed hard to believe. In this month alone Saints all-time leading rusher Deuce McAllister filed for bankruptcy protection for the Jackson, Miss., car dealership he owns; Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad put his mansion in Charlotte up for sale on eBay a month after news broke that his entertainment company was being sued by Wachovia Bank for overdue credit-card payments; and penniless former NFL running back Travis Henry was jailed for nonpayment of child support.


Why I’m Grateful I Got Sued by American Express and What You Can Learn From My Experience
Nathan Rabin • Mental Illness Happy Hour • January 2008

A former head writer for AV Club digs himself deep into debt, then gets out.

The journey that the debt consolidation program offered wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t ideal. Hell, it wasn’t even particularly good. From the outset, it was apparent that these people were parasites. I just hoped that they were parasites that would act in my best interests, that they would be bullies that would protect me from other bullies. I saw the debt consolidation program as the lesser of two evils. Sure, they were vultures benefiting from the naïveté and desperation of the poor and stressed but, at the very least, they had to be better than credit card companies and debt collectors, right? That’s setting the bar awfully low. I had no idea at the time how greatly I had over-estimated the integrity, honesty and morality of debt consolidation industry.


To Have Is to Owe
David Graeber • Triple Canopy • December 2010

A history of debt, bartering and money.

Theories of existential debt always end up justifying—or laying claim to—structures of authority. What we really have in the idea of primordial debt is the ultimate nationalist myth. Once we owed our lives to the gods who created us, paid them interest in the form of animal sacrifice, and, ultimately, paid back the principal with our lives. Now we owe our lives to the nation that formed us, pay interest in the form of taxes, and, when it comes time to defend the nation against its enemies, pay back the principal with our lives. This is a great trap of the twentieth century: On the one side is the logic of the market, which insists that we don’t owe one another anything. On the other is the logic of the state, which insists that we are born with a debt we can never truly pay.


The Broke Broker
Lisa Taddeo • New York Observer • October 2012

A man with no home and no office take the author apartment searching in Manhattan.

He picked me up on a cool Saturday morning. He was in a good suit with a red rose remembrance pin.

“Where did you get the suit?” I asked.

“From the morgue.” Really. A friend of his is a funeral director who used to pay him in his homeless days to go to Goodwill and pick up suits for corpses. This suit was meant for a dead man.

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