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Learning From Debt: How It Strengthened My Dreams and Brought My Family Closer

The experience of debt can guide us toward different ways of living—like having extended generations share a household—that are both cheaper and more fulfilling.

Dad and Kids at Beach photo by Shutterstock

On June 18, 1999, Bob and I were hiking through Asticou Terraces on Northeast Harbor in Maine. We’d passed through a series of thunder and lightning storms, but that afternoon the clouds finally parted and rays of sunlight dappled golden splashes along the forest floor. We came to a resting point along the trail, where a break in the trees granted us a view over the harbor. We sat down and drank in the sight.

“I really love you,” Bob stammered after a few minutes of silence. “And I feel as though, together, we could build a really nice life.”

In October of that year, we took on our mortgage. It was our first big mistake.

I smiled at him.

“Do you feel that way?” he asked me. My eyes began to grow wet as I realized the weight of his words.

“Yes.” My voice was barely a whisper. “I do.”

He got down on one knee and pulled a little box out of his pocket. “Will you marry me?”

I nodded and stammered something like “yes,” tears spilling down my cheeks as I desperately tried to get him back off his knees, hoping no one would come along and see him.

We went home a few days later and announced our engagement. I don’t think my parents ever doubted that this would be the outcome of our three-year courtship, and when we told them our news, they promptly made an offer for us to build a house on the farm, where they knew my heart was.

We turned them down. We didn’t want to carve up the farm, we told them. We didn’t want to cause a rift in family relationships. But most of all, we carried the belief, inculcated through the broader American culture, that in order to be successful members of society, we were supposed to be independent from our family. And in 1999 that meant owning our own house, our own piece of land, our own mortgage. In October of that year, we closed on our house and took on our mortgage.

It was our first big mistake.

While Bob is happy to have a few miles between our household and his in-laws (and they might feel the same way), there are lots of reasons that lead me to conclude this was a grave error (and in some moments, even Bob concurs). It would have been much easier raising a family with my parents within walking distance. As we work on slowly transitioning my parents’ farm into our ownership, the burden of managing two properties is a perpetual struggle. Every morning when Bob swills down a cup of coffee and has to drive down the mountain to move the chickens and repair fence lines, the mistake sloshes around in our gas tank.

Everyone is angry about student debt.

This mistake is at the fore of my mind following a letter I received last week from a young radical homemaker, in her mid-twenties, newly married with a partner who shares her dream. Saddled with nearly $100,000 in student loans, their life is not where they want it to be right now. They are renting an apartment in the suburbs; they are both working full time to pay off their debts, canning their tomatoes every August, dreaming of a homestead someday. They feel alone in their dreams, with no community to support them. They are frustrated with their expenses and commutes. They are angry that they were sold a bill of goods about student loans for degrees that not only fail to serve their life path, but that have derailed them from their dreams as they work to pay off their obligations.

I could make a list of money-saving tips for this young couple: ditch the iPhone subscription, ditch the digital TV service, ditch the visits to Starbucks, ditch the dinners out, ditch the Netflix. Use the library instead of Amazon. Take odd jobs that increase weekly income while building community relationships: mowing lawns, driving for the elderly, babysitting, painting decks, weeding gardens, shoveling driveways. Make soap and sell it on Etsy. Find a local farm and help on weekends. Don’t just make the minimum monthly payments—pay down a little extra every single month. If a windfall happens along the way, pay down a lot extra.

But I’m guessing they know this.

What’s more important, I think, is making sure the first big mistake doesn’t poison their lives.

Everyone is angry about student debt right now. Countless grassroots organizations are working to combat the problem, and it deserves public attention. It is worthy of our activism. But it is not worth coming home angry at the end of every day spent in an unwanted cubicle. It is not worth poisoning marriages, tarnishing a tender kiss, spoiling the joy of intimacy during a Saturday morning lie-in, or ruining a few moments on a summer evening spent sipping cool air while perched on the steps to an apartment. It is not worth sullying the daily affirmations of “I love you,” and “I believe in you.” And most importantly, it is not worth abandoning one’s deepest dreams.

Everyone on the radical homemaking path confronts mistakes. But in a movement like this, where we need to unravel an unsustainable culture and rethink our societal assumptions, mistakes hold tremendous value. Bob’s and my mistake to borrow money and buy a separate house led us to challenge the mainstream exaltation of nuclear families and housing debt. As our family grew and our tiny house expanded to accommodate children, every change was made with an eye toward enabling future generations of our family to cohabitate.

We are teaching a new generation to have new expectations that are more in line with the carrying capacity of the planet.

Aware of our mistake, we don’t say things to our daughters like, “When you’re 18, you’re on your own,” or “When you own your own house…” We let them fantasize about how they will use our farm, our house, to meet their own dreams. Maybe Saoirse and Ula will someday own a place of their own. But they don’t have to. We assure them that there will always be room for them here, just like many families across the country who are waking up to the power of intergenerational interdependence. We are teaching a new generation to have new expectations that are more in line with the carrying capacity of the planet.

Mistakes involving student debt are important too. Our regrets about it open our eyes to realizations about education: While diplomas can be bought for a price, education cannot. It must be taken. It cannot be given. We are reconceiving what higher education means for future generations.

While many of our current generation’s radical homemakers are working off student loan debt, they are simultaneously helping their own children remain open to apprenticeships, independent study, online coursework, and mentoring relationships. Mistakes are typically the first steps toward bringing about positive change. As long as this young couple shares a common dream, as long as they keep working toward it, the mistakes will only make the journey rich.

At its core, radical homemaking is not about having a homestead. It is not about being free of financial obligations. It is not about living easily while living light.

These are things to which many of us aspire, but ultimately it is about those simple words Bob used when he proposed to me: having a really nice life together; one where we live by our deepest values and where each mistake is forgiven as it helps to make us wiser, and where we find people at the end of every day to whom we can turn and say “I love you,” no matter how much money is in the piggy bank.


Shannon HayesShannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York.

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